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The Americas 60.4 (2004) 659-661

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Nahua Confraternities in Early Colonial Mexico: The 1552 Ordinances of Fray Alonso de Molina, OFM. By Barry D. Sell. Berkeley: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2002. Pp. xiii, 187. Index. No price.

Barry D. Sell's sophisticated new book is a worthy addition to a significant and growing body of transcribed and translated indigenous-language ecclesiastical texts. As the title suggests, the author's focal point is a set of generic rules for Nahua hospital [End Page 659] cofradías crafted under the leadership of one of the most gifted Franciscan friar-linguists. The book is however much more than a simple English-language edition of this manuscript. While the excellent translation provided by Sell is based on a copy held in Berkeley's Bancroft library, interpretive attention is also paid to a version found at Tulane's Latin American Library and another in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City; transcriptions of both of these manuscripts are appended to the volume. In his well-mounted interpretive essay, the author compares in turn Molina's Ordinances to a set of rules and membership lists (1570-1730) from Tula's confraternity of the Most Holy Sacrament, and a 1619 set from the community of San Miguel Coyotlan. The book is introduced by John F. Schwaller who published a transcription and translation of the 1570 Tula confraternity rules (though not the membership lists and other documents related to it) in volume 19 of Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl (1989). Schwaller offers an informative discussion of the Molina Ordinances in light of Iberian confraternity organization, membership, and operation as discussed by Larissa Taylor, and benefits from Asuncion Lavrin's meaty overview of the development of cofradías in Spanish America. He manages to consider questions of spirituality, gender, race, social class, political economy, among others, in a relatively few pages.

Sell grapples with two significant issues related to the impact of Hispanic culture on indigenous society and to the spread of the Catholic faith among them. Orthographic analysis of the three 1552 manuscripts strongly suggest that a different copyist was responsible for each, and that these scribes were educated Nahuas rather than Molina or some other non-indigenous person. This revelation supports the dawning realization that apparently "Spanish authored" Nahuatl texts were in fact often created with the help of indigenous collaborators. This means that they did not speak only with an imposed, translated Spanish voice but, rather, with something more complex. In this case, Sell find hints about the nature and timing of the Nahua reception and understanding of Christianity, and about the ways in which European conventions connected with confraternities and the devotions associated with them were translated into Nahuatl, not just linguistically but also culturally. The Ordinances were written at a time when Nahua Catholicism was still in its formative stage; texts of the twenty-four rules contained in the manuscript often contain lessons in belief and piety.

Sell's accessible commentary relates the issue of voice and content directly to a second issue, namely when did cofradías begin to emerge in significant numbers within the indigenous world. Scholars such as Charles Gibson and others rejected Robert Ricard's earlier position that confraternities emerged early on, believing instead that they were not common until after 1600. Sell calls this idea into question, arguing that the very existence of the Ordinances suggests that Nahua cofradías were numerous enough by the 1550s to make standardized regulations for them worthwhile. He finds in the 1570 Tula manuscript, which comes from an organization that was already well established and complex, more evidence that indigenous confraternities were no longer a rarity in central New Spain. [End Page 660]

This volumeis not just a narrow exercise in translation and linguistic analysis. It builds on seminal reinterpretations of the so called "spiritual conquest" created by scholars such as Louise Burkhart, and fits firmly into the growing stream of high-quality studies which James Lockhart has called the new philology, studies which...


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