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  • Nahua Intellectuals, Franciscan Scholars, and the Devotio Moderna in Colonial Mexico
  • David Tavárez (bio)

In 1570, the Franciscan friar Jerónimo de Mendieta bestowed a rare gift on Juan de Ovando, then president of the Council of Indies. Mendieta placed in Ovando’s hands a small manuscript volume in superb Gothic script with illuminated initials and color illustrations, one of several important manuscripts he had brought to Spain for various prominent recipients. Were it not for its contents, one could have thought it a meticulous version of a breviary or a book of hours, but its contents were unprecedented. This tome contained a scholarly Nahuatl translation of the most popular devotional work in Western Europe in the previous century. It was Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, which caught Iberian Christians under its spell between the 1460s and the early sixteenth century by means of multiple Latin editions and translations into Portuguese, Catalan, and Spanish, including a version in aljamiado (Spanish in Arabic characters). Indeed, a decisive turning point in the Iberian reception of this work had taken place three decades earlier, through the 1536 publication of Juan de Ávila’s influential Spanish-language adaptation.1 [End Page 203]

Mendieta’s gesture had a very ambitious objective. By giving Ovando the first Nahuatl translation of this work, he may have hoped to persuade him, and others close to Philip II, that the Franciscan educational projects begun five decades earlier in New Spain had undergone a transition from communal, rudimentary instruction to individual and reflexive spiritual improvement.2 This gift also showcased the fruits of a remarkable intellectual collaboration, supervised by Franciscans but executed by the first generation of colonial indigenous scholars in the Americas. Nonetheless, Mendieta’s hopes did not prevail, and the attempts to generate a corpus of devotio moderna works in Nahuatl between the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century were met with mounting concern and skepticism. In fact, the creation of a corpus of devotio moderna works in Nahuatl and the unleashing of an Erasmist approach to the Scriptures among literate Nahuas were objectives that challenged the boundaries of what was deemed appropriate for native Christians during the Counter-Reformation. This essay addresses the significance and extent of this bold experiment by introducing a first appraisal of one of the most remarkable tasks undertaken by Nahuas and Franciscans in the sixteenth century: two separate renderings into Nahuatl of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi. Three reasons may account for this choice: the Imitatio had no peers in terms of its popularity as a representative of the devotio moderna tradition; it was a devotional guide written in accessible language for audiences with no formal theological education; and it had become one of the first early modern best-sellers through its numerous editions and vernacular translations.

Although the Nahuatl Imitatio has been cited as an example of the diversity of sixteenth-century Nahuatl literature,3 such mentions have always been in passing, and no scholarly study of this work exists. The most substantial, but still incomplete, Nahuatl translation of the Imitatio—the one Mendieta brought to Spain—was probably written by the Franciscan Alonso de Molina and his close collaborator Hernando de Ribas and is now at the Royal Library of El Escorial. It advertised the abilities of Nahua scholars at the Franciscan Colegio de Santa Cruz4 and publicized the aims of a Franciscan educational avant-garde in New Spain. The second Nahuatl Imitatio, another incomplete translation, now at the John Carter Brown Library (henceforth JCB) at Brown University, has [End Page 204] important similarities with the Escorial Imitatio, but also some significant differences. Moreover, we know that there once existed a Nahuatl Imitatio jointly authored by the Nahua scholar Francisco Bautista de Contreras and the Franciscan Juan Bautista Viseo. This enigmatic edition was being readied for the press in 1606, but no copy is extant, and it is not known if it was ever printed. In any case, the relationship between the JCB Imitatio and the Imitatio edited by Bautista and Contreras remains unclear.

This essay begins with an overview of Nahua-Franciscan authorial collaborations in the late sixteenth century, continues with a historical and philological...


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