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Review of  Text, Autor und Wissen in der 'historiografía indiana' der Frühen Neuzeit [Text, Author, and Knowledge in the "Historiografía Indiana" of the Early Modern Era]

Reviewer: Mariana España Rivera
Book Title: Text, Autor und Wissen in der 'historiografía indiana' der Frühen Neuzeit [Text, Author, and Knowledge in the "Historiografía Indiana" of the Early Modern Era]
Book Author: Sebastian Greußlich
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Book Announcement: 25.1141

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Sebastian Greußlich offers a historically-oriented linguistic and textual analysis of the “Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas i tierra-firme del mar oceano” (“History of the Castilian people on the island and on the mainland”; also called “Décadas”), written by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, a court chronicler (Cuellar, 1549--Madrid, 1625).

This historiographical work consists of eight 'Décadas', or books, published in Madrid between 1601 and 1615 during the reign of Philip III. The work was intended as a source of information for the king and his court. The 'Décadas' deal with the history of the New World ('las Indias Occidentales') from the time of its discovery in 1492, to 1554. Originally written in Spanish, it was so successful that shortly after its publication it was translated into Latin (Amsterdam, 1622) as well as into other European languages: French (Amsterdam, 1622), German (Frankfurt, 1623), Dutch (1706), and English (London, 1724).

As the main source for his study, Herrera used material and information from other authors' works. He selected, ordered and/or linguistically adapted it -- lexically, morphologically or syntactically -- utilising his own system. Quoting or even taking long passages from other authors was a common historiographical practice that lost favour with the advent of positivist science and lost its validity with the birth of modern historical science in the 19th century. Thus, in the compiling/preparation of this extensive work, Herrera followed a discourse tradition of his time.

Greußlich’s intention is to address certain questions that have until now not been adequately answered; for example, the question of just how many historical references Herrera took from other authors and what criteria he used to make his decisions. Greußlich's starting point is the reconstruction of what Herrera's historical knowledge might have been. In a “hermeneutical approach to the pragmatics of a discourse tradition” (p. 10), the author brings together two perspectives, the textual and the epistemological. His linguistic analysis results in a qualitative reconstruction of Herrera's historiographical practices.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, an index and bibliographical references.

Chapter 1 is a four-page “Introduction”. The author explains that his linguistic analysis is carried out on a corpus that is comprised of two components: on the one hand, he examines sections from the 'Décadas' that deal with events in the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, while on the other hand, those sections are compared with Herrera's sources.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Historical linguistics, historiography and the textuality of history”. In essence, the chapter deals with the “problematization of historical tradition” (p. 4) and focuses on a postmodernist debate around the interrelation between historicity (of texts) and textuality (of history). It also provides us with information about the methodological orientation of the work.

The author argues that the present work is “basically oriented towards variationist linguistics” (p. 8). He explains its theoretical background/framework using Coseriu's “three-level schema”:

Universal level: Speech activity
Historical level: Concrete language / discourse tradition (abstract language)
Individual level: Discourse/Text
(quoted from Oesterreicher, 2009a; in Greußlich, p. 9; Oesterreicher 2005, p. 9)

The model helps us distinguish between questions that relate to a “concrete particular language from those questioning the language at its universal level” and to differentiate “linguistically relevant from non-linguistically relevant issues” (p. 9). Thus, a variationist perspective allows us to “exactly historically contextualize a discourse tradition” (p. 10).

The “recontextualization” (or the “hermeneutical reconstruction of the pragmatics of the discourse tradition”, p. 10) makes up the major part of this work (Chapter 3: 83 pages; Chapter 4: 104 pages). Greußlich justifies this by explaining that it is necessary “in order to communicate the relevant research from history and historical law within linguistics” (p. 11). This is the task the author takes on here, while also stating that “hardly any of the discussed evidence is new of itself” (p. 10).

Chapter 3 is entitled “The functionalization of the 'official historiography' in early modern Castile”. In this chapter the author summarizes the main findings from the historical North American research in order to contextualize the status of the 'Décadas'. He comments on the resulting paradigms and findings so that the reader is informed about the valid arguments that grounded historical knowledge of that period.

