Evaluating Both Style and Substance in One’s Sources

From the Introduction to History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, by Philip Ainsworth Means. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. VII, 1917. (The Kindle edition is available for free on Amazon!)

Though Villagutierre’s Spanish style is far superior to that of such writers as Fernando Montesinos and Antonio de la Calancha, it is, nevertheless, atrocious. Although he wrote about 1700, Villagutierre’s style is excessively archaic; his grammatical construction can hardly be called construction at all, so formless and ambiguous is it. Villagutierre never hesitates to write several long sentences without a single main verb between them, nor does he often refrain from going on and on for a page or so without using a period. In the use of capitals he is most whimsical; usually he has them when they are called for, but he has many that are out of place as well.

The style of Cogolludo, on the other hand, is very good, and that, be it noted, despite the fact that Cogolludo wrote prior to 1688. One remarks with considerable surprise that in several cases Villagutierre and Cogolludo use almost the same words. For example, in speaking of the visit which Cortes made to the island of Tayasal, Cogolludo says: “… y aun que la ida de Cortes se tuvo por ossadia, y demasiada confianza…” Villagutierre, in the same connection says: “… que lo tenian a grandissima temeridad, y ossadia, y por demasiada confianza ….” This is an interesting point, and perhaps it is significant that Cogolludo’s book was published in 1688, whereas Villagutierre was not brought out until 1701. It is to be noted that Cogolludo, the earlier writer, uses only two epithets, and that Villagutierre, the later writer, uses the same two, plus a new one of his own. I know of two other cases where equally close and significant similarity exists between the two. It is possible, then that Villagutierre copied (not to say plagiarized) the work of Cogolludo without giving credit for it. But the important point for us in this matter does not concern the personal integrity of Villagutierre. Rather does the importance of the matter lie in this: if Villagutierre was acquainted with the history of Yucatan by Cogolludo to such a degree that he frequently borrowed whole phrases from it, he must have had a very good reason for diverging widely now and again from the version of events given by Cogolludo. Such a reason could only be supplied by the fact that Villagutierre possessed information which he regarded as superior to and more official than that of Cogolludo. Therefore, since in several instances (as in the account of the events leading up to the visit of Cortes to Tayasal) Villagutierre occasionally departs from the footsteps of Cogolludo, we may safely assume that he was at once more critical and better informed than the latter, whom, however, he valued enough to be willing to draw from his work much of his information and even some of his phraseology.

One rarely reads such introductions in scholarly books these days. This book is one of several I began reading to prepare for our winter vacation in the Yucatan, where my historian brother has retired and now works on Maya language projects.

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Filed under language, Mexico, publishing, scholarship, U.S.

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