Mackenzie Cooley: Mapping ‘Relaciones geograficas’ in Philip II New Spain

Mackenzie Cooley: Mapping ‘Relaciones geograficas’ in Philip II New Spain

“Reassembling the Republic of Letters” brings together people with disparate educations, backgrounds, and languages for a common purpose: using digital tools to understand early modern correspondence, its role in the past, and how its networks have shaped our world today. As part of this project, I traveled to Spain this February to work with Professor Antonio Dávila (Universidad de Cádiz) and Professor Nieves Baranda (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia) to investigate how the Relaciones Geográficas del Siglo XVI, an early economic census and natural historical survey of the New World, fit into the Republic of Letters. In a project spanning the late 1570s and 1580s, King Philip II of Spain’s government sent fifty questions to administrators in New Spain—modern Mexico and Central America—who responded with letters; these have since been compiled and published. The letters varied greatly, from long-winded humanist treatises masquerading as letters and letters that included loving natural descriptions that shared rich local knowledge of New World plants, animals, and minerals, to letters that included reflections on both religious and scientific texts, to partial, staccato responses dealing with pragmatic colonial matters. In an early modern world run on letters, administrative correspondence walked a line between being a part of the Republic of Letters and being far outside of it; the line runs through the Relaciones. The complex series of responses that constitute the Relaciones present a challenge in that they are both voluminous and yet cannot simply be coded as raw data. Precisely because respondents used their letters to participate in a geographically extensive intellectual exchange, often ignoring the spirit of systematic data gathering that had underlay the original Relaciones project, the letters need to be studied as a part of the Republic of Letters’ periphery and not as early modern big data.

In Cádiz, Professor Dávila used his extensive work on the Benito Arias Montano correspondence to explain some of the key issues involved in editing letters. He outlined what kind of capabilities a digital platform would need to have in order to move philological work from the print to digital age without sacrificing the exacting scholarship achieved in printed editions. We discussed the key categories with which to analyze correspondence data and how essential it would be to track citations, lapses in epistolary exchange, and the appearance of personal and political events in the letters themselves. Metadata alone would not suffice to capture the stakes of Montano’s correspondence. Reciprocally, I shared some of the visualization techniques I had learned working at Stanford University with the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project and the data organization developed by the Galileo Correspondence Project.

In Madrid, Professor Baranda and the rest of the BIESES (Bibliografía de Escritoras Españolas) team launched me into the world of TEI. I first wondered what this encoding technique might be able to teach me about the Relaciones, which I had already sifted into a database. I had known that the digital humanities offered a broad set of approaches to early modern history, but I had not understood the extent to which TEI offered truly exciting possibilities both for editing texts and for analyzing them en masse. Without obscuring the underlying text itself or sacrificing the structure imposed by the original writer, an editor using TEI can annotate and categorize the text. Like private annotations in the margins of an old book, by marking our sources in this way we can enter into a conversation with them. One does not read a text with marginal scribbles the same way as one reads a text which is naked, untouched; marginal manicules lure our eyes along the paths decided by the past reader, with whom we enter into conversation through the reading process. We can indicate what we want to learn more about and summon it from networks lost to the tides of history, categorizing that information according to our questions; as Professor Baranda put it, “You create your data.” By creating TEI legible text, we help others to contextualize our sources, drawing readers into conversation both with the past document and with the ideas put forward by the modern editor. A PhD student from California studying Mexican documents could not have learned more from her collaboration with the scholars of “Reassembling the Republic of Letters” team.

McKenzie CooleySTSMBlog









Caption: This map from Zempoala in the present-day state of Hidalgo, Mexico, is from the Relaciones Geográficas collection in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. (Wikimedia Commons)