The Spanish Disquiet: The Biblical Natural Philosophy of Benito Arias Montano

The Spanish Disquiet: The Biblical Natural Philosophy of Benito Arias Montano

by María M. Portuondo

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In this book, historian María M. Portuondo takes us to sixteenth-century Spain, where she identifies a community of natural philosophers and biblical scholars. They shared what she calls the “Spanish Disquiet”—a preoccupation with the perceived shortcomings of prevailing natural philosophies and empirical approaches when it came to explaining the natural world.
Foremost among them was Benito Arias Montano—Spain’s most prominent biblical scholar and exegete of the sixteenth century. He was also a widely read member of the European intellectual community, and his motivation to reform natural philosophy shows that the Spanish Disquiet was a local manifestation of greater concerns about Aristotelian natural philosophy that were overtaking Europe on the eve of the Scientific Revolution. His approach to the study of nature framed the natural world as unfolding from a series of events described in the Book of Genesis, ultimately resulting in a new metaphysics, cosmology, physics, and even a natural history of the world. By bringing Arias Montano’s intellectual and personal biography into conversation with broader themes that inform histories of science of the era, The Spanish Disquiet ensures an appreciation of the variety and richness of Arias Montano’s thought and his influence on early modern science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226609096
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/22/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

María M. Portuondo is associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches the history of science and technology. She is the author of Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Challenge Ahead

The great artificer and maker of the world, God, has declared in [the Sacred Scriptures] the reason why he made the terrestrial orb on behalf of man; he also explained in them all the treasures of science and wisdom that can be perceived by man concerning knowledge of nature and of the arts necessary for humankind.

Sometime in 1566 or 1567 Benito Arias Montano learned about a proposal to reedit and publish a new polyglot edition of the Bible. He probably heard the news from Gabriel de Zayas, a royal secretary and longtime friend, who had been discussing the project with Antwerp printer Christophe Plantin. Not long afterward, Arias Montano received a request from Philip II of Spain; the king wanted his opinion about the merits of undertaking such a venture. Arias Montano's reply was prompt and enthusiastic. Such projects have always been worthy of kings, he told Philip, and the current times more than any other needed good kings who would guard and defend from heretics the scriptural treasures of the Catholic religion. After discussing the proposal with the Council of the Inquisition, the king asked Arias Montano to present the project to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Alcalá, the theologian's alma mater.

The proposal was presented to the college as a new edition of the famous 1520 Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the crowning achievement of Spanish religious humanistic studies. From the cloisters of the University of Alcalá — the old Roman Complutum — Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517) had overseen the creation of a Bible with the Old and New Testaments edited in their original languages — Hebrew, Greek, and Chaldean (Aramaic) — with Latin translations based on the oldest extant manuscripts. With the inclusion of a final volume comprising dictionaries, grammars, and scholarly aids, this edition was designed to help humanist scholars read the Bible in its original languages. This new polyglot Bible, however, would not germinate from Spain's long tradition of scriptural studies as had the Complutensian Bible. It would be compiled, edited, and printed in Flanders, in the city of Antwerp, specifically in the publishing house of Christophe Plantin (Christoffel Plantijn; ca. 1520–89).

Not long after the doctors at Alcalá endorsed the new project, it was placed under Arias Montano's supervision. The king's request must have stunned him. The instructions — a royal order by any other name — asked him, in essence, to step into the role played by the venerable Cardinal Cisneros. Here was the opportunity to bring the definitive biblical text of the Old and the New Testaments to light again, but now in the spotlight of Post-Tridentine biblical studies and under the auspices of the Most Catholic Monarch. For the modest and relatively unknown Arias Montano, being asked to undertake such an enterprise must have seemed an exhilarating opportunity; only later would he realize what a tremendous burden it would prove to be.

