Bernardino de Sahagún
|Bernardino de Sahagún|
|Born||Bernardino de Ribeira
Sahagún, Kingdom of Spain
|Died||February 5, 1590
Tlatelolco, New Spain
Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – October 23, 1590) was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain (now Mexico). Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529, and spent more than 50 years in the study of Aztec beliefs, culture and history. Though he dedicated himself primarily to the missionary task, his extraordinary work documenting indigenous worldview and culture has earned him the title “the first anthropologist.” He also contributed to the description of the Aztec language Nahuatl, into which he translated the Psalms, the Gospels and a basic manual of religious education.
Sahagún is perhaps best known as the compiler of the Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (in English: General History of the Things of New Spain (hereinafter referred to as Historia General). The most famous extant manuscript of the Historia General is the Florentine Codex. It is a codex consisting of 2400 pages organized into twelve books with approximately 2,000 illustrations drawn by native artists using European techniques. The text is bilingual in Spanish and Nahuatl on opposing folios, and it documents the culture, religious cosmology (worldview), ritual practices, society, economics, and history of the Aztec people. In the process of putting together the Historia general, Bernardino pioneered new methods for gathering ethnographic information and validating its accuracy. The Historia general has been called “one of the most remarkable accounts of a non-Western culture ever composed,” and Bernardino has been called the father of American ethnography.
Education in Spain
Fray Bernardino was born Bernardino de Rivera (Ribera, Ribeira) 1499 in Sahagún, Spain. He attended the University of Salamanca, where he was exposed to the currents of Renaissance humanism. During this period, the university at Salamanca was strongly influenced by Erasmus, and was a center for Spanish Franciscan intellectual life. It was there that he joined the Order of Friars Minor or Franciscans. He was probably ordained around 1527. Entering the order he followed the Franciscan custom of changing his family name for the name of his birth town, becoming Bernardino de Sahagún.
Spanish conquistadores led by Hernán Cortez conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (on the site of present day Mexico City) in 1521, and Franciscan missionaries followed shortly thereafter. Sahagún was not in this first group of twelve friars, which arrived in New Spain in 1524. An account, in both Spanish and Nahúatl, of the disputation that these Franciscan friars held in Tenochtitlan soon after their arrival was made by Sahagún in 1564, in order to provide a model for future missionaries. Thanks to his own academic and religious reputation, Sahagún was recruited in 1529 to join the missionary effort in New Spain. He would spend the next 61 years there.
Evangelization of New Spain by Franciscans and other missionaries
During the Age of Discovery, 1450–1700, European Catholic rulers took a great interest in the missionary evangelization of indigenous peoples encountered in newly discovered lands. In Catholic Spain and Portugal, the missionary project was funded by Catholic royalty under an agreement called the padroado that had been brokered by the Pope. Catholic missionary work was part of a broader project of conquest and colonization.
The decades after the Spanish conquest witnessed a dramatic transformation of indigenous culture, a transformation with a religious dimension that contributed to the creation of Mexican culture. People from both the Spanish and indigenous cultures held a wide range of opinions and views about what was happening in this transformation.
The evangelization of New Spain was led by Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian Friars. These religious orders established the Catholic Church in colonial New Spain, and directed it during most of the 16th Century. The Franciscans in particular were enthusiastic about the new land and its people.
Franciscan Friars who came to the New World were motivated by a desire to preach the Gospel to new peoples. Many Franciscans were convinced that there was great religious meaning in the discovery and evangelization of these new peoples. They were astonished to discover these new peoples and their culture, and they thought that by preaching to them that they would bring about the return of Christ and the end of time, a set of beliefs called millenarianism. Concurrently, many of the friars were discontent with the corruption of European society, including, at times, the leadership of the Catholic Church, and saw New Spain as the opportunity to revive the pure spirit of primitive Christianity. During the first decades of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, many indigenous people converted to Christianity, at least superficially. The Friars employed a large number of natives for the construction of churches and monasteries, not only for the construction itself, but also as artists, painters and sculptors, and their works were used for decoration and evangelization. In this process, the native artists added many references to their customs and beliefs: flowers, birds or geometric symbols. These were seen by the Friars as decorations, but to the Natives they carried a strong religious connotation. The mixture of Christian and Indian symbols has been described as Indocristiano or Indochristian art. Inspired by their Franciscan spirituality and Catholic humanism, the friars organized the indigenous peoples into utopian communities. There were massive waves of indigenous peoples converting to Catholicism, as measured by hundreds of thousands of baptisms in massive evangelization centers set up by the friars.
