The idea was good, at least on paper. When in the mid-18th century the royal geographer Tomás López took on the task of drawing an ambitious map of Spain, a task entrusted to him by Charles III himself, he decided that to take on that huge task he would rely on scholars and clerics spread across the country. After all, the cartographer thought logically, who better than them could know the geography of the parishes through which they moved daily visiting parishioners and temples.
However, theory is one thing, practice another.
Although Tomás López sent questionnaires and was able to take some advantage from the material, among the answers there are botched works and a delirious chaos that even led the bishop of Astorga to excuse his priests “for having little literature and less instruction.”
A titanic order. The story of Tomás López de Vargas Machuca’s frustrating attempt to gather information was told in 2021 The country. In the 18th century, Charles III decided to improve the available plans of Spain and commissioned Tomás López, in charge of the Geography Office, to get to work.
The cartographer had a solid training, he had studied in Paris and was a disciple of the prestigious Jean-Batiste Bourguignon d’Anville, but the assignment was of such caliber that he decided to play one of his best cards to undertake it: he consulted those who—Tomás López assumed— The better they would know the ins and outs of the country’s geography and the better they would be willing to help you.
A royal order… and a questionnaire. Tomás López was not just any cartographer nor was his just another project. The scholar would end up holding the title of “geographer of his Majesty’s dominions” (sic) and fulfilled an order that came directly from the Crown.
So he wrote to the bishops to inform them of the royal order and explain how the clerics should act. To make things as easy as possible for them, or at least not to find themselves with an incoherent hodgepodge of data, he prepared a questionnaire with 15 questions focused on the characteristics of the territory.
“We are content with a blur”. The different points of the questionnaire, known as Interrogation, and above all its tone, give an idea of the suspicion with which Tomás López approached the project. The dozen and a half questions focused on administrative and demographic details and inquired about heritage, geography, history, nature and toponymy, among other issues. The writing closed with a request: “Try to form some kind of maps or plans of your territories.”
“Although it is not done as a teacher’s command, we are content with just an idea or sketch of the terrain because we will fix it by giving it the last coat. We know that many are amateurs of geography and each of them can demonstrate very well what there is. around their towns”, the document continued after requesting that the villages, farms, hamlets, hermitages, mills, rivers, streams and other details be detailed in the plans. With the approval of the Crown, the questionnaire was sent to civil and ecclesiastical authorities along with a letter explaining its purpose to bishops, priests and parish priests.
From dedication to carelessness. Tomás López’s assignment did not go down equally well in all the rectors. Some, like the parish priest of Porto, in Castilla y León, responded with more than competent maps and observations that demonstrate the care with which they faced the royal task. Others limited themselves to sending sketches drawn with a few lines and annotations, answers that skillfully bordered on mockery or evasive statements in which they explained that there were already ecclesiastical plans that could be consulted.
In 2020 Josemi Lorenzo Arribas published a book that helps to get an idea of the responses that came to Charles III’s cartographer and the frustration he must have often felt: ‘The graphic representations of the Zamorano dictionary of Tomás López (1765-1798)’. No matter how much Tomás López had tried to clarify his questionnaire, the answers were disparate: the instructions of the prelates varied from one bishopric to another, the parish priests responded with different formats, sometimes providing useless data, and the scales did not They coincided. Another problem was what the neighbors understood by leagues, which made it difficult to compare the distances between different points.
“Of little education”. The country He relates how the geographer had to insist and insist that he was content with approximate plans, but with equally unequal results. Not always out of disinterest. There were those who followed an artistic vein and sent detailed drawings, although no matter how well drawn they were, they were of little use to Tomás López. In other cases the authorities simply assumed that they could hardly go further, as the bishop of Astorga recognized when speaking of his diocese.
“Of the 600 own priests in this diocese, more or less, 300 are of private presentation, and although many of these are of merit and career, the majority have little literature and less education, who do not see a return book (since they are ordained) and tend to brutalize themselves in the villages, when they are not given to wine and other vices. Conclusion, the Leonese prelate concluded in his writing: “I have been forced to desist from such an undertaking.”
“Neither exact, nor admirable”. The quotation marks are on this occasion from Lorenzo Arribas, who recalls that, with some exceptions, the plans sent to López were not characterized by their precision. “They lacked knowledge about triangulations to make a survey that remotely resembled topography, which made the geodetic ambition of Carlos III’s commissioner very difficult,” explains the historian in statements collected by The country. In León there were those who directly limited themselves to turning a “deaf ear.”
With perspective. The final balance in Zamora was 50 locations with data, although a dozen were limited to providing administrative information and another dozen focused on the distances that separated geographical points. Between 1773 and 1768, the geographer ended up publishing four partial maps of Zamora, Valladolid, Toro and León. The information obtained with his questionnaires is in any case an interesting source of information and there were those who applied themselves in the response, such as the scholar Francisco Javier Virués from Segovia, in Jerez, who included sketches and a report.
Cover image: Wikipedia
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