Category Archives: Catalogs

Archiving spies in the Early Modern Spanish empire

Cover exhibition catalogue "Espias"While musing about a possible subject for a new post I luckily remembered an announcement about a vital element within the Early Modern Spanish empire. Not only official ambassadors and delegates played an important role in informing governments, spies played an important role to. From July 2018 to July 2019 the Archivo General de Simancas presents the exhibition Espias. Servicios secretos y escritura cifrada en la Monarquiaa Hispánica [Spies. Secret services and enciphered writing in the Spanish monarchy]. The Spanish Empire formed with the Habsburg Empire a European superpower which needed crucial information from other countries, but also wanted to hide their own secrets from others. In this post I will looked at the very substantial downloadable catalogue of this exhibition (54 MB, PDF). In particular the use of encrypted writing made me curious to find out about this exhibition with three main themes: the organization of intelligence services, the spies and encrypted writing.

Archiving at Simancas

A few lines about the Archivo General de Simancas (AGS), ten kilometers from Valladolid, seem in place here. in 1540 emperor Charles V decided to create a new governmental archive, and quickly Simancas was chosen as its location. King Philip II of Spain issued in 1588 a further instruction for the running of this new archive, in fact one of the first Early Modern archival ordinances. Ten years earlier, in 1578, a new building was built for this purpose, yet another pioneering project of this period. The collections can be divided in two major blocks, the collections stemming from the Habsburgian period and those from the period under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty. The collections of the various consejos (councils) for the regions of the Spanish empire are characteristic for the AGS. For the Bourbon period five major series for the secretaries and again five series for other organisms of the state are the key elements. Outside these series you can find the Patronato Real y Mapas, Planos y Dibujos, with maps, drawings and much more.

Cover of the "Guia del investgador" for the AGS

By all means the AGS can look literally as a formidable fortress! Guides such as the Guía del investigador by Angel de la Plaza Bores (4th ed., 1992; online, 5 MB, PDF) help much to overcome your awe. In her article ‘Fuentes para la historia colonial de Brasil en los archivos españoles’ , published in 2009 in the series Guide du chercheur americaniste of the online journal Nuevo Mundo/ Mundos NuevosMaría Belén García López devoted a section to the use of archival record series at the AGS for researching the history of relations between Spain and Portugal with regard to Brazilian history. In English you might want to look at a 2014 contribution about Simancas by Claire Gilbert at Hazine. In 2016 Adolfo Polo y La Borda looked very brief at Simancas and other major Spanish archives in his post ‘Rethinking the Spanish Imperial Archives’ for the series Fresh from the archives of Dissertation Reviews. The Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES) offers a kind of tree structure which you can navigate to find not only online finding aids but also digitized archival records. At first this might look difficult, but the online guide Taming PARES by Scott Cave and Ashleigh Dean is a must-read to gain access to all riches of PARES. There is a separate website for the digital collection with 7,000 digitized items from the Mapas, Planos y Dibujos of the AGS. A much older guide by William R. Shepard, Guide to the materials for the history of the United States in Spanish archives. (Simancas, the Archivo histórico nacional, and Seville) (Washington, D.C., 1907) can be viewed online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library. German readers might want to look at Marc André Grebe, Akten, Archive, Absolutismus? Das Kronarchiv von Simancas im Herrschaftsgefüge der spanischen Habsburger (1540-1598) (Madrid 2014).

Early Modern spies

Spy report 1572 - AGS

Detail of a deciphered spy report on fortifications in Piedmont, 1572 – AGS, EST LEG 1234-48

In the preface of the exhibition catalogue Julia Rodriguez de Diego explains how the study of the history of spies, their networks and tools is important for at least three main terrains, viz. the growth of absolute monarchies, the history of Early Modern diplomacy and the field of political theories, even its very heart, the building of states and concepts of states and Staatsräson. The first part of the catalogue deals with the organization of espionage at several levels with the Spanish state. In 1497 the pope authorized the Reyes Católicos to send spies into Africa. It seems the Spanish government scarcely needed this spur, but it proved to be a welcome confirmation. In the catalogue you will find discussions of several documents, for example instructions to virreyes (the viceroys of Navarra, Naples and Sicily) and gobernadores (the governors of Milan and Flandes, meaning the Low Countries). The chart with several layers of the Spanish state is very helpful to perceive the impact and role of intelligence services within and for Spain. Juan Velasquez de Velasco, head of the royal intelligence service at the end of the sixteenth century, wrote to the king about the urgent need for coordination of all efforts. As an example of actual reconnaissance by spies you can look at a 1572 report on French fortifications in the Piedmont region with explanations about a map showing details of these fortresses. A number of documents about payments to spies closes the first section of the catalogue. Here and elsewhere you will find images of documents and substantial transcribed parts in the commentaries.

