The Essentials (XIII): Alfonso de Palencia's Fourth Decade and his lost work on Canarian customs and religions

An excerpt from folio 548v. of the Universal Vocabulary in Latin and in Romance (1490) by Alfonso de Palencia where he declares having written a work on the customs and religions of the Canarian people (source: Biblioteca Virtual de Andalucía / PROYECTO TARHA -boxes-).

Unfortunately all this does not make up for the lack of Alonso de Palencia’s work, a loss that we will always deplore due to the the first-hand Canarian news it would provide and for being the first Castilian information on Gran Canaria’s indigenous customs.

Prof. Juan Álvarez Delgado (1963) –Alonso de Palencia (1423-1492) y la historia de Canarias, p. 77–[1]This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

He negotiated in the name of the Catholic Monarchs the capitulations preceding the royal invasion of Gran Canaria, supervised and coordinated the logistics of the conquest expeditions put under the command of Juan Rejón in 1478 and 1479, and shortly thereafter personally proposed Pedro de Vera as the most qualified man to end the war of Canaria, entrenched from the beginning by the interpersonal quarrels of the Castilian captains and the strong indigenous resistance.

With this background, no one would suspect that Alonso or Alfonso de Palencia (Palencia, 1423 – Seville, 1492) was the author of the first monographic study devoted entirely to the culture and religion of the ancient Canarians. And it is true that a brief analysis of this character and his extensive literary production makes it hard to find in the Castile of his time a better connected and prepared individual to face a work of this kind.

Being a cleric educated in the intellectual environment of the charismatic convert Alfonso de Cartagena, Bishop of Burgos, a prominent jurist who authored the report presented by Castile before the Council of Basel claiming the former rights on the Canary Islands against the claims of Portugal, Alfonso de Palencia devoted all his life to high politics and diplomacy, without forgetting his passion for the most erudite humanism, cultivated during his stay in Florence and Rome as a young diplomat. In this early period of his professional life, Palencia became friends with a number of humanists, remarkably Cretan Georgios Trapezuntios, of whom he was a disciple, and bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, receiving solid training as a latinist, lexicographer, copyist and translator.

Returned to Hispanic ground in 1453, the year of the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman army, Palencia settled in the city of Seville, which he made his habitual residence and from where he promoted his meteoric rise in the Castilian court: first as a chronicler and secretary of kings John II and Henry IV, positions to which he later would add that of councilor of the Catholic Monarchs after intervening in the signing of their marriage agreements. However, as an unconditional supporter of Ferdinand the Catholic and of the Salic law of Aragon, Palencia never welcomed the intentions of Queen Isabella I, supported by her strong man, Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza, to assume absolute control over the Castilian throne to the detriment of her husband’s interest. Consequently, the relationship between the monarch and her councilor was presided over by a hidden and mutual distrust that culminates in the destitution of Palencia as royal chronicler, being replaced by Hernando del Pulgar after the Courts of Toledo in 1480. Years later, the Queen would try to make up with Palencia trusting him some commissions compatible with his advanced age, standing out among them the composition of the first bilingual Latin-Castilian dictionary, the Universal Vocabulary in Latin and in Romance, two years before Elio Antonio de Nebrija.

A chronicler and a co-star: the Gesta Hispaniensia

[…] now I am forced to write things that make the pen quiver; it is not strange that my style should decay and my intellect should be clouded by the vileness of this matter, which offers nothing glorious.[2]This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

Alfonso de Palencia (Prologue to the Gesta Hispaniensia)

Should he lived in our time, Alfonso de Palencia would be an accomplished master of historical novels and journalistic chronicles. The rhythm he gives to the events narration, his continuous lack of respect for the canonical and dry linearity of the chronicle genre and the boldness with which he resorts to various tricks to keep the attention of his readers abducted –flashbacks, temporary action interruptions, introduction of subplots, selective use of present time– all these are attributes that should be enough for many modern authors to include Palencia among their models, even six centuries away. Let us add to these stylistic traits the openly critical, aggressive treatment at times, which Palencia dispenses to his characters, even those for whom he feels greater affinity. And it is true that we are facing an author who uses the pen not only to write history, but to dissect it, with the authority of someone who has witnessed, either directly or indirectly, the events being narrated.

