Deciphering Inquisition Manuscripts

Kim Bassett (Nov 13, 2008)

As anyone following this blog already knows, Eric, Amanda, and I are studying paleography with Professor Homza with the intention of studying in the archives in Pamplona, Spain over next spring break.  I can’t speak for my fellow students in the project, but I was personally very surprised when Professor Homza offered me the chance to go to Spain. Like Eric and Amanda, I took History 491: Spain’s Golden Age with Professor Homza last spring, but as a Hispanic Studies and Chinese double major, but I wasn’t really planning on involving myself in historical studies beyond that one class. However, I absolutely couldn’t turn down the opportunity to study original manuscripts in Spain, especially after that class made me so interested in Spanish history and the Inquisition. I’m honestly excited to spend the majority of my time in Spain sitting in the archives studying inquisition trials!

So here I am, studying what seem to be mere blots and squiggles of illegible Spanish on endless pages of photocopied manuscript in order to be able to effectively study the real thing upon arrival in Pamplona. And as uninteresting and tedious as that would have sounded to me a year ago, I’m finding more and more that I truly enjoy studying these documents of various Inquisition trials, even though they take me hours to transcribe. Yes, I panicked the first time I sat down to a page of large loops that could be L’s, T’s, or S’s, and short nonsense words with seemingly random swoops over them. Since then, however, I’ve learned how to distinguish letter shape better and how to spot abbreviated words by the telltale swoop accompanying them. Of course, it’s definitely easier for me to comprehend once I work into the document (especially when helped along by an introductory transcription) and familiarize myself with the handwriting. That said, I was definitely still thrown for a bit of a loop when I sat down to this week’s document, which I felt had messier handwriting and more abbreviations than the manuscripts we’ve studied previously. Although it was written by the same author–and therefore had the same  odd spelling anomalies and handwriting–I felt that the style and the handwriting were both less formal than the more official documents (such as court reports) that we had transcribed the week before. However, I was still able to work into it without too much difficulty, in spite of my initial dismay at seeing the seven pages of messy handwriting.

Luckily, the creative spelling in 16th century Spanish isn’t giving me too much trouble. If I have trouble with a particular word, reading it out loud works most of the time. I’ve also gotten used to the typical letter substitutions, ie ‘v’ for the modern ‘b’, ‘x’ for the modern ‘j’, etc. Some spelling anomalies have intrigued me, though, in the sense that they often closely resemble Portuguese. For example, ‘agora’ (the modern ‘ahora’) is the same as the Portuguese ‘agora’, all meaning ‘now’; the modern Spanish ‘hacer’ was spelled ‘facer’, similar to the Portuguese ‘fazer’, all meaning ‘to do or make’. It makes sense, of course, since both Spanish and Portuguese developed from the same source, but seeing the close similarities depicted so obviously really drove the point home for me.

So onward and upward with illegible handwriting and spelling anomalies! Next week’s manuscript sample looks much more difficult to decipher. Hopefully I’ll be able to figure it out with the help of Professor Homza’s introductory transcription, a handy dictionary, and a little educated guessing.

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