During the century following the crucifixion of Christ, the apostles charged with spreading the "good news" of the Gospels enjoyed rather limited success. In an historical "blink of the eye" - during the late second and third century c.e. - people throughout a collapsing Roman Empire embraced Christianity. During the fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, and by the sixth century c.e., most Europeans - numbering in the millions - understood themselves as Christian.
Christianity experienced a similar history some 1,400 years later in Latin America. Here, too, the collapse of empires (e.g., Mexica, Inca) ushered in a period of several centuries during which millions of Indians came to understand themselves as Christian.
This book is a comparative study of early Christianity in the late Roman Empire (c. 150-800 c.e.) and in colonial Mexico (c. 1520-1720 c.e.). Following the early success of Mendicant missionaries in southern Mexico, the Jesuits, between 1591 and 1650, baptized over four hundred thousand Indians and established a vast network of Christian communities in northern Mexico. My central thesis is that the Mendicant and especially the Jesuit enterprise, although not on the same temporal or spatial scale as the rise of Christianity in Europe, nevertheless entailed similar processes. Perhaps most significant, the Christianization of pagan Europe and Indian Mexico was coincident with epidemics of acute and chronic infectious disease that undermined the structure and functioning of pagan and Indian societies, respectively.1 Both pagans in Europe and Indians in Mexico were attracted to Christian beliefs and rituals because they provided a means of comprehending and dealing with epidemic disease and calamity. The organizational strategies based on charity and reciprocity that were implemented by early Christians and later by missionaries in Mexico also were particularly attractive in the context of profound sociocultural upheaval. Both medieval monks and Jesuit missionaries emphasized the cult of the saints and their relics, which, paradoxically, involved accommodation as much as suppression of indigenous belief systems. Significantly, the literature produced in Europe by early Christians, particularly sacred biography and history, was later used by Jesuit and, to a lesser extent, Mendicant missionary authors as literary models and sources of rhetoric to represent their New World experience. Pursuit of this "borrowing," which I attribute in significant part to demonstrable similarities in the two processes of Christianization, has resulted in a book that is a comparative study of Old and New World mission frontiers as well as early Christian literature and Spanish missionary texts.
The idea for this book began taking shape some twenty-five years ago, while doing archaeological research in Sonora, Mexico.2 Living in northern Mexico made me aware that the people of Sonora carried on estimable traditions that were rooted in their Indian past. Our archaeological research indicated that this past encompassed lives that were at least as complex and presumably as fulfilling as the lives of contemporaries in early modern Europe. If so, then why did hundreds of thousands
1 The term pagan at this point in time is fully loaded with unfortunate baggage. I use it as a referent for the mostly Celtic and German-speaking peoples of Western Europe who, in the context of a demographic collapse and migration, coalesced in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, giving rise to better understood ethnic groups such as Franks, Saxons, and Irish. Sadly, when referring to the Indians of northern Mexico, I also gloss over what undoubtedly were innumerable differences among dozens of peoples; the differences and many of the cultures themselves have been lost to history.
2 The Rio Sonora Project was funded by the National Science Foundation from 1975 to 1979 and was principally concerned with determining the broad outlines of Sonoran prehistory and the extent to which the region functioned prehistorically as a trade route linking Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. Richard A. Pailes and Daniel T. Reff, "Colonial Exchange Systems and the Decline of Paquime." In The Archaeology of West and Northwest Mesoamerica, eds. Michael S. Foster and Phil C. Weigand, pp. 353-363 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985).
of Indians embrace Jesuit missionaries and Christianity? About the time I started puzzling over this question I read William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples (1976) and Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange (1972), which detail how epidemic disease changed the course of history in the Old World and the New. Their work compelled me to examine the accounts of Spanish explorers and Jesuit missionaries from northern Nueva Espana. To my suprise, I found considerable evidence that epidemics of smallpox, measles, typhus, and other maladies spread northward from central Mexico in advance of the generally northward-moving mission frontier, decimating Indian populations and contributing to Indian interest in baptism and missionization.3
My research on disease and its contribution to Jesuit success was made possible by a vast literature produced by the Jesuits. Ignatius Loyola and Jesuit superiors encouraged missionaries to write often. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Jesuits in Nueva Espana wrote thousands of letters and reports, including yearly summaries (annuas) for each province and its many subdivisions (e.g., rectorados, colegios). Some priests also took it upon themselves or were asked by superiors to write histories, synthesizing the observations and experiences of fellow missionaries.4 The most detailed and informative narrative of the Jesuit experience in colonial Mexico was published in 1645, and was written by a former frontier missionary and Jesuit provincial, Andres Perez de Ribas. Titled in English History of the Triumphs of Our Holy Faith Amongst the Most Barbarous and Fierce Peoples of the New World,5 the Historia is a wonderfully detailed commentary on Spanish and Indian relations in northern Nueva Espana.