Encrypted message, ca. 1588-1621 - AGS

An encrypted message written on linen, ca. 1588-1621 – AGS, MPD 44-48

The second and largest part of the catalogue deals with actual spies. Spies might be the word we want to use, but agents is a better term. The Spanish agents delivered reports in encrypted script, here an example written on linen using an unknown cipher code. A late sixteenth-century treatise on counter espionage (AGS, EST LEG 601-183) shows insights in the way enemy spies were hindered in achieving foreign objectives. Spies travelled over all Europe. Venice was considered the very spy capital of Europe. Some documents in this exhibition tell us about spies going to the Ottoman empire. The Spanish spies reported also on the roles and fate of spies from other countries. Corsairs were another matter of concern, as in a 1535 report about preparations for an attack at Oran. Rather grim is the story from 1536-1537 in Naples of the interrogation of a person suspected to be a judeoconverso, a converted Jew, and of being a spy for the Ottomans. Some time later he was found drowned in a river. The story of a spy working in Ireland to get information about British industry and inventions is another interesting subject. The contemporary picture of a spy heading this chapter is a nice vignette of the perceived qualities of a spy, working day and night, always watching out as if he had eyes all over his clothes. A paragraph on famous spies is a logical ending for this section of the catalogue.

The uses of encryption

Encrypted negotation report - AGS

An encrypted negotiation report by ambassador Rodriguez Gonzalez de la Puebla, 1498 – AGS, PTR LEG 52-144, fol. 2r

The third part of the catalogue deals with encryption and its uses. The traditional main ways of encryption were substitution or transposition of letters and hiding written messages. For a late fifteenth-century example of a simple cipher code with 2,400 expressions the use of Roman numbers is shown for the names of particular authorities. The code was used by the Spanish ambassador in England who negotiated for the marriage of Catherine of Aragon with Arthur Tudor, the king’s brother. It is good to see the catalogue uses here an article by María del Carmen Sevilla González, ‘Las nupcias de Catalina de Aragón: aspectos jurídicos, políticos y diplomáticos’, Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español 86 (2016) 657-726. Several documents help to give you an idea of what happened behind the screens before king Henry VII agreed in 1504 with the marriage conditions of Catherine’s second marriage in 1503 with the future Henry VIII in a beautiful illuminated document [AGS, PTR LEG 53-1].

In a final paragraph the catalogue shows examples of both general and particular cipher codes. Much of the information given here comes from a recent study by Javier Marcos Rivas, Los dueños del secreto. Espías y espionaje de la Monarquía de los Austrias en el Archivo de Simancas (Madrid 2015). A document from 1564 shows not only a text but also two bars of music [AGS, Estado, leg. 1.1.1.204]. The AGS has in its holdings a manuscript of an unpublished study by Claudio Pérez Gredilla, written in 1899 and 1900 about 200 different cipher codes found in the holdings of this archive [AGS, D/203]. The very last item is really a surprise, a 1936 German Enigma code machine from the holdings of the Museo Histórico Militar de Burgos. This object is really from another age of cryptography. It highlights the fact this catalogue focuses on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

With some regret I have skipped a number of items in this exhibition catalogue, just as i have condensed four centuries of archiving at Simancas. To give just one example, a document with microscopic script from 1586 is presented separately online. You will agree with me the exhibition builds to a climax with the marriages of Catherine of Aragon and the presence of an original Enigma code machine. A particular strength of the catalogue is the ample use of images from archival records combined with partial transcriptions and extensive commentaries. To some extent you can use this catalogue also as an introduction to Spanish palaeography in the Early Modern period. This exhibition fits neatly in the tradition of the AGS for organizing interesting exhibitions, sometimes followed by a virtual exhibit, and publishing accompanying publications. It should invite you to combine your strengths in the Spanish language and the skills of the auxiliary historical sciences such as palaeography to benefit from the wealth of archival records kept at Simancas and in other Spanish archives.