In its initial stages, the colonial evangelization project appeared quite successful, despite the violence and extraordinary greed of the conquistadores. However, the indigenous people did not express their Christian faith the ways expected by the missionary friars. They still practiced their pre-European contact religious rituals and maintained their ancestral beliefs, much as they had for hundreds or thousands of years, while also participating in Catholic worship. The friars had disagreements over how best to approach this problem. They had disagreements about their mission, and how to determine success.
At Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco
Sahagún helped found the first European school of higher education in the Americas, which later served as a base for his own research activities: the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536, in what is now Mexico City. The blending of Spanish and indigenous cultures that fashioned what is now Mexico took place in the microcosm of the college at Tlatelolco. It became a vehicle for the recruitment of native men to the clergy and for evangelization, as well as a center for the study of native languages, especially Nahuatl. The college contributed to the establishment of Catholic Christianity in New Spain and became an important institution for cultural exchange. Sahagún taught Latin and other subjects during its initial years. Other friars taught grammar, history, religion, scripture, and philosophy. Native leaders were recruited to teach about native history and traditions, leading to controversy among colonial officials who were concerned with controlling the indigenous populations. During this period, Franciscans who affirmed the full humanity of indigenous people were perceived as suspect by colonial officials, some of whom hinted that the Friars were endorsing idolatry. The friars had to be careful in pursuing and describing their interactions with indigenous people.
Sahagún was one of several friars at the school who would go on to write impressive accounts of indigenous life and culture. Two notable products of the scholarship at the college are the first New World "herbal," and a map of what is now the Mexico City region. An "herbal" is a catalogue of plants and their uses, including descriptions and their medicinal applications. Such an herbal, the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, was written in Latin by Juan Badianus de la Cruz, an Aztec teacher at the college, perhaps with help from students or other teachers. In this document, the plants are drawn, named and presented according to the Aztec system of organization. The text describes where the plants grow and how herbal medicines can be made from them. This "herbal" may have been used to teach indigenous medicine at the college. The Mapa de Santa Cruz shows the urban areas, networks of roads and canals, pictures of activities such as fishing and farming, and the broader landscape context. The herbal and the map show the influence of both the Spanish and the Aztec cultures, and by their structure and style convey the blending of these cultures.
Work as a missionary
In addition to teaching, Sahagún spent several extended periods in rural areas evangelizing, leading religious services, and providing religious instruction. He was first and foremost a missionary, whose aim was to bring the peoples of the New World to the Catholic faith. He spent much time with the indigenous people, as a Catholic priest, a teacher, and a missionary in remote rural villages.
Sahagún was a gifted linguist. He began his study of Nahuatl while travelling across the Atlantic, learning from indigenous nobles who were returning to the New World from Spain, and would later be recognized as one of the Spaniards most proficient in this language. Most of his writings reflect his Catholic missionary interests, and were designed to help churchmen preach in Nahuatl, or translate the Bible into Nahuatl, or provide religious instruction to indigenous peoples, producing among other works psalms and a catechism in Nahuatl. His intellectual curiosity drew him, and his linguistic abilities allowed him, to learn more about the worldview of the Aztecs. Thus, Sahagún had the motivation, skills and disposition to study the people and their culture. He conducted field research in the indigenous language of Nahuatl. In 1547, he collected and wrote down huehuelatolli, Aztec formal orations given by elders for moral instruction, education of youth, and cultural construction of meaning. Between 1553 and 1555 he interviewed indigenous leaders in order to gain their perspective on the Conquest of Mexico.
