Extract from

A Reminiscence of Simancas

by William R. Shepherd

from The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 6, No. 1/3 (Feb. - Aug., 1926), pp. 9-20

Few are the searchers for the sources of Hispanic history who would venture upon a sojourn in what the Spaniards themselves describe as the "terror of archivists, a purgatory on earth but without the hope of salvation"… .

However tedious, and in a measure unpleasant, the life in Simancas, the castle and its treasures offered full compensation for all the discomforts. The very sight in fact of the old gray walls and towers and battlements, of the great stone causeways spanning a deep and grass-grown moat, recalled the strength and pride of Spain three centuries and more ago, when its gold and crimson banner floated over a domain on land and sea surpassing far the bounds of imperial Rome. And then the vision would change. The castle had faded into a venerable storehouse of paper memories, a renovated ruin set by the edge of a poor decrepit village symbolic of the Spain of later days, bereft of all its splendors, with all its glories vanished, returning like Sigismund to his cave, there to pass in chains the night of misery and pain. Formerly a residence of the admirals of Castile and later a state-prison for offenders of high rank, in 1545 the castle was converted by Charles V. into a repository of public papers.

Gloomy dungeons and a torture-chamber from the ceiling of which still hang grewsome [sic] hooks, and at the side of which near the heavily barred window sat the judge and notary who took evidence during the torment, contrast most curiously in thought with the pacific uses of a subsequent age. Altered throughout to accommodate the masses of records as they flowed in, the building was made to contain fifty or more rooms lined on every side with shelves, cases and closets into which upwards of thirty-three millions of documents are crowded, some neatly tied, boxed and ticketed, others heaped unceremoniously on the floor. It was a revel in the records of the centuries that awaited my entrance into the quiet, spacious work-room of the castle, its atmosphere heavy with the mustiness of old paper and parchment.

Every great event in the romantic story of Spain's grandeur and decline, of the multifarious relations with Europe and the dominions beyond the seas, and not a few curious happenings besides, are pictured in the worn and crumbling manuscripts that crowd tower and dungeon, court and corridor, chest and closet, rack and shelf in every direction to which the eye may wander. Though the vast collection ranges back to the times of the reconquest from the Moors, its value centers mainly on the period when Spain was powerful among the nations, and on the later days when its rivals surged to the front and the Spanish flag went down forever on the continents of the New World… . What a joy, therefore, it was to see and to handle the original records themselves, to listen to the testimony at firsthand, to meet the makers of history as it were face to face!