The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVIII. Prescott and Motley

§ 4. Choice of a Spanish Theme

Then, through Ticknor’s interest in things Spanish, Prescott turned to that language as his next venture. Once embarked, he sailed on in Spanish interests until his death, although he was not attracted immediately. “I am battling with the Spanish,” he wrote to Bancroft in 1824, “but I have not the heart for it that I had for the Italian. I doubt whether there are many valuable things that the key of knowledge will unlock in that language.” Still he continued to play with the key for a long time until, out of a list of subjects for a book, he made his choice. “What new and interesting topics may be admitted—not forced into—the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella?” he noted in 1825. In 1847 he endorsed the entry, “A fortunate choice.”

The whole sweep of events taking place on the Peninsula seems to have flashed before his vision: the constitutions of Castile and of Aragon, of the Moorish dynasties, the causes of their decay and dissolution, the Inquisition, the conquest of Granada, the discoveries in the unknown West, monarchical power versus aristocracy; and he saw their relation to the whole world. Prescott had assimilated literary expression in its best forms in order to fit himself to express something in his turn; when that something had crystallized into definite form, it was as a narrator that he entered on his task of giving it a proper treatment. He began to see his story in episodes for the framing of which he had already provided the material.

A tentative bibliography was despatched to Edward Everett, United States Minister at Madrid, on 29 January, 1826. To Everett’s natural suggestion that Prescott would be wise to come to Spain and look over the ground for himself, the latter answered in some detail that his one chance of success was to work even with limited resources at home rather than to jeopardize his future by groping with half sight in archives abroad. The explanation, written by his own hand, brought on an access of misery to his eye, and he recovered lost ground very slowly.

Under fresh limitations, but now with his scene firmly set, he began a systematic course of international and legal history, in addition to a general survey of Spain, geographically, economically, ecclesiastically, and civilly, especially with reference to fifteenth-century conditions. This necessitated the consultation of several hundred volumes in working days of about four hours each, with actual reading power of an hour a day at best, a few minutes or nothing, at worst. The imported sources arrived, but the author lingered on at the threshold before plunging into Spanish details. He recurred to Montesquieu’s Ésprit des lois, to Voltaire, and to other philosophical considerations of history and human conditions; he heard governmental, theological, and chivalric works, many biographies and the classics, the last now in translation that they might be read aloud. Much of this was, of course, mere intellectual pabulum, never to be concretely adapted to his expressed results. By this time he had acquired a capacity of holding firmly in his mind the portions he saw he could use, while putting aside the non-essential. Such methods have rarely been applied so deliberately and consciously by an historical writer.

Having decided that he would use secondary material when a phase of his subject had been adequately treated by French or Spanish writers, Prescott began original work by mastering the chronicles of Andres Bernaldez as a first-hand source. Luckily the secretary devoted to his service was an able young Harvard graduate, a Mr. English, capable of supplementing the author’s eyes, and sympathetic with his methods. The copy of Bernaldez obtained was in manuscript of no easy style.