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New World Gold

Cultural Anxiety and Monetary Disorder in Early Modern Spain

The discovery of the New World was initially a cause for celebration. But the vast amounts of gold that Columbus and other explorers claimed from these lands altered Spanish society. The influx of such wealth contributed to the expansion of the Spanish empire, but also it raised doubts and insecurities about the meaning and function of money, the ideals of court and civility, and the structure of commerce and credit. New World Gold shows that, far from being a stabilizing force, the flow of gold from the Americas created anxieties among Spaniards and shaped a host of distinct behaviors, cultural practices, and intellectual pursuits on both sides of the Atlantic.

Elvira Vilches examines economic treatises, stories of travel and conquest, moralist writings, fiction, poetry, and drama to reveal that New World gold ultimately became a problematic source of power that destabilized Spain’s sense of trust, truth, and worth. These cultural anxieties, she argues, rendered the discovery of gold paradoxically disastrous for Spanish society. Combining economic thought, social history, and literary theory in trans-Atlantic contexts, New World Gold unveils the dark side of Spain’s Golden Age.

368 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2010

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: European History, Latin American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages


“New World Gold is an invaluable contribution to understanding the impact of rapidly changing economic circumstances on the history and literature of early modern Spain. Vilches has digested an impressive array of sources, from late medieval theologians and chroniclers of the American ‘discovery’ through mercantilists and arbitristas to modern economists. She not only explains how the influx of American gold and silver and the expanding credit and annuities market altered the Spanish economy, but also how Spain’s sixteenth- and seventeenth-century economic writers, theologians, historians, and literary artists understood or misunderstood them.”

Margaret R. Greer, Duke University

New World Gold will be an important amalgam of work in disparate genres, rarely united: economic theory and literary criticism. Vilches has mastered both. She has written a provocative cultural analysis of colonial wealth and money.”

Karen Graubart, University of Notre Dame

“This engrossing book mines the discursive riches of Habsburg Spain, opening up a treasure trove of writings about gold, money, and credit previously inaccessible in English. Elvira Vilches explores multiple early modern discourses that view the world and human experience through the prism of the wealth—real and symbolic, vast and elusive, desired and scorned. Her study anchors Baroque literature’s ubiquitous metaphors of gold, silver, and other precious metals in economic writings whose concern is not only with material value, but with personal and cultural values. New World Gold places before the twenty-first-century reader a compelling mirror of another not-so-distant imperial society that sought to come to terms with its own problematic ways of doing business.”

Mary Malcolm Gaylord, Harvard University

“In this fascinating work, Elvira Vilches draws together an impressive array of sources, from moral treatises and fiction to the works of political economists and policy makers.  The result is an illuminating new picture of value, money, and credit in early modern Spain and the new world.”

Anthony J. Cascardi, University of California, Berkeley

“[Vilches] has written a fascinating study on the importance of gold reaching Spain from the time of Spanish conquests in the Americas and its relationship to credit. . . . New World Gold is a rich work that demonstrates the value of combining early modern literary, historical, and theoretical works for understanding a topic central to early modern Spanish history.”

M. A. Burkholder | Choice

“An ambitious book. . . . Vilches produces a picture of a society beleaguered by cultural and intellectual anxiety over what was happening to its traditional values. . . . [New World Gold]provides valuable insights into a world with disturbing parallels to our own.”

J. H. Elliott | American Historical Review

Table of Contents


Introduction: Money, Credit, and Value

1 New World Gold

2 Selling the Indies: Columbus and the Economy of the Marvelous

3 Gold: A Problematic Standard

4 The New World of Money

5 Writing about Debt

6 The Indies, Value, and Wealth

Conclusion: A Remote and Exotic Geography



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