Looking Back

Prehistory, history and posthistory

/ 05:16 AM December 14, 2018

No document,” declared the late nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo, “no history!”

Historians work with documents because history, as we know it today, is largely based on written records. This explains why prehistory, often associated with dinosaurs and cavemen, covers the period before written records. Talking to young people during the Rizal Youth Leadership Institute in Baguio City this week made me wonder if we will soon have something called “posthistory” to cover the digital age.


I often hear teachers complain that checking papers gives them a headache because this generation of students have awful penmanship, for which teachers blame cell phones and texting. If Rizal had a cell phone, I would not have a career because a lot of what he wrote down would have been lost in unrecorded phone conversations and text messages. However, much of his writings and reflective autobiographical pieces would have been fodder for a blog; his short thoughts would have been great in Twitter; his photos, both formal and wacky, would have fed his Facebook or Instagram feeds.

My research on Rizal, for example, was largely based on the 25 volumes of writing that nobody reads. Over the years, I have worked beyond the printed or transcribed texts in these “Escritos de Rizal” volumes and have become acquainted with his handwriting in original documents. In time I have come across the writing of his contemporaries—Marcelo H. del Pilar, Mariano Ponce, the Luna brothers Juan and Antonio—as well as the handwritten letters of his friends like Ferdinand Blumentritt, family members, and even his girlfriends like Leonor Rivera (who sometimes hid things in code) and Josephine Bracken (who wrote to him in English).


Beyond my Rizal research, but also from the 19th century, I have learned by exposure and practice to recognize the writing of Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, Gregorio del Pilar, and the other heroes and villains who figured in the birth of the Filipino nation.

Practice makes perfect and 19th-century writing, when legible, can be easy to read compared with Spanish documents from earlier centuries. My baptism of fire, so to speak, happened over three decades ago at the Colegio de Agustinos Filipinos in Valladolid that I visited for its museum of Philippine artifacts and its great library built by the first religious order to work in the islands, the Agustinians, who arrived in 1565. We must not forget that the navigator of the Legazpi expedition was the Agustinian friar Andres de Urdaneta, and that the Spanish period in our history actually began with Legazpi and Urdaneta in 1565, and not with Magellan in 1521.

It was a chance meeting with the great Agustinian historian Isacio Rodriguez that probably set me on the road to history as a career. I only wanted to see the museum and library and make my way back to Madrid, but I stayed a week going over early Agustinian material on Pampanga for my undergraduate thesis. Rodriguez sat me down and provided a crash course on paleography that helped me recognize the handwriting conventions and abbreviations in manuscripts of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

It was a hands-on tutorial that served me well and will come to good use when I scratch off my bucket list a trip to the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla that has all the documents for the yet unwritten history of the Philippines in the 17th-18th centuries.

Good penmanship was once a mark of good breeding or education. Not so in boys’ schools. At the Ateneo of my time, we all endured a writing manual by a certain Mr. Tiongco that sought to hone our motor skills with push-and-pull, zigzag, rounds and circles. All was in vain as our penmanship was distinctly bad. In contrast, Catholic women’s schools taught unique penmanship, making a difference between the French Assumption colegiala writing from the German St. Scholastica scrawl.

Rizal had the best, most legible, writing among our heroes. He was so skillful that he could even write in the German schrift that I cannot read. Mabini had the smallest, almost feminine, penmanship. Bonifacio had the finest line, his signature very complicated. Aguinaldo had a very characteristic but legible script.

Studied more closely, an original manuscript reveals more than the text or content. The handwriting may reflect the personality and context of the writer that are lost in the age of texting and e-mail.


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