Arias Montano was to preside over the printing of the Bible and to moderate this activity so that it would be in line with a very specific "order and form" that had been agreed on by the ecclesiastical bureaus involved. He accepted, of course, and his life would change in unimagined ways. Antwerp would prove to be transformative personally and intellectually, but it would also cement intellectual commitments he had already developed and nurtured in his relatively quiet fifteen years as a biblical scholar in Seville and Alcalá. The stays in Antwerp and Rome were to give his voice a new inflection, a self-assured tone that would earn him devoted followers and virulent detractors. This new polyglot Bible would thrust him onto the international stage, and his voice would be heard in dozens of biblical commentaries, in books of poetry and emblems, and through the copious correspondence he maintained with Europe's leading humanists. He was to become a biblical authority whose work crossed confessional divides, earning praise for its deep devotion and extraordinary erudition. Catholic censors in Spain and Rome would take exception to some of his approaches, finding objectionable very different aspects of his work. The censors would eventually succeed in Rome, and once Arias Montano's defenders had died, censorship — initially thwarted in his native Spain — would descend on his work there as well.

Arias Montano's life was defined by two preoccupations. The first, perhaps the most important and best known, was biblical interpretation. In commentary after commentary, he delved into the Word trying to extract vestiges of what God had chosen to reveal to humanity. The objective of this quest was to anchor religious spirituality firmly in the Sacred Scriptures, thus confirming that a spiritual life built on a correct understanding of the Bible led to salvation. His second preoccupation was somewhat analogous to the first. He was driven by a desire to identify within the written vestiges of the divine Word an explanation of the natural world as God intended humanity to know it. Just as previous interpreters of the Bible had gotten the religious messages wrong, Arias Montano believed that previous interpreters of nature — particularly the philosophers of antiquity — had also gotten tragically wrong their explanations of the "why" and "how" of the natural world. This was much more for him than a challenging natural philosophical problem; understanding the natural world was an essential part of what it meant to be human. God had designed humanity so that its merits and potential salvation would be tested precisely while living on this earth. If mankind did not know how to live in concert with the natural world, how then could humanity be saved?

Toward the end of his life Arias Montano thought he had succeeded in identifying and articulating a philosophy of nature that was in complete concert with the revealed Word. It was, furthermore, also in concert with a lifetime of careful observation of the natural world. He recognized that the way the European intellectual heirs to Greco-Latin antiquity, as well as philosophers of Islam and Judaism, went about explaining the natural world was deeply flawed. The natural philosophy inherited from the past, be it Pythagorean, Platonic, Atomistic, or Aristotelian, had not served humanity well. He set out on a path of reform. As evidence for his reform program he marshaled the history of the Hebrew language and its philology, and he submitted his linguistic investigations to empirical tests that were informed equally by experience of natural phenomena, rudimentary experiments, and an internalized and perhaps unconscious reliance on the very same Aristotelian conception of the natural world he was trying to overturn. He structured his philosophy of nature in three parts: the Book of the Generation and Regeneration of Adam, or Anima (1593); the History of Nature, or Corpus (1601); and the Vestis (unpublished, and perhaps now lost or never written). Cognizant of the monumental task he had set for himself, he took to referring to the trilogy as his Magnum opus — not out of vanity, but rather out of apprehension at the magnitude of the task.


To historians of Spanish humanism Benito Arias Montano needs no introduction. He is universally acknowledged as one of the leading Christian Hebraists and biblical scholars of his time. He was an accomplished Latinist and mastered Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Anecdotal accounts claim he knew over thirteen languages. He devoted his linguistic talents to the study of the Sacred Scriptures, but his interests extended well beyond biblical studies. He was an avid historical researcher and antiquarian and likewise a curious inquirer into the secrets of nature, as his impressive collection of naturalia and artificialia testifies. During his peripatetic years he carried his collection with him in a portable museolum but would eventually install it in a house near his botanical garden in Seville. To his close circle of friends, he was a reluctant participant in the turbulent commerce of the court and church, but his protestations masked his deftness at navigating the politics of those institutions. He rarely missed an opportunity to tell his correspondents how much he yearned to retire from public life, both figuratively and physically. Throughout his life he sought the solitude of the remote mountains of the Sierra Morena in southern Spain. He so cherished his homeland that he appended the surname Montano ("from the mountain") to his name. It would be there, in his retreat in the Peña de Alájar — now renamed the Peña de Arias Montano as a charming if remote tourist destination — that he would find the intimate communion with nature that would bring to light the Anima and the Corpus.

