'Cursed' Spanish Novel Published After 400 Years

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The news hit recently that a 400-year-old Spanish manuscript — rumored to be cursed — had finally been published:

Why did it take so long for this book, Historia del Huérfano, or The Orphan's Story in English, to be published?

Belinda Palacios, who edited the manuscript, studies Hispanic literature. She's Peruvian but lives in Switzerland. She decided to tackle this novel as part of her PhD, so she wrote to inform the teacher who had originally sent her the manuscript:

"And then that was when he told me, 'I must warn you, the novel is cursed. You must know that people who worked on it before have died.' And I thought that he was joking. So I continued with the work."

Palacios also heard the book was cursed from Raquel Chang-Rodriguez, a Distinguished Professor at the City College of New York who specializes in colonial letters from the Andean region and Mexico. Chang-Rodriguez says renowned Spanish scholar Antonio Rodríguez-Moñino and Spanish professor William C. Bryant both died before finishing their respective editions of The Orphan's Story.

"And hence the legend developed of the manuscript being embrujado, as we say in Spanish, bewitched," says Chang-Rodriguez.

This did not stop Palacios, though she did tell her best friend to burn the manuscript if she died during her PhD.

The Orphan

The Orphan's Story tells the tale of an orphan who leaves Spain at age 14 to seek adventure in the Spanish colonies. It was written under a pen name, Andrés de León, in the early 1600s.

Neal Anthony Messer, a former PhD student, has also studied the text and says the protagonist was an unusual character.

"[He's] a strong man and a religious [man] and a soldier. It's said he would crush walnuts with his bare hands, break plates over his head, and dent a helmet just [from] punching it."

The Orphan eventually becomes a monk, which has led scholars to speculate that the identity of the book's author is Martín de León Cárdenas, a monk who traveled from Spain to the colonies and back, and who eventually became the Archbishop of Palermo.

The First Global Age

The early 1600s was a period of incredible transition across the globe — the "first global age," says historian Daniela Bleichmar. She's a professor at the University of Southern California studying the Americas of the 16th and 17th centuries and isn't surprised The Orphan's Story wasn't published until now.

"We think of this period as the Gutenberg press, the spread of print," she says. "Absolutely. But authors wrote by hand. Sometimes that got into print and sometimes it didn't."

People at the time were fascinated by what was true, says Bleichmar, because explorers coming back from the colonies brought with them incredible, unbelievable tales about such wonders as a pineapple:

"Like 'there's a fruit that comes out of a spiky plant ... that is very prickly, but if you cut it it's bright yellow, tastes amazing, and is very juicy. They call it a pineapple.' And people would say, 'Get out of here! No way.'"

Such tales of amazement and wonder — honestly, how did people figure out you could eat pineapples? — were subject to personal biases and often embellished.

Modern Parallels 

Bleichmar closes out the episode by discussing how The Orphan's Story is actually quite relevant to today.

"You know, there’s a line that historians love to quote which goes 'the past is a foreign country — they do things differently there.' And it is true. But, that said, I think that there are a lot of things that resonate between that period and this period. It was a period of enormously fast technological development," she says. "The printing press was a major shift. The scientific revolution. There was profound technological change, profound interest in exploration and discovery, in novelty, in things that are new ... It was a time when things happened faster and people really thought, 'we're living in a new era.' "

Thanks to u/detrimentalistt for this week's artwork. Find them online at

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Meghan B. Kelly Multi-platform Editor
Meghan is the multi-platform editor for WBUR.



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