The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 351-352
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Bernardino de Sahagún: First Anthropologist. By Miguel León-Portilla. Translated by Mauricio J. Mixco. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2002. Pp. xii, 324. $29.95.)
The Franciscan priest Bernardino de Sahagún was born in Spain in 1499 and in 1529 emigrated to Mexico, where he spent sixty-one years preaching, teaching, and studying the language and culture of the Nahuas (Aztecs and related peoples). Of his extensive writings enough survive to establish his pre-eminence in documenting Nahua civilization and in adapting Christian teachings into Nahuatl. Particularly indispensable for anyone studying contact-period Mexico is the Florentine Codex (held by the Medicean-Laurentian Library in Florence), a twelve-book compendium detailing religious belief and practice, moral philosophy, daily life, natural history, and the Spanish conquest. Five hundred years after the friar's birth, Miguel León-Portilla, today's pre-eminent authority on Nahua literature and culture, published, in Mexico, the best biography of Sahagún to date. It has now been translated into English.
León-Portilla organized his chapters chronologically, tracing events in the friar's life and career along with the doctrinal and ethnographic works produced at each stage. Though occasionally repetitive, this is a thorough, easy-to-consult, sympathetic, and engaging portrait of a complex man whose thinking entwined medieval theology, Renaissance humanism, and a profound emotional and intellectual engagement with a cultural otherness that challenged, even though it did not wholly transform, his received wisdom.
By subtitling his book "First Anthropologist," León-Portilla asserts the innovative nature of the friar's ethnographic project, which was based on interviews, questionnaires, and extensive involvement of Nahua consultants, research assistants, artists, and scribes. While acknowledging that Sahagún remained above all else a Franciscan missionary, never ceased to view native religion as idolatrous, and hoped that his work would enable others to root out surviving idolatries, [End Page 351] León-Portilla argues that his methodology is "a precursor of modern ethnographic field technique" (p. 3) and notes the friar's respect for traditional Nahua government, social organization, medicine, and education. Given that none of Sahagún's ethnographic work was published until the nineteenth century, to call him a "pioneer" or "father" of anthropology (as has been done) is an overstatement: no one followed his path into uncharted territory; he sired no intellectual offspring. But to call him an "anthropologist" is valid.
In the introduction to the English edition León-Portilla mentions, and rejects, Walden Browne's argument (in Sahagún and the Transition to Modernity, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000) that Sahagún remained too bound up with medieval ways of thinking and organizing knowledge for his work to be considered a precursor of "modern" anthropology. But to quibble over whether Sahagún's project represents "medieval" Scholasticism or "modern" ethnography neglects the work's most interesting aspect: the content, though elicited and organized by Sahagún, was written and edited by Nahuas in Nahuatl (the friar later added a Spanish version, part translation, part summary, part commentary). León-Portilla makes this clear, and discusses the different kinds of discourse (traditional oratory and poetry, answers to questionnaires, and spontaneous commentary) contributed by the Nahua participants. However, in focusing so closely on the friar himself, he never fully addresses the Nahua side of the work, nor does he tell us quite all that he could about the Nahua research assistants. In its dialogical and multi-vocal nature, its incorporation of the "other" into the text, Sahagún's ethnography is arguably as "postmodern" as it is "modern" or "medieval." It is, really, unclassifiable, a unique treatise in which colonized Native Americans used the format of a medieval encyclopedia to inscribe a nostalgic and nativistic reconstruction of their own civilization. A labor of love on both sides, it is a testament to a Franciscan humanist and his Nahua students who, nearly bridging an unbridgeable cultural gap, dreamed together of a society that could incorporate the best of both their worlds.
Louise M. Burkhart