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Monday, August 08, 2011


A map of Spanish Mexico at its greatest extent, more or less.


Bonfires of Culture:
Franciscans, Indigenous Leaders, and Inquisition in Early Mexico, 1524-1540
by Patricia Lopes Don
p. 2010
University of California Press

    Just so you know, I buy most of the books I read according to price. Price is a main reason I read so many 18th and 19th century classics- they are ALWAYS for sale cheap on Amazon.  So, when I spend 30 usd on a 250 page book, it had better deliver, and I'm pleased to say that Bonfires of Culture does just that.

   I didn't know there actually was a "Mexican Inquisition" until a year or two ago, when I learned of it by accident.  The very fact of it's existence wasn't well explored into the mid 1960s, when Richard E. Greenleaf wrote The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century.  That book has the flaw of treating the Inquisition directed towards native beliefs (as supposed to heretical believes among Spanish immigrants.) as an unimportant minority of cases.

   Lopes, writing last year, fifty years after Greenleaf, has the advantage of the development of new source materials, i.e. the trial transcripts of the natives prosecuted by the Mexican Inquisition.  She also has the benefit of new viewpoints on the institution of the Inquisition and new historical techniques like the use of "microhistory."  The resulting work is a significant little package, helping any general reader to a clearly understanding of the early history of post-conquest Mexico.

   The approach of Bonfires of Culture is to look at individual trials and then link them to existing suppositions about Nahuatl/Spanish interaction.  A beneficial spin-off of this approach is an absolutely killer bibliography on all the subjects surrounding the Inquisition, 16th century Spanish history and the history of the Conquest.  Although Lopes repeatedly talks about "microhistory" and "close analysis" in the manner of academic buzz words, I think she sells her own work of synthesis in a complex field short.  Having personally read about 5-10 books on the subject of Aztec history, I can say that her so-called "Microhistory" is waaaayyyy more coherent then "classic" texts on some of these subjects.

    The whole idea of basing historical analysis on documents extracted under pain of torture raises a host of histiographical questions, but if they are all ya got, then they all ya got.  Certainly they represent the best source for documenting the persecution of native beliefs by the Spainards.   It's important to credit the Inquisition as an institution of centralized "modern" government.  The Inquisition was a tool the monarch granted to the local elites in communities of the Spanish Empire in order to make an alliance with social forces at the grassroots level.

    Because of that dynamic between King and local elites, there was always a concern with DOCUMENTING THE PROCEEDINGS.  Though the rules of these proceedings may distress the modern reader, the procedures for documenting the trials was sophisticated and 'state of the art.'  This concern was no less present in the Mexican Inquisition, even against the back drop of whole-sale extirpation of Native religious practices.

    The Mexican Inquisition only targeted Native leaders in a brief period- the highlight being the trial and burning at the stake of Don Carlos of Texcoco- the grandson of Nezhualcoyotl.  As Lopez explains, the Inquisitor in Mexico was getting into the middle of an ongoing debate among various mendicant orders about whether the Indians could be and should be Christians (in the sense that the answer to that question for Jews of Spain was "yup" and the answer for Muslims had been first "no" and then "yup.")  The Franciscians, who ran the Inquisition, took the position that mass conversion to Christianity was good enough, and worth while.  Thus, the post-Conquest landscape in the valley of Mexico was broad and shallow: The official apparatus of state religion- temples, human sacrifice, was extinguished, but the non official tradition of traveling spiritual advisers persisted alongside the continued practice of native religion in secret, outside (or underneath) major cities.

    This was an embarrassment for the Franciscans.  They had rivals for the attention of the Spanish Monarch, plus there was a hearty pragmatic reason to leave the Natives alone- they outnumbered the Spanish conquerors by many hundreds for each Spaniard. Additionally, Cortes had allied with some of the local city-states (Altepemeh as they are known in Nahuatl.) and they had to be treated with a certain deference.

   Regardless of the risks, the Inquisitor of Mexico, a Basque by the name of Zumarraga, was out to prove a point.  He managed to get his way for a few years, up to and including the burning of Don Carlos, but after that high-point cooler heads prevailed.   It was simply illogical to hold the Native Americans to the same standards as Jews and Muslims inside of Spain.  Ultimately, the tools of the Inquisition were ill suited to the task of achieving deeper conversions of the Meso-Americans.

   Thus, the sequence of events as it relates to prosecutions of Native practitioners of religion is short and too the point.  First, Lopes describes the trial of Martin Ocelotl.   Ocelotl was a Nahualli- roughly a travelling priest/wizard who took advantage of the rupture in state-sponsored religion to "fill the gap" as it were, at the same time acting as a go-between with Spaniards and Natives (and accumulating a small fortune in the process.)  Here, we are on familiar ground for Zumarraga- traveling holy man, promises of miracles, healthy estate to confiscate-- easy to classify.   Ocelotl was chased down with the help of local leaders (Tlahtoani) and sent to Spain for trial.

   Next, there were lower level free-floating millenarian types- the trial of Andres Mixcoatl is used as an example in Bonfires of Culture.  These holy men capitalized on a specific ritual that had been part of the state centered religion in the valley of Mexico.  This ritual involved choosing an individual to impersonate a specific God for an entire year and then sacrificing that person at the end of the year.  The individual chosen would receive training to behave like the specific God and would then travel a circuit of locations where that God was important.  Thus, the people of post-Conquest Mexico would readily accept a person claiming to ACTUALLY be a God because they had historically accepted people who were ACTING like a God.

   Again though, Zumarraga is on familiar ground for the Inquisition.  Wandering holy man, preaching against Christianity, yadda, yadda burn him at the stake.  It wasn't until Zumarraga expanded his reach to the local non-religious leaders of local communities that he got into trouble, and it was this move that effectively ended the Mexican Inquisition as far as local practices went.  While Zumarraga was prosecuting the wandering holy men, he became aware of the purported existence of Huitzilopochtlis- basically packets of what we would call "Holy Relics" that were kept for each God that was important to the Native leadership.

   As it turns out, Montezuma had the foresight to send these bundles out of the city right before they were overrun, keeping alive the idea of a return to power for the King or a successor.   Zumarraga became a leeeetle bit obsessed with these Huitzilopochtlis and sent out the message to the farther reaches of the Valley of Mexico.

  Although his attempts to locate these relics turned out to be fruitless, they did have the side effect of uncovering a native informant who testified that Don Carlos, the Tlahatoani of Texcoco was committing heresy.  Don Carlos did burn at the stake, the prosecution ended up raising the ire of the Monarch.  A strategic decision was made by the Crown to move away from high profile prosecutions of Native leaders because they were counter productive.

   One of the themes that becomes clear from Bonfires of Culture is that the initial response of the elites of the Mexico Valley to the Spanish Conquest was to treat the Spanish as a new Altepemeh- a people worthy of respect, but who would be integrating into the existing Mentalite/Weltanschauung/World View.  They saw Jesus Christ as "another God."  The pre-Contact Aztec Empire had really been a triple alliance of city-states, Texcoco and Tlaque being in alliance with Montezuma's Tentochitlan (Mexico City.)  While Montezuma had been directly conquered, Texcoco actually came under the control of a member of the royal house- out of favor in Texcoco during the period prior to Cortes landing, who allied with Cortes.

    Over time, it would be incumbent on the Spanish to affirmatively go out and convert Natives in Mexico, not expect them to just give up their existing believes.   The Inquisition was a detour on this route, and it is to the credit of Spain that this was recognized within a decade- even as the Inquisition stayed in full force for centuries on the Spanish mainland.

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