Perhaps as a result of these initial investigations, Sahagún grew increasingly skeptical of the authenticity of the mass conversions in Mexico. He thought that many if not most of the conversions were superficial. He also became concerned about the tendency of his fellow Franciscan missionaries to misunderstand basic elements of traditional Aztec religious beliefs and cosmology. He became convinced that only by mastering native languages and worldviews could missionaries be effective. He began informal studies of indigenous peoples, their beliefs and religious practices.
After the fervor of the early mass conversions in Mexico had subsided, Franciscan missionaries came to realize that they needed a better understanding of indigenous peoples in order effectively to pursue their work. Sahagún's life changed dramatically in 1558 when the new provincial of New Spain, Fray Francisco de Toral, commissioned him to write in Nahuatl about topics he considered useful for the missionary project. The provincial wanted him to formalize his study of native language and culture, so that he could share it with others. He now had a free hand to conduct his investigations. He actively conducted research for about twenty-five years, and spent the last fifteen or so editing, translating and copying. His field research activities can be grouped into an earlier period (1558–1561) and a later period (1561–1575).
The product of Sahagún's early research is the text known as Primeros Memoriales, which he would use as the basis for subsequently creating the larger Historia General. He conducted his research at Tepepolco, approximately 50 miles Northeast of Mexico City, near present day Hidalgo. There he spent two years interviewing approximately a dozen village elders in Nahuatl, assisted by native graduates of the college at Tlatelolco. Sahagún questioned the elders about the religious rituals and calendar, family, economic and political customs, and natural history. He interviewed them individually and in groups, and was thus able to evaluate the reliability of the information shared with him. His assistants spoke three languages (Nahuatl, Latin and Spanish), and actively participated in research and documentation, translation and interpretation, and they painted illustrations. He published their names, described their work, and gave them credit. The pictures in the Primeros Memoriales convey a blend of indigenous and European artistic elements and influences. Analysis of Sahagún's research activities in this earlier period indicates that he was developing and evaluating his own methods for gathering and verifying this information.
During the period 1561-1575 Sahagún was back in Tlatelolco. He interviewed and consulted more elders and cultural authorities. He edited his prior work. He expanded the scope of his earlier research, and further developed his interviewing methods. He recast his project along the lines of the medieval encyclopedias. These were not encyclopedias in the contemporary sense, and can be better described as worldbooks, for they attempt to provide a relatively complete presentation of knowledge about the world.
Sahagún was among the first to develop methods and strategies for gathering and validating knowledge of indigenous New World cultures. Much later, the scientific discipline of anthropology would formalize the methods of ethnography as a scientific research strategy for documenting the beliefs, behavior, social roles and relationships, and worldview of another culture, and for explaining these factors with reference to the logic of that culture. His research methods and strategies for validating information provided by his informants are precursors of the methods and strategies of modern ethnography.
He systematically gathered knowledge from a range of diverse informants, including women, who were recognized as having knowledge of indigenous culture and tradition, and then compared the answers he had obtained from his various sources. Some passages in his writings appear to be transcriptions of informants' statements about religious beliefs, society or nature. Other passages clearly reflect a consistent set of questions presented to different informants with the aim of eliciting information on specific topics. Some passages reflect Sahagún's own narration of events or commentary.
During the period in which Sahagún conducted his research, the conquering Spaniards were greatly outnumbered by the conquered Aztecs, and were concerned about the threat of a native uprising. Some colonial authorities perceived his writings as potentially dangerous, since they lent credibility to native voices and perspectives. Sahagún was aware of the need to avoid running afoul of the Inquisition, which was established in Mexico in 1570.