The clearest example of Palencia’s narrative skills are the so-called Decades –because they mimic the classical structure of Latin decas: ten parts or books with ten chapters each–, just a part of his great unfinished project of writing the history of the Hispanic crowns since the Visigothic reign until the events experienced by the author, expanding the already exhausted local perspective of other chroniclers to include international relationships. Although Palencia himself entitled his work Gesta Hispaniensia–Deeds of Spain–, bibliographers and later editors have preferred to make informal mention of them as Alfonso de Palencia’s Decades.

Four decades are known to be included in this project: the first two comprise the reign of Henry IV of Castile and constitute a violent criticism against this monarch, since Alfonso de Palencia had joined the party of the high nobility that supported the enthronement of the King’s adolescent stepbrother, Prince Alfonso de Castilla, entitled Alfonso XII. Having the latter died prematurely in 1468, the rebellious noblemen gave continuity to this pretension by rising his sister, Princess Isabella, who would eventually prevail as Queen of Castile after the death of Henry IV in 1474 and defeating Portugal in the war of succession to the Castilian throne, where Lusitanians intended to seat the allegedly illegitimate Princess of Asturias, Juana la Beltraneja. The third decade includes the rise to power of Isabella the Catholic and the first four years of her reign with Ferdinand of Aragón, from 1474 to 1477.

These first three decades were translated from Latin into Spanish and published in four volumes between 1904 and 1908 by bibliographer Antonio Paz y Meliá, under the somewhat ambiguous title of Chronicle of Henry IV. The first decade was the object between 1997 and 1998 of a new edition in two volumes, bilingual and more respectful of the original text, by professors Brian Tate and Jeremy Lawrance.

Santa Bárbara Castle on the edge of Guanapay volcano’s crater at Teguise (Lanzarote), former capital of the Segneury of the Isles of Canaria. Attempts to sabotage the royal conquest of Gran Canaria by Dona Inés Peraza were reported by Alfonso de Palencia in his Fourth Decade (source: PROYECTO TARHA).

Palencia and the Canaries: The Fourth Decade

Only perseverance in a future war was for our people the only hope of subduing Canaria.[3]This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

Alfonso de Palencia (Fourth Decade, book XXXI, ch. IX)

Alfonso de Palencia wrote a fourth decade including the 1478-1490 interval, and that the aches and pains of his age and ultimately his death in 1492 left unfinished. Apparently, this fourth part of the Gesta Hispaniensia remained in a discreet background, possibly because it keeps a critical, less content mood towards the Queen of Castile.

A manuscript, presumably the original as it was marked with corrections and marginal notes, was seen in the 17th century by Sevillian bibliographer Nicolás Antonio in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, subsequently disappearing from the scene. However, Professor José López de Toro located a copy of it in the Salazar Collection belonging to the Real Academia de la Historia whose Latin transcription was published in 1970, but the former’s death two years later forced the publication of the Castilian translation posthumously and as he left it in the publisher’s hands, with neither introduction nor annotations. Fortunately, López de Toro had deemed it appropriate to send a bilingual selection of the fragments mentioning the Canary Islands to the Anuario de Estudios Atlánticos, texts that the magazine published in the same year 1970.