For example, he writes about the “political and religious organizations and their institutionalization in Castile and the New World” (section 3.2.1), about the “Council of Indies” (“Consejo de Indias”) and the “Audiencias” as discourse regulators (section 3.3) and presents the “Major Chronicle of the Indies” as an early modern institution (section 3.4 “Die 'Crónica Mayor de Indias - ein frühneuzeitliches Fachreferat”, p. 107).

Chapter 4, “Texts and authors”, presents the authors that Herrera used as his source material. This chapter is divided into 12 parts and each one is dedicated to an individual author. These include: Francisco de Xerez, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Bartolomé de las Casas, Pedro Cieza de León, Pascual de Andagoya, Francisco López de Gómara, Diego de Landa, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Diego Fernández de Palencia, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, and José de Acosta. Part 4.12 deals with the works of anonymous authors and marginal texts.

For the analysis, the structure of the texts (“Textgestalt”, p. 131) as well as the context of the authors' personal lives (“Autorfigur”, p. 131) are both of equal importance: the text because it had to fulfil certain formal criteria in order to be accepted into the royal archive and the authors' lives because through their oeuvre they established themselves as loyal servants, and also in order to integrate themselves into the colonial administrative system. Each author had a different role to play and participated differently (“Partizipationsmodi”, p. 132). Greußlich focuses on the relationship between norms at the institutional level and the personal/individual practical level.

After reconstructing Herrera's point of departure Greußlich presents each author chronologically instead of sorting them by textual typology. This allows him to follow up “the concrete institutional conditions for each and every case” (footnote 415, p. 133). At the same time, this allows the reader to understand the criteria determining Herrera’s choice of source material.

Chapter 5 is called “Antonio de Herrera and the ‘History of the Castilian people on the island and on the mainland’ -- the textuality of history and its interpretation”.

Some of the results from the qualitative reconstruction of Herrera's historiographical practice are as follows: The work is structured (macro-structure) along the same lines as works of previous chroniclers -- such as Pedro Mártir de Anglería and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. These authors from the 16th century followed a humanistic tradition, and remained in the genre “of their contemporaries and their position went unquestioned” (p. 259). Greußlich recognizes the fact that Herrera one hundred years later likewise followed this tradition as a sign of the “legal relevance of historiography in the context of the imperial expansion of Castile” (p. 259).

The linguistic-discursive structure of the 'Décadas' reflects the administrative division of the space which replicates the historical progress of the conquests. Herrera reports on events from the stages “discovery”, “conquest” and “submission” (“Pacificación”). From a legal perspective this organization is a projection of the “dependency of these territories on the Crown of Castile” (p. 260). The consistent chronological arrangement of the 'Décadas' emphasizes the relevance of the work as a reference book for the policy-makers because this system made it possible for the reader “to quickly find the most relevant material for them” (p. 261).

Herrera worked through only a fraction of the historical archive that was available to him. However, his selection of reference texts follows clear rules that correlated ''with the historical and institutional settings'' (p. 281). The chapters dedicated to New Spain and Peru are both structured in the same way with respect to the compiled corpora, the distribution of the sources following the pattern: ''Descubrimiento - Conquista - Pacificación''. For each of these geographical regions Herrera considered several texts. He grouped different text types together to form their own sections, but did not mix them up. Herrera chose to use ''historias'' and ''crónicas'' as well as ''relaciones geográficas'' and ''documentos jurídicos'' (“juridical texts”, p. 279), which represented an innovation in historiographical practice. Greußlich finds his discourse is based on authoritative criteria with the exception of the juridical text types that appear relatively anonymous and professionalized. With regard to the time-frame of Herrera's 'sources' there is a clear and pronounced progression from the oral to the written.