Having satisfied, or so I thought, my interest in disease, I initiated in 1992 a National Endowment for the Humanities project to
3 Daniel T. Reff, Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991).
4 The fifth father general of the Jesuit order, Claudio Acquaviva (1581-1615), instructed each Jesuit province throughout the world to select a Jesuit to collect historical material and to compile a chronicle or history of the province. Magnus Morner, The Political and Economic Activities of the Jesuits in the La Plata Region, The Hapsburg Era (Stockholm: Library and Institute of Ibero-American Studies, 1953), 10.
5 Andres Perez de Ribas, History of the Triumphs of Our Holy Faith Amongst the Most Barbarous and Fierce Peoples of the New World, trans. Daniel T. Reff, Maureen Ahern, and Richard Danford (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999 ).
prepare a critical, English-language edition of Perez de Ribas's Historia. On previous occasions my reading of the text often entailed a mining operation of sorts; I read the book largely for ethnohistorical insights. Along the way I nevertheless became aware that the Historia was an often gripping, dramatic narrative, filled with demonic apparitions and miracles. Once I began the close reading implied by translation, I further discovered that Perez de Ribas relied heavily on early Christian literature for literary models and rhetoric to represent the Jesuits' New World experience. Perez de Ribas was not alone in this regard; other Jesuit as well as Franciscan authors used type scenes (e.g., "faith healing the blind"), metaphors, rhetoric, and explicit parallels from early Christian literature to describe the mission frontier in places such as New Mexico and Paraguay.6 Jesuit narratives, for instance, tell of missionaries who were informed by God of their impending martyrdom through bleeding altar cloths, and of missionaries whose bodies, or body parts, remained incorruptible following death. The same or very similar incidents are recounted in the Life of Saint Hilarion and countless other sacred biographies. Similarly, the Historia recounts instances where Jesuits destroyed roadside cairns or trees that were "worshipped" by the Indians, replacing them with crosses. Almost identical pagan religious practices and "replacement strategies," used by medieval clerics and monks, are described in the fourth-century Life of Saint Martin.7 Jesuit texts also abound in metaphors and epithets from early Christian literature, including references to the devil as "the enemy," "the infernal beast," or a "demonic kinsman." References to the devil's snares are as common in Jesuit missionary texts from Mexico as they are in Athanasius's Life of Saint Antony, which pertains to Mediterranean Europe during late antiquity. Perhaps most significant, Jesuit missionary texts abound in
6 For instance, Fray A. Benavides, The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, trans. E. Ayers (Chicago: Privately Published, 1916 ); Juan E. Nieremberg, S.J. (with Andrade Cassini), Varones Illustres de la Compania de Jesus. 3 vols. (Bilbao, 1889 ); Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, Conquista Espiritual hecha por los religiosos de la Compania de Jesus en las provincias del Paraguay, Parana, Uruguay y Tape (Bilbao: Corazon de Jesus, 1892
7 F. R. Hoare, trans. and ed., The Western Fathers, Being the Lives of SS. Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Honoratus of Arles and Germanus of Auxerre (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954).
references to sickness and the miraculous cure; the latter is perhaps the most common "type scene" in early Christian sacred biography and history.8
Why would Iberian missionaries writing on the eve of the Enlightenment rely so heavily on literary models and rhetoric that were over one thousand years old to represent the missionary experience in the New World? The perhaps obvious answer, particularly in the wake of post-structuralism, is that Jesuit missionary authors were part of a "regime of power," the Counter-Reformation Church, with a particular discourse and rules for signification. Jesuits were formed as religious through their reading of the lives of the Church Fathers and saints and later, as authors, essentially were required by the Church and Spanish Crown to employ early Christian literature as a literary model and source of rhetoric.
In recent years I have employed the critique of ethnography and "constructivism" as an analytical framework, researching the contingent factors (e.g., theological, literary, political, institutional, historical) that encouraged Jesuit "borrowing" from early sacred biography and history.9 As noted at the outset, perhaps the most significant finding of this research has been that the Jesuits employed early Christian literature not simply as a reflex of Counter-Reformation discourse but also because there were demonstrable parallels between their own experience and the experience of their missionary counterparts in late antique and early medieval Europe. The rise of Christianity in both the Old World and New was coincident with profound dislocations resulting from epidemics that undermined indigenous religions and society as a whole. The challenges that early Christian missionaries confronted and overcame, realizing sainthood in the process, were analogous to those that
8 Clare Stancliffe, "From Town to Country: The Christianization of the Touraine, 370600." In The Church in Town and Countryside, ed. Derek Baker, pp. 43-59 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), 57.