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Slavery depicted and described

The cover of the rare books catalogue on slavery

Image from Marcus Rainsford, “St. Domingo, of het land der zwarten in Hayti en deszelfs omwenteling (…)” (2 vol., Amsterdam: Allart, 1806), used on the cover of the catalogue

Sometimes I find a new subject for a blog post by looking in my list with possible themes, sources and legal systems, but every now and then a subject appears without any prior notice. This week I found in my mailbox an announcement about a new catalogue of a rare books seller on the subject of slavery. One of the major changes in world history is surely the way slavery became the object of massive criticism and protests after many centuries of more or less accepted existence. Legal history should provide space not only for the study of the history of legal doctrine, its teaching and legal institutions, but also for the impact of both elements on society. Slavery was kept in place and force by laws and customs. Anyway, slavery is a major subject pointing to the grim consequences of plain injustice and enchained human liberty, but such views, too, have their history. The catalogue (PDF, 3,8 MB) contains items from many countries and periods, and you will find here only a selection to make you curious for more. Many items have beautiful illustrations.

Yet another reason to look at this catalogue is the firm behind it. Thirty years ago the rare books firm publishing this catalogue had its seat at the lovely Oudegracht, the main medieval canal in the old city of Utrecht, but it has retreated to a more rural setting in the hamlet ‘t Goy, now part of the garden city Houten to the south-east of Utrecht. In fact this firm was probably the first antiquarian book firm which I dared to visit as a student. At its present pretty location in a renovated old farm you will find a second antiquarian bookseller who works with the other firm in association. This legal figure is rather interesting, because you will want to be sure who is the seller of valuable items. I will briefly look at this legal aspect, too.

From highlight to highlight

In order to present here a somewhat coherent choice I had better start with the book figuring on the cover of the catalogue shown above. No. 24 in the catalogue with 28 items is the Dutch translation of a work by Marcus Rainsford. Rainsford came to Haiti in 1799 and became an admirer of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian slave rebellion. No. 5 is a French translation of a work by Willem Bosman, Voyage de Guinée (…) (Utrecht: Schouten, 1705), according to the catalogue one of the earliest descriptions in print of West-Africa and the slave trade in this region.

Among the most important items is no. 3, an official transcript of the will of a slave owner on Jamaica, the merchant Joseph Barnes († 1829). It is good to note the attached probate form of the court of Doctors’ Commons, and a seal of the prerogative court of the archbishop of Canterbury. Rather special is also a book by Philip Howard, Slave-catching in the Indian ocean (…) (London 1873) who wrote about the Asian slave trade (no. 7). Very rare is the book of Bartholomeus Georgiewitz (Bartol Djurdjevic), Voyage de la saincte cité de Hierusalemme (…) (Liège: Streel/De la Coste, 1600), a book written by a former slave who spent 13 years in Ottoman captivity after the battle of Mohács in Hungary (1526) (no. 9).

The catalogue is really a jigsaw puzzle of items stemming from many countries. In a number of cases we find translations, for instance a French translation of Alexander Grailhe’s plea in the case of the will of the philantropist John McDonogh (1779-1850) (no. 12) who bequeathed a fabulous amount of money for the foundation of public schools in New Orleans and Baltimore with free access for both white and black children. Texas figures in no. 26 with an edition of Ordinances and decrees of the consultation, provisional government of Texas (Houston: National Banner Office, 1838).

North Africa is the region in a book ascribed to Jean-Baptiste de La Faye, Voyage pour la redemption des captifs aux royaumes d’Alger et Tunis (…) (Paris: Sevestre and Giffart, 1721) (no. 18). The story told here concerns three members of the Ordre de la Sainte Trinité who tried to free Christian slaves. East Africa is the subject in no. 11, with two French reports about languages in East and Equatorial Africa and slavery, the first published in Mauritius in 1846, the second in Paris in 1850, with a letter by the ethnographer Eugène de Froberville. A Dutch translation of William George Browne, Nieuwe reize naar de binnenste gedeelten van Afrika, door Egypte, Syrie en Le Dar-four (…) (2 vol., Amsterdam: Allart, 1800), an account of travels in Egypt, Syria and Sudan figures as no. 6.

