Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The New World’s First Ethnographer

Little known today is the courageous Catholic friar, linguist, and ethnographer Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  He was born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499 and drank deeply from the well of Renaissance humanism that had been washing over Europe for several decades.  Mastering Latin at an early age, he startled his instructors with the intensity and depth of his observational powers.  He arrived in Mexico (New Spain) in 1529 with a group of Church prelates whose job it would be to convert the natives to Catholicism.

Like the best clerics of his era, he was a man of contradictions; an ardent believer in the faith, he nevertheless believed the customs and traditions of the native Mexicans should be shown great deference and respect.  Soon after arriving in Mexico, he applied himself to the mastery of the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and achieved a level of fluency in that tongue that was equaled by none of his peers.  As he traveled extensively in the Mexican countryside and interacted with the natives, he came to realize more and more that the mass “conversions” to Catholicism were in many respects superficial; Mexico, he realized, had its own customs that were deeply-rooted in the life of the people.

He was not a cubicle dweller, content to wall himself up in his study.  Adopting the views of the classical Latin writers and Renaissance humanists, he believed that a man of learning should involve himself with worldly affairs if he could be of some use to his society.  He drove himself to exhaustion in providing relief to the Indians in 1545 when a plague decimated the countryside.  Hundreds of thousands perished; Sahagún himself supervised the burial of thousands of infected corpses, nearly dying himself in the process.  “Providence,” said a biographer, “wished to preserve him for many more years to the benefit of his contemporaries and future generations.”  As he traveled and administered to the Indians, he collected as much information as he could about the language, customs, and geography of old Mexico.  Sahagún recognized quickly that older Aztec women in particular were repositories of the cultural history of the native people; a rich oral tradition existed of stories, legends, medicinal remedies, food preparation, and poetry.  All of this he absorbed and recorded for posterity.

In this he had to proceed cautiously, however, and cloak his intellectual interests under the guise of advancing the cause of the official faith.  To show too much interest in native ways for their own sake was something his unscientific contemporaries would not have understood, and it would have exposed him to accusations of heresy.  He thus had to present his research as efforts to refute the native faith.  He presented his investigations as a means of educating his countrymen “so that all the confessors [priests] would have knowledge of the idolatrous rites, the superstitions and sins” of the indigenous Mexicans.  His goal was to produce a vast compendium of knowledge that covered history, language, geography, and religious information.  He labored on his magnum opus night and day, rewriting it three times, until it was finally ready for review by Church authorities in 1569.

It was called Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, or General History of Things in New Spain, and at 2400 pages was a landmark in ethnography.  Informally known as the Florentine Codex, it was the fruit of sixty years of observation and study.  This was no dry tome cobbled together by regurgitating the work of others, but an entirely original product of the author’s own field-work.  Written in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the manuscript was densely packed with information on Mexican religion, language, history, and folkways.  Not since Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima several hundred years before had a work of comparable sociological depth appeared.  His examiners were impressed, but worried.  They recognized the originality of the work, but were uneasy with praising the effort too highly.  (The book is now available in both English and Spanish).

With typical clerical subtlety, they pronounced it “contrary to [the vows of] poverty to spend money writing such papers and therefore ordered the author to dismiss the scribes and write what he wished with his own hand only.”  In other words, Fray Bernardino (who was then seventy years old) was told he would have to copy his books by himself, without help from scribes or copyists.  More disappointments would follow.  When a copy was finally produced after five years of labor, King Philip II of Spain, fearing too wide a dissemination of Mexican cultural knowledge, decreed that

[I]t is not advisable for this book to be printed nor should it circulate in any wise in those parts…because thus the interests of God Our Lord and our own are best served.

Sahagún found himself effectively gagged by both Church and state.  A manuscript copy of the book was carried back to Spain, and was buried in obscurity for decades.  In 1780 a copy was recovered in a Franciscan monastery in Toulouse; and in 1793 a copy was found in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.  But it would take a long time for scholars to examine the volumes and gain an appreciation of their contents.  Sahagún was unique in his time for insisting on conducting original field research among the Aztecs; with his fluency of Nahuatl, he could interact directly with any man, woman, or child who could provide him with grist for his pages.

His work was neglected and unappreciated in his day; he would have to wait more than two hundred years after his death for the recognition that he richly deserved.  He is said to have died of the grippe in 1590 at the age of ninety-one.  Refusing medical treatment, he told his attendants, “Go away, you little fools, leave me in peace because my hour has not yet come.”  He expired several days later and was buried in the cemetery of the San Francisco Monastery in Mexico City.  One source I consulted for this article states that the cemetery itself was obliterated during the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century, making the current location of his remains unknown.  Time and circumstances were not kind to the good friar.  But his brilliant book is the real monument to his life, and this will live forever.

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