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Latin American Research Review 38.1 (2003) 113-134

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A History of the New Philology and the New Philology in History

Matthew Restall
Pennsylvania State University

Our field [the social history of colonial Latin America] seems to have arrived at a stage where the most important tasks . . . all demand neither detail-shy theoreticians nor purely document-oriented investigators, but flexible minds who can see the general within the particular. (Lockhart 1972, 36)

Of all the rich fields of study that the history of Mexico offers, none have superseded colonial ethnohistory over the long term in the steady distinction of its scholarship. (Kicza 1995, 240)

The [New Philology] has opened the interior of colonial indigenous society in ways fundamental to any understanding of culture, while it lays reasonable claim to being the most innovative and recognizable 'school' of colonial history to yet emerge. (Van Young 1999, 234)

It has often been suggested that there are two reasons for the particular vitality of the ethnohistory of colonial Mesoamerica. 1 John Kicza eloquently articulated these reasons not long ago (1995, 240) as first, the "integrity" and "vigor" of native civilizations from pre-Conquest to modern times, and secondly, the richness and variety of relevant colonial documentation. Without taking issue with this rationale at all— indeed, working from the assumption that we may take for granted these two factors—I would like to suggest that a third factor is equally pertinent; to wit, the concatenation of activity by a wide variety of scholars [End Page 113] in such a way as to create a collective vision of method and interpretation and a constructive momentum that realizes and further develops that vision.

I am referring, of course, to a school of thought or study, specifically, the school increasingly known as the New Philology, a school within (not synonymous with) the ethnohistory of colonial Mesoamerica. The purpose of this article, then, is to offer an historiographical survey of this school—its history and development, its location within the contexts of colonial Latin American history and Mesoamerican ethnohistory, its strengths and weaknesses, and its apparent current trajectory, ongoing significance, and future prospects. For reasons of space, my focus will be on English-language publications, but readers should be aware that there is an important parallel body of scholarship in Spanish, most of it published in Mexico.

As this entire essay is an extended definition of the school, let me first offer a brief definitional outline. Simply put, the New Philology includes those students of the ethnohistory of colonial Mesoamerica whose scholarship is based on native-language sources (the vast majority hitherto unstudied), who emphasize a broadly philological (i.e., historical-linguistic) analysis of those sources, and who subscribe to the view that the study of native-language sources is crucial to understanding indigenous societies. The school is thus both a model and a method, with the "New" referring to the innovation both of emphasizing native roles in colonial history through the study of native-language sources (the model) and of analyzing those sources philologically (the method). I shall argue later in this essay, however, that the New Philology's future may lie in privileging the philological method over the model of exclusively studying native societies using native sources.

The New Philology is most closely associated with James Lockhart and indeed has also been called the Lockhart School; however, it extends beyond Lockhart and his students to include a growing number of scholars in the United States, Canada, and Mexico (and, to a lesser extent, Guatemala and Europe) not directly linked to him. As already mentioned, this essay would be impossibly long were it to include Spanish-language scholarship, but an extended version would include discussion of work by Ramón Arzápalo, Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, Una Canger (mentioned below in the context of her English-language publications), Pedro Carrasco, Miguel León-Portilla (one of a trio of scholars who made crucial pre-1976 contributions in Spanish, as mentioned below), Alfredo López Austin, Tsubasa Okoshi Harada, and Luis Reyes García...


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