In his lines devoted to the Archipelago, Alfonso de Palencia contextualizes and extends part of what is narrated in the chronicles and accounts describing the beginning of the Canary Islands’ conquest. Some aspects of interest that Palencia relates vividly are:

  • The geostrategic reasons for which Ferdinand the Catholic had ordered to conquer Gran Canaria, putting his sight on the control of Guinea’s gold routes.
  • The strong opposition of the indigenous people of Gran Canaria to surrender either to Portugal or Castile, whether by peaceful means or war.
  • The strong segregation characterizing the Guanche society (Tenerife).
  • The continuous volcanic activity of Mount Teide.
  • The physical strength of La Palma women.
  • The existence of nine rivers or large permanent water flows –main ravines– in Gran Canaria.
  • The simultaneous preparation, both by Castile and Portugal, of two armadas heading for Gran Canaria –25 ships in the case of Castile– and Guinea –11 ships–.
  • Inés Peraza‘s sabotage to the supply of the Castilian fleet seeking for the failure of the operation of conquest in connivance with her son-in-law, Portuguese knight Diogo da Silva, and how she sent one of her servant maids to Gran Canaria to warn the indigenes about the imminent invasion.
  • The dispersion of the undisciplined Castilian fleet upon reaching the Canary Islands.
  • The alliance between the Portuguese and the Canarians to finish the landed Castilian troops and the failure of these plans due to atmospheric and tidal conditions.
  • The victory of the Portuguese fleet over that sent by Castile to Guinea.
  • The corruption of Governor Pedro de la Algaba.
  • The clash between the Herrera-Peraza family and captain Juan Rejón.
  • The Castilian attack on a fortified Canarian temple located in Tirajana (Tiriana), which an archaeological hypothesis identifies with La Fortaleza de Santa Lucía.
  • The signing of the Treaty of Alcáçovas-Toledo, which put an end to hostilities between Castile and Portugal, recognizing the latter its dominion of the Gold Coast of Guinea, and for the Castilians the property of the Canaries.
  • The irreconcilable dissensions among the commanders of the conquest and the election of Pedro de Vera as the ideal man to take charge of the invasion campaign and impose discipline.

Unfortunately, Palencia’s account gets interrupted right when Pedro de Vera sails for Gran Canaria and Rejón sends a letter to King Ferdinand informing him that he has controlled the situation, so that the presence of the Jerez-born governor does not seem necessary to him. A missive that, by maneuver of the captain’s enemies, arrives at destiny too late to prevent the already known course of events.

An archaeological hypothesis locates the Canarian temple of Umiaga / Umiaya at La Fortaleza de Santa Lucía. Alfonso de Palencia describes in his Fourth Decade the Castilian assault on a sacred place in Tirajana built in the manner of a castle with all kinds of fortifications (source: Ravi Vijaya Satya / Google Maps).

Palencia’s lost treasures

(Ammended section: we would like to acknowledge Prof. José Barrios García for correcting our text pointing no Mores et ritus […] copy is listed as part of the below mentioned inventory.)

Also with some competence (sufficiently) I told about the customs and false religions certainly surprising of the Canarians dwelling on the Fortunate Isles, […][4]This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

Alfonso de Palencia (Universal Vocabulary in Latin and in Romance -1490-, fol. 548v.)

Our author’s works written with known title are preserved in their majority, and only a few are still in unknown whereabouts, should they have not been lost irremediably. Out of the latter there were two specifically devoted to the Canary Islands. The first, undoubtedly the most valuable from an ethnographic perspective, is named by Palencia himself in an appendix inserted at the end of the Universal Vocabulary in which he reviews his finished manuscript production, as well as his works in progress. The excerpt in Latin version says the title of the work of our interest is:

Canariorum in insulis Fortunatis habitantium mores atque superstitiones profecto mirabiles

Being translated by the author himself:

Costumbres e falsas religiones por çierto maravillosas de los canarios que moran en las yslas Fortunadas

Customs and false religions certainly surprising of the Canarians dwelling on the Fortunate Isles[5]This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

Let us understand the expression por çierto maravillosas in its ancient sense of certainly surprising or astonishing, not modern wonderful. In another place, Palencia rewrites the title:

 Mores et ritus idolatrici incolarum insularum Fortunatarum quas Canarias apellant

That is:

Costumbres y ritos idolátricos de los indígenas de las islas Afortunadas que dicen de Canaria

Customs and idolatrous rites of the indigenes on the Fortunate Isles named of Canaria[6]This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

What do we know about this work? About its content, nothing beyond what the title declares, and this leaves in shadow the degree of influence that it may have had on the descriptions in religious and customs of the ancient Canarian people offered by other authors. But there is no doubt that, in the absence of older candidacies, this is the first ethnographic study on the islander indigenes, based on information collected presumably not only from the Europeans who participated in the conquest, but also and in particular from Canarians residing in Seville, especially in the vicinity of Puerta de la Carne, as there is official evidence that these were still practicing their customs and this determined the royal authorities to take measures trying to prevent such behavior.

As for the latest news about its whereabouts, it is recorded that Alfonso de Palencia was authorized by the cathedral chapter of Seville to reserve a place for his own burial in the main temple, near the present Puerta del Lagarto, and to deposit his private library there, which may have included this important work. For his part, Br. Bartolomé de las Casas, in the History of the Indies, admits he did have no knowledge that the work had ever seen the light.

Neither it is registered in a list of the books belonging to Isabella the Catholic which were moved in 1591 from the Royal Chapel of Granada to the monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial[7]Even when in the introduction to Gesta Hispaniensia (vol. I) edited by Professors Tate and Lawrance, footnote 58 claims the work is listed in this inventory. by order of King Philip II, nor there is any trace of the conservation of this opus in the Monastery’s library, not even anyone is known to have had it in their hands ever since. Is it misplaced, as it has happened with other ancient documents? Destroyed, whether by natural deterioration, negligence, or by the action of some orthodox censor? Was it incorporated to the funds of some unknown collector? All these are questions which still have no satisfactory answer.

In case a single documentary treasure is not enough, there are quite solid signs of the existence of a second jewel written by Palencia: a comprehensive chronicle of the conquest of the Canary Islands; we should understood that referred to Gran Canaria at most, for we already know the chronicler died in 1492, and La Palma and Tenerife were submitted afterwards.

This work, already pointed by Professor Juan Álvarez Delgado[8]pp. 74-76. and more recently by researcher Ángel Ignacio Eff-Darwich Peña[9]pp. 410-411. is mentioned in at least two catalogs: the first, prepared by Gonzalo Argote de Molina at the end of the 16th century, partially lists the rich library that belonged to this Sevillian scholar, while the second, dated in 1804, does the same regarding a collection that had belonged to a curious Andalusian who possibly is not other than Argote de Molina himself. The volumes are entitled, respectively, Conquistas de las islas de Canaria and Conquista de las Canarias, and in both cases their author is clearly identified as Alonso de Palencia.


It is obvious that Alfonso de Palencia’s written production contributes, and still may do it in the future, invaluable informative wealth for the historical reconstruction of the events that sealed the fate of the Canary Islands during the second half of the 15th century, data getting enriched thanks to the reasonable degree of truthfulness that historiographers claim for an author who, in addition to actively participating in the historical context being the subject of his accounts, owned an intellectual education that placed him in an optimal position to play a coherent exposition of the events and an informed interpretation thereof.

Therefore it is unquestionable that the recovery of Palencia’s lost documents on the Conquest of the Canary Islands and the ethnographic manifestations of the ancient indigenes would help to solve some of the multiple enigmas that still weigh down the precise knowledge of this essential part of the Archipelago’s history, so we encourage our readers to actively participate in the search for these paper treasures, taking advantage of the major benefits the use of social networks, public access documentary databases and documentary digitalization provide.