Sahagún's work was originally conducted only in Nahuatl. To fend off suspicion and criticism, he translated sections of it into Spanish, submitted it to some fellow Franciscans for their review, and sent it to the King of Spain with some Friars returning home. His last years were difficult, because the utopian idealism of the first Franciscans in New Spain was fading while the Spanish colonial project continued as brutal and exploitive; millions of indigenous people died from repeated plagues. Some of his final writings disclose feelings of despair. The King of Spain replaced the religious orders with secular clergy, giving friars a much smaller role in the Catholic life of the colony. The pro-indigenous approach of the Franciscans and Sahagún became marginalized with passing years. The use of the Nahuatl Bible was banned, reflecting the broader global retrenchment of Catholicism under the Council of Trent. Sahagún's Historia general was lost for about two centuries, until a scholar came across the Florentine Codex in the Laurentian Library in Florence, now carefully rebound in three volumes. A scholarly community of historians, anthropologists, art historians, and linguists has been actively investigating Sahagun's work, its subtleties and mysteries, for more than 200 years.
The Historia general is the product one of the most remarkable social-science research projects ever conducted. It is not unique as a chronicle of encounters with the new world and its people, since many such chronicles were written. Rather, it stands out due to Sahagún's effort to gather information about a foreign culture by resorting to perspectives from within that culture. "The scope of the Historia’s coverage of contact-period Central Mexico indigenous culture is remarkable, unmatched by any other sixteenth-century works that attempted to describe the native way of life.” Foremost in his own mind, Bernardino was a Franciscan missionary, but he may also rightfully claim the title of father of American Ethnography.
As a Franciscan Friar
Sahagún has been described as a missionary, ethnographer, linguist, folklorist, Renaissance humanist, historian and pro-indigenous, and all of these he was. Scholars have explained these roles as emerging from his identity as a missionary priest, a participant in the Spanish evangelical fervor for converting newly discovered peoples, and as a part of the broader Franciscan millenarian project.
Founded by Francis of Assisi in the early 13th Century, the Franciscan Friars emphasized devotion to the Incarnation, the humanity of Jesus Christ. Saint Francis himself developed and articulated this devotion based on his experiences of contemplative prayer in front the San Damiano Crucifix and the practice of compassion among lepers and social outcasts. Franciscan prayer includes the conscious remembering of the human life of Jesus and the active practice of care for the poor and marginalized.
Saint Francis’ intuitive approach was elaborated into a philosophical vision by subsequent Franciscan theologians, such as Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and John Duns Scotus, leading figures in the Franciscan intellectual tradition. The philosophy of Scotus is founded upon the primacy of the Incarnation, and may have been a particularly important influence on Bernardino, since Scotus’ philosophy was taught in Spain at this time. Scotus absorbed the intuitive insights of St. Francis of Assisi and his devotion to the coming of Jesus Christ as a human being, and expressed them in a broader vision of humanity.
A religious philosophical anthropology — a vision of humanity — may shape a missionary’s vision of human beings, and in turn the missionary's behavior on a cultural frontier. The pro-indigenous approach of the Franciscan missionaries in New Spain is consistent with the philosophy of Franciscan John Duns Scotus. In particular, he outlined a philosophical anthropology that reflects a Franciscan sprit. Several specific dimensions of Bernardino’s work (and that of other Franciscans in New Spain) reflect this philosophical anthropology. The native peoples had dignity and merited respect as human beings. The friars were, for the most part, deeply disturbed by the abuse by conquistadores of the native peoples. In Sahagún's collaborative approach, in which he consistently gave credit to his collaborators, we can perceive the Franciscan value of community. His work is anything but individualistic. In his five decades of research we perceive a Franciscan philosophy of knowledge in action. He was not content to speculate about these new peoples, but rather invested his life’s effort in meeting, interviewing, and interpreting them and their worldview as an expression of his faith. While others – in Europe and New Spain – were debating whether or not they were human and had souls, he was interviewing them, seeking to understand who they were, how they loved each other, what they believed, and how they made sense of the world. He fell in love with their culture. Even as he expressed disgust at their sacrifices and their “idolatries,” he spent five decades investigating Aztec culture.
