The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1995, Volume 41, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

History of the Indies of New Spain.

By Diego Duran. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Doris Heyden. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. Bibliography. Illustrations. Notes. Glossary. Index. xxxvi + 642 pages. $49.95. Buy this book. 

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University, and a student of Fray Diego Duran’s life and writings.

Diego Duran (1537?-1588?) was a child of two worlds. He was born in Seville and emigrated with his family to New Spain as a youth. He grew up in Tezcoco and Mexico City and, presumably at an early age, became familiar with Nahua (“Aztec”) culture and fluent in the Nahuatl language. He entered the Dominican Order as a novice in his late teens, and he remained a member of that order until his death more than three decades later.

Working among the Nahuas as a mendicant, he grew ever more concerned that many of these natives, while openly professing Christianity, secretly embraced elements of their prehispanic religion. Fray Diego believed that most of his fellow priests failed to recognize the manifestations of these indigenous religious beliefs because they were ignorant of the Nahuas’ culture and history. If the missionaries were properly instructed in these subjects, he reasoned, their labors would be rendered more effective in uprooting idolatry from the colonial Nahua world.

Inspired principally by these evangelical motives, Duran set about to compose for his peers a practical guide to Nahua culture and history. He separated this work into three parts: the Book of the Gods and Rites (drafted in 1574-76), the Calendar (produced in 1579), and the History (completed in 1581). Fray Diego’s trilogy on the Nahuas is only surpassed in ethnohistorical value by the monumental encyclopedic study composed by his great Franciscan contemporary, Bernardino de Sahagun. Yet, in some respects, Duran’s third treatise, the History, is unrivaled. Drawing upon oral testimonies from Nahua informants whom he interviewed and, most especially, upon his translation of extensive passages from a now-lost history written in Nahuatl (which he identified simply as the “Mexican history”), Fray Diego constructed a vehicle for his reader to explore the corridors of Aztec imperial power in ways which are afforded by no other colonial chronicle.

As with all sources, Duran’s History must be read with a critical eye. His views of Aztec history were decidedly colored not only by his own European-centric views but by the familial and regional biases of his native sources. For example, his vision of the Spanish Conquest typically mirrors that found in many other sixteenth-century Spanish accounts in that he sometimes recast features of this event as though they were acts in a morality play dramatizing the eternal conflict between God and the Devil, good and evil. Moreover, he usually followed the Nahuatl “Mexican history” so slavishly that he inevitably incorporated many of its distortions into his own work. The “Mexican history” was probably written by a Tenochca (that is, a member of the branch of Nahuas responsible for founding the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan) who was in all likelihood a descendant of the great native noble, Tlacaelel. What emerges from the pages of the History, then, is a vision of the Aztec past that exaggerates the exploits of the Tenochca at the expense of other Nahuas who forged the Aztec empire, and that so overly glorifies the feats of Tlacaelel as to ascribe to this individual the rather improbable attributes of principal architect and builder of that native polity.

Duran’s chronicle was published in Spanish during the latter third of the nineteenth century. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas produced facile English translations of the Book of Gods Rites and the Calendar which were issued in a single volume in 1971 (University of Oklahoma Press [2nd ed., 1977]). Heyden and Horcasitas had earlier published a translation of the History (Orion Press, 1964) and, while useful, this book is flawed in that it is not a translation of the full Spanish language text and does not include reproductions of all of the illustrations which form such an important feature of Duran’s historical treatise.

The new translation goes far in the way of remedying these earlier deficiencies. Not only does the present volume provide a translation of the full Spanish text, it is based upon the original Codice Duran housed in Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional. Moreover, all of the History‘s sixty-two illustrations are reproduced, albeit in black and white. Heyden’s fresh and highly readable translation is further enhanced by her adroitly fashioned preface, introduction, and glossary, and by her extensive scholarly annotations which appear as footnotes throughout the text.

In a few words, this latest translation of Duran’s History must be considered as required reading for any serious student of Central Mexico’s native past.


Buy this book from
You get Amazon’s low price and the
San Diego Historical Society
gets credit when you buy through this link.