Dutch historians will note the works of two rather famous brothers, the politician Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp with a volume of letters about the end of the Dutch East India Company [Brieven aan een participant in den Oost-Indischen Compagnie (3 parts, Amsterdam: weduwe Doll, 1802-1803); no. 14], and a rare copy of a novel by his brother Willem van Hogendorp [Kraskoepol (…) (Rotterdam: Arrenberg, 1780) ; no. 15] about the dangers of harsh treatment of slaves. At the time of writing he was an official in the East India Company. A different slant on Dutch Caribbean history comes into view with no. 19, the illustrated album amicorum of Henry van Landsberge, governor of Suriname between 1859 and 1867, the period of the abolition of slavery in this Dutch colony (1863). British matters are at stake in two major reports about slavery for the House of Commons printed in 1848 and 1849 (no. 16).

Some reflections

In the paragraph above I have deliberately put some items together which might have been placed in a regional order in the catalogue, too, but the catalogue shows the random nature of the subjects covered in the books and manuscripts offered for sale.

Portrait of P.A. Tiele

The wide geographical range of subjects is daunting for most scholars and cataloguers. Each description follows the time-honoured practice of a concise bibliographical description, followed by the price, a summary of the contents and information about the author, the publisher and when necessary the rarity of an item. The descriptions end with a string of abbreviated titles and numbers, references to specialized bibliographies, national bibliographies and sometimes also collective library catalogues. In a number of cases I can determine to which publication or website a reference points, but at many turns I can only assume there is specialized scholarly literature with which I am not familiar. For me this catalogue would benefit from full references, but others will no doubt see familiar landmarks. I fail to understand why the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog (KVK) has not been used everywhere, be it even only to state “not in KVK”. The references to NCC stand for the Nederlandse Centrale Catalogus, a licensed online meta-catalogue for Dutch university libraries maintained at the Royal Library, The Hague. “Tiele” can stand for a variety of publications by Pieter Anton Tiele (1834-1889), librarian of Utrecht University Library. Tiele published major catalogues of pamphlets in Dutch holdings, a catalogue of the manuscripts in Utrecht UL, a catalogue of Frederik Muller’s collections of travel accounts, and the catalogue of the Bibliotheca Thysiana in Leiden, to mention just his most important contributions. The French and English Wikipedia have short articles about him. For Dutchies there is the website of the Dr. P.A. Tielestichting which promotes research into book history. In one case I could easily identify an abbreviation of a library. JCB stands for the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University, Providence, RI, renown for its rich holdings for American and Caribbean history and culture.

The things that strike me every time when I see announcements and catalogues of the two associated rare book firms Forum Rare Books and Asher Rare Books are the shared phone and fax numbers. Antiquariaat Forum started in 1970 and acquired Asher Rare Books in 2010. Forum Rare Books is active on Twitter for both firms (@ForumRareBooks). To complicate things, there is a third firm at the Tuurdijk 16 in ‘t Goy, Forum Islamic World. The terms of sale of the three firms follow normal book selling practice governed under Dutch law and the rules of the international antiquarian book world, but I cannot help musing about the liability of the seller when things go wrong, and pure humanly who represents a firm on a particular moment. Luckily, Forum is a member of the two major Dutch book selling associations and of ILAB, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. I cannot detect the required registration number of the closest Chamber of Commerce, but surely you will find it on the invoice. On the other hand new buyers have to provide their credentials. Bas Hesselink of Forum Rare Books is known in my country also for the way he speaks about old books and prints in the Dutch television program Tussen Kunst & Kitsch (“Between Art and Kitch”) in which the general public brings objects for appraisal by art experts in the setting of museums.

My concern in writing about this catalogue comes also from my curiosity where these items will eventually be found. Some of them form a substantial enrichment of our knowledge of painful aspects of Early Modern history, and hopefully we will find most of them in the custody of public institutions.

