Editions Student Projects

Taking Editorial Decisions for a Collection of Early Modern Villancicos

By the end of Michaelmas term, I came across a volume at the Weston Library on which several villancico chapbooks were bound. The volume itself had no title, no index, no author. There was nothing that could point to its origin but a shelfmark – Arch. Sigma III 70 – belonging to an enigmatic collection. The only information about it consists just of a nine-word description on the Bodleian Libraries’ named collections index: “270 works, mainly Spanish, of the 16th-18th centuries”. Despite the unprepossessing outside, the volume’s inside proved fascinating. It contains 54 chapbooks mainly edited between 1690 and 1710 in Madrid (although some others come from Seville, Valencia and Zaragoza). Each chapbook is a recollection of villancicos, short religious poems to be sung or performed on special festivities, primarily on the eves of Christmas and Epiphany, the día de Reyes in Castilian, still today Spanish children’s favourite tradition.

The front page of one of the chapbooks in Arch. Sigma III 70. It reads:

Villancicos to be sung in His Majesty’s Royal Chapel on the eve of Epiphany in this year of 1696.

These compositions’ performative nature makes the materiality of their printed form insufficient to properly comprehend them. The chapbooks were not aimed to be read or kept, but rather to easily circulate across the city, the Peninsula or even overseas, hence their very convenient format: what was originally composed for a certain day and place – e.g. Madrid’s Royal Chapel, Christmas Eve of 1707 – could then be performed over and over again at other churches and occasions. Reinforcing its reusable essence, these chapbooks usually follow a similar structure. They are made up of 8 or 9 villancicos, the first one of which is the most solemn – thought to be performed at the beginning of the mass–, with the rest being usually humorous and theatrical. This comical part quite often relies on stock characters who are generally of non-Castilian origin. My attention was particularly driven to a subset of these ethnical villancicos: the villancicos de negros, that is, the ones whose characters are of Black African descent. Among the more than 200 villancicos in the Arch. Sigma III 70 volume – an amount that a single person just cannot edit in a couple of months –, 10 of them fall into the category of villancicos de negros, and those are the ones I am working with in order to publish them all together as a Taylor Edition.

How can I editorially justify this choice? They are not a predefined unit in any material sense: chronologically they reach from 1644 to 1711, they do not have shared authors since villancicos were generally anonymous, they were first performed across several different places in Madrid. What they do form is a thematical unit, but is that enough to take them away from the chapbook in which they were published and put them into a new, made-up collection? This is a question I have found difficult to answer. To what extent am I allowed to interfere with pieces of literary works and make them behave as independent units, capable of joining other similar compositions to create, in turn, a greater thematically-based unit? I believe these questions connect with the very notion of what it means for something to be printed, to be edited. For sure, in many cases, books work as a whole, live by themselves. However, the written version of villancicos can barely be considered a small part of the entire literary device: it is just but their skeleton. They lack musical annotations, theatrical stage directions, and even the number of characters needed to act them out. They are nowhere near being finished literary works, since the whole performative element is in no place to be found on these printed, easily circulating editions. On the contrary, performances would generally be improvised. It is not far-fetched to even imagine the lines not being exactly followed, but being more of a guide, a draft to be freely interpreted.

And what is not visible in their printed form – their performativity – is what brings villancicos together. In particular, villancicos de negros all share a common set of performative features. It was very popular and convenient to represent them on the eve of Epiphany, since the existence of a black king among the Three Magi was the perfect excuse to bring black characters on stage, who were supposed to be accompanying their monarch on his way to Bethlehem. Apart from this common background, villancicos de negros also depict a certain mode of speaking, known as blackspeak or habla de negros. Moreover, they often mention African or Afro-Caribbean musical rhythms (e.g. calambuco, zarabuyí, guineo), which we can believe were being musically performed at the same time. Consequently, although being physically separated in their material appearance, they do form a performative unit, which is why I have decided to bring them all together into a new, single editorial unit.

A section of a villancico de negros showing blackspeak or habla de negros. Notice the use of /l/ instead of /r/ or the use of /z/ instead of /s/, as well as grammatical mistakes in gender (Niña for Niño).

Another editorial decision I have had to reflect on is the nature of my transcription of the texts and, specifically, of habla de negros. Should I correct the deliberate phonological and grammatical mistakes, or rather keep them? Would keeping them mean reproducing notions of race and empire, or would that rather help draw attention to the literary treatment of black Iberians? Going back again to the performative nature of villancicos, blackspeak was undoubtedly a central element in their representation. It is in fact one of the very few signs of performativity visible in these texts’ material edition. That is why I have decided to stick with a semi-diplomatic transcription, bringing into modern Spanish the excerpts with no habla de negros and adapting, in the habla de negros excerpts, only accent marks and punctuation. What I have decided not to do is translate the villancicos into English. On the one hand, transforming habla de negros into modern standard English would be erasing not only the one performative material aspect of the text, but also whitewashing what can be essentially described as early modern racism. On the other hand, creating an English equivalent of Castilian habla de negros would mean to actively reproduce the aforesaid racism.

Comparison between a purely diplomatic transcription of habla de negros (on the left) and my semi-diplomatic transcription (on the right).

Through these questions, I am certainly becoming aware that editorial decisions are not always easy to make and, precisely because they have a very significant impact on the final work, they need to be carefully reflected upon and, ultimately, justified.

Rubén Bracero Salvat on ‘villancicos de negros’ in the volume Bodleian Library Arch. Σ III 70

Rubén Bracero Salvat is an MSt. student in Modern Languages 2023/24, taking the Method Option ‘Palaeography, History of the Book, Digital Humanities’

Rubén presenting his research at the Weston Library Coffee Mornings

1 thought on “Taking Editorial Decisions for a Collection of Early Modern Villancicos”

  1. Indeed — careful thinking is needed to make editorial decisions. I believe you are in the right track to make such decisions. Oh, and it’s also wise to re-visit one’s own past decisions!

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