- M. León-Portilla, Bernardino de Sahagún: The First Anthropologist (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2002), pp.
- Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General De Las Cosas De La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books ), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982).
- David A. Boruchoff, “Sahagún and the Theology of Missionary Work,” in Sahagún at 500: Essays on the Quincentenary of the Birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, OFM, ed. John Frederick Schwaller (Berkeley: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2003), pp. 59-102.
- Jaime Lara, City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 2005).
- Edwin Edward Sylvest, Motifs of Franciscan Mission Theory in Sixteenth Century New Spain Province of the Holy Gospel (Washington DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1975).
- John Leddy Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).
- Reyes-Valerio, Constantino, Arte Indocristiano, Escultura y pintura del siglo XVI en México, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2000
- Eleanor Wake, Framing the Sacred: The Indian Churches of Early Colonial Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press (17 Mar 2010)
- Lara, City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain.
- León-Portilla, Bernardino De Sahagún: The First Anthropologist, Michael Mathes, The Americas' First Academic Library: Santa Cruz De Tlatelolco (Sacramento: California State Library, 1985).
- Nicholson, "Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: A Spanish Missionary in New Spain, 1529-1590.
- Edmonson, ed., Sixteenth-Century Mexico: The Work of Sahagún.
- Donald Robertson, Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Early Colonial Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959). 155-163.
- Edmonson, ed., Sixteenth-Century Mexico: The Work of Sahagún., 156-8; William Gates, An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552 (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1939/2000).
- Robertson, Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Early Colonial Period., 159.
- "Bernardino de Sahagún". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- López Austin, "The Research Method of Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: The Questionnaires.
- Thelma D. Sullivan, Primeros Memoriales: Paleography of Nahuatl Text and English Translation, ed. Arthur J. O. Anderson with H. B. Nicholson, Charles E. Dibble, Eloise Quiñones Keber, and Wayne Ruwet, vol. 200, Civilization of the American Indian (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).
- Ellen T. Baird, "Artists of Sahagun's Primeros Memoriales: A Question of Identity," in The Work of Bernardino De Sahagún, Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth-Century Aztec Mexico, ed. J. Jorge Klor de Alva, H. B. Nicholson, and Eloise Quiñones Keber (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1988), Ellen T. Baird, The Drawings of Sahagun's Primeros Memoriales: Structure and Style (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).
- López Austin, "The Research Method of Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: The Questionnaires."
- Elizabeth Keen, The Journey of a Book: Bartholomew the Englishman and the Properties of Things (Canberra: ANU E-press, 2007).
- For a history of this scholarly work, see León-Portilla, Bernardino De Sahagún: The First Anthropologist.
- Nicholson, "Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: A Spanish Missionary in New Spain, 1529-1590." page 27.
- Sylvest, Motifs of Franciscan Mission Theory in Sixteenth Century New Spain Province of the Holy Gospel.
- Ewert Cousins, "Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure: Mysticism and Theological Interpretation," in The Other Side of God, ed. Peter L. Berger (New York: Anchor Press, 1981), Ewert Cousins, "Francis of Assisi: Christian Mysticism at the Crossroads," in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, ed. S. Katz (New York: Oxford, 1983).
- Mary Beth Ingham, CSJ, Scotus for Dunces: An Introduction to the Subtle Doctor (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2003).
- Bernardino de Sahagún, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble; The Florentine Codex : General History of the Things of New Spain, 12 volumes; University of Utah Press (January 7, 2002), hardcover, ISBN 087480082X ISBN 978-0874800821
- Bernardino de, Sahagun; Kupriienko, Sergii (2013) . General history of the affairs of New Spain. Books X-XI: Aztec's Knowledge in medicine and botany. Kyiv: Видавець Купрієнко С.А. ISBN 978-617-7085-07-1. Retrieved 04 september 2013.