Anthony N. Penna


Patrick Manning (1941-), Karin A. Velez

Date of Award


Date Accepted


Degree Grantor

Northeastern University

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department or Academic Unit

College of Arts and Sciences. Department of History.


Empire, Narrative, Spanish America

Subject Categories

Latin America--History, Narrative inquiry (Research method), Spain--History, Spain--Colonies--America




This dissertation focuses on the intellectual issues that surround the most dramatic form of human encounter: that of imperial conquest. By examining the modes of thought available to conquering societies I examine the way in which specific narrative traditions influence the process of justification and legitimization of expansion.

Based on my analysis of a specific set of narratives created by Spanish in the Americas, a wide variety of published primary resources, and research in Spanish archives, I look into the narrative traditions of a number of societies in history, assess the construction of the reconquista narrative in Spain, and then cross the Atlantic to examine variety of interest groups that emerged across Spain's American empire and the narratives that were produced to justify those interests.

In successful cases the drama of conquest is normalized through the adoption or construction of legitimizing narratives that tap into prevailing societal self-conceptions or historical relationships. As examples of this I examine a diverse set of societies including China during the Han Dynasty, Sassanid Persia, Turkic states of central and western Asia, and the Ottoman Empire.

I then introduce the case of the Spanish, first in the Iberian Peninsula where their narrative traditions successfully justified and normalized the act of conquest, and then in the Americas. Spain's American empire, I argue, constituted a situation so novel as to resist any attempt to make sense of it within the prevailing narrative tradition. Spain's central narratives fell apart in the face of such novelty, leaving narrative chaos and an imperial state unable to control the process of narrative construction. The result was a proliferation of narratives and a heated debate over the Spanish right to rule in their American possessions. This debate only diminished with the repudiation of the notion of conquest in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Through this effort, this dissertation contributes to the general understanding of the role of ideas in empire while presenting the argument that Spain's American empire represented a novel case in world history and it was this unprecedented novelty that was responsible for many of the intellectual challenges that the empire faced. Additionally, I contend that the narrative challenges faced by Spain in the sixteenth century left important intellectual legacies for future empires.

Document Type


Rights Information

Copyright 2009

Rights Holder

Joshua Weiner

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