A New World of Secrets: The Hermeneutics of Discovery in the Early Americas (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2012 semester seminar led by Ralph Bauer.

In the early modern period, the word “to discover” and its cognates in all Western European vernaculars could have several meanings, including to uncover, to reveal, or to make manifest something already known to be true as well as to find something new or not previously known. In this seminar, participants explored how the early modern category of the “secret’” negotiates between these various—and, from the point of view of a modern hermeneutics, contradictory—meanings in the literature of discovery, encounter, and conquest of the New World from the late fifteenth to the end of the seventeenth century. Particular attention was paid to the rhetorical role played by prophecy (both European and Amerindian) in the literature of the early modern encounters; by esoteric (Hermetic, alchemical, astrological) textual traditions (i.e., “books of secrets”) in early modern natural histories about the New World; by translation (mainly from Spanish into English) of the literature of reconnaissance and intelligence; and by the discourse of demonology in early modern ethnographic writings. Along with primary readings in the literature of discovery, the seminar engaged with a number of theoretical, critical, and historiographic reflections on philosophical hermeneutics, on the history of the early modern New World encounters, and on the history of science.

Director: Ralph Bauer is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland. His previous publications include The Cultural Geography of Early American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity (2003) and An Inca Account of the Conquest of Peru (2005).