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Archive prep: Learn to read 400-year-old Spanish documents

  • First look
    First look  LuAnn Homza looks on as Jack Middough '15 parses out a copy of a manuscript from the archives of Pamplona, Spain. Middough and Sagra Alvarado ’15 (not pictured) will join students (from left) Jessie Dzura '13, Crosby Enright '14, and Tracey Johnson '14 to spend spring break in Pamplona researching 15th- and 16th-century Spain.  Photo by Steve Salpukas
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The writing is cramped, and ink bleeds through the 400-year-old manuscript. There are letters missing or substituted, strange abbreviations and various words that seem to make no sense.

And the writing is all in Spanish—not relatively straightforward modern Spanish, but the archaic version of the tongue from several centuries ago.

William & Mary historian Lu Ann Homza runs a year-long, two-pronged program designed to develop and hone the skills necessary for students to read the handwritten documents in Spanish archives and come out with compelling and important nuggets of history. Students spend their fall semester learning to read Spanish documents from the 16th to the 17th centuries. They are preparing for a spring-semester trip to the archives of Pamplona, Spain, where they will read, transcribe and contextualize original documents that pertain to their research.

Homza, a professor of history at William and Mary, specializes in Spanish and Italian history between 1400 and 1700 AD. She has made the trip to Pamplona many times for her own research. It was during a trip in 2008 that she woke up one morning with the realization that she should bring her students her students, because working in Spanish state archives with early modern manuscripts would be a unique experience for undergraduates in the United States.

“It’s a very specific skill that leads to a profound outcome,” says Homza of the study and subsequent travel experience. “First, the independent study that the students take with me teaches them how to read the handwritten texts. Then, once they are in the Pamplona archives, they have to find a manuscript that’s manageable in length and decipherable, and turn that source toward larger historical ends.”

The process can be trying and frustrating—as any research can be—but not being able to read your material would drive any seasoned historian to the brink of insanity. The fall training session is designed to keep the novice historians on the right side of sane once they enter the archives of Pamplona in the spring.

Jessie Dzura ’13, Crosby Enright ’14 and Tracey Johnson ’14 have been spending their fall Monday mornings with Homza working through the sample documents as a team. By only their second meeting, the work had already become far less jarring at first glance. Jack Middough ’15 and Sagra Alvarado ’15 will have to hit the ground running; they joined the team in mid November. Homza is preparing them for the intensity of the archival experience—reading well and reading fast are necessary skills.

 “We start with what we call transcriptions—not translations—of 16th century texts,” says Homza. She explained that a transcription is the typed version of an original manuscript that another historian has written down and edited. Working with transcriptions allows the students to familiarize themselves with the language of the time period, without the added pressure of trying to read the intricate script handwriting.

Students establish a basic vocabulary of early modern words and abbreviations that often cannot be found in a dictionary today. Homza’s groups focus on documents from court cases, often ecclesiastical trials. Undergraduate research on trips to Pamplona has encompassed a broad range of court cases that center on disputes among church officials. Homza explains that the 16th and 17th centuries saw a great deal of clerical misbehavior. Students have investigated allegations of some priests’  penchant for illicit dancing and others that center on their nasty tobacco habits.

Homza recalls a humorous case in which a collection of priests entirely shirked their ecclesiastical responsibilities in favor of clock making; they were subsequently disciplined through the bishop’s courts. The more serious end of the spectrum includes criminal charges of witchcraft, specifically the corruption of children, infanticide and what we now understand as attempted murder. In 2010, Hanna Langstein came across the phrase “medio homicidio,” which translates literally as “half homicide.” Stumped by the archaic terminology, she began to look to others to help her understand what these words really meant.

Homza recalls how unfamiliar that medio homicidio expression had been to her and Langstein; it even stumped their colleagues in Spain. Langstein went through records of two years of trials which, with the help of one unique specialist in medieval studies, led her to the realization that medio homicidio meant intent to murder. Langstein’s discovery was truly a kind of revelation, as none of the historians Homza had reached out to bad been at all familiar with the phrase.

Historical detective work, such as chasing down the meaning of medio homicidio, is all in a day’s work in the archives. Fortunately for Homza’s students, some of the way has already been smoothed.  The bishops’ secretaries were charged with recording the trials and created a shorthand of their own.

 “They were notaries, and they did this for a living,” says Homza, going on to explain that some of the abbreviations are very difficult to figure out without guidance. For instance, these scribes can write something like “BER” and the students have to realize that they mean to use bachiller, the Spanish word for a bachelor’s degree.

