Las Casas’s Canon Law Studies

That Las Casas studied canon law is confirmed in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century documents. Although he did not specify having studied canon law, Las Casas himself referred to his having studied law both in his 1552 publication on Treinta proposiciones muy jurídicas and in his 1564 letter to his Dominican confreres.25 Later, in 1596, Las Casas’s confrere—Fray Agustin Davila Padilla (1562-1604)—stated in his history of the Dominican Province of Mexico that Las Casas studied law “with great care” and benefit.26 Later in 1629, Juan de Solorzano y Pereira (1575-1655), jurist and member of the Council of Castile as well as a severe critic of Las Casas, alleged that before Las Casas was ordained, he dedicated himself to “sacrorum canonum studium” (the study of sacred canons).27 While current historiography does not question that Las Casas studied canon law and that he did so in preparation for the priesthood, questions remain in current Lascasian scholarship about his juridical formation: Where did he study? How did he earn degrees in cánones!

For the most part, there is consensus among Lascasian scholars today as well as indications in colonial chronicles that Las Casas studied in Salamanca from 1498 to 1502. Dominican Friar Antonio de Reme-sal (1570-1639) wrote in 1619 that when Las Casas’s father returned to Hispaniola in 1498, Bartolomé estudiaba derechos en Salamanca.1* In 1595, Gutiérrez de Santa Clara, creole chronicler of the conquest of Peru, wrote that Las Casas was “taken from his studies in Salamanca” when, in 1502, he accompanied his father to Hispaniola.29 While these chronicles state that Las Casas studied in Salamanca, the source of this information is unknown.

That Las Casas also earned the degree of bachillerato is attested in two royal documents. In 1516, a royal cédula from the Regents of Castile in Madrid, dated September 16th, ordered the officials of the Casa de Contratación in Seville to pay the “Procurador de los Indios, Bachiller Bartolomé de las Casas” the cost of his journey to the Indies.30 In 1517, a certificate of payment, dated April 6th in Seville, from the treasurer of the House of Trade, Doctor Sancho de Matienzo, stated that Juan Fernández was paid 10,000 maravedís for the passage and cargo of “Bachiller Bartolomé de las Casas.”31 However, neither of these sources specifically mention Salamanca. In 1953, Giménez Fernández questioned the validity of the title of bachiller and suggested that it was merely honorific or, as some suggest, that it was simply used to designate secular clergy.32 However, writing in 1994, James Lockhart asserted that such “degree titles had great significance as marks of social prestige,” and that, as such, they were not used capriciously, especially by well-known persons and in highly public ways.33

If Las Casas earned the degree of bachillerato, when would he have completed the required five or six years for the bachillerato in canon law at Salamanca?34 Four of the required years of law study could have been completed during his reported residence at Salamanca from 1498 to 1502 before he left for the Indies. After that, Las Casas was back in Europe only from November or December of 1506 until September or November of 1507—during which time he was ordained a deacon in Seville in December 1506—and he was in Rome from January 1507 to April 1507 where he was ordained a secular priest on March 3, 1507.35 That is, the length of time that he would have had to complete his studies in residence at Salamanca at this time was at best this “window” of six months, since he left for the Indies in late 1507. He returned to Spain in 1515, and in September of 1516, he was first addressed as bachilleré Given these data, it seems that Las Casas could not have met the requirements for graduation as a bachiller. However, scholarship about the University of Salamanca draws attention to the university’s Constitutions promulgated by Benedict XIII in 1381, and reiterated by Martin V in 1413 and 1422, in which authorization was given to reduce the required years of study by taking courses during the summer. That is, after completing the required months of coursework in residence, students could advance

Formation of Las Casas’s Juridical Voice 63 their standing by taking courses during the remaining months of the twelve-month academic year, which courses accrued to the following year’s work. In this manner, five, and possibly six, years of study could be reduced to three and a half or four years.37 Moreover, the 1422 Constitutions that Martin V promulgated for the University of Salamanca (and of Valladolid) were modified in 1497, and the dispensations, given particularly for clerics, were in effect when (and if) Las Casas was at Salamanca; indeed, clergy could petition a reduction of one year in the total number of years required.38 These relaxations of requirements during the quattrocento were seemingly due to the rapidly growing student enrollment in programs of civil and canon laws, and to the significantly increasing complexity in the assignment of cátedras and student-teachers, as well as to the fact that Spain needed practitioners of jurisprudence to attend to the increasing litigations.39

Assuming that Las Casas took advantage of the academic alternatives, his period of study at Salamanca—beginning in May or September 1498 and ending in January 1502—could have constituted reducing five years of coursework to three and a half or four years—depending on precisely when he began his studies in 1498. Moreover, since “with dispensations,” the number of years for the study of canon (and civil) law could have been reduced from, for example, six to five, Las Casas could have expeditiously finished all of the requirements for a five-year program for the bachillerato by February 1502 when he left for Hispaniola. Additionally, Las Casas’s studies may have been accelerated if the accomplished cathedral school of San Miguel included preliminary canon law studies.

