Culture, Contact and Conversion in Medieval America

By Jaime Lara, ACMRS Research Professor

In 1992 fistfights broke out at academic conferences organized to celebrate (or bemoan) the quincentiennial of Christopher Columbus’s landing on a Caribbean island on an October day. The professorial pugilists were historians of renowned universities who represented either the “discovery and conquest” school or the “invader and infector” school regarding the meaning of what happened in 1492 and thereafter. Happily, those black-and-white binary extremes, originating in nineteenth-century positivism and twentieth-century reactionism, have given way to more nuanced and balanced readings of the encounter between the native peoples of the Americas and the European Christians who arrived in the pre-Tridentine decades of the sixteenth century.

By and large, the polytheistic peoples of the New World had no problem adding the Christian supernaturals to their pantheons. What they resolutely refused to do was to accept that their deities did not exist (an ontological question that made no sense) and that the Judeo-Christian God was the only reality; monotheism was unintelligible in a cosmos where all “natural” forces were divine. By our modern standards, the missionaries’ later extirpation of idolatry amounted to a sort of secularization of the indigenous cosmos in which the very rocks, soil and landscape had been numinous and personal ancestors. What subsequently took place in the early colonial period was in essence a re-sacralization; and it was not only the work of the missionaries but certainly one accomplished with the prodding, input and creativity of the pro-active native elite.

The Franciscans, in particular, had success when they employed the early medieval principal of accomodatio, as Gregory the Great had encouraged in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in 601: “The heathen temples should by no means be destroyed, only the idols which are found in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the temples are well built, it is a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to re-adapt them for worship of the true God. And because those people are in the habit of slaughtering many cattle as sacrifices, some solemnity ought to be given them in exchange. . . . Let them celebrate the solemnity with religious feasts.” Nine centuries later (1539) the leaders of the missionary orders in New Spain (Mexico) ruled that “in the baptism of adults, the ancient decrees should be kept just as they were observed in the conversion of Germany and England in the time of Gregory the Great and the Emperor Charlemagne and Pepin, because we have the same situation here.”

We must remember that the evangelization of the Americas was occurring at the same time as the Reformation was transpiring in Europe, but before the reaction of Trent. At the same moment that Luther was translating the Bible into German, the friars were translating the Lectionary into Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), Quechua (the language of the Incas), and a dozen other Indian tongues. Missionaries in Mexico encouraged the making of crucifixes out of maize, one of the high gods of the Mesoamerican pantheon; and the making of Christian mosaics by the use of the plumes of the sacred parrot and quetzal birds; witness the late medieval Salvador Mundi made with feathers by Aztec artists around 1550 and based on Netherlandish prints.

As another example, by the end of the sixteenth century in the Andes Christian saints and angels began to replace the nature deities because their powers were invoked cyclically in the liturgical/agrarian calendar. Angels were especially well-received because they appeared to the indigenous mind as familiar speaking-birds, flying shamans, and powerful mediators between the above and below worlds. Indeed, in the medieval angelology imported to the New World, angels moved the planets and spheres, caused meteorological phenomena, and were said to interact with humans on a daily basis. No wonder then that native artists, working in the appropriated late Renaissance style, soon represented angels with the harquebuses brought by the invaders: the noise sounded like thunder and the gunpowder flash appeared to be lightning, both of which had been deities in the Andean pantheon. What is even more interesting is that the native elite soon adopted the angelic dress code (minus the wings). In Lima and Cuzco the descendants of the Inca nobility readily donned European lace and satins and Asian silks, adding them to a costume of llama and alpaca wool as a visual means of leveraging their place in the new dispensation.

These few examples demonstrate that the material and religious syncretism of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century New World is an exciting, ongoing field of study, and it confirms that the descriptors “medieval” and “Renaissance” cannot be restricted to the Old World of Europe. That is precisely the reason why the ACMRS has initiated the publication series MARLA (Medieval and Renaissance Latin America). As the twentieth-century Mexican historian, Luis Weckmann, once observed about his own country: while it was true that the conquest of Mexico occurred during the years of the Italian Renaissance, it was also true that “the Middle Ages sang its swan song on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.”