Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert: Book XII, Preface


Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

Pliny wrote about land animals in Book VIII of his Natural History, either because he found it convenient or it suited his purpose; for my own purposes, even though I aim to emulate him in the types and categories of things I write about (or in many of them), the number of the book, whether eighth or ninth or any other, is not a matter of consequence to the historical aims and objectives I pursue. Thus, I decided to speak of the animals that were found in this island of Hispaniola (at the time that the first Christians came to it with the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus) in this Book Twelve. And notice will also be taken of those brought to this island and Indies from Spain through the Spaniards’ efforts (despite the broad expanse of these seas and the difficulties of navigation) and have thrived here. This done, I will write of all the other animals (of which I didn’t speak in the first edition of this first part of the General History of these Indies); and all those to be found in them and of which we have true information to date will be mentioned, whether in any of the islands or parts of the Mainland, placing each animal in its true homeland, where they have been seen or are known to be found; so that the substance and quality of the matters addressed here can be bound together, and an account can be offered of the animals that are natural to these parts and similar to those of Spain or Europe, or are well known there, as of others that are unknown in Castile but have been seen in these our Indies by Spaniards and by the Emperor’s soldiers. And I will also write of the serpents and snakes and other poisonous animals of whatever sort they are, as long as they are related to the subject and purpose of my history, since the aforementioned author did it in this same way. And with this I will accomplish what I promised in the first edition that I would write about in the second and third parts of this histories; a promise I fulfill here, as I have said, by bringing together what belongs together as a treatise, as we will see at length in the chapters that follow, where each animal will be clearly differentiated and will be described particularly.

            As to the number eight, it seems to me that Pliny was right when he applied this number to terrestrial animals, since the sphere is divided in eight principal parts or winds, which are: the east or oriental wind, the southeast, the southern or austral wind, the southwestern wind, the west or occidental wind, the northeastern wind, the northern or septentrional wind, the northwestern wind—in all these parts he wished to touch upon or understand and specify all the animals to be found there or of which he had heard. But I find, and that is how it appears in the Sacred Scriptures,[1] that only eight people were saved in Noah’s Ark, and these were Noah and his three sons, Sem, Cam and Japhet, and the wives of all four of them, and with them the animals of all species and types that God commanded be saved and delivered from the flood for the restoration of mankind and of rational animals. And since all those born since then, those alive today, and those who will be born in the future issued from these eight people, Pliny left a lot unsaid; and it is fair to help him write what he didn’t know nor found written in the southern and western lands of these our Indies or other regions of them. And it doesn’t seem to me that the title of Book XII is less of a good title for this book, since in these parts, where the animals that are its subject are to be found, and whose men and peoples issued from that very boat or ark, we Spaniards (under the banners of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Castile) have brought word of the twelve apostles (although I do not doubt that at least one of them passed through these parts), and of twelve articles of faith, and of twelve celestial signs, and of the twelve months of the year, and of twelve full baskets created from the five loaves[2] of bread and two fish with which the Redeemer made close to five thousand men eat their fill; and of twelve fountains of water in Helim, where the children of Israel came,[3] and of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are: charity, pleasure, peace, patience, constancy, goodness, kindness, meekness, modesty , temperance, continence, and chastity.[4] To note, twelve patriarchs of the old law; twelve tribes of Israel.[5] Christ was twelve when his glorious Mother lost sight of him and he strayed into the temple to teach the Holy Scriptures and explain it to the wise man and elders of the old law; in illo tempore cùm factus esset Jhesus annorum duodecim.[6] To note, twelve thousand silver reales were sent by Judas Maccabeus as an offering for the sins of the deceased[7]: twelve bull offered by the twelve princes of the people of Israel, with six carts, to carry the Sancta Sanctorum:[8] so each prince offered a bull. God sent twelve men, one each from the twelve tribes, to Joshua to take twelve stones from the Jordan riverbed, when He opened its waters, to bring them to the first place of settlement, and to pick up twelve other large stones from outside and place them in the river to remain there: which was intended as a memorial of this miracle for future generations to mark the crossing of the twelve tribes across the dry riverbed.[9] God sent twelve spies to Moses while in the desert to be sent out to consider the land of Canaan, one from each tribe, who came back after forty days with their report.[10] All these sacred stories, the figures as well as the figured, is being given to understand to these savage people who lived so forgotten and separated from the Catholic Church. To note: the triumvirate of Octavian, Lepidus, and Mark Anthony lasted twelve years; and then all power remained with Octavian[11] and he was monarch of the universe, and during twelve of his years as emperor he was the peaceful master of the world, when he commanded that the number of all mortals subject to him was written down[12]: during this period of universal peace and tranquility our Redeemer[13] was born for our redemption; and during this time the Shrine (or templum pacis[14]), where the Romans kept their weapons and stores and equipment remained closed for twelve years; and during the time that the doors to that temple remained open there was war.

            So this is why I infer that this number twelve, which is beautiful and sacred and worthy of not being forgotten by any Catholic, fits this book about animals; since these peoples from the Indies, although rational and belonging to the same lineage of those eight people from that holy ark and company of Noah, had become irrational and beastly with their idolatries and sacrifices and infernal ceremonies and the devil had had command of their souls for many centuries; and because of the royal see of Castile and the blessed Catholic Monarchs, Don Ferdinand, 5th of that name, and of Doña Isabella, of glorious memory, and of the Imperial Majesty of the Emperor King, Don Charles, our lord, their grandson, and by virtue of the doctrine and arms of the illustrious spiritual and temporal Spaniards (clerical or secular), this evangelical doctrine of the twelve apostles has been deployed and brought to these parts under the industry and guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose minister and shining light was Don Christopher Columbus, first discovered of these Indies. And thus constantly the Indians have been converted and continued to be converted into God’s service and have been incorporated into the Christian republic without respite or allowing for any wasting of time in such holy exercise with these rational animals, helping them to know God and save their souls. And while the priests and prelates apply themselves to their holy work, and the war people to subjugating the disobedient and ungrateful to God and fugitives from such high knowledge, I want to occupy myself with these irrational animals, so that with one thing and the other and what this General History contains, thanks may be given to God, if the reader is not careless; since reading must not be for the pleasure of reading or understand new things, but to praise and better know the Creator and cause of it all.

[1] Genesis, Chapter VII. [GFO]

[2] Johan, Chapter VI. [GFO]

[3] Exodus, Chapter XVI. [GFO]

[4] Fructus spiritûs sunt; charitas, gaudium, pax, etc. (Ad Galatas, 5). [GFO]

[5] Genesis, Chapter XLVI. [GFO]

[6] Luc, Chapter II. [GFO]. Insert English translation here. [EE]

[7] Numeri, Chapter VII. [GFO]

[8] Machab. Chapter XII. [GFO]

[9] Joshua, Chapter IV. [GFO]

[10] Numbers, Chapter XIII. [GFO]

[11] Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. [GFO]

[12] Luce, Chapter II. [GFO]

[13] Ovid, Book 1, De fastis. [GFO]

[14] Dante, Canto VI of Canticle III. [GFO]

Image: Titled Native Animals of South America and published in 1891