Sahagún, Bernardino de
SAHAGÚN, BERNARDINO DE
Franciscan historian, linguist, and ethnologist, considered the precursor of modern cultural anthropology and father of American ethnology; b. Sahagún de Campos, León, Spain, 1499; d. Mexico City, 1590. Nothing is known of Sahagún's life in Spain, not even his correct name, except that like so many other outstanding missionaries, letrados, and functionaries in Spanish America, he studied at the University of Salamanca. In Salamanca Sahagún entered the Franciscan Order. In 1529 he sailed from Cádiz for Mexico. Sahagún found Mexico still suffering from the tremendous shock of the Spanish conquest and of the fall of the powerful Aztec empire. Four years before his arrival, the first group of Franciscan missionaries, under the leadership of Fray Martín de valencia, had landed and begun the work of evangelization. To this effort, Fray Bernardino brought a profound knowledge of the Nahuatl language and culture, a deep love for the defeated Native Americans, and a strict scientific attitude.
His first years in Mexico (1530–35) were spent in that part of the valley of Mexico famous for the chinampas (floating gardens), doing evangelical work in the convents of Tlamanalco and Xochimilco. There he learned the Mexican (Nahuatl) language and was fascinated by the native culture, still well preserved despite the trauma of the conquest. He noted the superficiality of many of the rapid conversions to Christianity and the powerful influence of the ancient native beliefs. There Sahagún formed the attitudes that he maintained for the rest of his life: the native culture was estimable and in certain aspects superior to that being imposed upon the natives; it was necessary to study and to know this culture thoroughly, not only to be able to combat the pagan beliefs successfully, but also to be able to preserve it and to integrate it into the common heritage that he foresaw would be the national culture of Mexico.
Innovations in Education. About 1536 Sahagún was transferred to Tlaltelolco, the twin city of Tenochtitlán, and together with it, the site of the modern Mexico City. The College of Santa Cruz had just been founded there for the sons of the caciques and principal native nobility. This school was a result of the policy of Fray Martín de Valencia of beginning a school for Native Americans in every convent, and it continued the work of the first school begun by Pedro de gante. Not only were the humanities and letters taught, but also the arts and trades.
Sahagún taught there for about five years and left a deep imprint on the school. For example, he introduced regulations for the native boarding students based on the traditional organization of native schools for young men, and he placed the study and proficiency in Nahuatl on a par with Spanish and Latin. Sahagún insisted that the work of evangelization required an understanding of the native languages and the use of textbooks prepared especially in those tongues and not merely translated from Latin or Spanish. The years 1540 to 1545 he spent in the convents of Huejotzingo and Cholula near Mexico City. In 1545, he returned to the college at Tlaltelolco where he began a daring reform: Sahagún decided to entrust most of the teaching and administration of the college to its native graduates.
Studies. At this same time Sahagún began the systematic collection of information that later enabled him to write his monumental work Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España. On this work is based his reputation as father of American ethnography and creator of its methodology. The Historia general is made up of 12 books written in Nahuatl. It deals partly with the history and the language, but principally with the material and spiritual culture of the Mexican people (religion, social and political organization, technology, etc.). It is an ethnographical study in the strict sense of that term and one that has remained the principal source for the study of Mexican culture at the time of the conquest.
To gather the needed information, Sahagún prepared a detailed questionnaire that he submitted to older natives who were well informed concerning the ancient customs of the peoples of Tepepulco, Tlaltelolco, and Mexico in general. He also made it a habit to talk constantly with his native informants in their own language. From these conversations he took notes in Nahuatl that he used to check against the information he had already received or had gained through the questionnaire. He also used the native professors and students of the college as an added means of control. An ethnologist of today, even the most demanding, could not readily find a better method.
The work of Sahagún unleashed a violent storm of opposition from those who thought that he was going to contribute to the survival of the pagan beliefs and to render the work of complete Christianization more difficult. For many of the adversaries of Sahagún, Christianization meant "Hispanization," without restriction. To this Sahagún was opposed, for he wanted to preserve the most valuable elements of Mexican culture. The dispute made his work more difficult, but it did not prevent it altogether; nor did it stop the preparation in Spanish of a somewhat shortened and modified version of his Historia general. Nor did it render impossible the preparation of a large number of shorter works, such as El calendario mexicano, El arte adivinatoria, a grammar and vocabulary in Mexican, and sermons and hymns in Nahuatl. In 1578, when he was about 80 years old, Sahagún received the cruel blow of a royal decree confiscating all the texts and documents of his 50 years of labor. As a result, science and the world were deprived of the knowledge of his work until the 19th century.
Extent of Influence. The influence of Sahagún and of his work as an evangelizer and as a man of science were not destroyed by the long delay in the publication of his Historia general. His intellectual influence was wielded above all and in a very deep and lasting way with the professors and students of the college of Tlaltelolco; with his fellow Franciscans in Mexico, even those who did not completely agree with his point of view; and with the religious and civil authorities of the viceroyalty. The work and the attitude of Sahagún were continued through the centuries, at times by disciples who hardly even knew his name, and reached down to modern times to influence the attitude and the activity of anthropologists, indigenists, and rulers of modern Mexico.
Bibliography: j. de alva, h. nicholson, and e. keber, The Work of Bernardino de Sahagun, Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth-Century Aztec Mexico (Albany, N.Y. 1988). l. d'olwer, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, 1499–1590, tr. m. mixco (Salt Lake City 1987).