Renaissance Humanist conceptions of language and writing provided the framework through which early Spanish missionaries, explorers and historians interpreted Amerindian cultures. The latter, in turn, viewed the elements of Spanish literate culture—ink, paper, alphabetic letters, books—through the prism of their own writing traditions, or lack thereof. Some religious zealots were determined to eradicate native books as perceived signs of idolatry. This led to the destruction of countless pre-contact codices, and an irreparable loss of the historical record. One of the most infamous episodes of book burning took place in the Yucatán, in 1562, when Bishop Diego de Landa destroyed, by his own reckoning, at least 27 Mayan codices in the name of the Christian God.
However, many early chroniclers, such as Pietro Martire, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and José de Acosta, were impressed by literate Mesoamerican culture and understood the documentary value of their books. This case features some of these early descriptions.
Pedro Mártir (or Pietro Martire d’Anghiera) was an Italian diplomat who arrived in Spain in 1487 and quickly became an insider in the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He served in many capacities, including on the Council of the Indies, and was privy to correspondence and reports from explorers returning from the Indies, many of whom he personally interviewed. Although he never set foot in the Indies, Mártir wrote in the heady atmosphere of the Castilian court and conveyed details of unimagined lands in a series of letters and reports, in Latin, to high-ranking clergy and friends in Italy. His reports were published in numerous editions between 1493 and 1525. It was through Mártir’s Decades that lettered elites across Europe first learned of the unprecedented and developing news from the Spanish court.
Two-page spread from De nouo orbe or The Historie of the West Indies
Above, the first complete English edition of Mártir’s eight Decades. Originally written in 1521, the passage contains the first detailed description of Mesoamerican books received in Europe. For his descriptions of New Spain, Mártir relied on the written accounts (Relaciones) of Hernán Cortés, a conqueror but also educated at the University of Salamanca in the Humanist tradition, and the admiration for the lettered culture of the Aztecs is evident.
De natura Novi Orbis (1569)
Above, this first edition, in Latin, of what would become the first two chapters of Acosta’s masterpiece, Historia natural y moral de las Indias, was published the following year. The book is open to two chapters that relate to the “natural” or physical world and grapple with the epistemological dilemmas posed to Europeans by the appearance of the newly “discovered” lands within the received order of the world.
The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies
The first English edition of Historia natural y moral de las Indias (Salamanca, 1590), one of the most celebrated early works on the Indies. Acosta devoted several chapters to discussion of Amerindian writing, clearly subscribing to the Renaissance notion that the alphabet was superior to other writing systems and was thus a privileged vehicle for historical memory.
In keeping with the precepts of Renaissance historiography, most early accounts of the Spanish enterprise in the New World centered on the conquistador as a singular figure. By contrast, Bernal Díaz offers a foot soldier’s eyewitness account of the military campaign of Hernán Cortés that culminated in the fall of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (1519-1521). Composed in the twilight of his years and published posthumously over one hundred years after these events took place, his narrative is told from the perspective of a common Spaniard, devoid of rhetorical flourishes, and dwells on the contributions of soldiers, not just Cortés.
Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (1632)
In one of the most fascinating chapters of his book, Bernal describes the “great lord” Montezuma. In the passage marked above, he describes his accountant and the books he kept in a library:
“I remember that at that time his steward was a great Cacique to whom we gave the name of Tápia, and he kept the accounts of all the revenue that was brought to Montezuma, in his books which were made of paper which they call amal, and he had a great house full of these books.”
In another chapter, Bernal described Mesoamerican books “like folded Castilian cloth.”
To early Spaniards, Mesoamerican writing traditions were somewhat within the bounds of a relate-able experience. After all, signs inscribed on stone and paper were the building blocks of Western writing systems. However, the quipus used among the Inca and Aymara of South America were far removed from the cultural horizon of Europeans. A quipu consisted of colored strings with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten system. Largely viewed as mnemonic devices to aid in accounting, the quipus were less understood and thus less threatening to early colonizers than the painted manuscripts. There were no known instances of mass destruction of these “books,” as occurred in Mesoamerica, although in the 1570s Viceroy Toledo ordered that data stored on quipus be transferred to alphabetic records, presumably so Europeans could better verify the accounts produced by indigenous community leaders. Missionaries also found them useful and let native assistants keep them for catechesis, records of sacraments, and counting sins. Despite official attempts to phase quipus out gradually, early on the Spaniards found them quite useful, once quipu conventions were translated to the Western calendar, for tracking labor and tribute owed to the monarchy, collecting census records, for calendrical information, tracking offerings and other statistics for priests. Recently, scholars have pointed to a common non-phonetic language encoded in the knotted strings containing historical, mythological and other kinds of narratives which could have functioned as a lingua franca before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Above, two illustrations of the Inca hierarchy and the use of quipus by a native Peruvian, Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (c.1535 – after 1616), in another illustrated history of the Incas titled, Nueva crónica y buen gobierno (c. 1615). At left, a provincial administrator; at right, a state treasurer who oversaw all record keeping within the empire.
Below, a depiction of a quipucamayo and accompanying commentary by a Basque priest, Martín de Murúa (c. 1525 – c. 1618), in his history of the Incas, Historia y genealogía de los reyes incas del Perú (1580- 1616). Quipucamayo were accountants or record keepers who compiled data and supplied administrators with a variety of information pertaining to censuses, tribute, ritual and calendrical organization, genealogies, and other activities.
Illustration from the Historia y genealogía de los reyes incas del Perú (1580-1616)