The Weekend Workshop in Spanish Paleography took place at the Newberry Library, Chicago, February 27-28, 2015.
At the Newberry Library in Chicago, Professor Carla Rahn Phillips cheered and coached as we crept slowly through pages of early modern Spanish script. Dr. Phillips is a well-respected historian of early modern Spain and an admirable teacher. We, her one-time weekend students, are doctoral candidates and junior faculty who research topics in Spanish and Spanish American history, literature, and languages of the fifeenth to eighteenth centuries.
The weekend workshop was my first formal paleography training, and it came late in the game. I’ve already completed my archival research and have been working with sixteenth-century Spanish manuscripts for nearly five years. I’m a self-taught researcher. I had looked through a few paleographical manuals when preparing for my pre-dissertation research trip to Spain in 2010. I spent three months in the archives that year, struggling and learning and reading very slowly. I returned for another three months in 2011, this time armed with a real thesis topic and a just enough confidence to approach the archivists with my over-rehearsed questions in careful Spanish. By the end of my final research trip in 2012, I had collected hundreds of documents (transcribed, digitally scanned, or photographed).
I’ve organized my research in a Zotero database that now contains thousands of searchable entries. My sources include Inquisition records from the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid, royal correspondence from the Archivo General de Simancas, notarial protocols from the Archivo Histórico Provincial de Valladolid, and court records from the Archivo de la Real Chancillería de Valladolid. I’m still working my way through these primary sources, and I applied to the paleography workshop for help with the more difficult hands.
At the Newberry, Carla insisted that the only way to learn to read early modern manuscripts was to squirm and suffer. “We’re laying tracks in our brains!” she reminded us repeatedly. I’ll admit to having passing moments of frustration during the two days of table readings. This is unsurprising because I routinely feel impatient with the slow pace of reading early modern manuscripts. However, I didn’t expect to learn so much from the range of mistakes we made as a group and from the divergence of interpretations we ventured. My colleagues’ perspectives were invaluable because of the differences in our training and prior experience.
Carla showed us how to consider the possibilities within the universe of the document. She reminded us to look for the most obvious and likely option first; “When you hear hoof beat, think horses, not zebras,” she said. She taught us about abbreviations, ink and stamped paper, notaries and scribes, rubrics and calderóns, dates and currency.
Beyond classroom lessons, my quick trip to Chicago was worthwhile for the conversations I had with my colleagues over coffee breaks. And over deep-dish pizza at lunch. And over drinks in the evening. Chicago is a great city and these are great people. I made friends and met future-collaborators. These experiences are invaluable interludes in the often-solitary work of a historian, and I’m lucky to have spent mine with such fine folk.
We continued discussing our various research projects and plans on our last afternoon in the Newberry’s Special Collections Reading Room while we worked with real physical manuscripts. Carla had selected a small assortment of records for us to explore; these included land sale records, criminal cases, and beautiful books:
I thank Professor Phillips and the excellent staff at the Newberry Library, especially Karen Christianson, for hosting this useful and enjoyable weekend workshop. It built upon what I learned in the archives, showed me what I already knew and revealed new ways of looking at my records that will prove very useful as I complete my dissertation.
Have you taken a course in paleography? What tips and recommendations do you have for our colleagues who are about to embark on this journey into the archives? You are welcome to post your stories in the comments below, and I encourage you to check out these resources: http://www.newberry.org/paleography