Four cities and a dictionary: The fascinating journey of a P'urhepecha manuscript

Four cities and a dictionary: The fascinating journey of a P'urhepecha manuscript

What links an Austrian archduke to a Hungarian bookbinder, and an American railway magnate? A 17th century dictionary from Mexico, of course. Sit back, relax, and allow Kate Bellamy, postdoctoral researcher at LUCL, to explain.

Deep in the climate-controlled bowels of the Newberry Library in Chicago sits, among many thousands of other treasures, the Bocabulario brebe y manual de la lengua de Michoacan. This 75-page book, dating back to 1647, is the only known copy of a dictionary from Spanish into P’urhepecha, an indigenous language which is still spoken today in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. The author of this precious work remains anonymous, yet the journey it took to arrive in Chicago can be traced – and what a journey that was!

Leaf 1 recto 6 Leaf 1 recto 6
First page of the Bocabulario brebe, courtesy of the Newberry Library
The author of this precious dictionary remains anonymous, yet the journey it took to arrive in Chicago can be traced – and what a journey that was!

It begins, as many 19th century tales do, with a Habsburg: Archduke Maximilian of Austria to be precise. Having been removed from his position as Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia by his own brother (Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria-Hungary) after only two years in office, Maximilian found himself on the imperial job market again in 1859. To cut a long story short, he finally accepted the Mexican throne in 1864 and, with the backing of Napoleon the Third and the French army, became Mexico’s second emperor. But what does Maximilian have to do with the dictionary? Here we need to introduce a fourth, key character in our book-based detective story: José Fernando Ramírez.

Exile in Germany

Ramírez was born in 1804 in what is now known as the state of Chihuahua, northern Mexico. He started his career in law, but was also a published historian, politician, and co-founder of the National Library of Mexico, a fact that will become more important as we progress. Given Ramírez’ previous experience and understanding of the local situation in Mexico, Emperor Maximilian chose him to be Minister of Foreign Affairs and Navy in the Second Empire, a position he took up on July 4th, 1864. However, it soon became clear that the Imperial reign was not going to resist the liberal uprising, so Ramírez decided to leave for Europe. Since he had family in Germany through his sister Juana’s husband, Ramírez moved to Bonn, where he lived – and continued to conduct research – in exile until his death in 1871.

For the purposes of our story, the most important thing Ramírez took with him to Germany was his library. His love of history and archaeology, as well as of fine books, had seen him build up an unparalleled collection, including some of the earliest works pertaining to indigenous languages of Mexico. One of the works in this collection was the Bocabulario brebe y manual de la lengua de Michoacan. It is quite likely that Ramírez acquired it from a (former) monastery or private individual (how or from whom is still under investigation) when he was living in Mexico City, so sometime between 1850 and 1862. So how did it get to London? Upon his death, his heirs permitted Alfredo Chavero to select from the collection the works pertaining to Mexico. Chavero then sold these works to Manuel Fernández del Castillo who, in turn, obtained the interest of the London-based auctioneers Puttick and Simpson to sell them on once again.

Unparalleled book collection

A collection such as Ramírez’s is unparalleled: its highly specialized nature led to it being named the Bibliotheca Mexicana, with the auction catalogue stretching to 1,200 lots, which were sold over four days in July 1880. Whoever was present and able to purchase lots at this auction had an unprecedented opportunity that students of languages and history of the Americas can only dream of. One such lucky individual was Bernard Quaritch, owner of the eponymous London bookseller’s, which still exists to this day. The current archivist at Bernard Quaritch Ltd has confirmed that the original Quaritch bought the Bocabulario brebe for stock at the auction, for the princely sum of nine pounds and nine shillings. Presumably it must have later been sold privately to Edward Ayer in Chicago, although no records of that sale exist unfortunately.

Let us stay in London a bit longer to introduce our Hungarian bookbinder, Joseph Zaehnsdorf. In London, either before or after the auction, the Bocabulario brebe passed into Zaehnsdorf’s capable hands, which is where it acquired its handsome red Morocco binding. A speaker of many European languages, Zaehnsdorf completed an apprenticeship in Stuttgart, moving to London only after spending time in Vienna, Zurich, Freiburg, Baden-Baden, and Paris. He set up his own business in 1844, which was passed on to his son, also the author of The Art of Bookbinding: A Practical Treatise, upon his death in 1886. Today, Zaehnsdorf bindings are still readily identifiable and sought after by connoisseurs of fine book bindings.

‘Dying race’

The acquirer, or more likely buyer, of the book is the last character in our transnational mystery: Edward E. Ayer. An entrepreneur who made his money in the (in American parlance) ‘railroad’ business, and charter trustee of the Newberry Library, Ayer had discovered his fascination for indigenous American peoples and history whilst stationed in the American southwest on military service in the early 1860s. His first purchase around this time was Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico, which was to become just one of many thousands. Mistakenly believing that indigenous American peoples constituted a “dying race” (a common misconception at that time), Ayer vowed to collect items related to them and their history, including languages. So fervent was his collecting, that by the time he donated his collection to the Newberry Library in 1911, it comprised over 17,000 items.

We must find out how Ramírez acquired the dictionary in the first place; only then the mystery will be solved once and for all!

The Bocabulario brebe is thus one of the items in the Edward E. Ayer collection, having arrived in Chicago via Mexico City, Bonn, and London, and is special for several reasons. First, it seems to be the only copy of this book in existence, making it an extremely valuable resource. Second, it dates from a period when there are very few texts in P’urhepecha, so it can help teach us how the language was changing, especially since its first contact with Spanish over 100 years earlier. Third, it contributes to our understanding of how P’urhepecha varies dialectally, that is, how people speak in different parts of the P’urhepecha territory.

Ongoing research

While research into the origins of the book is still ongoing, an analysis of how words are pronounced (as indicated by their orthography, or spelling) and which words are used to express concepts that are known to vary geographically, such as the word for ‘house’, will help us to identify where it is from. We will then be able to compare the language with other early texts, such the first P’urhepecha dictionary, compiled by the Franciscan priest Maturino Gilberti and published in 1559. As P’urhepecha is an isolate, meaning it isn’t related to any other known language, the more examples we have of the language, the more we can understand how it has changed over time, since we have no other languages, we can compare it to. Finally, we should also try and find out how Ramírez acquired the book in the first place; only then the mystery will be solved once and for all!

The research leading to this blogpost was generously funded through a short-term fellowship from the Newberry Library in May-June 2023.