Credence is lent to this suggestion by the astounding trajectory of studies undertaken by Diego de Covarrubias (1510-1577). Covarrubias completed the study of humanities by the age of ten, classical literature and “all kinds of juridical works,” including the Latin and Greek Fathers (of whose works he had seventy-five) by the age of sixteen, and then became a student in the Faculty of Canon Law. He obtained his bachillerato in civil and canon laws at the age of twenty-two, then completed his juridical and humanist formation with theological study, graduated with a licenciatura in canon law at age twenty-six, and a doctorate at age twenty-seven.40

Supporting these conjectures about Las Casas is the long-held contention of Helen Rand Parish, reiterated in an interview with Paul Vickery, that “by 1502, Las Casas had completed his canonical studies, but was unable to afford the fee traditionally presented to the faculty to actually receive his final [bachillerato] degree.”41 Moreover, Parish’s assertion would help to explain why Las Casas committed himself to work five years in the Indies. As one fluent in Latin, ordained in minor orders, and schooled in canon law—degree in hand or not, he could secure salaried employment in the Indies as a doctrinero—which he did, in addition to helping his father in the provisioner business that was faring poorly. When Las Casas returned to Spain in 1506, he was probably financially able to pay the fees associated with the bachillerato degree and graduation ceremonies.

That Las Casas also earned the degree of licenciatura (licentiate) is indicated in three royal documents.42 The first is a record of a discourse in December of 1519 by “Licenciado Bartolomé de Las Casas” with Emperor Charles V at Mohns de Rey in reply to the position of Fray Juan de Cabedo, bishop of Darien, that Indigenous people were slaves by nature.43 The second is a pregon (proclamation), dated November 19, 1520, about the privileges given by the king to those who were accompanying “Licenciado Bartolomé de Las Casas” to Tierra Firme.44 The third is a relation by Miguel de Castellanos narrating the trip he took in 1521 with “Licenciado Bartolomé de Las Casas” to the coast of Paria.45 Other writings of the colonial period also referred to Las Casas as a licenciado. Historian and chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557), who knew Las Casas at court in 1519, referred to him as licenciado.46 Gutiérrez de Santa Clara—whose father was in Cuba at the same time as Las Casas and whose portrayal of selected aspects of Las Casas’s life was accurately sequenced—referred repeatedly to Las Casas as licenciado in his narration of the reform project that Las Casas initiated in 1521 in Curnana.47 Writing in the third person, Las Casas also retrospectively referred to himself as “licenciado Las Casas” when he wrote in his Historia about being assigned to Narvaez’s expeditions in Cuba.48 In 1571, Licenciado Juan Polo de Ondegardo, a major opponent of Las Casas’s position on Inca sovereignty, had commented—albeit derisively—that before Las Casas joined the Dominicans, he “was a cleric licensed in law.”49 Finally, Remesal, who lived at Salamanca, wrote in 1619 that Las Casas graduo de licenciado from Salamanca, which raises the question of where Las Casas might have earned the licentiate (Figure 3.1).50

The answer to this question is perhaps related to opportunity. First, after Las Casas spent from December 1515 to August 1517 in Spain and in Hispaniola seeking and promoting “a total remedy” for the evils and harm done to the Indigenous people, he stayed at the Dominican convent of San Pablo in Valladolid. While there—from September 11, 1517 to March 22, 1518—he frequented the nearby College of San Gregorio, which was affiliated with the University of Valladolid; there, he could consult with the theologians, philosophers, and jurists of the college who were part of the discussions leading up to the 1512-1513 legislation of the Laws of Burgos in the Indies; he could use the college library, and also assist in the lecciones that were given.51 Seemingly, this was the period— indeed, an important milestone in his study of jurisprudence—to which Las Casas referred when in 1552 he stated at the end of his Treintaproposi-ciones muy juridicas that it had been “thirty four years since he [I] studied law.”52 Second, he would have been aware of the differences in the degree programs of the Universities of Valladolid and of Salamanca. Valladolid required four years of study for the bachillerato in canon law and passing an examination to earn the licentiate. Salamanca, which complained about the brevity of Valladolid’s programs, required six years for the bachillerato, and five years of teaching as a bachiller formado plus

Conventual Church of San Pablo, Valladolid

Figure 3.1 Conventual Church of San Pablo, Valladolid.

Source: Image provided by Alexis Gonzalez de León, OP and Sixto Castro, OP.

an examination to graduate as licenciado.53 Third, since Las Casas had the bachillerato, all that he would need to do to earn a licentiate from the University of Valladolid would be to prepare for and take an examination, which he could have done during his seven months at San Gregorio and/or by his study and consultation from March 1518 onward with the royal preachers as he and they accompanied the peripatetic court of the monarch.54 That he may have earned this advanced degree is indicated by the transition in denomination of his title from bachiller to licenciado: in the April 1517 certificate of payment, he was addressed as bachiller, in the court record of December 1519, he was addressed as licenciado (Figure 3.2).

Colegio de San Gregorio, Valladolid

Figure 3.2 Colegio de San Gregorio, Valladolid.

Source: Image provided by Alexis Gonzalez de León, OP and Sixto Castro, OP.

Finally, further support that Las Casas obtained a licentiate from the University of Valladolid comes from the significant decades-long scholarship of Helen Rand Parish.55 In addition to having ascertained Las Casas’s correct birth date as well as the date and location of his ordination by meticulous archival research at the Vatican Library and the Archivo General de las Indicts (among others), she repeatedly asserted in print and oral interviews that Las Casas had earned the bachillerato in canon law at Salamanca as well as the licenciatura in canon law at Valladolid.

In addition to his studies in canon law, Las Casas’s second area of expertise was theology. To contextualize his formation in Dominican life and the sacred science of theology, the next section will present the development of the discipline of theology, the Dominican reform movement, and the revival of Thomism, which coalesced in Las Casas’s time with the prominence of two Dominican schools—San Esteban and San Gregorio, and of the Escuela Espanola. These developments and institutions both shaped the tenor of Las Casas’s voice as a Dominican friar, and anchored the vocal range of his resources as a Thomist.

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