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Bernardino de Sahagún

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – October 23, 1590), was a Spanish Franciscan missionary to the Aztec (Nahua) people of Mexico, best known as the compiler of the Florentine Codex, also known as Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain). Regarded by scholars as being the "father of ethnography" and the creator of the first encyclopedia of the new world.

Contents

Life

Born Bernardino de Ribeira, he swapped his family surname "Ribeira" with the name of the town of his birth Sahagún in the Kingdom of Spain.

He studied at the university of Salamanca and in 1524 he took his vows as a Franciscan Friar. In 1529 with the monk Antonio de Ciudad Rodrigo and 19 other Franciscan Friars he was shipped to the New World where he spent his first years in the convent of Tlamanalco, and later in 1535 he became guardian and probably founder of the Convent of Xochimilco.

From 1536 he taught Latin at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. He undertook different ecclesiastical duties in Puebla and the region of the Volcanoes in the period 1540-1545. From 1545-1550 he once again taught at the Colegio de Tlatelolco. He was sent to Tepepolco in 1558 where he remained two years, before returning again to Tlatelolco. In 1585 he went to the Convent of San Francisco in Mexico where he died ninety years old in 1590.

Works

Besides the "Historia", the "Arte" and the "Diccionario" (the last in Nahuatl, Spanish, and Latin) he was the author of a number of lesser works, mostly religious and in the Nahuatl language, among which may be noted a volume of sermons; an explanation of the Epistles and Gospels of the Mass; a history of the coming of the first Franciscans to Mexico, in two volumes; a Christian psalmody in Nahuatl, for the use of church neophytes (Mexico, 1583-84), and a catechism also in Nahuatl.

The compilation of the "Florentine Codex"

Aztec warriors as shown in the Florentine Codex.

While converting and teaching the people of Tlaltelolco, near Mexico City, he learned to speak Nahuatl fluently, and around 1547 he began compiling information about Aztec religion and culture, his first studies, compiled between 1547 and 1558 were later to be incorporated into the books 6 and 12 of the Florentine Codex. In 1558 he was commissioned by the local head of the Franciscan order Francisco de Toral to work his findings into a form that would be useful for the Christianization and indoctrination of the natives of New Spain. Accompanied by four native trilingual students (trilingual in Nahuatl, Spanish and Latin) whom Sahagún had taught at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, he began a systematic investigation based in the Franciscan convent of Tepepolco northeast of the Mexican capital. During the course of two years he interviewed the elders of Tepepolco about all the topics that he found to be of interest for a description of Aztec society, culture and language. These pilot studies became a first draft of his Opus Magnum, a draft of which has survived. It is divided into two manuscripts: one in the Academia Real de Historia and the other in the Palacio Real, both in Madrid. This manuscript is known by the title Primeros Memoriales.

In 1561 he moved his base to Tlatelolco where he gathered a similar group of highborn and aged Nahuas to serve as his informants. In the next eight years he completed the twelve books of the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, an unparalleled work in Náhuatl which was completed in 1569. Consisting of twelve books and a grammar and dictionary of Náhuatl, the Florentine Codex, as it is more commonly known, is one of the richest surviving sources of information on Aztec life before the conquest. In the period 1575-1577 the Nahuatl text was translated paraphrastically by Sahagún and afterwards in 1578-1580 worked into the format known today with a Spanish and Nahuatl columns side by side and rich illustrations. Around 1588 it reached Italy where it resides to day in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Firenze, whence it takes its commonly used title Florentine Codex. (Nicholson 1997 pp3–14)

Sahagún has often been called "the father of modern ethnography", because his methods included using native informants to elicit information on Aztec culture from the Aztecs' point of view. He was interested not only in converting the natives but also in describing their way of life and particularly from a philological desire to document as fully as possible the Nahuatl language and compile a body of literature in Nahuatl to serve for those who wished to master the Nahuatl tongue, an objective in which he succeeded fully. Sahagún himself explained the purpose of his work:

This work is like a dragnet to bring to light all the words of this language with their exact and metaphorical meanings, and all their ways of speaking, and most of their practices good and evil. (1950-1982 part I:47)

The manuscript was circulated within the Franciscan order and copied. It was published for the first time in Mexico in 1829. The first edition in English was completed in 1982 by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles Dibble.

References

León-Portilla, Miguel (2002). Bernardino de Sahagun, First Anthropologist. Mauricio J. Mixco (trans.) (Originally published as Bernardino de Sahagún: Pionero de la Antropología ©1999, UNAM. ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3364-3. OCLC 47990042. 
Sahagún, Bernardino de (1950–82) [ca. 1540–85]. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols. in 12. vols. I-XII. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (eds., trans., notes and illus.) (translation of Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España ed.). Santa Fe, NM and Salt Lake City: School of American Research and the University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-082-X. OCLC 276351. 
Sahagún, Bernardino de (1997) [ca.1558–61]. Primeros Memoriales. Civilization of the American Indians series vol. 200, part 2. Thelma D. Sullivan (English trans. and paleography of Nahuatl text), with H.B. Nicholson, Arthur J.O. Anderson, Charles E. Dibble, Eloise Quiñones Keber, and Wayne Ruwet (completion, revisions, and ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2909-9. OCLC 35848992. 
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