Notes on the Life and Works of Augustine
Appendix 3 - part 1
Biography of Father Bernardino Sahagun
[ 1499 –1590 ]
[ He is best known as the author of La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (in English: the General History of the Things of New Spain, hereafter shortened to Historia General). Historia General is commonly referred to as The Florentine Codex, named after its current location. It consists of 12 "books" of 2400 pages organized into twelve books with has over 2000 illustrations drawn by native artists providing vivid images of this era.]
The most important testimony and authority of the civilisation of the Aztecs in all that pertains to their religion is from B Sahagun, a Franciscan Monk contemporary with the conquest. His "Universal History of New Spain" was printed for the first time in 1829 and is a most remarkable addition to literature. The author was born in Spain at the village of Sahagun
From which he was named. Educated at Salamanca and joining the Franciscan order he went as a missionary to Mexico in 1529. With pious zeal and simple costume he went to preach his religion among the natives. He abandoned his position as head of the conventual house and devoted himself to preaching and to publishing various works to illustrate the antiquities of Mexico and continued to occupy himself as reader in the College of Santa Cruz in the capital .
His Universal History was very singular. In order to collect all the information possible he resided some years in the Province of Tezcuco where daily he conversed with the head Aztecs ignorant of Castigliano to whom he proposed questions and after much deliberation he wrote them on parchment with painted hieroglyphic characters. These parchment works he deposited at the College of Santa Cruz and was consulted about writing a description of the hieroglyphics in the Mexican language ( but with Latin characters ). Sagahun repeated this process in other remote regions from the first in several cities and had conversations with the people to correct and revise his materials, the result of which was a regular Mexican history in the Mexican Language which he spoke and wrote correctly and with elegance superior to Spaniards of that period.
This work contained a mass of information very interesting and curious and astonished and attracted the attention of the several monks of his order which they hoped would have an influence with the natives by giving a vivid description of their paganism and that the light of Christianity would completely eradicate their pagan superstition. Sahagun had more liberal ideas than the monks of his order who thought the best way to bring natives to Christianity was by the destruction and annihilation of their monuments. They refused to him copyists to transcribe the voluminous material which it had cost him years to collect and the Principal of the order he who had ordered the destruction of manuscripts of our poor author and dispersed them in the various libraries of the convents of the country. In this desperate condition Sahagun wrote a short memorial of the nature of his work and sent it secretly to Madrid. After a time there arrived from the hand of the President of the Council of India Giovanni de Ovando who was touched with his prayerful supplication and also impressed with the great importance of the work an order for the restitution of the manuscripts to the author with a request to make a version in Castigliano. This order was obeyed and the dispersed manuscripts were restored and with them came an Ecclesiastical Censure from the Superior of the Order. The good old priest dedicated himself to translate in Spanish the Mexican text which he had written 30 years before and he had the satisfaction not only to complete his work but to add an explanatory vocabulary of the words and phrases most difficult in the language Aztec with numerous painted hieroglyphics. His work comprised two very large volumes which he sent to Madrid where with the request of the minister and the undoubted importance of the work its publication appeared to be without further obstacle. But from other causes for two centuries we find no other notice of it. There it was a work of great merit and although it existed it remained probably buried in one of the numerous tombs of human wisdom which abound in Spain. After this long period Munnoz disinterred these long lost manuscripts and discovered them in the library of Tolosa near Navarre where from a vague tradition he went to search for them. His ardour lead him to copy the whole of the work entire but he was not destined the reward of his labours.
Aglio obtained a transcript of this copy in 1828 which he published in 1830 in his t6th volume of the Mexican Antiquities and the honest satisfaction Lord Kingsborough expressed at the notes was the first public recognition of Sagahun’s work but singularly a year before there was published at Mexico an edition of this work in 3 volumes in 8th quarto with notes by the antiquarian Bustamante ( author of many important works) and afterwards of copy of the manuscripts of Munnoz fell into his hands. Thus this remarkable work which during his life Sahagun had not the honour to publish after two centuries these simultaneous editions were published not in his own country [ Spain ] but in countries most distant.
Sagahun divided his history with 12 books. The first 11 explain the social institutions of Mexico and the last grand events of the Conquest. The religion of the country was analysed with minute detail, his principal object evidently was to give and idea of the Mexican Mythology and the heavy ritual which was used. The religion was collegiate suited to the use and habits of Aztecs and Sahagun was just the person to study their antiquities. Torquemada in his Indian Monarchy quotes from a manuscript copy of Sahagun’s History which he obtained before the original was despatched to Spain from which he enriches his pages,this fortunate circumstance for the reputation and learning of Sahagun and his work at the time of its publication loses somewhat of the originality and interest which is preserved in the entire work which gives a complete collection of various forms of prayer in use in Mexico composed for every possible emergency often invested with fine and dignified language associated with sublime and speculative themes and compatible with the most degrading and superstitious practices. It is not a little remarkable that his observations (inserted by the author in his book) proves the superstition in the religious poetry of the Aztecs poetry in itself full of interest. The most important part of the manuscript contains translation in Aztec of the hieroglyphics. When we can fly from the fanatical Loyalists [ Jesuits ] let us hope that some day they will possibly be reclaimed. Sahagun composed various of the works partly religious and partly philosophical, they are most voluminous but have never yet been published. At his death in 1590 the City of Mexico was greatly advanced. Numerous retinues of Spaniards and natives followed his corpse to the tomb and all shed tears for the learned and indefatigable antiquary and the sincere and benevolent priest.
[ Fully biograpghies of Fr. Bernadino dd Sahagun can be found on the internet – example: