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Spirit and Letters of the Spanish Colonial Period (revised)

©    2001 Donald J. Mabry

    The spirit of the colonial period was incarcerated in the Church. It was the unifying force everywhere. Inquisition was used to enforce membership  in Catholicism. Most public buildings were churches. Church controlled education. Spanish Christianity was reformed in the 16th century by Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros. It was vibrant and idealistic.

    The Church was more under Crown control in Spain than any other European monarchy. The Crown controlled appointments to Church officers and papal bulls coming into the kingdom as well as other means of control. This was the Patronato Real. The Church had to give a "free gift" to the Crown. Spaniards, as are most people, were very concerned with status, with who had precedence. Being appointed to a high church office or having a relative who was gave status.

    Royal officials always enforced their position.

    The deterioration of the Church occurred. The Spanish church peaked in strength in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. By the 18th century, it had serious problems with corruption and marriages by the clergy.

    Church was also an economic institution. In New Spain, it controlled about half of the land. In Peru it controlled about one third. Because of mortmain, it accumulated wealth during the colonial period. Piety, shrewd bishops, and mortmain consistently increased the amount of land the Church held. The Church, particularly the Jesuits, served as bankers through loans to secular people. The Church collected taxes such as the tithe and the crusade tax ( one paid for not going). The clergy had to pay annates to the Crown at the rate of one-half of the first year's revenue of the clerical offices held.

    The clergy were spilt between the hierarchy and the parish clergy. The parish clergy were poorly paid and often uneducated. Some parish priests found non-Church revenue in order to support themselves. This created conflicting goals. Among the higher clergy, there legal fights over bishops' personal estates. Class structure played an important role in Church politics and organization. Peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain as opposed to Spaniards born in the colonies who were called criollos) held the high offices. In criollo families, at least one member of the family went to the clergy, that is, became clergy.

    Church also riven by the secular-regular controversy. Regular clergy lived by rules or reglas, groups such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits. Secular clergy focused on the lay public, serving as parish priests. The status was with the regular clergy because their lives were more devoted to serving God. They were the missionaries "Christianizing"  the Indians.  The rule, though not always enforced, was that regular clergy would yield their missions to the secular clergy once the mission was accomplished.  The Church was concentrated in the cities. Even regular clergy preferred the amenities of urban life.

Holy Office of the Inquisition

    The Inquisition was under state control. Goal was to root out heretics and heresy. It was brought by a bishop to Santa Domingo in 1517 and remained under the control of bishops until 1569 when the king established tribunals of the  Holy Office of the Inquisition at Mexico City and Lima. Later put one in New Granada in 1610. Bishop Juan de Zumárraga of Mexico City became the Inquisitor of New Spain in 1535. It was ended but reestablished in the 1570s. In theory, it had jurisdiction over Christians. Since 1478, it tried to convert Jews and Muslims. Indians were exempt from its activities. The health of their souls were the responsibility of the ordinary clergy. Later, the Church expanded its authority to include morals. It was powerful. Censored books and sought to control thoughts.

Originally, the Spanish recruited Indians into the clergy. That made conversion and control easier. By the late 16th century, when the imperatives of the conquest were gone, Indians excluded from the clergy in the late 16th century.


    Education was for the upper-class males but there were schools for Indian males. Jesuits specialized in education and had many institutions. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain in 1767, it was impossible to replace their educational efforts. Almost all schools were for upper-class Spaniards although there was the occasional effort to educate upper-class mestizo and cacique (an Indian leaders) sons.

    The curriculum was medieval.  They taught curriculum Aristotle and Scholasticism. There were a few women in monastery schools. The ideal was to have convent-trained women and monastery-trained men marry and carry out Christian ideals and ideas.

    Spanish enjoyed great success in transplanting institutions and culture. In 1538,  the Crown founded a university in Santo Domingo; in 1551, the University of Mexico; and in 1551, the University of San Marcos in Peru. These universities had state support but money was always a problem. The entering fees were small but rose the longer one stayed. This favored the rich, the upper class. It cost a fortune to get a doctorate.


    It was scholastic. A product of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Stressed reliance on authority, e.g. Scriptures and Aristot1te. Sought philosophical not scientific truths. Spanish institutions were the last stand of scholasticism. Enlightenment authors only read in the late 18th and early 19th centuries after battle with the scholastics. Very few scientists.

Degrees above the bachelors:

Doctor of Theology was the highest [replaced today by the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D.]
Doctor of Laws which was Church and Roman Law
Doctor of Medicine. These were about as good as contemporaries in England, France in the 18th century.

    The purpose of higher education was to train church officials and government officials. Had small libraries but these were important repositories of knowledge.

    Initially, the Spanish exercised considerable control over thought and press through the Inquisition and the state. Control weakened over time. Permission granted to more upper class people to read. Book smuggling increased. On the whole, there was considerable freedom of thought within limits. Couldn't attack the Crown but could attack government officials and their behavior. Same was true of the Church.

    Printing came to Mexico City in 1535 and to Lima in the 1550s.   One had to have permission of the Council of the Indies to print a book. Very little was printed in the colonial period because it was too expensive. Most that was printed was of a religious nature. There were no newspapers until the 18th century. Newspapers were printed in Guatemala, Mexico City, Lima, and Buenos Aires. Usually, they were weeklies loaded with announcements and religious notices. Some of the papers played an have important role in the Independence period.

    How much literacy? About 25% of the urban whites.

    Chronicles are an excellent source of what was going on.

    Writing style was baroque. Got more baroque as time went on.

    Architecture? The Church was important. Most churches were in the baroque style. Use of gold in churches.

        Mining reforms in the 1770s. Mining had stayed the same for 200 years. It was a conservative society. Refused to change methods and workability of old techniques. The mining guilds and schools also resisted change. Had to inculcate new ideas into colonists in order to get more productivity.


    Spain was very successful in passing her culture from Spain to America. It was baroque and scholastic and meant for the upper classes. Spanish culture and letters were infinitely better developed than British America.

You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.