Antonio M. López Alonso


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7 comments on “The Essentials (XIII): Alfonso de Palencia's Fourth Decade and his lost work on Canarian customs and religions”

  1. José Barrios Reply

    Un buen resumen de lo que sabemos sobre las obras perdidas de Alonso de Palencia. Solo una pequeña aclaración: en la relación de libros de la reina Isabel trasladados al Escorial desde la capilla Real de Granada (1591), no figura ninguna copia de Mores et ritus idolatrici (cf. Antolín 1923, vol. 5, pp. 147-155). El único ms. canario que figura en esta relación es “Otro libro, en latín, escrito de mano, en papel de a cuarto, enquadernado en tablas, yntitulado: tratado sobre la conquista de las islas de Canaria”, sobre el que se ha especulado mucho (cf. Eff-Darwich 2009: 413-414).

    • Proyecto Tarha Reply

      Gracias Pepe. La referencia aparece en el primer volumen de la edición Tate / Lawrance de Gesta Hispaniensia, en la nota 58 de la introducción. No he tenido acceso al vol. 5 de la relación editada por Antolín (en el metabuscador solo aparecen los cuatro primeros tomos y en la web de El Escorial solo han publicado la introducción), así que no he podido cotejarla de primera mano. ¿Tú tienes acceso al vol. 5? Si es así, corrijo el artículo inmediatamente.


  2. José Barrios Reply

    Efectivamente, tengo acceso al vol. 5 y te lo puedo confirmar con toda seguridad. También puedes ver una edición bastante correcta de la relación de 1591 en: D. C. (1872 [1591]) “Relación de los libros que se llevaron á la biblioteca del Escorial, procedentes de la Capilla Real de Granada”. El Averiguador (Madrid), núm. 42 y 43, pp. 283-287, 299-301.
    La obra que nos interesa está en la p. 299.

  3. Proyecto Tarha Reply

    Perfecto. Muchísimas gracias, Pepe. Entonces se trata de una errata en Tate / Lawrance, quienes señalan la página 153 del vol. 5.
    Saludos y corrijo.

  4. Juan O. Hdez. Reply

    Este año, estudiando la voz “sansofé” en una línea de investigación que he llevado en las universidades de Lleida y La Laguna, resulta que es correctísima la transcripción y traducción que trae Marín y Cubas. Dado que es prácticamente un hápax dentro del texto historiográfico del médico teldense, inmediatamente surge la pregunta de cómo es posible que en fecha tan tardía recoja una lexía que no trae ninguna otra fuente etnohistórica anterior conocida. Y además, porque la palabra, aunque posee en algunos contextos uso toponímico, no responde a un topónimo exactamente (como supone Maximiano Trapero en su reciente “Diccionario de guanchismos”, p. 1638), sino a una fórmula de saludo matinal (asafu/isofan > “Salutation matinale / Morgengruß”, en Ritter, 2009: Wörterbuch p. 235; por metátesis al castellanizarse isofan > sansofe) que, literalmente, viene a significar algo así como: “¿qué tal te va en la soledad?”, entendiéndola como una suerte de nostalgia de la compañía o de un lugar, como sigue entendiéndose en el Sáhara, cuyas soledades desérticas convocan este sentimiento y este uso del término. Es decir, es una de las pocas voces de contenido etnográfico extenso (vinculada al amplio campo de essuf cuando la identificamos en el continente) conservadas para registrar un lexema referido de viva voz por los antiguos isleños como su costumbre para saludar o dar los buenos días, algo que solamente pudo ocurrir antes de 1550. Ello me condujo a pensar que el texto donde Marín pudo hallar un dato tan preciso debía ser algún tratado de costumbres. Como no hay ninguno que la traiga en el siglo XVI, he planteado la hipótesis de que Marín pudo haber manejado una copia manuscrita de la obra perdida de Alonso de Palencia, incorporando párrafos enteros de contenido etnográfico en su Historia. Para rechazar o confirmar esta hipótesis, me dispongo a aplicar herramientas de estilometría comparativa del texto de Marín con la obra de Alonso de Palencia, que tiene la dificultad de que este escribía sus borradores en castellano vulgar del siglo XV, pero en general los daba a impresión volcándolos en latín, con poquísimas excepciones. No existe todavía (aunque está en la agenda de investigación) una herramienta estilométrica en R que pueda contrastar la identidad textual de corpus en una lengua romance y latín. La hipótesis puede ser interesante porque significaría que parte del tratadito perdido de Alonso de Palencia pudiera haber sobrevivido dentro de la Historia de Marín. Además, para intentar explicar cómo pudo llegar a Marín ese manuscrito, sospecho que este legajo, muy deteriorado, pudo ser el “libro blanco” deshojado sin principio ni fin que describe Abreu Galindo, que se conservaba en la Catedral de Santa Ana, en Gran Canaria, trasladado a Telde quizá durante el ataque de Van der Doez de 1599 (cuando todavía Abreu escribía su obra), de manera que allí pudo haber caído en manos del médico teldense, curioso de esas antigüedades. Ello explicaría un plagio en realidad involuntario, porque cuando Marín lo pudo manejar habría estado ya desprovisto de las hojas donde se identificaba al autor. Así que pudo utilizarlo como fuente sin saber quién lo había escrito, como una reliquia re-escrita y conservada así dentro de su propia Historia. Como es sabido, el lenguaje, los datos y el estilo de Marín han resultado siempre muy llamativos por su oscuridad y enjundia. Si quiso ponerse a la altura del opúsculo que extractaba, junto con otras fuentes, quizá podamos empezar a comprender mejor ese estilo altisonante con párrafos enrevesados y deslavazados. Pero esto es una suposición y como tal la dejo abierta sin contrastar. La hipótesis de autoría, en cualquier caso, podría confirmarse o rechazarse estilométricamente, como espero publicar oportunamente.

    • Proyecto Tarha Reply

      Una hipótesis muy interesante porque es cierto que Marín de Cubas deja varias fuentes sin citar, aparte de lo que él llama “papeles sin registro”. Tal vez hasta el propio Abreu Galindo extrajo parte de sus informaciones etnográficas de la obra de Palencia. Por otro lado, muy buena idea el utilizar técnicas de reconocimiento: R es un buen paquete de software y hace falta explorar campos aún prácticamente desconectados de la historiografía (“machine learning / big data”).

      Por otro lado, si puedo ayudarte con Marín de Cubas, ahora mismo estoy preparando un trabajo sobre el manuscrito de su “Historia” de 1687. Por ahora, y no es más que una impresión personal, pienso que el estilo anárquico de Marín de Cubas es producto de si mismo, pues lo aplica a la transcripción de las citas “literales” tomadas de diversas obras. Es decir, cuando cita suele hacerlo “interpolando” los originales para adaptarlos a las expresiones de su época, y a su propia manera de expresarse, que de por sí es un tanto descuidada, sobre todo en cuanto al uso de la puntuación.

  5. Juan O. Hdez. Reply

    Muy cierto. La estilometría es imprescindible para resolver este tipo de hipótesis sobre autoría, plagio e interpolación. Podemos, por ejemplo, descubrir un párrafo o incluso frase de un autor si ha sido copiada literalmente dentro de otro texto y disponemos de un corpus suficiente para que R identifique patrones de estilo. Por ahora, en relación con la obra perdida de Alonso de Palencia, las evidencias que yo encuentro son las que he glosado: 1) sansofé es un hápax en fuente única, la Historia de Marín; 2) su transcripción y traducción son correctas, hecho que plantea cómo pudo llegar hasta él; 3) ninguna obra etnohistórica conocida de los siglos XV a XVII trae el término; 4) el opúsculo de Alonso de Palencia coincide, por la temática etnográfica expresada en el título, con el tipo de fuente que pudo contener el dato sobre sansofé. Procede, entonces, hacer una indagación estilométrica, siempre que los textos originales en castellano vulgar del siglo XV de Alonso de Palencia permitan identificar su patrón o firma estilística en R, dado que la mayoría se conocen impresos en latín o traducidos posteriormente de esa lengua.

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