As historian Juan Gil wrote with great insight in the opening line of his book on Arias Montano, "A lot is known about Benito Arias Montano and at the same time very little" ("De Benito Arias Montano se sabe mucho y al mismo tiempo muy poco"). It is impossible to state definitively that all the substantive details of Arias Montano's life and lineage are known; historians continue to fill in the details of the exegete's biography and to extensively revise the historiography built on what are now acknowledged misinterpretations of key aspects. This scholarship has proved effective in demolishing two aspects of Arias Montano's biography that most English-language scholars still take as fact: his thinly vailed Judaism and his membership in and proselytizing for the Familia charitatis (Family of Love). Disengaging his historical profilefrom this presumed Nicodemism makes him no less interesting, and in fact it allows us to understand in a new light the obsessions that drove his impressive output. He need not be a crypto-Jew or a secret Protestant who only outwardly played the part of a devout Catholic to be considered one of the most interesting figures of sixteenth-century European thought. These alleged aspects of his life made him interesting to a historiographical school that viewed the Spain of the Counter-Reformation in a negative light and sought to fashion possibly subversive figures into challengers of the status quo.

Moving beyond Arias Montano's possible Judaism and affiliation with the Family of Love has opened new perspectives about his spirituality and its origin. While Marcel Bataillon in his highly influential Érasme et l'Espagne (1937; in Spanish, 1950 and 1966) presented Arias Montano as possible heir to the Erasmian-inspired iluminados who advocated an interior piety — many of whom were of converso origins — recent scholarship situates him not as a disciple of Erasmian spirituality, but rather along the spiritual lines of the Dominican fray Luis de Granada (1504–88) and the Franciscan fray Francisco de Osuna (ca. 1492 to ca. 1541). They advocated, and Arias Montano shared in, a profound and orthodox piety that later found expression in what Melquiades Andrés Martín describes as the ecumenical and theological humanism of the University of Alcalá, fostered there by Cardinal Cisneros.

The biographical sketch that follows collects some of the key events of his extraordinary life as we currently know them. His family's roots lay in the mountainous region of Extremadura and in the town of Fregenal de la Sierra. His parents were Benito Arias, a familiar and apostolic notary of the Holy Office and therefore also an officer of the local royal judiciary, and Francisca Martínez (Isabel Gómez). Based largely on purity of blood proceedings made when Benito Arias Montano entered the Order of Saint James, it was believed that his family belonged to the lesser nobility, although members had to supplement the income from their modest landholdings by working for the bureaucracy of the Habsburg monarchy. The family's respectable social standing was complemented by the support of a close-knit circle of friends, family, and patrons in Fregenal and Seville. Recent scholarship, however, has debated this characterization of the family's origins. It shows that the extended Arias family from Fregenal de la Sierra worked as artisans in the textile and leather trades and in commerce. The social position of these professions would not only have excluded them from the ranks of lesser nobility (hidalgo) but situated them as working in occupations associated with converted Jews (judeoconversos). Furthermore, some members of the Arias clan had been brought before the Inquisition during the fifteenth century on suspicion of Judaizing, though none of these individuals have been traced to Arias Montano's familiar line. More evidence for Jewish origins of the clan has been supplied by the genealogical studies of the exegete's first cousin four times removed, Captain Benito Arias Montano (1588–1641). The Ariases of Fregenal were apparently a family who had converted — for the most part — to Christianity during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and, like so many others, were intent on erasing any traces of this association as statutes on purity of blood intensified throughout the Iberian peninsula.

