Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation: Three Phases of the Evangelization of New Spain, 1524-1650
John F. Schwaller
The conversion of the native peoples of the New World marked an important phase in the expansion of Christianity. For the first time, missionaries carried the Gospel beyond the confines of the Mediterranean world. The Spanish missionaries to what is now Mexico carried with them both the traditions of missionary activity in the early Church and notions of the central power of the Church that were developed in Roman times, modified during the Middle Ages, and further perfected as a result of the centuries-long occupation of the Iberian peninsula by the Muslims (711-1492). Evangelization became an important part of Spanish statecraft, both on the Iberian Peninsula and in succession as they explored and settled the New World. This study will focus particularly on the evangelization of New Spain, that region which roughly corresponds to what is now Mexico.
The establishment of Spanish hegemony in what is now Mexico occurred in several phases. By far the most famous is the military phase, in which forces under the command of Hernán Cortés defeated the far more numerous forces of the Mexica [Aztecs] and established political dominion over them. Yet this military phase was relatively brief. The longer and more difficult phase consisted of the process of converting the natives to the Christian faith and modifying their social conventions to better fit then-current notions of Christian polity. This process began with the military phase of the conquest, which might reasonably be posited never to have ended. The failure to modify fully the culture of the native peoples of what is now Mexico is one of the aspects that make that country so exotic and attractive to many foreigners today.
Just as the conversion of the natives of New Spain occurred during various different phases, similarly, different groups perceived the conversion differently across time. Fortunately there is some, albeit limited, documentation available in native languages, so that we have information not only regarding Spanish perceptions of native readiness and willingness to accept the Gospel, but also testimony regarding attitudes among the natives themselves.
Many authors have studied the conversion to Christianity of the native peoples of Mexico. Perhaps none has had the impact of the French author, Robert Ricard.1 It is unfortunate that when he wrote his landmark study, he characterized the conversion and evangelization as a “spiritual conquest.” This description conjures up images of heavy-handed friars and other religious personnel literally beating the Indian neophytes into submission to the Christian God. While no one can deny that such scenes did play out, the missionaries themselves would have admitted that conversion through force was a poor substitute for other, less violent evangelization. More recently, Luis Rivera has characterized the early phases of conversion in the New World as a “violent evangelization.”2 Yet other scholars have perceived of the evangelization quite differently. Louise Burkhart, looking specifically at the missionary efforts of the Franciscans among Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico (heirs of the Mexica), has characterized their conversion as a “moral dialogue.”3 Taking the literature as a whole, one realizes that there is a broad spectrum of perspectives on what constituted the evangelization of what is now Mexico in general, and of the Nahua in particular.
The official conversion of New Spain was an integral part of the conquest. Hernán Cortés took several missionaries along with him. These priests and friars had two principal jobs. One was to provide for the spiritual needs of the company of Spaniards who formed the army of conquest. Yet they also played an important role in demonstrating the power of the Christian religion to the natives of Mexico. The two best known of these religious agents were the Mercedarian friar, Bartolomé de Olmedo, and the secular priest, Juan Díaz. In general, Olmedo was the private chaplain to Cortés. He also took center stage when special services were needed, either for the assembled troops, or to impress certain truths on the natives. Consequently, when villages were conquered, Olmedo would frequently climb the central temple, tear down images of the pre-Columbian gods, erect some Christian symbol (often a banner of Our Lady of Remedies), and then proceed to deliver a sermon or other devotional harangue.4 Díaz frequently operated in the background. He was not officially a chaplain to the expedition, but rather just a specialized member. He was like most of the other members, except that he was also a priest. He served the spiritual needs of the men in the company, but on occasion came to the fore, such as when he supervised the conversion and baptism of the lords of Tlaxcala.5 Another priest in the company was Francisco Garzón. According to legend, he was the first person to say mass in what is now Mexico City. Nevertheless, these early missionaries were principally occupied in serving the members of Cortés’ company, emerging occasionally as missionaries among the natives.
The evangelization of Mexico officially began with the arrival of the first company of Franciscan missionaries in 1524, barely three years after the fall of Mexico [Tenochtitlan]. The conversion of the natives of Mexico fell principally to members of the regular clergy: Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. They were assisted in their efforts by members of the secular clergy. Later in the century, once the initial conversion was complete, members of the Society of Jesus joined the evangelization and would gain a great reputation in their efforts in the northern frontier. The evangelization has traditionally been divided into three phases. The first began with the arrival of the first twelve Franciscans and lasted until the erection of the diocese of Mexico in 1536. The second phase continued from that time until the pestilence of 1576, while the third phase ran from the last quarter of the sixteenth century onwards.
The missionaries were acutely aware of the historic importance of their efforts. As a result of this, we have many accounts of the conversion penned by the missionaries themselves. Because of their historical primacy, the largest group of authors was connected with the Franciscan order, although each other order had at least one chronicler. Each of the orders had a slightly different style of evangelization, but several features were common to all. Given the vast expanse of the territory and the fact that the native peoples spoke languages that were completely unintelligible to the Europeans, the missionaries quickly decided to learn the native languages, rather than even attempting the wholesale teaching of Spanish to the natives. The speed with which these friars picked up the leading languages is truly astounding. For example, within a few weeks of his arrival, Friar Toribio de Benavente, a member of the initial twelve Franciscans, had picked up a significant amount of Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec empire. He also noticed that the natives continually repeated a word whenever the friars passed by: “motolinia.” Friar Toribio questioned one of the interpreters assigned to the company as to what the word meant. The reply was that it meant “he goes about poor.” Instantly, Friar Toribio adopted this as his surname.6 It reflected at least one of the missionary goals of the first Franciscans: to teach through the example of apostolic poverty. The missionaries also sought to teach the rudiments of the Christian faith in any manner possible. Within slightly more than a decade after the conquest, a printing press was founded in Mexico City that began publishing materials in the native languages to assist the missionaries in their efforts.7 Language differences would always be a significant obstacle, but it diminished as more friars and priests learned the native languages. The missionaries discovered several means to overcome the language barrier. One of the earliest of these was the use of what only can be described as cartoons in spreading the Gospel. This method is credited to Friar Jacobo de Testera (or Tastera). Testera developed a system whereby he drew out the rudiments of the Christian faith using little stick figures. He would then point to these figures as he proceeded to evangelize the natives.8
Other missionaries discovered that theatrical productions were particularly effective in conveying the outlines of the Christian faith. The Franciscans and others began to produce miracle plays adapted to the particular situations of New Spain and cast in the native languages. One of the most popular productions was the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Clearly this title was produced in an effort to abolish what the Spaniards considered a horrific practice: human sacrifice. Other titles include Holy Wednesday, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Final Judgment.9
PHASE ONE: CONVERSION BY EXAMPLE
As noted, while Ricard characterized the first phase of the evangelization of New Spain as the “spiritual conquest,” that description is misleading. Within the missionary order of the Franciscans, there were two forces that acted heavily to determine their methods of evangelization. As seen in the case of Motolinia, the idea of conversion through the emulation of apostolic poverty was a very powerful idea. This idea had been one of the founding principles of the Franciscan order. The interpretation and application of apostolic poverty had, in fact, been at the root of many of the divisions within the Franciscan family of orders. Although Friar Bartolomé de las Casas is rightly credited for his insistence on the peaceful attraction of pagans to Christianity, it is consonant with the Franciscan ideals.10
The apostolic model for the Franciscans was wedded to a millenarian and providential vision of the discovery and conquest of the New World. Not only did the Franciscans see themselves as imitators of Christ in spreading the Gospel, they saw this role in a larger divine context. Based on the writings of Joachim of Fiore and other Franciscan authors, the early missionaries felt chosen by God for the task of the evangelization of the New World, and in taking on this role, believed they were fulfilling a divine mission.11 Part and parcel of the divine mission of the Franciscans was the selection, by God, of the Spanish for the discovery and conquest of the New World. Both Columbus and Cortés were associated with this divine mission. Columbus carried the name Christopher, “he who carries Christ.” Cortés, a well-known supporter of the Franciscan order, upon the successful conquest of Mexico, called for Franciscan and Dominican missionaries.12 When the missionaries arrived, he made a great spectacle of receiving them and humbling himself before them. It was high drama since the Franciscans were road-weary, poorly dressed, barefoot, and near starving, yet the most powerful man in the colony humbled himself before them.13 The Franciscans became supportive of the military conquest of the New World, since they envisioned it as being part of the divine mission, which included their own participation as missionaries. Consequently, although conquest by fire and sword was, in fact, quite far from the ideal of attraction to the faith by apostolic poverty, the Franciscans came to accept it as a necessary precursor to their own ministrations.
The millenarian inspiration of the Franciscans provided the friars with a burning desire to continue the evangelization with all due speed. Some of the friars very seriously considered that they were living in the end times; that once the Gospel had been preached to the last soul on earth, the Second Coming would be at hand. Clearly, the New World had been hidden from the Europeans by the hand of God until they were ready to undertake the conversion. That moment was at hand, as evidenced by Columbus, Cortés, and others. The Franciscans stood poised to bring it about.14
The chroniclers of the Franciscan order did not focus on the military aspects of the conquest, but rather on their own more peaceful activity, and on studies of the native peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Several friars left chronicles of their activities among the native peoples. Others specialized in what we today would identify as ethnographic work, focusing more on the lives of the natives than on the accomplishments of the friars. Motolinia, being one of the first twelve, felt compelled to report both. While there are no original manuscripts of his works extant, scholars have credited him with two major works, eventually published as the Historia de los indios de la Nueva España and the Memoriales o Libra de las cosas de la Nueva España.15 This is not to say that Motolinia did not concern himself with the ethnography of the peoples he studied, because he very much did, but rather his works provide a better glimpse into the early efforts of evangelization. The, sections or fragments of his work that deal with the conversion depict a group of missionaries, instilled in the traditions of the Franciscan order, who were very conscious of their actions as noted.
The inspiration of the Franciscans both in apostolic poverty and the conversion through example on the one hand, and in the eschatological inspiration of possibly living at the end of times on the other, created a dramatic tension within their evangelical style. Writing some fifteen years after the events, Motolinia recalled the first missionary expeditions in central Mexico. Several themes emerge from his descriptions of the evangelization. One of these is the importance of baptism. For the Franciscans, the only prerequisite for baptism was a willingness on the part of the person who received the sacrament. Other religious orders, such as the Augustinians, and to a lesser extent the Dominicans, felt that baptism should only be administered after a sufficient period of indoctrination. The Franciscans, working from a millenarian perspective, sought to hasten the coming by offering baptism freely and widely, especially to children. Motolinia describes the beginning of the Franciscan mission in central Mexico in this way:
Cuauhtitlan, four leagues from Mexico, and Tepotzotlan were the villages to which the friars first went because in Mexico there was much noise. In the house of God among those they were teaching there were the young lords from these villages, who were nephews or cousins of Motezuma, and these were among the leading ones there. As a result of this they began to teach there and to baptize the children.16
Similarly he described the first mission to Xochimilco and Coyoacan, villages in the southern end of the Valley of Mexico: “then in writing and through an interpreter they preached to them and baptized the children ... . And thus they went through all eight villages. The leading nobles and many others, requested instruction and baptism for themselves and their children.”17 He went on to indicate the deep desire that the natives developed for baptism:
Many come to be baptized, not only on Sundays and the other days set aside for this, but each and every day; children and adults, healthy and ill, from all the regions. When the friars go about visiting, the Indians come out on the roads with their children in their arms, and with those in pain squatting, and even the very old and decrepit are brought out in order to be baptized.18
Motolinia noted that it was impossible to baptize the newly-converted in New Spain according to the rubrics developed in Spain, using holy water, chrism, salt, albs, and candles. He noted that since most baptisms took place in the open air, candles were impossible. Moreover, it was nearly impossible to devote the time required to perform the complete ritual over each one of the catechumens, since there were scores or even hundreds awaiting the ceremony. The full ritual might be performed on a few children and representative adults, while the rest were merely baptized with water.19
Motolinia concluded his discussion of baptism by attempting to figure the total number of individuals who received the sacrament. He made two rough calculations. One was based on the number of priests among the friars who engaged in missionary activity. Based upon reports and estimates made by these, and others for them, Motolinia calculated that approximately five million people had been baptized between the conquest and 1536. He then considered the problem differently, based upon the number of villages and provinces that had been visited by the friars. Using that estimate, he calculated that perhaps as many as nine million natives had received the sacrament between 1523 and 1538.20 A later Franciscan chronicler corrected this latter number, reducing it to six and a half million between 1523 and 1540.21 Whatever the exact number, the size of the task at hand was daunting. Scholarship has placed the population of central Mexico, the general areas in which the missionaries were active in the first two decades, at about twenty-five million persons at the time of the Spanish contact. That number declined rapidly, due to pestilence and combat, but remained fairly high until the first major epidemics. This would imply, however, that as much as one-third of the population was baptized in the first decade and a half. This seems an exaggeration. Given that there were fewer than 100 friars active in the region during the period, each would have needed to baptize several tens of thousands to achieve this number.22
The sacrament of the Eucharist was not commonly administered to the natives. While the celebration of the mass was the central ritual of Christianity and one of the keystones of the friars’ missionary efforts, it was uncommon for the natives to receive the sacrament, usually merely observing it. Motolinia noted that the natives flocked to witness the celebration of the mass.23 It was a central celebration; it was high drama; it was a public ritual, which could, in a small way, replace the large public rituals of the old religion. The problem came with the distribution of the consecrated elements to the natives. In the sixteenth century, only the consecrated host was normally distributed to the faithful. The consecrated wine was consumed by the celebrant alone. Additionally, part of the consecrated host was usually reserved for public veneration as the Body of Christ. It is in the issue of the Eucharist that one sees the conflicts inherent in the missionary policy of Motolinia and the first friars. Given the millenarian inspiration of these friars, and their devotion to conversion through example, clearly it was the celebration of the Eucharist that became a central feature of their overall program, because it was such high drama in their eyes. Moreover, baptism allowed for the spreading of the Gospel, even though those who received the sacrament may not have understood its import. Together, these two sacraments provided the friars with two potent tools to spread Christianity. Yet if the friars are to be believed, while the natives were capable, even willing or eager to accept Christianity and baptism, the friars were not comfortable with administering to them the consecrated elements of the mass, the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The natives were not yet well enough prepared in the faith. This was, however, not unlike the attitude held towards children.
Children, while baptized when infants, also were not allowed to receive the Eucharist. In the Middle Ages, the sacrament of Confirmation was instituted to provide for the initiation of the previously baptized into the full life of the Church, similar to the modern Ritual of the Christian Initiation of Adults. This practice, then, made the Indians very much like children, or in the terms of the period, “neophytes to the faith.” Consequently, one of the inherent features of the early missionary activity was the relegation of the natives to a condition wherein they were part of the faithful, but not yet fully members of the body of all believers. Similarly, one sees that the natives were excluded from other sacraments of the Church, most notably ordination. As time went by, the natives became consigned to a permanent status of neophytes to the faith. They had been baptized, but the friars recognized that it would take many years of indoctrination and acculturation to fully incorporate the natives into a European Christian polity. The critical point came with the trial of the cacique (local governing official) of Texcoco, Don Carlos, for idolatry.
In 1536, about the same time that Motolinia was writing, Don Carlos Ometochtzin, the native ruler of Texcoco and one of the Spaniards’ first allies, was arrested on charges of idolatry and apostasy, and he was tried before an Inquisitorial court convened by the bishop of Mexico, Friar Juan de Zumárraga. Although Don Carlos had been baptized and had overtly embraced Christianity, he had not given up the old ways. He had a large collection of hidden images, which he worshiped and before which he practiced some of the old rites. His arrest, eventual conviction, and execution sent shock waves through the colony.24 The Franciscans had invested considerable effort in the conversion of the native leaders. Basing themselves upon the European experience, they reasoned that if the native leader converted to Christianity, as had Constantine of the Roman Empire, the others would follow. Because of this, they established schools for the sons of the native nobility, first in Texcoco, and later in Mexico City. The Texcoco institution was founded by the Flemish Franciscan lay brother, Friar Pedro de Gante.25 The Mexico City school, the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (College of the Holy Cross in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco), came to be an important center of learning.26 Yet Don Carlos, upon whom such energy had been lavished, was not what he seemed. Rather than being an example of the Christian ruler, he was a hidden pagan.
There were several results of the trial of Don Carlos. The friars were chastened in their appreciation of how quickly the conversion would take. The popular protest over the execution of Don Carlos eventually led to the exclusion of the natives from the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The whole experience convinced the friars that the natives were in fact neophytes. Even those natives in closest contact with the friars, and the most developed in the faith, could be hiding loyalty to the old gods. The trial also provided for the entrance onto the scene of the friar who would, in many ways, determine the future course of the conversion and the friars’ response to it, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Friar Bernardino had not been in New Spain very long, but he had learned Nahuatl quickly and well, and was chosen to be one of the official court interpreters for the trial.27
PHASE TWO: INTELLECTUAL AND CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT
Friar Bernardino de Sahagún became the intellectual heir of much of the ethnographic tradition of the Franciscans. Sahagún, an active missionary throughout his career, arrived in New Spain in 1529, just after the first wave of Franciscan missionaries. On several occasions he worked at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco on the acculturation of the sons of the Nahua nobility. He also served in various rural parishes, the most important of which was Tepepulco. At some time ca.1547, Sahagún began collecting data about the life, culture, and history of the Nahua. These investigations ultimately resulted in the writing of many different types of works, each with a specific purpose and aim. The unifying vision behind the multifaceted production of Sahagún was the creation of a corpus of materials to assist missionaries and parish priests in the conversion of the natives.28 Sahagún felt that better-trained missionaries would be able to overcome the serious disadvantage of dealing with an alien culture and language. His experience in the trial of Don Carlos of Texcoco, and his service in the evangelization in the rural areas of New Spain, had demonstrated to him that conversion during the first twenty years had been incomplete, to say the least.
But beyond producing simple didactic works, such as grammars, dictionaries, and confessional guides, Sahagún wished to more fully equip and arm the missionaries with works that outlined the pre-Columbian belief systems, in order to assist the parish priests in identifying vestiges of the old ways, the better to eliminate them. As part of this, Sahagún produced several works of immediate use to his fellow missionaries. These include collections of sermons, a collection of native hymns recast to celebrate the saints and feasts of the Christian calendar (Psalmodia Christiana) the translation of the Epistle and Gospel readings for the Sunday mass into Nahuatl, and the commentary on these readings. These works, taken as a whole, have been characterized as a “doctrinal encyclopedia.”29 One other piece in this collection was the “Colloquios y Doctrina christian [sic].” In fact, scholars have gained much insight into Sahagún’s overall plan through investigation of the prologue to the “Colloquios” and the editorial history of the Psalmodia Christiana.30
The “Colloquios” and the Psalmodia both pertain to a very prolific period in Sahagún’s life. They were composed sometime around 1564, along with several other pieces of the doctrinal encyclopedia, and some of the major work on the Florentine Codex, Sahagún’s twelve-volume encyclopedia of Nahua culture. Specifically, Sahagún notes that in 1564 he was working in the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco. The “Colloquios” were based on old papers and testimonies of the activities of the first twelve Franciscan missionaries to Mexico. These undoubtedly had been saved and collected by the Franciscans for future historical reflection.
Sahagún, however, perceived in these notes the potential for a far different type of work. He was not so much interested, it would seem, in writing a narrative history of the early conversion as he was in creating a more humanistic work. Other friars already had tackled the work of narrative history. By Sahagún’s time, Motolinia had begun work on his chronicle of the early Franciscans in Mexico. A contemporary of Sahagún, Friar Gerónimo de Mendieta, was chronicling the activities of his co-religionists. Mendieta, writing shortly after this period, would look back on the death of the viceroy, Don Luis de Velasco (in 1564), the elder, as the closing of the golden era of evangelization.31 Consequently, there was no real need for yet another narrative of the conversion. Sahagún embarked on a far different task.
By 1564, some of the early missionary enthusiasm had worn off. Over forty years of labor in the evangelization of the Nahua had resulted in only spotty success. While most of the natives were nominally converted, some friars, such as Sahagún -- perhaps because of his superior skills in the language and his keen ethnographic eye, perhaps because of his experience in the trial of Don Carlos of Texcoco -- had concluded that the evangelization was far from a success. The conversion efforts to that point had been only partially effective. Consequently, new efforts were required for new times. Rather than relying on essentially Spanish devices translated into Nahuatl to convert the Indians (such as catechisms, confessional guides, and other medieval devotional pieces, many of which already had been completed), Sahagún began to create a new type of work. These works would be based in the native tradition, composed in Nahuatl, yet destined to convert the natives to Christianity. The classic example of this is the Psalmodia Christiana.
The Psalmodia Christiana was the only work of Sahagún to be published in his lifetime, in 1583. The work consists of songs, written in Nahuatl, to celebrate the feasts of the Church calendar, including those of many important saints, such as St. Francis, St. Dominic, the Evangelists, and many others. In his introduction to the modern edition of the Psalmodia, Arthur J. O. Anderson notes that the songs were probably first composed in 1558-61, during Sahagún’s residence in Tepepulco.32 They later were edited and polished in 1564, when he had returned to Tlatelolco and was using his four native assistants. For nearly twenty years, the songs circulated in manuscript until they finally were published in 1583. The function of these compositions is of the highest importance. Among the religious orders involved in the evangelization, the Franciscans tended to be the most indulgent regarding the use of pre-Columbian traditions and their adaptation to Christian ends, providing that they had been suitably cleansed of pagan influence. Many of the early chronicles tell of the natives’ pleasure in singing and dancing in both their own native religious celebrations and later in a Christian context. What Sahagún did was to take this tradition in general, and perhaps some of the songs in particular, and adapt them to Christian worship.
Sahagún explained his motives in the Prologue to his work. He noted that the natives had customarily sung songs of various types in the worship of their ancient gods. With the arrival of the Spanish, many attempts had been made to force the natives to abandon these songs and sing only songs of the Christian faith. Yet in most instances, the natives returned to singing their old songs and canticles. In order to facilitate the abandonment of the old songs, Sahagún offered up these songs as replacements.33
There are indications that the songs written by Sahagún were, in fact, a hybrid, for they retained some of the literary devices of the ancient poetry and song. There are some elements that have a striking similarity to pre-Columbian forms. For example, the canticle to St. Thomas Aquinas has a striking similarity to Sahagún’s version of the creation of the moon. In the song to St. Thomas, Sahagún writes:
In oc iouia,
in aiamo tintli cemanoac,
iuhca dios itlatoltzi ...
When all was yet darkness,
before the word began,
such was the commandment,
such was the Word of God ... 34
Compare this to the description of the creation of the current world by
the gods assembled at Teotihuacan:
Mitoa, in oc iooaian,
in aiamo tona,
in aiamo tlathui …
It is told that when yet it was darkness,
when yet no sun had shone
and no dawn had broken …35
Clearly, the two passages are strikingly similar, although not exactly parallel. It was, however, this type of elevated discourse in Nahuatl that would resonate with the natives as proper for holy songs of praise. One of the other common figures of pre-Columbian poetry was the use of metaphors of flowers, birds, and precious stones to indicate divinity and preciousness. The repertoire of these in the Psalmodia is significant, not unlike the pre-Columbian song cycles. Taken as a whole, however, Sahagún’s purpose is clear: he wished to use traditional song forms with heavily revised and Christianized vocabulary, and thus modify them to further the work of evangelization.
At the same time that Sahagún was working on the Psalmodia with his students at the Colegio de Santa Cruz, he also was composing the “Colloquios.” The full title of the work, “Colloquios y Doctrina christian [sic] conque los doze frayles de San Francisco ... convertieron a los indios de la Nueva España,” describes the contents. It is a colloquy through which the first twelve Franciscans converted the Indians of New Spain to Christianity. The work itself was little known before it was first published by Friar José Pou y Martí in 1924.36 Since then the work has been described and analyzed by several authors. Miguel Léon Portilla included it in his landmark work, La filosofía nahuatl, and then later translated and edited a complete version of the work.37 The work was translated into English even earlier, and it has been studied on various occasions by Jorge Klor de Alva.38 Louise Burkhart has taken a close look at the work as well.39 Most recently, Walden Browne has discussed the work as an essentially humanistic element of Sahagún’s total production.40
The work was inspired by, if not directly lifted from, notes and other papers left in the possession of the Mexico City Franciscans. Sahagún was relatively faithful to his sources, but he created a stylized dialogue between the first twelve Franciscans and the lords and nobles of Tenochtitlan to convey the power of the Christian message and the fervor of the twelve missionaries. The work is historical in that it is rooted in historical events, but it does not exactly replicate any specific event, rather it presents a somewhat embellished conflation of many such missionary moments. The first half of the work is the dialogue per se, while the second half is the statement of Christian doctrine. Clearly, the second half concerned events that occurred weeks or months after the initial contact described in the first part, and it does not pretend to be literally historic. Consequently, taken as a whole, the work aims to narrate the events related to the arrival of the first twelve Franciscans, their initial dialogue on theological topics with the lords and rulers of Tenochtitlan, and the subsequent elaboration of Christian doctrine.41
The version of the “Colloquios” that has reached the present day is incomplete. In the Spanish version of the work, which accompanied the Nahuatl, Sahagún outlined what the final structure was to be. The original work was conceived as having two distinct parts. The first part, as noted, was the colloquy between the first twelve Franciscans and the Nahua nobles, in thirty chapters. The second section was the elaboration of the Christian doctrine, in twenty-one chapters. Unfortunately, all that exists at present are the first fourteen chapters of the first part. Consequently, we have only about one quarter of the whole work, and slightly less than half of the first part. Yet the material that is extant provides sufficient indication both of Sahagún’s artistry with the Nahuatl language, and of how he envisioned the work functioning. Fortunately much of the background and intent of the work was described by Sahagún in his Spanish prologue. Sahagún argued that the friars wished to teach four fundamental issues:
They had been sent to convert the natives to the Christian God.
The monarch who had sent them had no temporal desires from them but only their spiritual benefit.
That the doctrine that they taught was not human in origin but divine, having been imparted by God the All-Powerful, through his Holy Spirit.
That in the world there is another kingdom, called the Kingdom of Heaven, which is ruled by the omnipotent Lord in heaven, and that on earth the monarch is his vicar who lives in the city of Rome and is the Holy Catholic Church.42
Sahagún described his work as having been written in a “plain and clear style, well measured and proportioned to the capacity of the listeners … .”43
In fact, the Nahuatl is rather elegant, but fairly simple in style. Parts of the introductory section read very much as if they came from pre-Columbian times. There are several very striking passages that resonate from an earlier tradition. One of these is the listing of the peoples. In the “Colloquios” Pope Adrian VI sends a message to the newly conquered peoples in these words:
Ma quicaquican ma quimatica,
ma iiollopachiui in iehoantin nopilhoan,
in iancuica tlalli ipan in Nueva España tlaca
in mexica, in tenochca,
in aculhoaque, in tepaneca,
in tlaxcalteca, in michoaque,
auh in ie nouian aoaque tepeuaque,
in nepanan tlaca,
in iancuic tlalli ipanonoque
(in motocaiotia Indias occidentales)
ca iamo uecauh,
ca quinizcui onicac, onicma
in inteio, in imitoloca.
Hear it, know it,
that the hearts of my children may be satisfied
those in the new land, the New Spain people,
the Mexica, the Tenochca,
the Acolhuaque, the Tepaneca,
the Tlaxcalteca, the Michoaque,
and all those who have cities44
various [other] men
who are spread out on the new land
(which are called the West Indies)
indeed not a long time ago
just now as such I heard it, I knew it,
their renown, their reputation.45
The listing of the peoples or nations is not uncommon in pre-Columbian Nahuatl literature. A brief example comes from the cycles of songs known as the “Cantares Mexicanos.” There are several poems that demonstrate this poetic device. They come from the general type called the yaocuicatl (song of war). An example comes from the Chalco War, when the forces of Mexico-Tenochtitlan made war on their neighbors to the south, destroying them and incorporating them into their sphere of influence:46
Moxeloan chalcatl moneloa
ye oncan almoloya
cequiyan quauhtlia ocelotl
cequia mexicatl, acolhua, tepanecatl
o mochihua in chalca
Chalco is scattered about, stirred up,
already there where the water springs
forth, some there [are] eagles, ocelots,
some [are] Mexica, Acolhua, Tepaneca,
the Chalca are made [them].47
Of all of the passages of the “Colloquios,” the opening verses are the most telling and the most evocative of an earlier poetic tradition. This stanza gives the overall explanation of the purpose of the entire work:
Nican ompekua in temachtiliztlatolli
in itoca Doctrina xpiana
in omachtiloque nican yacuic
españa tlaca in oquinmachtique in matlactin omome
in uel iancuican quinualmiuali
in cemanauac teuyotica tlatoani
in Sancto padre papa Adriano sesto
Inic ce capitulo
yn quenin tlanonotzque
ynicuac yanuican maxitico
yn oncan vey altepetl iiolloco
in mexico tenochtitlan,
yn mactlactin omomen.
Sanct Francisco Padreme:
in oncan Mexico monemitiaia
Here begins the word that teaches.
Its name: the Christian Doctrine,
that which the new Spain people were recently taught
They taught them, the twelve Fathers of St. Francis.
Truly, recently he sent them hither
the speaker of divine things to the world
the Holy Father Pope Hadrian VI.
The First Chapter
There it is told
how they recounted something
when first they came near,
there, in the heart of the great city,
Fathers of St. Francis
Thus they gathered them together,
they took counsel with them,
the lords and rulers
who were residing there in Mexico48
Several of the important features of this text have already been noted. What is central to this passage is the use of the paired verbs “centlalia” and “nonotza.” In this text the Twelve gather the lords and nobles of Mexico-Tenochtitlan together, and then take counsel with them. The word “centlalia” comes from two Nahuatl stems. “Cem” means “one,” while “tlalli” means “it is earth.” The verb literally means “to bring to one place.” “Nonotza” is a reduplicated form of a simpler verb “notza,” which means “to call or to summon.” The reduplicated form indicates that the action of the verb was repeated either in time or in different locations. Consequently, nonotza carries with it the notion of taking counsel, conversation, or telling a story. The juxtaposition of these two verbs is not common. Just as in a diphrase, certain nouns are juxtaposed to create a third metaphorical meaning (see note 44), so two verbs are frequently used together not necessarily creating a third metaphorical meaning, but either to enhance or augment the meaning. This combination of verbs is just such an instance.
Sahagún composed many works in addition to the “Colloquios” and the Psalmodia. He is most famous for his twelve-volume encyclopedia of Nahua culture already mentioned, the Florentine Codex. In all of the Florentine Codex, Sahagún only uses the combination of the two verbs centlalia and nonotza thirteen times.49 Two of these instances refer to the same event, the creation of the world at Teotihuacan by the gods. Another two instances relate to the convening of nobles to choose community leaders. The utilization of these two verbs in the creation myth is extremely telling. Sahagún gives two slightly different accounts of the creation. In Nahua thought, the world has been created five times. Each of the previous four creations came to a cataclysmic end. The current epoch began when the gods gathered at Teotihuacan and made sacrifice. Sahagún dealt with the topic most thoroughly in Book 7 of the Florentine Codex, in which he discussed the origin of the sun and the moon. It has been widely repeated as the generally accepted version of the Nahua creation myth. Its place in current thought is indicated by the fact that it is engraved on the wall of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City at the entrance to the Teotihuacan rooms:
Mitoa, in oc iooaian,
in aiamo tona,
in aiamo tlathui:
in umpa teutihuacan,
Tla xioalhuian, teteuie:
In tonaz, in tlathuiz?
It is told that when yet it was darkness,
when yet no sun had shone,
and no dawn had broken
-- it is said --
they gathered themselves together
and took counsel among themselves
there at Teotihuacan.
the said among themselves:
“Come hither O gods!
Who will carry the burden?
Who will take it upon himself
to be the sun, to bring the dawn?50
In this rendering, the two verbs are immediately juxtaposed, both in the reflexive. The passage has a very formal organization. First of all, it begins with the common Nahua equivalent of “once upon a time:” “Mitoa,” translated “It is told.” Then the time of the event is described. This particular passage refers to a time before time, when all was in darkness and there was no day. Then the action is introduced. The players, the gods, “gather themselves” and take “counsel among themselves.” Lastly, comes the place: Teotihuacan. The passage then goes on to discuss the particulars of their debate and discussion.
When one looks at the opening of the “Colloquios” the similarity is striking. The first chapter of the “Colloquios” also begins with the ubiquitous “mitoa.” It then sets the stage by describing the timing of the event, when these people had recently arrived. This would have been a common temporal point of reference for the natives of central Mexico, since certainly life was dramatically different before and after the arrival of the Spanish. Then the location of the event is described. It takes place in the very heart of the great city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, as well known a place as Teotihuacan, with only slightly less symbolism. Finally, the passage comes to the action. In this instance it is the twelve Franciscans who are the active agents. The two verbs are not in the reflexive. The Franciscans do not gather themselves together and take counsel among themselves, but rather they gather up the lords and nobles of Mexico and take counsel with them. Again the two verbs are immediately juxtaposed with no added material between them. The impact that this particular narrative might have had on a Nahua listener would have been dramatic. Sahagún had taken the myth of the creation of the world, and subtly changed it. In fact, he was clearly demonstrating that the arrival of the Franciscans was nothing less than the re-creation of the world, just as it had been created long ago at Teotihuacan.
The two verbs centlalia and nonotza are used to describe the convening and deliberation of the very highest personages. In all of the Florentine Codex examples, those being convened and who are deliberating are either gods or great lords and nobles. Consequently, when the words are applied to the conversion, Sahagún is clearly indicating that the convening and taking of counsel by the Franciscans is on a par with these other high level groups. These are matters of the very origins of the world, matters of state of the very highest importance.
This analysis of the “Colloquios” indicates that Sahagún reasonably attempted to cast his description of the arrival of the Franciscans in the same language as the traditional accounts of the beginning of the world. This closely parallels his efforts in the Psalmodia, in which he sought to recast traditional Nahua songs in a Christian mold. He utilized the very elemental aspects of the old religion as a vehicle for evangelization. This contrasts clearly with Motolinia, who was guided by notions of apostolic poverty, conversion through example, and the urgency of the coming of the millennium. More importantly, Sahagún recognized that the evangelization conducted by the early missionaries was incomplete: that while the stalks of paganism had been cut down by the first friars, the roots of the old religion remained, ready to sprout anew.51
The generation that followed Sahagún differed as dramatically from him as his generation differed from Motolinia. By the end of the century, very few missionaries expected the arrival of the millennium any time soon. They were disheartened. The missionaries finally had begun to lament that the natives would never fully embrace Christianity. Motolinia had assumed that the natives would easily become good Christians because in them he saw a simplicity he felt was lacking among Europeans. Sahagún had been discouraged early in his missionary career, but felt that with proper guidance and a well-trained priesthood, the natives could be brought into full Christianity. The missionaries of the early and mid-seventeenth century harbored no such illusions, but rather engaged in concerted efforts to root out what they perceived as the last vestiges of the pagan religion. What is interesting about the leaders of this movement is that they were not members of any religious order but were secular clerics.
PHASE THREE: IDENTIFICATION AND EXCISION OF IDOLATRY
The two individuals most closely identified with the seventeenth-century campaign of extirpation of idolatry in New Spain were Bartolomé de Alva and Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón. In Peru during this period there were formal efforts to root out the vestiges of the pagan religion.52 These efforts were highly organized, and the parish priests were charged with the initial discovery of pagan practices. If the case warranted, specialized clergy would be sent from Lima to conduct more extensive investigations and to punish the evildoers. In New Spain, the extirpation of idolatry never took on the high degree of organization as in Peru, but Alva and Ruiz de Alarcón are important examples of the path taken in the northern hemisphere.
Ruiz de Alarcón and Alva were contemporaries. The former was born in Taxco sometime around 1575, to the miner Pedro Ruiz de Alarcón and Juana de Mendoza. He was educated at the University of Mexico, where he received his baccalaureate degree in 1592. In 1597, he was appointed the beneficed curate of Atenango.53 Ruiz de Alarcón was serving Atenango in 1629 when his famous Treatise on Heathen Superstitions was published. Bartolomé de Alva was a mestizo, a descendent of the nobility of Texcoco.54 He was much younger than Ruiz de Alarcón, having been born in 1597. Alva also attended the University of Mexico, where he received his baccalaureate degree in 1622, and a licentiate some twenty years later.55 Alva served in several parishes, but in 1631, he was appointed the beneficed curate of the parish of Chiapa de Mota, where he lived at the time when his most famous work was completed, in 1634. Consequently, although one was a creole56 and the other was a mestizo, and one was twenty-two years older than the other, they published their books within five years of each other. Another interesting fact is that both were over-shadowed in their lives by their brothers. Ruiz de Alarcón’s younger brother, Juan, became one of the most famous playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age, along with the likes of Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca.57 Alva’s older brother, Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who was about the same age as Hernándo Ruiz de Alarcón, was one of the most famous historians of the era, and was also an official Nahuatl translator for the royal courts in Mexico City.58
Ever since the early days of the conversion, missionaries had worried about rooting out pagan beliefs and practices. This came to an early head during the Inquisition trial of Don Carlos of Texcoco. In the wake of that trial, however, Indians were removed from the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, since the consensus of belief held that the natives were too new to the faith to be held to the same standard as Europeans. Nevertheless, there continued to be an undercurrent of concern about the continuance of pagan beliefs, if not overt practices. Since the natives had been excluded from Inquisitorial jurisdiction, the obligation for policing native beliefs and practices fell to the ecclesiastical courts, the local vicars, and the archiepiscopal court and vicar general.59 By the early seventeenth century, the regional vicars were given specific power to investigate idolatry. Ruiz de Alarcón was a commissioner of the ordinary of the archdiocese to investigate issues of idolatry and the continuance of pagan beliefs and practices. Ruiz de Alarcón wrote his Treatise on the basis of over five years of work in the field, conducted in and around his parish of Atenenago. It is important to realize also that he conducted his investigations in addition to his normal duties as parish priest.
Ruiz de Alarcón’s Treatise deals more with the identification of specific pagan practices than did Sahagún’s encyclopedia. Scholars searching for a well-organized synoptic view of the pre-Columbian belief system will be disappointed with Ruiz’ work, for it is very much a practical handbook. Nevertheless, it has tremendous riches found nowhere else. Ruiz de Alarcón is unique in providing actual incantations and prayers offered by the natives in Nahuatl. He lists the various offerings and the gods to whom they were made. In this regard his work is a treasure trove of arcane lore and mundane detail.
The book begins with an introduction to Nahua beliefs in general, and specifically to practices that Ruiz felt were idolatrous. He specifically looks at beliefs in nahualli (spirit doubles), the use of various psychotropic substances (ololiuhqui, piciete, and peyote),60 reverence for huauhtli,61 as well as reverence for the sun, and other general beliefs and practices. With these considerations out of the way, he studies the use of incantations and household ceremonies in great depth, providing the incantations both in Nahuatl and in Spanish translation. The incantations run the gamut from very simpIe everyday prayers to highly specialized spells for very specific purposes.
Perhaps nothing is more mundane than the prayers uttered upon going to sleep and upon arising. Ruiz de Alarcón provides the following incantations used to protect the individual from evil that might come in the night, and then to protect one upon awaking:
Spell for the mat upon which they sleep:
Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, you
who lie opening your mouth
wide toward the four directions.
You are very thirsty and also
hungry. And already the villain
who makes fun of people, the one
who is a madman, is coming. What
is it that he will do to me? Am I
not a pauper? I am a worthless
person. Do not I go around
suffering poverty in the world?
When they Get up:
O my jaguar mat, did the villain
perhaps come or not? Was he
perhaps able to arrive? Was he
perhaps able to arrive right up to
my blanket? Did he perhaps raise
it, lift it up?
Tlā cuēl, nocēlōpetlatziné,
in nāuhcāmpa ticamachālohtoc.
Nō tah~miqui, nō titeohcihui.
Auh ye huītz in tlahuēlilōc
in tēca mocahcayāhua,
Tleh in nēchchīhuiliz?
Cuix ahmō nicnōtlācatl?
ninotolīnihtinemi in tlālticpac?
Nocēlōpetlatzinē, ahzo ōhuītza in tlahuēliloc,
nōzo ahmō? Ahzo
huel ōahcico? Ahzo huel ītech
ōacico? Ahzo ōquēhuac, ōcahcocuic
in notilmah ?62
Many of the incantations are to assist people in their everyday work. For example, Ruiz de Alarcón provides incantations for fishermen to improve their catch, for deer hunters, for those who make plaster from limestone, for farmers in their fields, and a whole array of occupations. The middle section of the work provides incantations for controlling emotion as well as various forms of fortune-telling. The following is part of a longer incantation for attracting or inspiring affection:
On Mirror Mountain at the place where
people meet I am summoning a woman.
There I am singing because of a woman.
I am sad there; I am sad here. Already I
accompany my older sister, Xochiquetzal
[i.e., my beloved]. She comes mantling
herself with One Snake; with One Snake she
comes girding up her loins, she comes tying
up her hair. Since yesterday, and since the
day before, I have been crying because of
her, I have been sad because of her.
nicihuāznōtza, nicihuācuīca. Nonnēntlamati;
Ye noconhuīca in nohuēltīuh, in Xochiquetzal.
mahpāntihuītz; Cē-Cōātl īca
Ye yālhua, ye huīptla, īca nichōca,
A significant number of the incantations have to do with healing rituals. While many are quite original and have nothing to do with one another, there is a general incantation that is repeated in most instances, merely substituting the malady. The cures for earaches and for pain in the teeth demonstrate this more generic type of incantation:
Come. Nine [times]-rock-beaten-
[tobacco]. Enter following the
green palsy [the pain]. Who is the
personage, who is the illustrious
one who is already destroying my
vassal? Beware of doing just
anything whatever. Already here I
am blowing to the inside of my
Seven-caves-place [the ear]. It [my
breath] will enter following the green palsy.
Tlā xictocaticalaqui in xoxōuhqui
cōahcihuiztli. Āc tlācatl, āc mahuistli in ye
Mā zan tleh in ticchīuhti.
Ye nicān nontlalpītza iihtic noChicōmōztōc.
in xoxōuhqui cōahcihuiztli.64
The Treatise of Ruiz de Alarcón marks an important departure in missionary writing. Rather than placing full conversion to Christianity at the forefront, here the emphasis is on those things that hinder the natives from full Christianity, and as a consequence, Europeanization. Certainly Sahagún’s work in the Historia universal and Florentine Codex was an important step along this path. Yet Sahagún’s work was encyclopedic in its scope and general in its themes; Ruiz de Alarcón’s is very specific.
Bartolomé de Alva approached the issue quite differently. His book, Confessionario mayor y menor en la lengua mexicana (A Guide to Confession Large and Small in the Mexican Language), embodied many of the same concerns of Ruiz de Alarcón in the format of the confessional guide. Confessional guides, written to assist parish priests in administering the sacrament of penance to their native parishioners, were a fairly constant feature of the Mexico City printing presses. The classic form merely took a Spanish confessional guide, translated the questions into Nahuatl, and presented possible Nahuatl answers. In this way a priest who knew little or no Nahuatl might attempt to administer confession and try to figure out what the responses he heard actually meant. In Alva’s case, he went beyond the simple question and answer format to also include short homilies on the topics covered in each section of the confessional guide. As with most of the other guides, his was organized according to the principles of the Ten Commandments. The overriding theme of the guide is the purification of the faith of the natives through confession and admonition.
The picture of the mundane devotional practices of the natives that one gets from the confessional guide is very similar to that painted by Ruiz de Alarcón. For instance, in the section dealing with the First Commandment, the priest asks if the penitent has loved the Lord with all his heart, mind, and soul, having no other God, or adoring any creature made by God. As an answer to the question, Alva presents the following:
Yes, I have loved Him with all my
heart, but at times I have believed
in dreams, [hallucinogenic] herbs,
peyote, and ololiuhqui and other
Ca quemaca onicnozentlaçotili
mochi yca in noyolo, yeçe ca
quenmanian, onicneltocac in temictli,
in xiuhtzintli in peyotl in ololiuhqui?
Yhuan in oc cequi tlamantli.65
Ruiz de Alarcón spent a significant effort in identifying practices using herbs, peyote and ololiuhqui.
Alva also discusses the veneration of the water gods known as Ahuaques. These minor deities were believed to inhabit the mountaintops and to be responsible for bringing rain. In order to propitiate them, people would place offerings of copaI, candles, and other items.66 In his admonitions against these practices, Alva brings in a very interesting comparison case:
Turn around backward (or better I
should say toward your front) and look
and marvel at the people of Japan, your
younger brothers in the faith, and others
who recently received the faith, for
already they have surpassed you in works
of faith, throwing you quickly [to one
Ximocuepacan (noço, oc achi qualli
nicytoz amixpampa) auh
xiquimitican, xiquinmahuiçocan, in
tlaneltoquiliztica amote[ic] cahuan
Iapon tlaca, yhuan in oc zequintin
in quin axcan oquiselique
in tlaneltoquilistli, ca ye,
While the sudden comparison of the Nahua to the Japanese might seem odd to a modern reader, and even perhaps to a Nahua of the early seventeenth century, to the politically aware resident of Mexico of the period it was a logical comparison. News of the martyrdom of scores of Japanese Christians in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had been an important news story in Mexico, since some of the Franciscan missionaries to Japan had either come from, or been trained in, New Spain. As well, there was at least one embassy from Japan to Spain that passed through Mexico in this period. Consequently, Alva saw the martyrdom of the Japanese as an extremely logical comparison to what he perceived as a lack of faith on the part of the Nahua.
The last area of idolatry covered by Alva is the persistence of cults to specific pre-Columbian deities. In the confessional guide, he asks about devotions to Tezcatlipoca, Yohualli-Ehecatl (one of the avatars of Quetzalocoatl), and the Tzitzimime.68 Alva also questioned his parishioners about continuing beliefs in the various Nahua afterlives. One feature of Christian belief that was difficult to explain to the Nahua was the concept of the moral quality of life determining the afterlife. A good Christian could expect to go to heaven, while sinners would be condemned to purgatory or hell, depending on the severity of their sins. For the Nahua, this was an odd concept. The Nahua had various afterlives, but admission to them was a factor of the specific event of death, how one died, rather than how one lived.69 Consequently, by Alva’s time there was still difficulty at clarifying these afterlives in the minds of the natives. After asking questions about burial rituals, noted above, Alva launches into one of his admonitions regarding the afterlife:
God puts people into three places:
purgatory, limbo, and hell. There to
purgatory go the souls of those baptized
Christians who did not provide satisfaction
here on earth [with] their penance ….
There in limbo God puts the little children
who just died as such who did not enjoy
the act of pouring water on one’s head, holy
baptism …. The third place is there in hell
what your grandfathers called “Mictlan”
[Place of the Dead], and “Atlecalocan
Apochquiahuayocan” [place without a
chimney, place without a smoke vent] as
the devil taught them to call it.
Ca yexcan in motetlalilia in Dios,
Purgatorio, Limbo, Infierno. Purgatorio
ca ompa yauh in inyolia in yehuantin
Christianos, tlaquatequiltin in
amo caxtiltitihui in nican tlalticpac
in intlamazehualiz, ca oc ompa
quitzonquixtitiquiza ... in Limbo
ca ompa in çemicac tlayohuayan,
auh ca ompa quinmotlalilia in Dios
in pipiltzitintin in zan yuh momoquilia
[sic. momiquilia] in tle
quimomazehuithui in nequatequiliztli
in Sancto Baptismo ...
Auh in yexcan ca ye ompa in
Infierno in amocohuan çenicac,
oquitocayotique Mictlan, Atlecalocan,
These examples demonstrate clearly the difference in approach between Alva and Ruiz de Alarcón. Ruiz sought to inform parish priests about the idolatrous activities they might encounter among their parishioners, leaving the appropriate course of action to the discretion of the priest. Alva used the format of the confessional guide to provide the parish priest with both the questions to ask regarding idolatrous and immoral behavior, and the appropriate responses to be used when that behavior was encountered. Moreover, Alva also gave dozens of small sermons and admonitions that could be used by the parish priest as necessary, within or external to the act of confession. Ruiz’s work, in the end, is a very useful source for determining the exact nature of the incantations and ceremonies that were still prevalent among the natives in the early seventeenth century. Alva’s guide is far less useful and can only serve as a general signpost to those beliefs, practices, and behaviors that the Europeans felt were alien to true Christianity.
The first century of Spanish presence in New Spain saw three major periods with regard to the conversion of the natives to Christianity. The first era, characterized by Motolinia, was one in which the religious orders were dominant. The general tone was set by the Franciscans, although the Dominicans and Augustinians had their own peculiar style. The essential form of evangelization in this period was characterized by conversion through attraction. Because of their apostolic lifestyle and gentle teachings, the natives would be attracted to the faith, since they themselves were without many of the most egregious customs of the Europeans. Moreover, the Franciscans had a divine calling to convert the natives in anticipation of the millennium.
This rather idealized view of the conversion also carried with it other imperatives. One of these was the need to learn the native languages and to learn about the native cultures. Both of these fields of study were essential to the long-term success of the conversion. Nevertheless, while many friars and priests became sympathetic to the native cultures, which they came to respect deeply, there was a general attitude that the natives were childlike. This resulted initially from the perceived simplicity of the natives, and from an ignorance of many details of native culture. It also provided the missionaries with a justification for keeping the natives subjected to their supervision, since the friars needed to protect the natives from the depredations of unscrupulous Europeans. Unfortunately, this point of view also had the long-term effect of keeping the natives marginalized within the community of the faithful, never quite living up to European standards.
The second generation of missionaries drew heavily from the activities of the first. Franciscans, such as Sahagún and Alonso de Molina (d. 1585), drew heavily on the ground-breaking work of Motolinia, Olmos, and Duran. The friars grew more sophisticated in their approach to the evangelization at the same time that their expectations were lowered. The lowered expectations came as a result of some significant disappointments in the early period, not the least of which was the idolatry trial of Don Carlos of Texcoco. The second generation was able to look into native culture far more deeply than its predecessors. Increasing numbers of missionaries in general freed up some of the friars to pursue their investigations. As a result, Molina and Sahagún produced works that have withstood the test of time. Both Molina’s dictionaries and Sahagún’s encyclopedia are the very touchstones for all modern-day research. Mendieta saw this as a real period of transition with the breakpoint being 1564. Both Molina and Sahagún were active on either side of that line. The best work, arguably, fell right at that point.
Sahagún, in many ways, is the archetypical figure for this transition period. He experienced the joys and sorrows of the initial evangelization, while pursuing his research in Mendieta’s “age of silver” at the same time. Sahagún attempted a new tack in the conversion. Rather than simply relying on conversion through example, he actively began to borrow from the traditions of the Nahua, and to subtly change them to conform to Christian beliefs. His was an original, and risky, attempt. If successful, he would, in effect, create a new corpus of quasi-canonical writings for the conversion. Not only did he produce a new psalmody, but he wrote a description of the arrival of Christianity modeled on the origin myths of the Nahua. The attempt could have proven wildly successful by slowly and subtly shifting the culture to European and Christian norms, using autochthonous cultural artifacts. Yet Sahagún ran a danger that his attempts would be misunderstood either by the natives, who would proceed to embrace a highly syncretic and non-orthodox Christianity, or that he would be misunderstood by other Spaniards and be seen as non-orthodox himself. Unfortunately, this happened, and Sahagún’s major work, the Florentine Codex, was confiscated because of fears that it might actually serve to sustain the old beliefs. Furthermore, the friar himself became increasingly disheartened about the progress of the conversion, and in his later years, he became embittered.
The “age of silver” ended, and the conversion moved into its mature phase. Much of what would come after 1598 was fairly consistent with itself. The period saw a rise in concerns about idolatry and incomplete conversion. As opposed to Peru, where extirpation campaigns would be waged periodically through the land, in New Spain the major labor of the anti-idolatry efforts fell to the parish priests. They studied the issue and produced works to assist themselves in the identification of idolatry and some of the means to combat it. Consequently, one sees the emergence of secular clerics like Hernándo Ruiz de Alarcón and Bartolomé de Alva, who focus on issues of idolatry and produce works to address their concerns. But there is no single approach. One writes a handbook to assist in the identification of idolatry, the other a confessional guide to assist priests at rooting out idolatry on a case-by-case basis among their parishioners.
The early history of the conversion in New Spain, then, passed through three distinctive phases. The first was one of conversion through example. The second was of conversion through intellectual and cultural engagement. The last was of clinical analysis and almost surgical excision of idolatry. The efforts were begun by the friars, but eventually passed to the Jesuits, and ended up with the secular clergy.
Robert Ricard, Conquête Spirituelle du Mexique (Paris, 1933).
Luis N. Rivera, A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville, KY, 1992).
Louise M. Burkhart, The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Tucson, AZ, 1989).
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, trans. A. P. Maudslay, ed. I. R. Leonard (New York, 1956), 103-106.
Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 152-53.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, 2 vols. (Mexico, 1942), 2:176-77.
The study of the ecclesiastical printed works in Nahua was conducted by Barry D. Sell. “Friars, Nahuas, and Books: Language and Expressions in Colonial Nahuatl Publications.” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1993).
A recent facsimile edition of a Testerian catechism can be found: Miguel Léon Portilla, Un catecismo Nahuatl en imágenes (Mexico, 1979). For a complete listing of extant Testerian manuscripts see: John B. Glass, '”A census of Middle American Testerian Manuscripts,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 15 vols. (Austin, TX, 1964-1976), 14:281-96.
Currently the best study of the early Nahuatl drama is Fernando Horcasitas, El Teatro Nahuatl: Épocas novohispana y moderna (Mexico, 1974). In English, a preliminary study was conducted by Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz, Early Colonial Religious Drama in Mexico: From Tzompantli to Golgotha (Washington, 1970). More recently, Louise Burkhart has begun to study the early Nahuatl drama. Her first fruits are found in Holy Wednesday: A Nahua Drama from Early Colonial Mexico (Philadelphia, 1996). She and Barry Sell are currently undertaking a more encompassing study of most of the early Nahuatl dramas, including several unknown to Horcasitas and Ravicz. Also see Ángel María Garibay, Historia de la literatura Nahuatl, 2 vols. (Mexico, 1971), 2:121-59.
Antonio Rubial, La hermana pobreza: El franciscanismo de la Edad Media a la evangelización novohispana (Mexico, 1996), 103-106. Rivera, Violent Evangelism, 223-29.
For the fullest study of the millenarian implications of the role of the Franciscans, see: John L. Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (Berkeley, 1970). For the specific notions of divine selection, see Edwin E. Sylvest, Motifs of Franciscan Missionary Theory in Sixteenth-Century New Spain Province of the Holy Gospel (Washington, 1975), 92-95.
Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, ed. and trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven, 1986), 334.
Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera, 2:177.
Phelan, Millennial Kingdom, 22-24.
Fray Toribio de Benavente 0 Motolinia, Memoriales o Libro de las cosas de la Nueva España y de los naturales de ella, edited by Edmundo O’Gorman (Mexico, 1971), lii-lix.
Toribio Motolinia, Memoriales e Historia de los indios de la Nueva España. Estudio preliminary por Fidel de Lejarza (Madrid, 1970), 116.
Motolinia, Memoriales e Historia, 116-17.
Motolinia, Memoriales e Historia, 120.
Motolinia, Memoriales e Historia, 124.
Motolinia, Memoriales e Historia, 120-22.
Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historia eclesiastica indiana, 4 vols. (Mexico, 1945), 2:124.
Motolinia calculates that approximately 60 friars were active, but only 40 of them engaged in the bulk of the evangelization. He noted that most baptized 100,000 natives, but some baptized as many as 400,000. Even accepting these numbers, if a friar were to baptize 100,000 natives in a 15-year period, that would account for 6,666 annually, or 130 each Sunday, a daunting task. Several of the examples he cites are of friars with far shorter careers than the maximum 15 years. The number of persons baptized weekly would need to increase rapidly.
Motolinia, Memoriales e Historia, 88-91,141-43.
The documents related to the trial are printed: Luis González Obregón, ed. Proceso inquisitorial del Cacique de Texcoco (Mexico, 1910); the best modern study of the trial is Richard Greenleaf, Zumárraga and the Mexican Inquisition, 1536-1543 (Washington, 1961), 68-74.
José María Kobayashi, La educación como conquista: Empresa franciscana en México (Mexico, 1974), 232-59.
There is an extensive bibliography regarding the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, including Kobayashi, Educación como conquista, 292-357, passim.
Luis Nicolau d’Olwer, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 1499-1590, trans. Mauricio Mixco (Salt Lake City, 1987), 17-18.
D’Olwer, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 6-7.
D’Olwer, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 41.
Arthur J. O. Anderson, “Sahagún’s ‘Doctrinal Encyclopaedia,’” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 16 (1983): 109-22.
Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom, 41.
Bernardino de Sahagún, Psalmodia Christiana (Christian Psalmody) (Salt Lake City, 1993), xv-xvi.
Sahagún, Psalmodia Christiana, 6-9.
Sahagún, Psalmodia Christiana, 78-79.
Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex (Salt Lake City, 1950-82), bk. 7, chap. 2, pp. 4-5.
José Pou y Martí, “El libro perdido de las pláticas o Coloquios de los doce primeros misioneros de México,” Estratto della Miscelanea Friar Ehrle III (Rome, 1924).
Miguel León Portilla, La filosofía nahuatl (Mexico, 1956), e.g. chap. 3; Los diálogos de 1524 según el texto de Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (Mexico,1986).
Jorge Klor de Alva, “The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524,” Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics, 4/2 (1980): 52-193; “Sahagún’s Misguided Introduction to Ethnography and the Failure of the Colloquios Project,” in The Work of Bernardino de Sahagún: Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth-Century Mexico, ed., Klor de Alva, H. B. Nicholson, and Eloise Quiñones Keber (Albany, NY, 1988), 73-923.
Louise Burkhart, “Doctrinal Aspects of Sahagún’s Colloquios,” in The Work of Bernardino de Sahagún, 65-82.
Walden Browne, Sahagún and the Transition to Modernity (Norman, OK, 2000), 81-90.
Jorge Klor de Alva, “La historicidad de los Coloquios de Sahagún,” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 15 (1982): 147-80.
Portilla, Los diálogos de 1524, 73-74.
Portilla, Los diaálogos de 1524.
The diphrase “water, hill” refers to the native polity, the “altepetl,” or city-state. Here it reads literally: “those who have water, those who have hills.”
In citing from the “Colloquios” I will give the Leéon Portilla line numbers first, followed by the Klor de Alva line numbers in brackets. The two scholars divided the original text into slightly different lines, resulting in a less than perfect corerespondence between the two versions. The translations are my own, obviously drawing on both Léon Portilla’s and Klor de Alva’s interpretations. Here, lines 47-60 [48-61].
Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman, OK, 1988), 139.
John Bierhorst, “Cantares Mexicanos” Songs of the Aztecs (Stanford, 1985),240.
“Colloquios,” lines 1-16 [1-17] emphasis mine.
Joe Campbell, private communication, September 28, 2000. My deepest thanks go to Joe Campbell who was kind enough to use his database of the Florentine Codex and the “Colloquios” to determine this for me.
Sahagún, Florentine Codex, bk. 7, 4-5. (emphasis mine)
D’Olwer, Sahagún, 6-7.
Scholars of Peru have long studied the campaigns of the seventeenth century that were geared at eliminating all vestiges of the pre-Columbian religion. These campaigns have been given the name of the extirpation. The efforts in New Spain do not seem to have been as well organized or as wide-spread as in Peru. Pierre Duviols, La lutte contre les réligions autochones dan Ie Pérou colonial (Lima, 1971); Kenneth Mills, Idolatry and its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religions and Extirpation, 1640-1750 (Princeton, 1997); Nicholas Griffiths, The Cross and the Serpent: Religious Repression and Resurgence in Colonial Peru (Norman, OK, 1996).
The barest bits of biographical data regarding Ruiz de Alarcón come from the modern edition of his famous treatise: Hernándo Ruiz de Alarcón, Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions that Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1629, ed. and trans. J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig (Norman, OK, 1984), 3.
The term “mestizo” referred to anyone of mixed racial heritage of native ancestry. In Alva’s case the nearest relative with full native ancestry was his maternal grandmother, Doña Francisca Verdugo Ixtlilxochitl. His other grandparents were Spaniards.
The most complete biographical study of Alva is in the modern edition of his work: John F. Schwaller, “Don Bartolomé de Alva, Nahuatl Scholar of the Seventeenth Century,” in Bartolomé de Alva, A Guide to Confession Large and Small in the Mexican Language, 1634, ed. Barry D. Sell and John F. Schwaller (Norman, OK, 1999), 3-15.
The term “creole” in Hispanic America designates a person for pure Spanish ancestry born in the New World.
Juan Ruiz de Alarcón is famous for two works in particular, La verdad sospechosa and Las paredes oyen. His two collections of plays were published in Madrid in 1628 and 1634. He died in 1638.
Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s most famous works are the Relaciones and the Historia de la nación chichimeca, found in Obras históricas, ed. Edmundo O’Gorman, 2 vols. (Mexico, 1975-77).
In the Hispanic Church, the term vicar refers to a local ecclesiastical judge. See Schwaller, The Church and Clergy in Sixteenth-Cenutry Mexico (Albuquerque, 1983), 19-26, 70.
Ololiuhqui is a round seedpod that was used to make a narcotic intoxicant. Piciete is form of tobacco, which was used for fortune telling. Peyote is the fruit of a cactus used for its hallucinogenic effect. Ruiz de Alarcón, Treatise, 250-51.
Amaranth seed, which played an important role in pre-Columbian ceremonies.
Ruiz de Alarcón, Treatise, 81-82. I have used the standardized diacritical writing of the original Nahuatl and the translation provided by Andrews and Hassig, rather than the seventeenth-century Nahuatl and translation by Ruiz de Alarcón. It is not certain why the sleeping mat is referred to as an ocelot/jaguar.
Ruiz de Alarcón, Treatise, 133. One-Snake is a person or deity’s name based upon the 260 ritual calendar.
Ruiz de Alarcón, Treatise, 172. Seven-caves-place (Chicomoztoc) here refers to the ear canal. The curer blows smoke into the ear to drive out the illness. Chicomoztoc is also a very famous place in the Nahua migration myth.
Alva, Guide to Confession, 74-5. The Nahuatl is original, the English translation by Barry Sell and John F. Schwaller.
Interestingly, due to the recent volcanic activity of Popocatepetl in the Valley of Mexico, there are reports of similar offerings being made in the present day, an indicator of the staying power of these mundane rituals.
Alva, Guide to Confession, 80-81.
Alva, Guide to Confession, 88-91. Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), was the Tenochca [Aztec] tribal god, and widely revered. He was the deity responsible for part of the confessional system in pre-Columbian times. Yohualli-Ehecatl (Night Wind) was one of the avatars of Quetzalcoatl, the Nahua culture god. Yohualli-Ehecatl was a vaguely menacing deity who would waylay travellers, and was associated with cross-roads. The Tzitzimime were furies, sent to punish and torture their victims.
Burkhart, Slippery Earth, 28-34, 49-53.
Alva, Guide to Confession, 86-87.