A dictionary for the Spanish colonial empire and canon law

This year I follow my tradition of starting the new year with a post featuring either the law of an empire or an empire, and this year I offer the former. A constitutive element of the international project based at Mainz for the School of Salamanca is a political-legal dictionary. In an earlier post I mentioned the dictionary only briefly, because at tha time it did not yet exist. However, things have changed since 2017, and it is certainly interesting to look now in more detail at the form, contents and progress of the Diccionario Histórico de Derecho Canónico en Hispanoamérica y Filipinas, Siglos XVI-XVIII. Using the simple abbreviation DCH has particular consequences for finding this online dictionary. Anyway, the DCH is not the first dictionary appearing at my blog.

Studying Spanish colonial law

Research into Spanish legal history and colonial laws and legislation in the Spanish colonial empire in Latin America is in particular associated with the Max-Planck-Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory (MPILHLT) in Frankfurt am Main. Last year its name changed a lot by adding a third department for legal theory to the two departments for legal history, and by removing the word European from its name. Speaking of names, nowadays the term School of Salamanca is no longer linked exclusively to sixteenth-century thinkers teaching at this Spanish university, nor is it confined to law or theology.

The core of the project of the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz for the School of Salamanca is a digital collection with 116 works mainly published in the sixteenth century. At the website you can also consult the series of working papers published by the research team. The project website describes as an objective a dictionary for juridical-political languages with eventually some 200 entries, taking their cues from both Spanish and Latin words. Entries will appear from 2020 onwards, but no entries are visible at the project website. This dictionary is a separate aim, not to be confused with the DCH, as Ana Arango kindly pointed out to me.

At this point you must be aware absolutely of the role of the MPILHLT within this project. At its website the information has been placed on a number of web pages. There is a general page for this cooperation with the Akademie in Mainz, but you will have to navigate also to the web page for the School of Salamanca. This page alerts you to the blog of the Mainz website, where the blog is found under the heading News. The Frankfurt page for the Salamanca project does not mention its own page for the Historical Dictionary of Canon Law in Hispanic America and the Philippines 16th-18th century (DCH). On that page you will find the actual entries now available halfway at the heading Blog, not the one and only spot where you would indeed expect it to appear.

Let’s not hide the fact I had noticed the abbreviation DCH at the Frankfurt website earlier on, especially among the new releases, but somehow the direct link with this project was not clear for me. In a way it is just a small revenge of using too much abbreviations… At the third Salamanca page in Frankfurt, the one for Salamanca Publications in the publications section, the DCH is yet absent. Actually the series of published entries for the DCH can be found also at the SSRN page of the MPHLHT where they appear in the chronological sequence of publication.

To be honest, this situation is only temporary, but it is a nice example of a dilemma between providing information about final results and preliminary publications. In a town with much attention to system theory this should make you smile! The two institutions should not hesitate to give the new temporary form of the DCH at the Hypotheses network simply its due as a perfectly sensible solution for the time being. No doubt plans for the definitive form of publication are being contemplated right now.

The DCH as work in progress

There was a time when great dictionaries were published only in print, often at a slow pace. Decades after the start the final volume would appear at last, and decades afterwards some supplement could be printed. This simple picture does not exist anymore. Many dictionaries have been digitized or their new edition appears both online and in print.

At the DCH blog – also present at Twitter, @DiccionarioDCH – you should not jump immediately to the published entries. It is wiser to look first at the explanation about its structure (Estructura). The entries – 120 is their number mentioned here, elsewhere a total of 200 or 300 entries is stated – will be organized according to the order of the five books in the Decreatles Gregorii IX, the Liber Extra published in 1234 on behalf of pope Gregory IX. The decretals in this official papal collection were divided into five books headed Iudex, Iudicium, Clerus, Connubia and Crimen. Church councils in the Spanish New World used this division also, as did the major European handbooks for canon law in the Early Modern period. There is a table showing this division and the entries currently available under each heading. Four general entries on canon law, moral theology, the Patronato Real and historiography will function as introductions.

The nature and form of this dictionary can best be tasted in the most recent published entries which all mention immediately the DCH blog. I restrict myself to two entries, Vicarios under the heading Iudex and Sentencia under Iudicium; the links here are to the introductions on the DCH blog.

Susana Frias gives a crisp and clear summary of her article Vicario. She looks at the various positions of the vicario, in particular at his role as a judge delegated by a bishop, but she mentions other types of vicars as well. She gives examples of the context, for example the tension between religious orders and bishops, ad the growing influence of the Spanish crown on ecclesiastical institutions. This summary helps a reader much. Her contribution, downloadable from SSRN, has 23 pages, with abstracts at SSRN in Spanish and English. Frias’ article has ten sections. After a few lines about the pope as the Vicar of Christ she deals with the vicar-general of a bishop, the vicario capitular functioning during a sede vacante in a diocese. The vicario foraneo is a judicial official representing episcopal jurisdiction in a district. A vicario coadjutor is the figure closest to a parish vicar, an assistant to the curate. With the vicario apostolico we encounter another familiar figure in canon law, the administrator of a region without diocesan organization. The function of the vicario castrense was created in the seventeenth century as an army chaplain. The last vicars in this article are the vicarios within religious orders, the officials representing the provincial, sometimes for visitations as a visitador. In the last section (pp. 17-23) Frias offers a concise historiographic conclusion and a substantial list of primary sources and secondary literature used for this contribution. With ample references to the sources in each section this is clearly the kind of dictionary article which can both help you quickly to gain basic knowledge and offer you also the necessary background information.