9 Some exemplifications of constructivism: Edward M. Bruner, "Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A Critique of Postmodernism." American Anthropologist 96 (1994): 397-415; Jean Comaroff, Body of Power Spirit of Resistance, The Culture and History of a South African People (University of Chicago Press, 1985); Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985), 143-145; James Clifford and George Marcus, eds., Writing Culture, The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).
missionaries faced in the New World.10 Medieval hagiography is replete with mention of roadside cairns, tree worship, ceremonial intoxication, flying witches, and other pagan practices that the Jesuits encountered in the New World one thousand years later. Both medieval missionaries and the Jesuits imagined themselves at war with Satan and his heathen familiars, the dreaded shamans. Both sets of missionaries directly challenged these religious leaders but accommodated indigenous beliefs and practices through the cult of the saints and other "Christian" rituals and devotions.11
I did not intend above that Jesuit missionary employment of early Christian literature was not affected by institutional/political contingencies. The Counter-Reformation Church certainly exercised a profound influence on contemporaries. However, "the Church," be it understood as theology, an institution, or as discourse, was not monolithic. Catholics disagreed - sometimes violently - over the sacraments, grace, illumination, perfection, and a host of other issues. Moreover, although authors in Iberia and America were encouraged by the Church as well as the Spanish Crown to embrace particular signifying practices (e.g., rhetoric and type scenes from early Christian literature), they did not necessarily affirm hegemonic positions. The much celebrated Mexican nun, Juana Ines de la Cruz, who challenged the authority of her male confessors by quoting scripture and Church authorities, was perhaps without peer. But Sor Juana was not the first or only colonial-period author to use authority to question authority.12
Jesuit authors in the New World used - and, one might say, deployed -early Christian literature in response to a variety of institutional/political contingencies but particularly to defend their mission enterprise and vocation. During the century following the foundation of the Society of Jesus, most members of the order came to prefer life as a teacher over
10 McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, 181; John L. Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970 ), 92.
11 Pamela Berger, The Goddess Obscured (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985); Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 76.
12 Electra Arenal and Amanda Powell, trans. and eds., Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, The Answer/La Repuesta (New York: Feminist Press, 1994).
the Ignatian ideal of itinerant missionary. By 1645, less than half of all Jesuits were missionaries.13 This profound shift in vocations posed a threat to Jesuit missionaries in the New World, who depended on the Society of Jesus for money, men, and political support, particularly in dealings with the Spanish Crown, which funded and approved missionary enterprises in the New World. Jesuit missionary authors relied on sacred history and biography for narrative scenes and rhetoric to persuade their readers (i.e., Jesuit novices and superiors; royal and ecclesiastical officials) of the preeminent status of the missionary vocation. For instance, in recounting the heroic lives and martyrdom of fellow Jesuits, Julio Pascual and Manuel Martinez, Perez de Ribas implicitly and explicitly invokes early Christian literature, particularly the Roman Martyrology and lives of the saints:
They opened the portals and began shooting arrows inside so no one could escape. One arrow hit Father Julio Pascal in the stomach, at which point Father Manuel Martinez said: "Let us not die for Christ sadly and cowardly." Then he emerged from the house, at which point they furiously shot more arrows, pinning Father Martinez's arms to his torso. Father Julio Pascual followed, even though his stomach was pierced by an arrow. Full of devotion and with their rosaries in their hands (I myself have one of these, all covered with blood), they both fell to their knees and asked our Lord for His favor and grace. They began to be struck by thousands of arrows covered with a poisonous herb. These rained upon their bodies until they became two Saint Sebastians, and within a short time they fell to the ground.14
Jesuit "deployment" of type scenes and rhetoric from sacred biography and history was itself consistent with the experience of missionary authors in Europe during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. In his late-fourth-century Life of Saint Martin, which became the most influential of all hagiographies in Western Europe, Sulpicius Severus confronted analagous "institutional" constraints Jesuit missionaries faced over one thousand years later. During the early Middle Ages, many monks and
13 Joseph de Guibert, The Jesuits, Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice, A Historical Study (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1964), 288, f. 21.
14 Perez de Ribas, History of the Triumphs, 259.
ecclesiastics in Europe were convinced that a contemplative life rather than the active life of a missionary was the true path to religious perfection.15 Moreover, many early medieval monks and clerics questioned, as did later Jesuit critics who disparaged the Indian, whether missions to "rustic" Celts and German "barbarians" were worthwhile.16 In his vita of Saint Martin, Severus went out of his way to highlight Martin's missionary vocation, casting it as an imitatio Christi. Severus's recounting of Martin's miracles and his success converting pagans was "proof positive" that Martin was doing God's work. The vita is also peppered with subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on the complacent and withdrawn lives of contemporary clerics and monks:
Indeed, I have come across some who were so envious of his [Martin's] spiritual powers and his life as actually to hate in him what they missed in themselves but had not the strength to imitate. And - oh, grievous and lamentable scandal! - nearly all his calumniators were bishops. There is no need to mention names, though several of them are barking now at me.17
There were, then, institutional/political as well as theological and cultural-historical parallels between the missionary experience in the Old World and New. As discussed later, although neither early Christian nor Jesuit literature mirror directly the reality of the mission frontier, both literatures nonetheless reflect the similar contingencies that governed the lives of missionaries and their pagan and Indian converts.
Was this article helpful?