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Medieval charters, holograph royal letters, sailing charts from the Age of Exploration, letters patent of nobility, illuminated Bibles, books of hours, choir books, as well as celebrated historical, scientific, and literary manuscripts are but a few of the treasures to be found in the manuscript collection. Perhaps better known for its collection of literary manuscripts, the Hispanic Society has an even broader collection of historical documents, many of them dating from the Middle Ages. One of the earliest is a privilegio (grant) issued by Alfonso VII, king of Castile and León (1104–1157), at Toledo circa 1150, conveying the valley of Santa María de San Martín de Valdeiglesias to a Cistercian monastery of the same name. At the foot of the document, a miniature triptych shows the figures of Alfonso VII, his sons, his majordomo, and the abbot Willielmus.
Prominent in the Society’s extensive collection of royal letters and documents are sixteen privilegios rodados issued between the 13th and 15th centuries. These medieval charters are unique to the Iberian Peninsula and take their name from the official wheeled sign manual of the king, represented by a round decoration containing the monarch’s name. Other significant royal documents include the original contract for the marriage of Isabella, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Castile and León, with the Prince of Capua, signed at Valladolid on May 21, 1476; the imperial edict issued by Charles V in 1548 increasing a pension granted to Titian; and correspondence between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, accompanied by autograph documents of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh relating to the Armada invasion of 1588.
As in any great library, illuminated manuscripts hold a place of honor because of their beauty and opulence. A missal from Tarragona dated circa 1410 epitomizes the international style of manuscript illumination practiced in Catalonia where artists drew on French and Flemish models. One of the most singular items in the collection is a book of hours illuminated in gold and silver on vellum painted with black pigment. Executed by a Flemish artist, probably working for the Aragonese court, this “Black Book of Hours” most likely was conceived as an offering of bereavement to María of Castile, Queen of Alfonso V of Aragón, upon his death in Valencia in 1458. The Hispanic Society also possesses several finely illuminated Bibles, of which the most exceptional is a Hebrew Bible, written and decorated in Spain sometime after 1450, with eight additional illuminated folios executed in Lisbon between 1492 and 1497.
Catholic liturgical manuscripts, particularly antiphonaries and graduals, exhibit styles of illumination unique to Spain. The set of ten late 15th-century choir books from the Convent of Santa Clara at Belalcázar (Córdoba) contains prime examples of Mudéjar-style illumination, characterized by the use of the geometrical ornaments popularized in the art and architecture of Muslim Spain. Secular manuscripts, such as the cartas ejecutorias de hidalguía, or patents of nobility that certified the noble lineage of the recipient, offer a significant survey of the arts of bookbinding and manuscript illumination in Spain from the late 15th through 18th centuries. Some of the most striking within the Hispanic Society’s impressive collection of over six hundred cartas ejecutorias are those of the 17th century that include illuminated portraits of the recipient’s family. The image of Antonio de Contreras and his family in a carta ejecutoria issued by Philip IV at Valladolid in 1651 recalls comparable court portraiture and shows how contemporary illuminators understood the style of Velázquez.
Celebrated for its literary manuscripts, the library holds over two hundred and fifty poetry manuscripts from the 15th through 17th centuries comprising works by thousands of poets from Spain and the Americas, including Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, Luis de Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The collection is equally rich in holograph letters and manuscripts from hundreds of literary figures as diverse as Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Voltaire, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Washington Irving, Rubén Darío, and as might be expected, virtually all of the members of Spain’s Generations of 1898 and 1927.