Monsters in Paradise: The Representation of the Natural World in the Historias of Bartolome de Las Casas and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo

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In the years following Columbus's landfall, European efforts to describe the physical reality of a hitherto unknown hemisphere led to profound epistemological changes. As recent studies by Canizares Esguerra and Barrera-Osorio have shown, early Spanish accounts of New World nature reflect an unprecedented emphasis on empirical methods of acquiring and systematizing knowledge of the natural world, contributing to the emergence of natural history and ultimately the Scientific Revolution. Sixteenth century texts were not, however, "scientific" in a modern sense. Empirical observation was shaped by scholastic and humanistic philosophy, and mingled with wondrous images derived from classical and medieval sources; these various discourses combined in ways that were colored by the authors' ideological perspectives on the justice of the Spanish conquest. This dissertation examines the interaction between proto-scientific empiricism and inherited epistemologies in descriptions of the natural world in the histories of Bartolome; de Las Casas and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo.

While contemporary historians of science acknowledge the importance of these works, they rarely engage in detailed textual analyses. Literary critics, on the other hand, only infrequently concentrate on the role of proto-scientific discourse. Rabasa has studied several natural images in both authors, Myers and Carrillo Castillo have examined the role of empiricism in Oviedo, and Wey Gomez and Padron have studied geographical representations, but few studies have focused exclusively on Las Casas's and Oviedo's portrayals of the natural world in its totality.

This dissertation analyzes how the tension between discursive modes produced contrasting images, paradisiacal and stable in the case of Las Casas and liminal or "monstrous" in the case of Oviedo. Chapter One outlines the intellectual formations of both authors; Chapter Two examines spatial and geographical constructs; Chapter Three centers on flora and fauna; Chapter Four concentrates on food and agriculture; and Chapter Five looks at concepts of Nature as active agent. In each of these areas, Las Casas's and Oviedo's attempts to describe unfamiliar and often anomalous New World natural phenomena stretched, altered, and at times subverted existing concepts of the natural world in ways that would have implications for future notions of American nature.