Who Was Bernardino de Sahagún? Part II


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.

Franciscan convent and church in Tepeapulco in the current state of Hidalgo. Here, Bernardino de Sahagún conducted his first series of interviews of Nahua elders

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.

Sahagún escribano anciano
A woodcut from the Primeros memoriales, the results of Sahagún’s early research in Tepeapulco The image likely summarizes the process of Antonio Valeriano’s interviews with surviving elders, along with the later revision of his findings, and his discussions with Sahagún.

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.

FC bk 11
Typical pages from the Florentine Codex with the original Nahuatl text in the right-hand columns, and the flexible Spanish translation on the left-hand side, interspersed with native illustrations (Facsimile of Florentine Codex courtesy of the Chicago Newberry Library)

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.

Angel María Garibay Kintana’s 1956 publication of the Spanish language material of the Florentine Codex under the title Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España has provided access to the content of Sahagún’s largest text to a wide readership. The volume has gone through multiple reprintings and has appeared in various translations.

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.

tovar manera de baylar de los indigenas
The Codex Tovar (1585) by the Jesuit Juan de Tovar contains a scene reminiscent of Sahagún’s project to combine Mesoamerican traditional dance with the Catholic liturgical calendar (John Carter Brown Library, Digital Collection). The only publication of Sahagún’s material from during his lifetime, the Psalmodia Christiana (1583) contains hymns in Nahuatl that he wrote using the meters of traditional Nahua song-poems.


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.

Sahagún’s signed his name with a shaky hand in his twilight years to give his endorsement to devotional materials, whose composition he supervised in Nahuatl, with the help of native aides (Introduction to Sahagún’s Postilla, courtesy of the Chicago Newbery Library).

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.

* * *

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

You can follow this page by clicking the button on the bottom, or the three dots in the upper-right-hand corner.

Further Reading

Adorno, Rolena. “The Indigenous Ethnographer: The ‘indio ladino’ as Historian and Cultural Mediation.” Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era. Ed. Stuart Schwartz. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1994. 378-402. Print.

Anderson, Arthur and Charles Dibble, trans. Bernardino de Sahagún. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. 13 vols. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1950-82. Print.

Burkhart, Louise. The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson: Arizona UP, 1989. Print.

Díaz Balsera, Viviana. The Pyramid under the Cross: Franciscan Discourses of Evangelization and the Nahua Christian Subject in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2005. Print.

Florescano, Enrique. Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico: From the Aztecs to Independence. Trans. Albert and Kathryn Bork. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994. Print.

Klor de Alva, José Jorge. “Aztec Spirituality and Nahuatlized Christianity.” South and Meso- American Native Spirituality: From the Cult of the Feathered Serpent to the Theology of Liberation. Ed. Gary Gossen. New York: Crossroad, 1993. 173-97. Print.

Knab, Timothy. The Dialogue of Earth and Sky: Dreams, Souls, Curing, and the Modern Aztec Underworld. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2004. Print.

Mignolo, Walter. “Preamble: The Historical Foundation of Modernity/Coloniality and the Emergence of Decolonial Thinking.” A Companion to Latin American Literature and Culture. Ed. Sara Castro-Klaren. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2008. 12-32. Print.

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Social Classification.” in Moraña, Mabel, Enrique D. Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, eds. Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. 181-224.

Rabasa, José. Without History: Subaltern Studies, the Zapatista Insurgency, and the Specter of History. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2010. Print.

Ruiz de Alarcón, Hernando. Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions that Today Live among the Indians Native to this New Spain, 1629. Trans. and eds. J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1984. Print.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. 3 vols. World Digital Library. Web. 1 Aug. 2014.

—. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España. Ed. Ángel María Garibay. 10th ed. Mexico City: Porrúa, 1999. Print.

—. Primeros Memoriales: Paleography of Nahuatl Text and English Translation. Trans. Thelma D. Sullivan. Trans. and ed. Y.B. Nicholson. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1997. Print.

—. and Arthur J. O. Anderson.  Psalmodia christiana. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1993. Print.

Sandstrom, Alan. Corn Is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1991. Print.

Schwaller, John. Sahagún at 500: Essays on the Quincentenary of the Birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún. Berkeley, CA: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2003. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. London: Macmillan, 1988. 271-313. Print.


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