We have previously discussed the career and work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. Another major pioneer in the study of early Mexican antiquities was the intense French abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–1874). He remains another name nearly lost to history, but a good case can be made that without his work, we would know far less than we do about the culture of old Mexico and Guatemala.
Like his role model and idol Champollion (the French orientalist who used the Rosetta stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822), his imagination was fired at an early age by stories of foreign travel, exotic languages, and decaying civilizations. Growing up near Dunkirk, France, he soon found it too confining for his personality or tastes. He would later say that he chose to study Mesoamerica after reading an article in the Journal des Savants on Palenque culture of Mexico. For a boy without family connections, the only realistic way to travel and live abroad was to join the Catholic clergy, which he did in 1844. Soon he was off to Quebec; but he brutal winters there quickly cooled his passion for the New World. He preferred to be in Mexico, and by 1847 he got his wish, serving in the French Legation in Mexico and later as an ordinary priest in two small towns in Guatemala.
Even with little money, he was able to indulge his intellectual passions. He chanced upon a Quiché–Spanish dictionary during one of his travels; and in the library of the College of San Gregorio in Mexico he was able to locate a previously lost Nahuatl manuscript which is now known as the Chimalpopoca Codex. By this time he was fluent in the Mayan language, and was able to translate the Mayan sacred scriptures (the Popol-Vuh) into French. He would also later discover another precious manuscript known as the Memorial de Sololá, a lost work written in the Kaqchikel language by Francisco Hernández Arana Xajilá in 1571 (and later finished by his grandson in 1604). These were all significant discoveries, any one of which might have earned him lasting fame in the annals of Mexican antiquities.
But Brasseur de Bourbourg would press on. One of his most impressive feats was to finance personally an actual performance of an old Mayan stage play. When he heard that the Mayans of the town of Rabinal had still preserved the knowledge of how to stage one of their traditional dramas (the El Rabinal Achi), he found a way to finance the construction of the original costumes and set designs, and then had the natives perform the drama. He would later say:
After mass, the natives built a stage under the arches of the churchyard, which very soon was filled with quite a multitude. A chair was prepared for me on the platform [to watch the performance].
But without doubt his greatest discovery was to unearth in 1862 one of the lost keys of Mexican ethnography, Fray Diego de Landa’s monumental Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. This work, a fascinating collection of first-hand observations and researches by one of the more controversial figures of early New Spain (Diego de Landa), was only an abridged version of the original; but there was still enough there to make the discovery a revolutionary advance in the study of Mayan hieroglyphs. Very little was known about Mayan glyphs at the time, and the book at least gave basic information about the Mayan calendar, holidays, religion, and other cultural matters. It was not a Rosetta stone, but it was at least a place from which work could begin.
Like any great pioneer moving through lands where none have trod before, he made a fair share of errors. Letting his imagination get the better of him, the credulous abbé de Bourbourg saw connections between the Mayans and the ancient Egyptians where none existed; but these flights of fancy were forgivable mistakes in a man passionately devoted to his subject. He would redeem himself in 1866, however, when he discovered a precious Mayan codex now known as the Troano Codex. While on a visit to Madrid, he had heard about a Mesoamerican artifact that had been purchased by a professor named Juan de Tro y Ortolano.
Examining it, he realized at once that it was almost unique (only three Mayan codices have survived). De Brasseur was not able to read the codex: he entirely mistook its contents, seeing in it gods and a record of natural phenomena that were not there. But here, at least, is an appreciation for the culture, and a willingness to begin the laborious task of unlocking its secrets.
De Brasseur’s record is on balance entirely positive. He devoted his life to the interests that the was passionately devoted to, and never lost sight of what he believed his life’s purpose was. He was willing to endure poverty, hardship, and ridicule to bring an entirely unknown past to light. If he occasionally stumbled over his own excitement, we must smile favorably and see these sins as the forgivable consequences of isolation and the lack of predecessors in his field. His work would stand as an sign-post, pointing the way for the generations of linguists and ethnographers that would come after him. Sometimes imagination, enthusiasm, and daring count for a great deal in scholarship.
Read more about personality in history in my new translation of Sallust.