Benito Arias Montano's precise birth date is uncertain, sometime between 1525 and 1527. The eldest brother, Rodrigo Arias, apparently died young; the second brother, Juan Arias de la Mota, earned a degree in civil law and, after serving in various administrative posts in Castile, left for Peru in 1560 as part of the household of Viceroy Diego López de Zúñiga y Velasco. America was a recurrent draw for the Arias family, with a nephew and the aforementioned great-nephew of don Benito also emigrating. Our Benito's early education tookplace at home under his father's guidance, where he gained an appreciation for languages and the graphic arts as well as for physics and astronomy. His education continued with the local curate, Diego Vázquez Matamoros, who had been to the Holy Land and stoked the young boy's geographical imagination by drawing sketches and maps of Jerusalem and recounting stories of his travels. Historians speculate that his education must have continued in a more formal academic setting, perhaps in a school associated with a church or monastery in Seville, because by the time he enrolled in the university he was well versed in Latin and had already written a short treatise on ancient Castilian numismatics in 1541, about the time of his father's death. After his father died he seems to have alternated residence between Fregenal and Seville. In Seville, the prominent and well-off Vélez de Alcocer family welcomed him as he continued his education. He would come to regard this family of converso origins as close blood relatives, and he considered their son Gaspar his dear boyhood friend. (Gaspar left for America and became a wealthy businessman in Lima; he visited Seville infrequently until his death in 1597.) Arias Montano always cherished his links to the city on the Guadalquivir, and throughout his life he sought the warmth and support of an extended family among the close circle of friends he cultivated there.

Although it is not clear precisely where he attended school before commencing his university studies, Arias Montano also came under the tutelage of the poet Juan de Quirós and the historian Pedro Mexía, both of whom he mentioned in later works. In 1545, at about age eighteen, he began his liberal arts studies at the College of Santa María de Jesús in Seville. He completed the first two years of the traditional university curriculum (dialectic and logic), but after sitting through most of the third year (physics and natural philosophy), he left for the Complutensian University at Alcalá de Henares, apparently without sitting for his exam and getting the bachelor's degree in arts at Seville.

The humanistic and theological studies available at Alcalá beckoned. By the end of the 1548 school year, while enrolled at the Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso, Arias Montano completed the requirements for a bachelor's degree in arts and philosophy; he ranked eleventh in his class of seventy. He continued into the fourth year (metaphysics) and earned his licensure the following year. Meanwhile, and as an indication of where his true interests lay, he also enrolled in classes on Sacred Scriptures in the Faculty of Theology. But the course of study undertaken there is the best testament to what drove his departure from the more conservative University of Seville; he dived into the humanistic study of the Sacred Scriptures that the university had championed since its founding in 1528.

The creation of the Colegio de San Jerónimo, the trilingual college, at the University of Alcalá marked the effort to institutionalize the humanistic and philological approach to the study of the Sacred Scriptures advocated by Cardinal Cisneros, as a special focus of the humanistic interest in the rediscovery of the works of classical antiquity. It was only the second European university (after Louvain) to teach Oriental languages. In Spain, however, it was the emphasis on Hebrew that distinguished its humanistic biblical studies. For theologians trained at Alcalá, "ad fontes" meant returning, whenever possible, to Hebrew versions of scripture and studying it using the linguistic tools and commentaries of Spain's Sephardic tradition, including Kabbalah.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1. The Challenge Ahead 2. The Spanish Disquiet 3. Faith and Nature 4. The Antwerp Polyglot: Hints of a New Natural Philosophy 5. Arias Montano Castigated 6. Nothing New under the Sun 7. Premises of the Magnum opus 8. Montanian Hermeneutics of Nature and Cosmology 9. Meteorology, Matter Theory, and Mechanics 10. A Biblical Natural History 11. Disciples and Detractors 12. Expurgated Epilogue

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