The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

coverBernardino de Sahagún: First Anthropologist.

By Miguel León-Portilla. Trans. By Mauricio J. Mixco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. 39 halftones. Notes. ix + 324 pp. $29.95 cloth.


Representing Aztec Ritual: Performance, Text, and Image in the Work of Sahagún.

By Eloise Quiñones Keber, ed. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2002. 8 color photos. 24 halftones. 68 line drawings. 1 map. Notes. x + 312 pp. $45.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Perkins, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State University.

As we approach the 500th (1521-2021) anniversary of the Spanish Conquest, the Aztecs of Mexico continue to intrigue and challenge. What we know fascinates us. What we wish to know seems just out of reach. Like other indigenous peoples on the fringe of recorded European history, reconstructing Aztec culture represents a profound theoretical and methodological challenge for modern social scientists. The books reviewed here illustrate how Aztec data originated in the 16th century and how modern academics use such data in their investigations: the first book is a biography of Bernardino de Sahagún, arguably the most important post-conquest chronicler of Aztec culture; the second is a compilation of studies, all based on Sahagún’s data.

Miguel León-Portilla, one of Mexico’s most respected anthropologists, provides an insightful biography of the life of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Father Sahagún compiled the most sensitive and nuanced collection of information that we have today on Aztec culture and society. Paradoxically, after early Spanish conquistadores and friars methodically destroyed the Aztec’s own writings, the remarkable Sahagún set out to reconstruct what had been lost. His major achievement, entitled Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), is commonly called the Florentine Codex (termed hereafter the Florentine), referring to its present location in Florence, Italy. Though the Florentine is most famous, Sahagún’s earlier writings, such as his Primeros Memoriales (First Memoranda), have also proven very valuable.

Ordered chronologically, León-Portilla outlines Sahagún’s early years, beginning with his birth in 1499 in the northern Spanish community of Sahagún, León; his education at the University of Salamanca, “one of the principal centers of culture in western Europe” (37); his acceptance into the Franciscan order; and his departure for New Spain in 1529, along with 19 other Franciscan recruits. Sahagún arrived in what is today Mexico in 1529, only eight years after Hernando Cortés, with his men and Indian allies, conquered the Aztec Empire. He began missionary work among Nahuatl-speaking Indians in and around Mexico City. In 1536 he was posted to the Imperial College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, located just north of Mexico City. Founded in 1533, the college educated native youths.

For Fray Bernardino, the College of Santa Cruz at Tlatelolco would come to be not only a teaching environment, but also an open space for the research to which he would dedicate a good part of his life for the purpose of plumbing the depths of the native culture. Furthermore, there he would be able to count on the presence of wise elders, masters of their antiquities, who became his consultants. Among his students, he would also find effective collaborators in his ultimate enterprise (99).

As the students became fluent in Spanish and Latin, Sahagún’s comprehension of Nahuatl improved. By 1547, he began research on Aztec culture that would eventually culminate in the Florentine. The data gathered included the native perspective of the Spanish Conquest; pre-Conquest religious beliefs, practices and gods; conceptions of the human body; gender roles; plants and animals; laws and customs; calendrical calculations; the life cycle, and many other topics. Why would a Franciscan monk charged with proselytizing natives engage in such detailed research? Sahagún felt that colonization and conversion would be more successful if the Spanish better appreciated indigenous society:


It is inappropriate for the ministers of this conversion to state that, among this people, there are no other sins but drunkenness, theft, and carnality. For there are many other much graver sins in need of remedy . . . In order to preach against these things or even to be aware of their existence, we must be familiar with how they were practiced in pagan times, through our ignorance, they do many idolatrous things without our understanding it (134).

However, certain influential colonists argued that Sahagún’s work celebrated and preserved idolatry and ancient beliefs instead of eradicating them. Their campaign against Sahagún culminated in an order from King Philip II in 1577 to surrender his writings (210). Fortunately, Sahagún remitted only one manuscript, though “scholars have racked their brains, asking themselves precisely which manuscript was the one turned in” (211). Sahagún also turned over a copy of his recently completed Historia general to one of his patrons, Fray Rodrigo de Sequera. Sequera returned to Spain in 1580. In 1590, Sahagún died at the age of 91 without ever knowing what happened to the manuscript. Sequera’s copy eventually turned up in the Medicean-Laurentian Library in Florence, where it resides today as the revered Florentine (214).

