Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

IHS Fellow Bianca Premo’s book “The Enlightenment on Trial” is a ‘social history of the law at its best’

Mon, May 1, 2017
IHS Fellow Bianca Premo’s book “The Enlightenment on Trial” is a ‘social history of the law at its best’
Professor Bianca Premo, Florida International University

By Henry Wiencek, Ph.D Candidate of History, University of Texas at Austin

In the 18th-century world, litigants boldly pursued their legal rights in Spanish courts, asserting Enlightenment-era notions of liberty, merit and the formal application of law. However, according to Bianca Premo's innovative new book, The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire, such lawsuits were not solely the province of Europe's literate upper crust. Rather, many cases were initiated by women, the poor, the enslaved and the illiterate in colonial Latin America, far from the Spanish metropole. Focusing on the late 18th century, The Enlightenment on Trial traces the legal battles these unsung heroes of historical change initiated, and their relevance to the broader history of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment on Trial challenges prevailing assumptions that inhabitants of colonial Latin America were marginal to the advancement of Western modernity, or the "Enlightened" legal culture that accompanied it. Through a remarkable collection of civil cases, Premo reorients the narrative of Enlightenment history away from the salons, manors, and coffeehouses of Europe, recasting the subaltern populations of colonial Spanish America as significant agents of historical change in the rise of Enlightened and modern legal discourse throughout the Atlantic world. By challenging masters or husbands in Spanish colonial courts, women, slaves, and the poor fundamentally altered the Spanish Empire's legal culture, advancing a more rights-based, secular philosophy.  As University of Texas at Austin Professor of History Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra noted of Premo’s new book: "this is social history of the law at its best that untethers the Enlightenment from its traditional, parochial European moorings. To understand Enlightenment, go to Peru, don't read Voltaire."

Dr. Bianca Premo received her Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001. Research for The Enlightenment on Trial was supported by a number of fellowships and grants, including the NEH, the ACLS, a Fulbright award, an NSF grant as well as a fellowship at the Institute for Historical Studies in 2015-2016. She is currently an assocaite professor of history at Florida International University.

Read more about Professor Premo's work, and see her web site.

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