Alma College historian Daniel Wasserman-Soler explores the early Spanish Empire.
ALMA — The 16th-century Spanish Empire stretched across the globe, from as far east as the Philippines to as far west as Mexico. People living in those areas spoke a wide array of languages which, according to a book published recently by historian Daniel Wasserman-Soler, created the unique dilemma of how to deal with them all.
Wasserman-Soler, Alma College associate professor of history who specializes in European and world history, recently published “Truth in Many Tongues: Religious Conversion and the Languages of the Early Spanish Empire,” through Penn State University Press.
In it, Wasserman-Soler argues the Spanish crown was forced to manage enormous linguistic diversity among its people locally, including Arabic, Castilian, Basque and Catalan, even before it began colonizing the Americas and Asia.
“The Spanish Empire was probably the most linguistically diverse group of people under any political entity at the time,” Wasserman-Soler said. “If you look at Mexico, even today, there are more than 60 indigenous languages still spoken, including about a million speakers of Mayan languages.”
Many scholars assumed that rulers of the time tended to take on singular, unified policies toward language: either assimilate, or accommodate the local languages. However, Wasserman-Soler believes, the Spanish Crown took on a more subtle approach.
“In one year, King Philip II of Spain restricted Arabic in Spain, thinking it would make Arabic speakers more likely to convert to Catholicism, and also wrote letters to Mexico and the rest of the Americas criticizing Catholic bishops there for appointing priests who did not know the native languages,” Wasserman-Soler said. “To us, it might seem contradictory, but in his view, these people had very different histories and required distinct approaches.”
The book has its roots in Wasserman-Soler’s dissertation research and is the culmination of roughly 10 years of steady work. To learn more about the subject, the professor, who joined Alma’s history faculty in 2013, traveled to libraries in Spain, the U.S., Italy and England.
The documents Wasserman-Soler examined were often 400 to 500 years old, he said, which led to some interesting challenges: different kinds of handwriting, occasionally cryptic abbreviations and the process of simply finding the material.
“If you think about going to a public library today, there’s a record of every single book they have. Some archives are like that — they’re extremely well-organized and everything is documented,” Wasserman-Soler said. “But there are other archives that either have a lot of material or are not particularly well-funded, so just finding what you want can be quite a challenge.”
Ultimately, Wasserman-Soler said, “Truth in Many Tongues” will likely be a textbook used by upper-level history students. Although the subject is hundreds of years old, he believes the message it imparts is still relevant today.
“Often, we tend to separate people into categories – like liberals and conservatives, open-minded and close-minded. Historians sometimes do that too – we often think about groups of people from the past as people who were ahead of their time or people who were against change,” Wasserman-Soler said. “But when you look at how the Spanish monarchy dealt with different cultures, you see that people are a little more complicated than that. They are worth a closer look.”