Today, Sahagún’s emphasis on cultural aspects of Aztec daily life distinguishes his work from other chroniclers who focus more strictly on themes like the Spanish conquest, the Aztec dynasty, or religion. Sahagún dealt with those subjects, too, but thanks to his native informants he gathered data on a much wider array of topics. Three hundred years before early anthropologists coined the culture concept, Sahagún utilized native informants (much as an anthropologist would) to create a virtual compendium of Aztec culture.

In Representing Aztec Ritual, we see the possibilities inherent in Sahagún’s studies for modern, (or better said, postmodern) research. Sahagún’s data lend themselves to interpretive, hermeneutic expositions of Aztec beliefs and values. In many of the book’s eleven essays, scholars seek to expose the deeper meanings associated with religion, rulership, and everyday Aztec life. In other words, they seek to bridge that which seems just out of reach.

Davíd Carrasco’s study of female sacrifice exemplifies well how postmodern theory and methodology can combine with the Florentine to produce an interesting cultural interpretation. Past studies of sacrifice focus on male victims, but 6 six of the 18 annual ritual performances recorded in the Florentine involve female sacrifice. Carrasco employs the “cosmo-magical circle” to conceptualize what female sacrifice meant for Aztec society:

By using cosmo-magical circles, I mean to emphasize the circular, rejuvenating purposes of these rituals; the flow of exchange between cosmic levels of sky and earth, male and female, life and death; and the focused style of sacrifice inclined to collect in various concentrated moments and spaces the crucial elements of sacrificial change. I also emphasize another feature of the notion of ceremonial landscape, namely that in the Aztec imagination all of these elements – people, plants, ritual buildings, costumes, hills – were perceived as living participants, each with a spiritual identity, power, and volition (198).

He then illustrates these principles with four ceremonies in Book 2 of the Florentine. His explication includes attention to the Aztec’s own stated reasons for the ceremonies, the evident symbols involved, and the gender roles and tensions between female victims and male practitioners, among other factors. The result is a rich description of the ceremonies and a wider deconstruction of Aztec gender politics (218).

Kay Read examines an entirely different ceremony from the Florentine, burial rituals for Aztec kings (termed tlatoque, sing. tlatoani). Deciphering a Nahuatl passage from Book 3 of the Florentine, Read argues that the passage contains more information on funerary rites for a tlatoani than previous scholars recognized. Moreover, it is rich in metaphor, permitting more insight than the literal eye would admit (148-149). After an extended analysis, she concludes that one of the most

striking aspects of Mexica culture is that the worth of the dead ancestors is recognized but not exalted. . . . Unlike individual Maya rulers, whose whole bodies lay entombed in great temples in the center of their cities and whose lineages, lives, and deeds were glorified on numerous grand stelae, Mexica rulers rotted unmarked in Mictlan [the mythical Land of Death], along with the commoners and all else that dies, their familial deeds remembered in small painted books but largely ignored by Tenochttitlan’s most obvious billboard, the Templo Mayor [Tenochtitlan’s Great Pyramid] (163).

Read’s conclusions may assist us in better understanding the post-Conquest production of Aztec history. For example, if Aztec propagandists chose not to exalt their deceased tlatoque, how accurately could post-Conquest Nahua scribes reconstruct the lives and deeds of kings, some of whom reigned more than a century earlier? Read’s analysis demonstrates how postmodern interpretations of political ideology may shed new light on older, more conventional readings of Aztec histories.

Beyond Carrasco and Read’s articles, Representing Aztec Ritual contains other very interesting contributions (see especially those by Nicholson, Olivier, Heyden, and Quiñones Keber). Even for persons like myself who periodically cringe at the flights of interpretation involved in certain of these analyses, they nevertheless challenge us to think more profoundly about the production and content of rich documents like Sahagún’s Florentine.

For non-academics and academics alike, one way to evaluate studies as found in Representing Aztec Ritual is to read books like León-Portilla’s Bernardino de Sahagún to learn how documents like the Florentine were produced and what biases and limitations they might contain. Taken together, both books offer intriguing examples of how scholars trained in the European tradition—be it Sahagún, or the contributors to Representing Aztec Ritual—reconstruct distant and opaque cultures like the Aztecs of Mexico.