Faustino Martinez divides in his abstract his contribution Sentencia on verdicts into two sections, a general section on the place of verdicts within a trial, and a section focusing on developments and characteristics of verdicts within the Spanish empire. This is exactly also the abstract in Spanish and English at SSRN. I had expected to find at the beginning of his article with 48 pages a visual overview the headings of the subsections, but he lists in fact the nine sections in the last lines of his introduction. An indication of their respective importance would be welcome. After ten pages it is clear the section Elementos y modos de la sentencia is such part of his contribution (pp. 7-17). All other sections are rather short but densely packed with information. I would single out the sections on nullity of sentences and on abuse of justice by starting a process based on invalid claims. They put things really into relief. The section on typical developments in the Spanish colonial empire, too, is relatively short (pp. 32-38), as is the historiographic balance which points out a substantial number of matters to be investigated. There is much space at the end for the primary sources and scholarly literature. On balance the subject deserves indeed a long and intricate contribution with relatively short sections. On purpose I have not tried to summarize every section, because this would not tell you how much Martinez has to offer here, both on Spanish and colonial legal history.

The DCH in context

How should one judge this scholarly project? At some point during writing my mind turned to the project Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. This dictionary has a similar long and telling title, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (8 vol., Stuttgart 1972-2007), edited by Reinhard Koselleck, Werner Conze and Otto Brunner. GG contains in 9000 pages some 120 articles on a number of key concepts for German history, politics and society. This example must surely at some moments have crossed the minds of the Salamanca team, too. I suppose we should applaud the fact we can consult online in open access the entries of the DCH! The DCH is an international project dealing with a much wider part of the world forthe Early Modern period.

My two choices for first impressions of the DCH happen to deal in particular with institutional history. The strong point of the DCH and the Salamanca project at Frankfurt am Main and Mainz is its aim of putting things at their right place within wider contexts, and thus institutions get their due. For me the veil from the abbreviation DCH has been lifted! You can learn a lot from the entries that have already appeared, starting with the bibliographical sections, but I am sure you will encounter much else that is interesting for your own research and general knowledge of the vast Spanish colonial empire and its impact on Latin America’s history and society.

As for the sources used you can bet the MPILHLT at Frankfurt am Main has several editions or even several copies of the main works used by the team. It is sensible to look beyond the works digitized for this purpose. Apart from the portal for the School of Salamanca you can look also at De Indiarum iure. My earlier post does point to some other projects elsewhere as well, but it told you less about some digital resources now available. For copies of works held by libraries and archives in Latin America you might want to look also at my web page for digital libraries. In particular in Mexico there is a large number of digital libraries. For tracing Early Modern works you can benefit from the Catálogo Colectivo de Impresos Latinoamericanos hasta 1851 (University of California at Riverside), a union catalog for Latin American imprints, and a number of bibliographical projects and works for and from Mexico. My remarks about the visibility of the DCH blog will no doubt soon be superfluous, because curious readers surely will find the DCH quickly. Our thanks should go to the international team making such a project feasible. Bringing canon law into view as a major element of the Spanish transatlantic empire and its legal history is just one of its qualities.

A postscript

On January 19, 2022 the first of the four general introductory chapters was published. Faustino Martinez contributed an article on procedure in canon law. I should like also to alert you to the series of colorful videos created by the research team for the DCH blog.

For those interested in the development of the Spanish language in their colonial empire it is useful to mention here the Corpus Electrónico del Español Colonial Mexicano (COREECOM), a project of the Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas at the Universadad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Ana Arango kindly pointed me to the fact the dictionary for political-juridical thought of the School of Salamanca project in Mainz is a different project. Hopefully this difference can be indicated at the crucial points of the websites for both dictionaries.

It can do no harm to mention here the digital collection of Spanish legal documents (15th-19th centuries) created by the Library of Congress. 106 documents were labeled Canon law. At its crowdsourcing platform By The People the Library of Congress runs a campaign for transcribing these records, Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents.

2 thoughts on “A dictionary for the Spanish colonial empire and canon law

  1. Ana Arango

    This is a wonderful review of the Diccionario DCH! Very informative and detailed.
    However, the School of Salamanca has its very own Dictionary of the Juridical-Political Language which is not to be confused with the Diccionario Histórico de Derecho Canónico en Hispanoamérica y Filipinas, Siglos XVI-XVIII (DCH).


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