Homza points out that another advantage of having the students begin with transcripts is that the modern historians making the transcripts used fully spelled-out words to replace the shorthand used by the original scribes. By early October, Homza’s students have advanced enough in their practice to read photocopies of the original manuscripts , working through the content difficulties as well as the visual obstacles that come with reading something that has been around for several hundred years. They have to move quickly as well.

“Students have five days in the archives, and then we return the following Saturday, so it’s kind of a blitzkrieg trip. It’s fast,” explains Homza.

This spring, Johnson says she wants to delve into the many witchcraft trials of the time. Dzura intends to analyze gender relations in the context of domestic abuse trials, and Enright says she will focus on women of the church in the form of beatas, or laywomen servers.

Enright is no stranger to the script or the pressures of the archival work, as she is preparing for her second trip to the Spanish archives.

Homza extended an invitation to Enright for the Pamplona trip of 2011, and Enright realized that the experience would be the perfect preparation for her pursuit of a career in academics.

On her earlier trip, Enright found a stirring trial of nuns attempting to reform their own convent in 1569, which entailed throwing out their slack abbess. The nuns, young women of Enright’s own age, were uniting together to stand up in the face of hierarchy and tradition for what they believed was right. Enright found original documents outlining the reforms the nuns were pursuing, and says she was thrilled to see nuns had signed these documents.

“Illiteracy is often conceived of as the norm during this period, especially in this particular convent which was small and not wealthy or well-run!” explains Enright of her exciting discovery. Her documents were written and signed by these young nuns, which proved they were both educated and literate women of the 16th century.

Her research process did not have a smooth start. Enright says she arrived in Pamplona only to find that she couldn’t read sections of the trial she wanted to use. Out of frustration, she turned to master archivist Don José Luis Sales Tirapu of the Diocesan Archive for help.

“Honestly, I couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for him,” she says of Don José Luis. “He taught me how to look at it, and to realize that the word spacing can be really weird.”

Homza says that Enright’s frustrations are typical of the research process. “Some days you’ll be able to read everything, and other days you won’t be able to see a thing in terms of how the lettering works,” she says.

Williamsburg was treated to a taste of the intriguing history of Spain in November, when archivist Peio Monteano Sorbet of the Royal and General Archive of Navarre (AGN) came to William and Mary to deliver a public lecture as well as two private classroom presentations.

The reason for Monteano’s visit, Homza says, is due to the 500th anniversary of the Conquest of Navarre by the Kingdom of Castille. Monteano is a best-selling author in Spain on the topic of this conquest, and regaled members of the Williamsburg community with his lecture titled “The Conquest of Navarre and the Rivalry Between Francis I and Charles V.”

Monteano is one of the Pamplona archivists—along with Don Jose Luis—who have helped Homza and her students over the years.

Additionally, Monteano lectured to Professor George Greenia’s medieval Hispanic literature course on the presence of the Black Death in Spain during the 1300s. He also attended Homza’s History of Spain class to deliver a presentation on the Royal and General Archive of Navarre, and how its contents shape the picture of the Spanish kingdom.

Students who had worked with Monteano in Homza’s Navarre research experiences in past years were able to have a reunion dinner with him. “It was a blast,” says Homza.

Challenges for the students continue well into the archival experience itself as well. Students need to have a second interest to research because it may be that they can’t use the sources they would’ve liked. Sources might be too difficult to read or even be missing from the archive. Homza says professional historians face the same kinds of challenges all the time.

Homza recalls a trip in which five sources she desperately needed were missing from the collection, and probably had literally been taken home by earlier archivists seventy years ago. Those sorts of contingencies, she says, truly exemplify the nature of historical research in a way she could never get across in a classroom. “Our ability to write history depends on what documents you have, and whether or not you can read them,” she says.

Enright confirms that invaluable lesson and remembers watching Homza cope with her discoveries and obstacles along the way. “I’m considering pursuing a career in academics, so it was interesting to see her and how she worked and what she did to overcome the difficulties.”

Homza clarifies that her students are not embarking on a foreign exchange experience. Her students are taking their first steps as historical researchers in their own right. These students are afforded the opportunity to work with pieces of history unavailable to the general public and to talk to the archivists who have dedicated their lives to this work. Homza gives her students the chance to make history from the ground up, to watch it change, and to learn why she calls history “a living, breathing thing.”