Mark Z. Christensen
The kind support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library made possible my visit to the Firestone Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in August 2009. My research concerns the use of native-language religious texts to examine the evangelization of the colonial Nahua (Aztecs) and Maya. In short, friars used Nahuas and Mayas trained in Christianity and the Roman alphabet to help them compose didactic religious texts in the vernacular. As a result, an extensive colonial corpus of doctrinal primers, sermons, catechisms, plays, and other religious texts appeared throughout Mesoamerica. Officials intended this production to be largely limited to printed works. Indeed, both clergy and Crown labored to prevent the reproduction of religious material in manuscript works which avoided the editing process of printed materials. Despite their efforts, however, Nahuatl and Maya religious texts appeared in both printed and manuscript forms with the latter being more scarce in today’s archives. Princeton’s library, however, holds one of the finest collections of native-language religious manuscripts, particularly those in Yucatec Maya.
During my stay, I examined at length the Garrett-Gates Collection, the Garrett Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts, and the Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscript Collection. These three collections contain invaluable examples of Nahuatl and Maya religious manuscripts. For example, Garrett-Gates Collection no. 73b is an incomplete eighteenth-century manuscript copy of fray Pedro Beltrán de Santa Rosa’s 1740 Doctrina Christiana en el idioma Yucateco. The manuscript also has sections from Beltrán’s Novena de Christo crucificado first published in 1740 with his Doctrina Christiana. The manuscript was written in a Maya hand and contains various decorative characters throughout. Likely intended for a Spanish priest or his Maya assistant, the work represents a selective collection of doctrines and prayers taken from Beltrán’s works that the author deemed most significant. In the end, the manuscript demonstrates how trained Maya could compose religious texts to meet personal preferences.
Garrett-Gates Collection no. 66 likewise provides a unique example of an unofficial religious text. This Maya manuscript is a redaction of the Passion of Christ. Written sometime between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the manuscript’s prose, script, and decorations betray the hand of a trained Maya. Among other things, the work demonstrates how trained Maya took part in the promulgation of the Catholic message through the composition of unofficial religious manuscripts.
This manuscript also illustrates the local nature of such works. Death records for the Maya town of Teabo appear on the last pages of the leather-bound manuscript. The recording of deaths was a task all colonial towns shared. In this case, the Maya who authored this work on the Passion of Christ used its remaining pages to fulfill the town’s obligation. One may speculate that at the order of the town council, the manuscript was created to be read during Corpus Christi or some other feast day. The local origins of the work, then, also allowed it to double as an impromptu death register.
Finally, a religious play in Nahuatl demonstrates the presence of unofficial native-authored religious texts among the Nahua. Catalogued as Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscript no. 9, the manuscript play relates the Passion of Christ and reads as a script for the actors. The presence of Nahuatl plays has been well documented by the current Nahuatl Theater Project co-edited by Louise M. Burkhart and Barry D. Sell. The project illustrates how the Nahua authors of such plays employed preexisting cultural rhetoric and beliefs to familiarize the Christian message. The result was a theatrical production that could push the orthodox boundaries of the Church’s teachings. This play appears to be yet another example of such a genre.
These and other findings will greatly aid my research on Nahuatl and Maya religious texts and the Catholic messages they offer. Again, I wish to thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library for providing me with this opportunity. Moreover, I wish to thank Linda Oliveira, AnnaLee Pauls, and Don Skemer for their aid during my stay. Their willingness to assist and accommodate made a wonderful research trip even better.
Mark Z. Christensen