In the name of god and greed they burned everything, the Spanish. At the command of the villainous Hernan Cortés, the men, women and children of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán were slaughtered mercilessly. By the morning of August 13, 1521, nearly a quarter of a million Mexica lay dead in the streets of a city its conquerors had once compared to Venice and Seville.
Most of the Renaissance world never knew of the crime. King, Pope, and General conspired to sing the praises of the New World, but the price of its "discovery" was paid in Native American blood.
As trade and reconstruction normalized following the Aztec genocide, the Catholic Church sent a second army to Cortés's Mexico. By 1559 over 800 priests had been dispatched to assure that the heathen souls of the survivors of the Spanish Conquest would be saved. One of those priests was nearly single-handedly responsible for preserving a history of Mexica culture before the Spaniards. His name was Bernardino de Sahagún and he served as a missionary in Mexico for sixty-one years.
Bernardino de Sahagún was born in Sahagun, Leon, Spain in the year 1500. He took the vows of a Franciscan monk at the convent of Salamanca in 1520 and was sent to New Spain in 1529 where he became a professor at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlaltelolco, near Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlán). He was charged with teaching the Mexica youth Spanish, Latin, science, music and religion, and this he happily did, for the rest of his life.
In due time, Fray Bernardino became expert in the Mexica language, Nahuatl, and in his spare time, utilizing a collection of Mexica leaders and commoners alike, he began a civil, religious, and natural history of Mexico.
His courteous and humble approach to the natives soon brought him great success and at the behest of his superior, Fray Antonio of Rodrigo City, the project was expanded to comprise twelve volumes with illustrations by Sahagún as well as pictographs by the Mexica themselves. Fray Bernardino described the inception of his monumental work:
I was commanded in all holy obedience by my chief prelate to write in the Mexican language that which appeared to me to be useful for the doctrine, worship, and maintenance of Christianity among these natives of New Spain, and for the aid of the ministers and workers that taught them.
Having received this commandment, I made in the Spanish language a minute or memorandum of all the matters that I had to treat of, which matters are what is written in the twelve books...which were begun in the pueblo of Tepeopulco...I got together all the principal men, together with the lord of the place, who was called Don Diego de Mendoza, of great distinction and ability, well-experienced in things ecclesiastic, military, political, and even relating to idolatry.
They being come together, I set before them what I proposed to do, and prayed them to appoint me able and experienced persons with whom I might converse and come to an understanding on such questions as I might propose...They chose out ten or twelve of the principal old men, and told me that with these I might communicate and that these would instruct me in any matters I should inquire of...
...With these appointed principal men I talked many days during about two years, following the order of the minute I had already made out. On all the subjects on which we conferred they gave me pictures—which were the writings anciently in use among them—and these the grammarians interpreted to me in their language, writing the interpretation at the foot of the picture.
The manuscript was completed in 1569 but it was not published at that time for two reasons: There was a legitimate fear that allowing the natives to dwell upon their "heathen" ways might foment discord and, perhaps even more importantly, Sahagún's work contained explicit first-person accounts of Hernan Cortés's massacre.
Sahagún's life work lay untouched in the convent of Tolosa until around 1800 when it was found and copied. It was published in three volumes in Mexico in 1829 as Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España.
It is truth that was recorded by the simple friar and his trusting subjects. A General History of the Things of New Spain describes rites horrible even today, in our world drenched in death by decree. There are Rituals fantastical. Costumes extraordinary. Meals fit for a king. And there are simple household family joys never to be experienced again, thanks to the lethal blade and flaming torch of the Conquistadores.
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún died in Mexico City on October 23, 1590. He was ninety years old and at his funeral both students and Indians alike shed tears of grief and gratitude.
Aztec Thought and Culture,
A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind,
translated from the Spanish by Jack Emory Davis, University of Oklahoma Press : Norman, 1963
Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico
Translated from the Spanish by Grace Lobanov and the author, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1969.
The Flayed God—The Mythology of Mesoamerica
Rebecca H. Markman & Peter T. Markman,
Harper, San Francisco,1992
On Mexico and the Aztecs:
An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Below the Line