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Diego Durán (c. 1537–1588) was a Dominican friar best known for his authorship of one of the earliest Western books on the history and culture of the Aztecs, The History of the Indies of New Spain, a book that was much criticized in his lifetime for helping the "heathen" maintain their culture.
Also known as the Durán Codex, The History of the Indies of New Spain was published c. 1581. Durán also wrote Book of the Gods and Rites (1574–1576), and Ancient Calendar, (c. 1579) (Heyden, xxviii). He was fluent in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and was therefore able to consult natives and Aztec codices as well as work done by earlier friars. His empathetic nature allowed him to gain the confidence of many native people who would not share their stories with Europeans, and was able to document many previously unknown folktales and legends that make his work unique.
Durán was born sometime around 1537 in Spain. His family traveled to Mexico when he was very young—he said later that “although I did not acquire my milk teeth in Texcoco, I got my second ones there.” (History Ch. I), It was in Texcoco where he learned Nahuatl. His family was not extravagantly wealthy, and they did not own an encomienda, but his relatives were fairly well off slave-owners.
When he was still young, his family moved to Mexico City where he attended school and was exposed to Aztec culture under the colonial rule of Spain, as well as the many Africans brought by the Spanish for slavery. According to Heyden, Durán was often puzzled by the mix of races and cultures and their significance for social class (Heyden xxv-xxvi).
Life within the Church
In 1556 he entered the Dominican Order and was sent to Oaxaca in 1561 after being trained in Mexico City. He resided for a time at a convent, or friary, in Oaxtepec, and there he found many informants within the Church. He is believed to have been tutored by Fray Francisco de Aguilar, who had been a soldier involved in the siege of Tenochtitlan. Aguilar later joined the Dominican order, and had much to tell Durán about the Aztecs at first contact. He was cited frequently by Durán in his History.
Durán later became a vicar at a convent in Hueyapan and it was there that he learned the most from the native Nahuatl Aztecs. The convents had been issued a decree by Charles V to preach the Christian word to native rural villages and Durán ventured into the villages frequently to converse with the natives there. The clergy were to also observe native customs and to search for ancient documents. particularly the lost Holy Scriptures of Saint Thomas (who was believed to have been the basis for the Aztecs' Quetzalcoatl. (Heyden xxvi-xxvii).
He developed a close association with the people he was attempting to convert, which led him to criticize the clerics and conquistadors who never learned the natives’ language, writing “they should know the language well and understand [the people] if they have any pretense of obtaining fruit.. And the clergy should not acquiesce by saying they know a little bit of the tongue in order to heard confession and that is enough” (Book of the Gods and Rites) and scorns the Spaniards' crude use of the language that made the natives laugh and scoff at them.
Durán was torn between two worlds, that of his people, and that of the Aztec. On one hand, he respected them greatly and their government organization before conquest, and he grew to admire the people of Mexico, and often said so. On the other hand, he was repulsed by certain acts of his native informants, particularly human sacrifice. It was, after all, his duty to evangelize them and his Catholic background gave him a great disdain for such things. Another of his duties was to document the cultural ways and practices of the native people to serve as a manual to other monks in their attempt to evangelize the so-called heathens. Although his purpose was to detail the “heathen practices” as a manual for other missionaries, he also wanted to make it pleasant to read and useful to others.
In 1585 Friar Diego returned to Mexico City in ill health to live and work in the Convent of St. Dominic there, as a translator from Nahuatl to Spanish for the Inquisition. He died in 1588 of an unknown illness (Heyden, xxix).
Literary works and influence
The History of the Indies of New Spain, sometimes referred to as the Durán Codex, contains seventy-eight chapters spanning from the Aztec creation story until after Spanish conquest of Mexico, and includes a chronology of Aztec kings.
The friars of the sixteenth century borrowed one another’s material without citation. Some scholars believe that the Durán Codex formed the basis for the Ramirez Codex although others believe that both Ramirez Codex and the Durán Codex relied on an earlier unknown work referred to as "Chronicle X". In 1596, Durán was cited as a source by Fray Agustín Dávila Padilla in his Historia de la fundación y discurso de la Provinciade Santiago de Mexico (Heyden xxx).
The Durán Codex was unpublished until the 19th century, when it was found in the Library of Madrid by José Fernando Ramírez. In his Ancient Calendar, Durán explains why his work would go so long without being published by saying “some persons (and they are not a few) say that my work will revive ancient customs and rites among the Indians”, to which he replied that the Indians were quite good at secretly preserving their own customs and needed no outside help.
Durán's work has become invaluable to archaeologists and others studying Mesoamerica. Although there are few surviving Aztec codices written before the Spanish conquest, the more numerous post-conquest codices and near-contemporary works such as Durán's are invaluable secondary sources for the interpretation of archaeological theories and evidence.
- Fray Diego Durán’s The History of the Indies of New Spain, translated, annotated and with introduction by Doris Heyden.