With regard to the thematic level Herrera manages to use his sources in a practical way that leads us to think that he probably had a ''clear concept of the changing requirements [...] which historiography in Castile was confronted by during the 16th century'' (p. 280) and ''the urgent need to conceptually bind the alterity of the 'Indies' in order to enable them to rule there ...'' (p. 279). Consequently, he meticulously seeks to fulfil what Greußlich calls “these primary legal expectations” (p. 280).

In chapter 6, ''Linguistic Text Analysis'', Greußlich analyses the ‘Décadas’ in relation to their source texts. He offers a systematic description of the “discourse transformation” (''Transformaciones discursivas'', p. 288), with the aim of ''characterising the quality of difference inherent in linguistic contextualization'' (p. 300). The analysis is performed at the following levels: macro-structural (i.e. the relationship between the macro-structure of a 'source' with the respective parallel passage in the 'Décadas'), incorporating syntax, morphosyntax, morphology and lexicon.

Herrera uses 'estilo llano' ('plain language') for his historiography, which is ''a norm-referenced standard that requires a moderate level of literacy'' (p. 290). Herrera's style is characterized by his avoidance of features of orality (close to spoken language), by which, according to Greußlich, he aims to liberate the discourse of “complexity-increasing redundancy of all kinds” (p. 290) on the levels of syntax, morphology and lexis. At the macro-structural level, he endeavours to eliminate what he considers to be inappropriate or unnecessary parts of the text. Herrera’s adaptations are based upon the content itself.

Chapter 7 is called ''The linguistic regularities in the compilation of the 'Décadas.''' In the context of the 'historiografia indiana' Herrera establishes the 'estilo llano' as the standard. Greußlich adds, “However, Herrera did not succeed in establishing a stable tradition, as he only managed to produce an individual relevancy of the 'estilo llano' for the historiographical discourse in Castile” (p. 356).


The term 'historiografia indiana' describes a diverse and complex subject. From the diversity of authors, works and periods Greußlich focuses on the special case of an official chronicler of the early 17th century, who writes about the events of the 16th century, compiling reports from the works of other authors. The post of official chronicler in the 17th century was a very desirable position and the future chronicler, besides having to have influential recommendations, also had to be able to demonstrate excellent linguistic skills in order to gain the favour of the King and be selected for the post (García Hernán 2006, p. 126, 132 et seq.).

In his work Greußlich provides the reader with a wide range of information and historical facts. He comments on these in his own voice, but his main intention remains to highlight, ''the political and legal tendencies of the 16th century'' (p. 87) in order to reveal the context of the institutionalization of the 'historiografia indiana'. The 17th century is not addressed in detail, as is exemplified by the next sentence: ''At the beginning of 17th century, when the 'Décadas' were first published, this process of degeneration of the [economic and political] system was in full swing'' (p. 87). Given that the 'Décadas' is a defining work from the 17th century, the author leaves us somewhat disappointed because he omits the historical, political and economic dimensions of the 17th century (cf. González Enciso 1986, pp. 153-155).

Some of Greußlich’s conclusions about known historical facts may mislead the reader. For example, in chapter 5 Greußlich raises the question ''why did Mártir de Anglería, a native of Arona, Piemont [Italy], write in Latin?'', given the fact that ''in Castile from the Middle Ages there was a well-established tradition of writing historiography in the native language.'' He answers the question: ''A probable answer is that the author's origin is the reason'' (p. 259, footnote 738). However, the book by Mártir de Anglería, also called 'Décadas', stems from daily reports and lengthy letters that were addressed to the Pope and his court. That is, the 'Décadas' by Pedro Mártir de Anglería were written contextually in a completely different historiographical tradition, and not in the way that Greußlich suggests (O'Gorman, 1972, p. 13; Salas, 1959, p. 25).

The formal and stylistic linguistic adaptations that Greußlich highlights in his linguistic analysis notes confirm the connotations of the term 'Cronista oficial': a language variety characterized by certain features of literacy as markers. He formulates his interpretations using a specific knowledge framework which he imposes upon Herrera in order to evaluate the linguistic adaptations.

