That word...

What did it mean to be naked to a sixteenth century Spaniard?

This isn't some navel-gazey, "do we even see the same Phish poster, MAAAAN?" question (or at least it isn't meant to be), but rather something I have been wrestling with in my own work for the last few months.

I'm working on this article about a indigenous translator woman, who after years of exile from Florida in Havana and Seville, was able to return, more or less, to the village she had been taken from. After a few days in the interior of what is now Pinellas County, she suddenly appears on a beach and is seen by the friar and the sailors she had left behind. The friar (our sometimes inscrutable, deeply pious narrator) mentions that they could not recognize her at first because she was naked.1

I presented an earlier version of this paper at a little workshop, and someone asked me whether I thought she was literally naked. I had to admit, I hadn't thought about it, but I didn't think so. A philologically-minded participant pressed me to do some research on it, which I put on some to-do list, somewhere, to come back to later.

I promptly half-forgot that list, but the idea stuck with me.

Lo and behold! While researching early contacts in the American southwest, I came across this little sentence:

"The women go about naked and wear a covering of painted and glued feathers in back and front. (Meaning a loin-covering which "hangs behind them like a tail") They wear their hair like the men.

Or, in the Italian text from which it came (long story):

Le donne vanno ignude/& portano un gran rinvolto di piume di dietro, &davanti dipinto & incolato & I capelli come gli huomini. 2

Here it was, in plain English/Italian, that nakedness in the sixteenth century didn't necessarilly mean "totally stark," but could also just mean topless, since the proto-showgirl outfit described above would cover any "shameful" bits.

Further digging proved it wasn't just me and Alarcón, either. Here's the first two definitions of "desnudo" from the fantastic 18th century Diccionario de Autoridades:

DESNUDO, DA. adj. Falto de vestído, o abrígo. Latín. Nudus. L. PUENT. Medit. part. 4. Medit. 40. Punt. 3. Desnúdo salí, Salvador mio, del vientre de mi madre, desnúdo como vos quiero volver a él. SOLIS, Hist. de Nuev. Esp. lib. 1. cap. 19. Los demás venían desnúdos, y todos afeados con varias tintas y colores, de que se pintaban el cuerpo y el rostro.

DESNUDO. Se llama tambien el que está mui mal vestido, y indecente. Latín. Obsoleta, attrita, vel inconcinnâ veste indutus. NAVARR. Man. cap. 21. num. 4. Y los pobres tan desnúdos segun su estado, que les sería gran vergüenza o risa si la oyessen.

To summarize in lieu of translating, naked can also mean not having enough clothes, or bad ones.


1 In some ways, what I'm trying to do is build up a world of context around her, since what we actually know would fill up a large-ish notecard. Conquest history is pleasingly (for me) difficult, and at the best of times is detective work. Finding a woman that the colonial record did its best to forget, from a place so far flung it was never really conquered, almost feels perverse in that context. But at the same time, giving her something of a voice, and by extension the hundres of indigenous translators and thousands of indigenous slaves a (relentlessly researched) story feels so gratifying.

2 From a description of the Alarcón expedition in Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, "Narrative of Alarcón's Voyage, 1450" in Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-42 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2005). Originally from Ramusio, Terzo Volume delle navigationi et viaggi, 1556, 363r-370v. Why is this in Italian you ask? The Venetians, Ramusio chief among them, had an extensive information network that gathered news about potential new trading opportunities from around the world. Ramusio translated the original, which has since been lost.