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  • The Epistemological Politics of Vernacular Scripture in Sixteenth-Century Mexico
  • Martin Austin Nesvig (bio)

The year 1577 was a watershed for linguistic politics in Mexico. After more than five decades in Mexico, the Spanish crown signaled a break from its previous tolerance of the use of indigenous language in catechesis and doctrinal publications. The landmark case is the crown’s confiscation of Bernardino de Sahagún’s Historia General in 1577.1 Simultaneously, the Mexican Inquisition pursued an assault on vernacular Scripture, confiscating dozens of Spanish scriptural editions, and culminating in the Inquisition’s prohibition of Nahuatl and other indigenous-language translations of Scripture, in particular Ecclesiastes and the Epístolas y Evangelios (Epistles and Gospels).2 Also central was the second trial of a noted Erasmian, Alonso Cabello, who had spent much of the same year in house arrest in Tlatelolco.3 All this came on the heels of the establishment of the Holy Office in Mexico in November 1571 and its first full-scale purge of prohibited books, including well over 200 editions of Scripture—dozens of them in Spanish and a few in Nahuatl—that had circulated freely in Mexico. Prior to the 1570s Mexico had witnessed intense debates about the role of language in missionary projects, in catechesis, and in the education of indigenous Mexicans, alongside those regarding the proper language for Scripture and devotional works. Deep distrust of translation projects, of the continuing use of indigenous languages in catechesis and preaching, and of abiding Erasmianism in the Franciscan order would result in [End Page 165] various proscriptive rulings. At the same time, the attack on vernacular Scripture and spiritual devotional works—in both Spanish and Nahuatl—did not come without considerable resistance from an organized part of the Franciscan order, as well as from many high-ranking royal and ecclesiastical officials.

In 1577 the Mexican Inquisition called on some of the foremost Nahuatl language experts, including Bernardino de Sahagún and Alonso de Molina, to debate whether or not exceptions to the ban on vernacular language translations of Scripture should be allowed. The ban on Nahuatl scriptural editions had been promulgated by the General Council of the Spanish Inquisition in May 1576, specifically noting a Nahuatl translation of Ecclesiastes that was then circulating.4 But as the Mexican Inquisition had also moved against the circulation of Spanish Bibles, the debate on Nahuatl Scripture took place within a much broader battle over the availability of vernacular Scripture and devotional works.

This article offers an overview of the debate surrounding vernacular Scripture. Although the major events of 1577 (the confiscation of Sahagún’s work and the inquisitional attack on Nahuatl and Purépecha scriptural translations) were the ostensible culmination of the campaign against vernacularization, this article devotes attention to the broad global background for these events, that is, the development over time of an anti-vernacular scriptural epistemology in which 1577 represented the political denouement. Under consideration are some of the major arguments about Spanish vernacularization of the Bible and the diffusion of vernacular Scripture and missals in Mexico. Accordingly, the article begins by examining the ideological background of the epistemology of vernacular language as it related to Scripture. Second comes an examination of the editorial history of vernacular scriptural editions in Spain and their subsequent widespread diffusion in Mexico, evidenced by the hundreds found in the inquisitional purge of libraries in the winter of 1571-1572 led by the Dominican censor Bartolomé de Ledesma.5 Third, the article assesses the specifically Mexican debate about indigenous vernacular versions of Scripture and spiritual [End Page 166] works, as seen in the cases of Maturino Gilberti’s Purépecha literature in Michoacán and of Nahuatl Ecclesiastes and Proverbs manuscripts. It will also illuminate a debate within the Franciscan order in Mexico that has received relatively little attention: the split between humanists and conservatives, which was refracted in the 1573 and 1578 trials against Alonso Cabello, a Franciscan Erasmian who had easy access to Erasmus’s works in Tlatelolco, San Francisco de México, and Cholula.6

While a good deal of attention has been paid to the indigenous language debates in Mexico by ethnohistorians, we know less...


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