Greußlich achieves a consistency in his analysis by projecting an ''identity of reference'' (p. 300) which he assumes Herrera had in mind while he was compiling his source material. In explaining the methodological orientation in detail, Greußlich overwhelms the reader by adding new aspects to each chapter that have little or no relevance to his analysis (e.g., 'spatial turn', p. 263). His analysis sometimes lacks structure, so that the ''synchronization'' between source materials and historical background is cumbersome and results in the reader not always being aware of what the author intends.

This is illustrated by example 17 (p. 311) where Herrera removes 'mañas' from Las Casas's ''segunsus 'astucias' y 'mañas''', giving ''segun sus 'astucias.''' Greußlich explains this lexical cut of 'maña' first by interpreting the word based upon its current meaning. He then goes on to discuss whether this word has a positive or negative meaning: ''The removal of this positively connoted synonym suggests that Herrera is keen to characterize the behaviour of Cortés as clearly disobedient'' (p. 312). However Greußlich later adds that the lemma 'astucia' in documents of the era (Corpus del Español diacrónico) often has positive connotations too ''in connection with the representation of relevant military facts [...]” (p. 312, footnote 821), and this leaves the reader a little confused.

Greußlich recognizes that another problematic area is that these results provide qualitative rather than quantitative data (p. 294). Consequently, his interpretation occasionally suffers from a subjective slant (p. 342) and hardly ever goes beyond a description of Herrera's personal language style. Greußlich would like to provide material for ''interdisciplinary debates'' (p. 2), but because his work remains descriptive, it may not be as useful to other academics in other fields as a quantitative study might be. In order to overcome this problem it would be desirable to compare his results with those of other contemporary chroniclers from the time of Herrera, to support a possible interpretation.

At first sight the book’s title seems to offer the reader an interesting and insightful treatise, but unfortunately the book does not live up to this initial impression. The reader is confronted by Greußlich's academic German writing style and has to struggle to make sense of what the author really wants to convey. The author also breaks with academic tradition when evaluating the work of other academics, for example by describing Carbia as a ''fascist'' (p. 237) and Bosch García as being ''no less tendentious'' (p. 236). He also praises his own linguistic theoretical framework and says he attempts to avoid ''destructive misunderstandings'' of others (p. 9). These subjective biases come across as unnecessarily defensive and may confuse the reader.

Admittedly, Greußlich's subject matter is broad and covers a variety of themes but unfortunately this is at the expense of structure and conciseness. The book's reader-friendliness is often hindered by quotations and cross references. This gives the impression that the author has not been able to precisely delimit the theme and find a straightforward path for his argument.


Bosch García, Carlos. 1945. La conquista de la Nueva España en las Décadas de Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas. In Díaz Thomé, Hugo (Hg.). “Estudios de historiografía de la Nueva España”. México: El Colegio de México, 145-202.

García Hernán, Enrique. 2006. La España de los cronistas reales en los siglos XVI y XVII. In “Norba. Revista de Historia”, Vol. 19, 125-150.

González Enciso, Agustín. 1986. La economía. In Andrés-Gallego, José (Coord.). “Historia General de España y América. La crisis de la hegemonía española. Siglo XVII”. Tomo VIII. Madrid: Rialp. 153-185.

Oesterreicher, Wulf. 2005. Über die Geschichtlichkeit der Sprache. In Trabant, Jürgen (Hg.) “Sprache der Geschichte”. (Schriften des Historischen Kollegs. Kolloquien 62.) 3-26. München: R. Oldenbourg.

O'Gorman, Edmundo. 1972. “Cuatro historiadores de Indias. Siglo XVI. México: Conaculta.

Salas, Alberto Mario. 1959. Tres cronistas de Indias. Pedro Mártir de Anglería; Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo; Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. México: FCE.
Mariana España is a lecturer at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Bonn. She earned a M.A. in Romance Linguistics, Musicology and European and Latin American Art History from the University of Heidelberg. Her teaching and research interests include Spanish as a Second Language, German-Spanish Translation, Historical Linguistics and Latin American Cultural Studies. She teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

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