- Building Cities of God: Mendicant Orders and Urban Culture in New Spain by Karen Melvin
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith said of the mendicant orders: “It is with them, as with the hussars and light infantry of some armies; no plunder, no pay.” In other words, their “subsistence depends altogether upon their industry;” dependent on handouts, they must use every art to “animate the devotion of the common people.” Smith’s rather disparaging description of those religious orders whose model was the poverty of Jesus Christ, and later the abnegation of St. Francis, may reflect Protestant cynicism; but it successfully captures their distinctive religious appeal in the Catholic world.
The mendicants—Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Discalced Carmelites, Mercedarians, and Discalced Franciscans—came to Mexico early in the Conquest and were instrumental in establishing and extending Spanish civilization among the natives. The mendicant friars, brothers as opposed to members of the diocesan clergy and Jesuit fathers, taught by example. Unlike monks, who stayed in their monasteries, the friars went to outlying areas where language instruction had not yet penetrated, and were hugely successful in their conversions as natives learned from the Spaniards’ own persons the practice of charity in their support, and saw in the mendicants’ dependency how their own poverty and suffering might be religiously transmuted. The orders’ austerity contrasted with the luxury of the urban Church. Yet when the Council of Trent began to worry about pious superstitions and folk beliefs, and the ecclesiastically powerful Jesuits arrived in New Spain to compete with the mendicants whose papal protections were less, the orders were withdrawn to convents in the population centers and, to some extent, were forced there to retreat from their original missionary aims.
In the towns and cities, they fed and cared for the poor, opened grammar schools, and performed duties such as preaching, confessing, and assisting the parish [End Page 449] priest. Dominicans took over the management of the Inquisition. But in addition to providing a literate class with appropriate sermons, literature such as poetry and history, and art and architecture, the mendicants continued their concern for “simple folk” (as Melvin phrases it) by teaching illiterates and Indian speakers by means of corporeal devices: for example, creating murals in which the invisible was made visible, in the surrounding of saints’ images with fiery rays. As mining, agricultural, and cattle-raising wealth grew in the northern provinces of the Bajío, Monterrey, and Zacatecas, the mendicant properties which had remained to them benefited and contributed to the orders’ immense prestige. In 1696, a report noted that alms were not as necessary, since the orders had by then acquired lands and chaplaincies. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, Bourbon reforms cut into the mendicants’ importance, as by then the Crown had grown jealous of their power and revenues. Yet secularizing Enlightenment thought, which contributed to independence insurgencies in other parts of Spanish America, apparently did not affect Mexican appreciation for the Church; indeed, that colony’s independence movement, begun in 1810, was led by a priest who rallied pious followers.
The mendicants’ move to urban centers is the focus of Melvin’s meticulous and fascinating study. Her book challenges previous historiography, which often passed over the mendicant orders as popularizers, concentrating instead on the Jesuits whose influence with the literate classes was perhaps more documentable. However, that order also established missions on the northern frontier and in Baja California, and when the Jesuits were expelled from Spain’s empire in 1767, the Franciscans took over these missions. Melvin’s book complicates the line that is often drawn between orality and literacy in the transmission of culture and knowledge; in the early stages of the Conquest but also in later years, the mendicants’ own persons were a means, beyond words, of teaching the lessons of Christianity.
Melvin’s abundant research uncovers a great deal of internecine politics as she documents how the mendicant orders negotiated land donations from wealthy Mexicans so as to found...