Roundtable "The First Modern State?" Tradition, Innovation, and Extemporization in the Government of Spain's Early Modern Empire

AHA Session 216
Conference on Latin American History 62
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chamber Ballroom IV (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Jose-Juan Lopez-Portillo, Queen Mary, University of London
Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin
Ethelia Ruiz Medrano, National Institute of Anthropology
Lara Semboloni, Siena University
Yanna P. Yannakakis, Emory University
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

There is still no consensus on how best to characterize Spain´s Early Modern Empire. Recent work by U.S. and Latin American scholars has unfolded an intriguing, implicit map of regional differences. European scholarship continues to champion or challenge the originality and in some respects the supposedly precocious modernity of the Spanish monarchy. Overall the balance of rival forms of continuity – indigenous traditions and those that the Spaniards brought with them – with new institutions and practices extemporized in the unprecedented cultural and environmental conditions of Spanish empire-building, still eludes us. Our panel seeks to explore the nature of authority and the practise of power from as many perspectives as possible.   

Dr. Semboloni will offer a means of assessing the modernity of New Spain’s administration through a cogent theoretical overview and her unique research into daily viceregal commands. Viceregal commands reflect the effectiveness with which the laws or instructions issued by Spain were implemented or distorted in New Spain and how these distortions in turn created their own judicial precedent.

Elucidating on the role of royal justice, Prof. Ruiz will discuss the importance of the Spanish legal system in establishing a viable medium for negotiation between the Spanish administration and indigenous communities. As time passed the Spanish authorities became less willing to value ad hoc negotiations that permitted indigenous cultural elements and perspectives as the interests of the royal treasury took precedence. This may have denoted a shift towards a more inflexible ‘modern’ imperial bureaucracy.

Prof. Yannakakis takes the authority of the Spanish legal system as her starting point but argues that the ‘empire of law existed only by virtue of translation’ in the context of Spain’s complex, polyglot empire. Using her research in Oaxaca she will discuss the crucial but neglected role of language and translators in shaping identity, state-society and inter-ethnic relations in the complex context over which the Spaniards sought to govern.

As Prof. Cañizares will remind us, there was yet another level of complexity to early-modern identity and political thinking, which identified a divide between temporal and spiritual sovereignty. This preconception affected Spanish constitutional thinking and helps to explain the seemingly more unusual aspects in the development of Spanish imperial politics and administration.

The chair will focus on highlighting the extent to which the enfranchised elites of New Spain - both Spanish and indigenous – shaped imperial policy. I will describe how a community of interests developed in New Spain through local negotiations with the viceroy and how this created viceregal authority. Bringing the discussion full-circle, I will argue that the notion of the state was anachronistic in this period and that New Spain remained not so much a Spanish colony but Mexico City’s ‘sub-empire’ within the Habsburg ‘composite monarchy’.

I envisage a panel that would be more like a conversation than a conventional AHA panel, with a number of introductory statements, of ten or fifteen minutes, followed by an open discussion introduced by prof. Fernández-Armesto, which I hope will attract our colleagues and counterparts at the conference.

See more of: AHA Sessions