Forum Rare Books and Asher Rare Books, catalogue 2017 Slavery – ‘t Goy (Houten), Netherlands

Musing upon liberty and law

While musing myself on themes suitable for a new post on my blog at least one subject offered itself last week in my mailbox. An antiquarian bookshop with stores in Brooklyn, NY and Stevenson, MD, sent me a message about nineteenth-century manuscripts for sale. One of the items attracted my attention because of a remarkable series of subjects touching on law, history and liberty brought together in a manuscript note by a well-known American author. Here I will try to focus on two questions which call out for an answer. Do these subjects really combine so easily and naturally as this author assumed? How can legal historians bring them into discussion again? Here I would like to share with you my first impressions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the law

Ralph Waldo Emerson, manuscript notes on liberty

The manuscript at the center of this post is a two-page note written by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in 1855. Both the website of the antiquarian firm and their mail message point out this text features in Emerson’s book English Traits (1856). From Emerson Central, one of the online portals to Emerson’s texts, I take the quote at stake here:

Magna-charta, jury-trial, habeas-corpus, star-chamber, ship-money, Popery, Plymouth-colony, American Revolution, are all questions involving a yeoman’s right to his dinner, and, except as touching that, would not have lashed the British nation to rage and revolt.

Emerson had studied theology at Harvard. He had visited England in 1833 and 1847, and France in 1848 during the year of revolutions all over the European continent. My first impression of this sentence from the chapter “Ability” of English Traits is that of someone applauding the steady character of the British who do not let them foil into violent actions for some goal, however lofty or urgent. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, revolts in medieval England, the break with Scotland and the Dissolution of the Monasteries are conspicuously absent, and I choose here only a few themes. Instead of character I should perhaps say “nature”, taking the lead from Emerson’s famous essay Nature (1836/1849). In his even more famous address The American Scholar (1837) he urged writers to break away from literary conventions and to find their own voice. Some twenty years later love for things British seemed to be very real. Emerson definitely wrote in the century of the nation-state, and his opinions might be both fired and coloured by feelings of national pride, influenced also by personal experiences. His use of the words Saxon and Scandinavian race is distinctively mainly for the apparent conviction it carries, and not only for its factual imprecision. To all appearances Emerson shared here a Whig view of British history, one long and unbroken road to liberty. Emerson was a poet, too, and we should acknowledge that his vision of the United Kingdom is visionary, perhaps even utopic. Historical facts or their reassessment do not alter the poetic view expressed by Emerson.

For a first online orientation concerning Emerson the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very helpful. You can execute illuminating textual searches in Emerson’s writings in the digital edition created by the University of Michigan, and continue your research at RWE.org. The nature of this blog post is a very simple first impression, a first look at a resource which surely can be studied in more depth.

Great events

The core of Emerson’s note to be discussed here is the combination of familiar subjects for legal historians: Magna Carta, the trial jury, the Habeas corpus rule, the Star Chamber, the Plymouth colony and the American Revolution. In the image above you can spot that the ship money figured immediately after Magna Carta, but in the published text it has been moved to a fifth place. The fight against Catholic influences and the creation of the Anglican Church is concisely evoked by the word “popery”. The ship-money was the tax levied by Charles I of England between 1629 and 1640 without parliamentary consent. Once upon a time such subjects might have been included at least in continental capita selecta lectures about British history, but they more probably were and are at the heart of an introductory course in British legal history taught anywhere in the Anglo-American world. By the way, law is not forgotten among the digital resources presented at The Plymouth Colony Archive.

Next year legal historians will face the celebrations around 800 years Magna Carta. The original copies will be shown in exhibitions, sometimes far from their present location. Cultural institutions such as the British Library will rightfully exhaust themselves to show their treasures and to appraise them anew. Hopefully historians can take a distance from preconceived opinions and look at their own prejudices, and help explaining how and why some themes in legal history gained their iconic importance.

The thing that struck me most about Emerson’s words is the vitality of history and the value attached to it, even when admittedly the nineteenth century was the century of history par excellence. The two pages with his notes show in a very immediate way – notice the fluency of his hand! – how he saw himself as part of a living continuity. Whatever the reasons behind the American Revolution it followed nevertheless the example of a country with a long experience of institutions safeguarding liberty.

The website of the antiquarian firm gives a five number amount of money as the prize of Emerson’s note. The prize of liberty and the just course of law and justice is beyond any prize. Legal historians should honour the history of liberty by pointing to its prime examples, to the grave and grim periods and events threatening liberty, to mistakes and opportunities recognisable in our days, too.

The 1855 manuscript of Emerson – with a 1875 carte de visite photograph of Emerson – is for sale at the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop