In Part I of this entry we saw how Bernardino de Sahagún, the Franciscan friar from northern Castille (Asturias today) came to Central Mexico with an approach to spreading Christianity that emphasized education . He played a major role in founding the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536, which specialized in providing a Renaissance liberal arts education to the sons of native nobles in the Valley of Mexico. The remarkable part of Sahagún’s educational project is that it involved in-depth research into the native past. It is important to recall that he conducted this research not in a disinterested academic sense as we would currently expect. Rather, his aim was to detect ancestral beliefs in surviving indigenous practices after the conquest as a means to distinguish those beliefs from the faith he was endeavoring to instill. However, through his efforts to Christianize and promote a project of preserving indigenous knowledge, Sahagún and his Nahua collaborators documented pivotal moments of cultural negotiation that laid the groundwork for the Mexico we know today.
The Road to Tepeapulco
Bernardino de Sahagún was interested in meeting and interviewing elders who could provide the most accurate information on Nahua culture from before the Spanish conquest. Sahagún’s first step in 1557 was to journey to an area called Tepeapulco, in the southeastern part of the modern state of Hidalgo. Antonio Valeriano, the most distinguished of his students (also former instructor and rector of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz), went with him.
Consider this nearly 80-kilometer trek from Mexico City to Tepeapulco, which took 2-3 days on foot. As they travelled together, Sahagún and Valeriano were forging a relationship that contains many elements of subsequent events in the region. A Spanish friar embarked into the countryside in search of ancestral knowledge with an indigenous scholar. Both of them inhabited multiple worlds. Both of them were interested in adapting European technologies and the Christian worldview to what they knew of the region’s Nahua culture. It is also worth noting that Sahagún had left Spain for life. He would not return and he desired to invest what he had learned in Spain into the people in the land he now inhabited. Anyone who uses the well-worn term mestizaje would do well to remember that relationships like the collaboration between Sahagún and Valeriano consisted of many moments and intentional decisions about what elements they should work to preserve for posterity. Even 500 years later, we are only beginning to understand the far-reaching effects of the collaboration between Bernardino de Sahagún and Antonio Valeriano.
Once in Tepeapulco, the two began a process of interviews with the elders and sages who remained, and who remembered life before he conquest. They wrote a group of questionnaires, to help their conversations, but they used the forms in a flexible manner. Sometimes a resident of the town had a long story, or a group of sayings or a rite he remembered that did not fit with the questions. In those cases, Sahagún and Valeriano encouraged the interviewee to speak his mind and tell what he remembered about the past. Elders also enriched the information collected with paintings and pictorial information contained in glyphs. This information from Tepeapulco became the Primeros memoriales, the oldest information Sahagún collected. If an interviewee was 50 at the time of the interview in 1557, that means he was born in 1507, and had been 14 at the time of the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. However, some were even older who had been adults before the abrupt arrival of the Spanish, the conquest, the political upheaval, and mass deaths that came with them. For Sahagún, these elders opened a window into another world.
What did the elders recall? The historian Miguel León Portilla explains that they provided information on “an enormous gamut of institutions and aspects of their culture: the gods, the festivals, the calendar systems, omens, huehutlatolli (testimonies of the old word) astronomy, customs of the lords, qualities and vices of nobles and common people, lists of governors, commerce and economy, natural history, animals, plants and minerals, and also the story that had the vision of the conquered.” (Schwaller et al 4-5). Tepeapulco was the first of three compilations of information that Sahagún conducted from 1557-1570, which he called “siftings.” The next sifting was at Tlatelolco in the Colegio de la Santa Cruz, and the final one took place in Tenochtitlan. Sahagún established a rigorous criterion for the inclusion of cultural content in the final text he was preparing. According to the Franciscan, only those pieces of information that appeared in independent testimonies at each location of the three siftings made the final publication.
He had intended to call the final version his Historia universal. However, an unexpected turn of events snatched the entire ethnographic text from his hands. The collection phase of the information took 23 years, and the decade of the 1570s (which was also the decade of Sahagún’s seventies) saw him revising the final copy of his work and that of dozens of native aides who provided linguistic and cultural assistance.
The resulting twelve-volume set communicated what Sahagún, Antonio Valeriano and others had learned by talking and living with the Nahua people. The text is divided into two columns: on each page, the right-hand column holds text in Nahuatl, and the left-hand column is a Spanish translation of the information collected. At times the Spanish follows the Nahuatl closely, at others the Spanish paraphrases the original text. In some sections, there is no Spanish translation at all, which leaves the compiled information as free as possible from European commentary. Throughout the twelve volumes, both columns are interspersed with paintings that the indigenous aides at the Colegio had produced. Sahagún had begun the project in 1557 in obedience to his superior, who asked him to “diagnose” the people in order to know the cause of their “illness” and treat it accordingly. In other words, the volumes were meant to help priests detect traces of traditional beliefs still at work, and to eradicate them.
In 1577, Sahagún and his Nahua aides completed the final compilation of the Historia into its twelve volumes. At the start of 1578, the fate of the elaborate codex took an unexpected turn. By royal decree of Phillip II, Sahagún had to turn over all of his manuscripts. The Historia universal, representing Sahagún’s life’s work, left for Spain onboard a galleon in April of 1578. When it reached Seville, it passed through a number of hands and became a wedding gift to Ferdinando de’ Medici on his marriage to Christine de Lorraine. The couple lived in Florence, and the twelve volumes eventually came to rest in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, where they got their present name of the Florentine Codex.
Another Kind of Violence?
On the one hand, Bernardino de Sahagún achieved a monumental compilation and description of traditional Nahua culture. On the other, his overarching purpose was to use that information to help priests Christianize the natives. Sahagún thought of himself as a physician, looking for the cure to what he saw as a sickness, the ancestral beliefs of the Nahuas in their local deities. Here is what he has to say about his own mission in the prologue of the Florentine Codex:
“The physician cannot advisedly administer medicines to the patient without first knowing of which humor or from which source the ailment derives. Wherefore it is desirable that the good physician be expert in the knowledge of medicines and ailments in order to adequately administer the cure. Preachers and confessors are physicians of souls for the curing of spiritual ailments” (trans. Anderson and Dibble).
Far from the academic work of an anthropologist or the empathetic approaches of contemporary scholars of religion, Sahagún was interested in saving souls, a project that strikes many of us as paternalistic, authoritarian and outdated. After all, he came to impose a foreign belief system, didn’t he? Isn’t that an aggressive act against traditional ways? The postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak has theorized that the colonial displacement of indigenous knowledge, while not physical violence, is violence on the plain of ideas, what she calls “epistemological violence”. Scholars of Latin America, including José Rabasa, Aníbal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Rolena Adorno, and others have forged links between Spivak’s idea of epistemological violence and the Spanish evangelization in the Americas.
Was Bernardino de Sahagún violent in his ethnographic project? Was his idea to give native nobles access to a liberal arts education at the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco also violent?
His intention was to displace beliefs in local deities, which he accomplished to a large degree, at least in spaces such as el Colegio de la Santa Cruz. However, as scholars including José Jorge Klor de Alva, Enrique Florescano, Louise Burkhart and Viviana Díaz Balsera have pointed out, between the lines of the Florentine Codex, and outside of the purview of the Franciscan order, traditional beliefs continued to flourish. This lack of Spanish intervention was especially true in the countryside, not far from the capital. In fact the idolatry extirpation manual of Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (1629) shows that traditional beliefs about reality, deities, and the energy-filled cosmos flourished well beyond the conquest. More recently, the work of anthropologists including Alan and Pamela Sandstrom, and Timothy Knab, show that traditional beliefs have persisted in rural areas even until now.
These insightful scholarly contributions to the study of religion in colonial Mexico reveal the criss-crossing of thousands of local interactions between the survivors of the conquest, who compared their fading oral culture with what they could gather concerning Christianity as it passed through the cultural filter of the Spanish. But let’s return to what we know about the experience of Bernardino de Sahagún. As far as Sahagún’s interactions with that array of local beliefs, and most importantly his interactions with the people, it is plain that the indigenous knowledges he encountered had a lasting effect on him.
An episode from the end of his life shows the lasting effects that his encounters with the Nahuas had on him. As soon as his superiors confiscated his texts, he gathered his aides around him and asked them to begin the work of reconstructing the confiscated manuscript of the Historia universal. The friar was so committed, in fact, that he died in a state of excommunication, unwilling to let go of the project in obedience to his superiors.
Was Sahagún genuinely trying to learn about native peoples, or was he using education as a way to control them? Does his work help to save or destroy native culture in Mexico? What do you think? Share below, and let’s keep the conversation going.
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If you want to see the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco for yourself as well as other key spaces of conquest, negotiation and resistance in the career of Sahagún and his indigenous collaborators, we are going on a trip! That’s right: the last week of June, 2019, we will be in Mexico City learning about indigenous and colonial history on location. Here is the link to the “Worlds Collide: Mexico City” trip: https://bit.ly/2R3nJhN
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