HyperAzpilcueta Visualizing the instability of early modern normative knowledge

Visualizing the instability of early modern normative knowledge

Research Project

Instability was a typical feature of early modern printed books. In the early decades of print, a book was not considered an accomplished and definitive work. Once published, early modern books were rethought and reorganised several times, and this instability was not only dependent on the author’s intention but also on external reasons related to the printer’s technical and economic needs.

The same held true for legal books. But how did this instability affect normative knowledge? What effects did the transformations of texts related to the printing press have on legal thought?   

These are but a few of the questions the project Hyperazpilcueta aims to address by looking through the lens of Digital Humanities at one of the most successful pragmatic normative books of the early modern period:  Manual for Confessors by Martin de Azpilcueta (1492-1586). Having largely contributed to early modern legal literacy on a global scale, this book had an incredible number of editions and translations during the author’s life, and many of them were viewed as opportunities for rethinking, updating, reorganising and managing the legal knowledge within the book in a new way. Actually, what the historiography has up till now considered ‘the’ Manual was in fact comprised of many different Manuals: the erudite 1573 large in quarto Latin edition was very different from the first small 1549 in 8° Portuguese edition. 

Although several editions of the Manual consisted in reprints, translations and compendia carried out by different actors, the project focuses above all on the transformations desired by Azpilcueta, especially on four main editions, which he both supervised and ‘self translated’: the two first Portuguese editions (Coimbra, 1549; Coimbra, 1552); the Spanish edition printed in Salamanca, 1556; and the Latin edition published in Rome, 1573.

The heart of the project is the comparable digital edition of these four texts, written in three different languages, paying particular attention to the visualisation of the differences between them. Together with the fully searchable texts, a synoptic overview of the four aligned texts will be provided, which will enable one to compare the chapters and subchapters of the four editions and quickly identify what changed.

Visualising what Azpilcueta added, modified and removed from one edition to another, and linking the modifications to the historical, political, religious and linguistic context of production of each text, is akin to being able to see Azpilcueta's desk and enter the workshop of the printers he worked with. In other words, examining Azpilcueta's working method allows us to learn more about normative knowledge production. 

Together with the full text, encoded in XML TEI, we also will provide high resolution images. This will allow the user to get a sense for the materiality of the pages, to check the transformations of the media from one edition to the next and to specifically examine those material aspects (like typographic signs, indexes, summaries, use of marginal notes) that helped 16th-century readers access the text, while at the same time, making them aware of the differences between the editions.

The research carried out thus far, based on the analysis of selected aligned chapters of the Manual, has shed new light on some of the different textual dynamics present in Azpilcueta’s work. For instance, we have shown that the first revision of the Manual (Coimbra, 1552) incorporated several injections of legal doctrine and was the result of a complex process of epitomisation. Moreover, the ‘self-translation’ process that Azpilcueta time and again carried out meant rethinking the Manual in another language, which contributed to the transformations of the text. Furthermore, through the analysis of the different updates of the text added in each new edition, we have been able to show that the broader historical context ‘entered’ into the revised texts almost in real time. This is visible, for instance, with regard to the experience of the first missionaries in Brazil and the resolutions of the Council of Trent.

These are just a few clues to be gained. The visualisation of the transformations of the entire text offers a broader picture. In fact, it will provide an interesting window through which to observe how Azpilcueta’s direct reading of the crucial events of the 16th century contributed to normative knowledge production, especially at a time when canon law and moral theology were asked to filter and provide solutions to ever new problems in a rapidly changing world.

The project allows us to analyse the transformations of normative knowledge through a case which is both emblematic and extraordinary. On the one hand, Azpilcueta’s case is emblematic of the instability of normative knowledge in the age of the printing press, not to mention the way in which normative knowledge was managed, organised and produced. On the other hand, the author’s extraordinary longevity and his active presence in the fundamental events that impacted the early modern European political, juridical and religious life make the transformations of the Manual – which preoccupied Azpilcueta for more than 35 years – particularly interesting to study.

From the technical point of view of Digital Humanities, the project makes an important contribution to the scholarly community by defining the workflow and preparation of a comparable synoptic edition of four versions of a text and confronting a number of challenges: the texts are written in three different historical languages, showcase a great number of abbreviations and contain several major structural differences between them. 

Finally, Hyperazpilcueta will be a fundamental and innovative tool for the study of Azpilcueta’s Manual.

Scientific Activities


Workshop: "Synoptic Legal Knowledge. Visualizing and Analysing Textual Variants Across Languages"
MPIeR, Frankfurt am Main

25. - 29.03.2019
Multimodale Versuche der Alignierung historischer Texte, DHD 2019 (6. Jahrestagung des Verbands Digital Humanities im deutschsprachigen Raum) with Andreas Wagner https://dhd2019.org/...
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz
Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main


La fabrique d’un texte. Les traductions du Manual de Confessores de Martin d’Azpilcueta au XVIe siècle, Journée d’étude «Traduction et outils numériques »
École Normale Supérieure, Lyon

22. - 24.03.2018
Conference, Monitoring Transformations in Early Modern Law Printed Books. The Manual for Confessors by Martín de Azpilcueta, within the Panel “Calculating Knowledge: What Your Project Needs to Fully Benefit from the Digital Humanities”, organized by Angela Dressen and Matteo Valleriani
Renaissance Society of America, New Orleans

Workshop: Digital Modelling Of Knowledge
MPIeR, Frankfurt am Main


Workshop: Philology and Digital Humanities: Old Questions and New Approaches for Working with Texts
MPIeR, Frankfurt am Main

Jour Fixe: HyperMachiavel. First results of a comparison tool between the first edition of The Prince and its French translations of the XVIth century, by Séverine Gedzelman (CNRS, UMR Triangle), Jean-Claude Zancarini (ENS de Lyon, UMR Triangle)
MPIeR, Frankfurt am Main

Les sources d’Azpilcueta et la question de ses traductions, Journée d’études "Humanités Numériques" - philologie et méthodes informatiques d’analyse de texte (http://triangle.ens-lyon.fr)
ENS de Lyon


“Traveling Texts”. Some reflections on the use of the translation comparison tool HyperMachiavel, in the framework of the workshop organized by Christiane Birr :“With the Eyes of a Humanities Scholar: What results can we expect from Digital Humanities?”
Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz

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