BMCR 2017.01.20

Latin of New Spain

, Latin of New Spain. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2015. xx, 280. ISBN 9780865168336. $19.00 (pb).


The rich and copious legacy of Latin writing from Spanish America is at last becoming better known. Rose Williams’ teaching anthology seeks to bring this literature to the attention of non-specialists by making excerpts from some texts about New Spain available to those who have “some background in intermediate Latin” (ix). The unadapted readings from original sources in each chapter are introduced with a short account of their context and an introductory synopsis. Each reading is followed by an extensive vocabulary and a list of the “neologisms” it contains (the Glossary at the end presents all the Latin words), and by questions about its content and significance, as well as about grammatical and linguistic matters. This helpful arrangement should enable students to produce satisfactory translations and elucidations.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first, “Before the Europeans,” includes two chapters with testimonies on the geography of the New World and the origins of its peoples from the De procuranda indorum salute (1588) by the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta; a chapter on the Quetzalcoatl legend, as recounted in Latin hexameters by the twentieth-century Mexican poet Francisco J. Cabrera; a third chapter containing an account of the origins of the Mexica (or “Aztecs”) and the foundation of Tenochtitlan, again by Cabrera, as well as poetic descriptions of the organisation of the city before the Spanish conquest that are drawn from the Rusticatio Mexicana (1782) by the Jesuit Rafael Landívar. The second main section, entitled “The Coming of the Hispanics,” is devoted to the European discoveries and incursions, with extracts from the early Latin versions of the letters of Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés, and an account of Mexico City from Civitas Mexicus interior, one of a group of dialogues published there in 1554 by Francisco Cervantes de Salazar.

Latin literature was produced in every part of the Americas, but the volume’s focus on “New Spain” (as Mexico was known) makes sense: the viceroyalty early on secured its status as an intellectual centre after the introduction of printing and the foundation of the Royal University in the mid-1500s. Rose Williams has arranged the Latin texts she has selected in the order of their subjects, rather than in the order in which they were actually written. Had this been a historical sourcebook, a couple of passages about pre-conquest Mexico from Peter Martyr’s De orbe novo might have been preferred to the later poetic material offered here, as the Italian humanist closely followed firsthand accounts. The verse readings from Landívar and Cabrera, though, have their advantages. Alone of all the colonial Latin poets, Landívar could be deemed canonical, as his work barely ever disappeared from view in Mexico or in his native Guatemala, while the epyllia on Mexican themes that Francisco Cabrera composed in the 1990s now have enthusiastic devotees in the United States as well as in Mexico. Cervantes de Salazar is an appropriate inclusion in a collection like this because, as Rose Williams points out (168), his dialogues were originally aimed at students of Latin: in fact they were part of the first Mexican printing of Juan Luis Vives’ pedagogical Linguae latinae exercitatio. Overall, the selections in Williams’ volume should sustain the interest of its intended readers as they develop their comprehension of Latin.

Latin was generally the preserve of an elite—of peninsular Spaniards and “creoles,” as American-born Spaniards have come to be known. But some youths from the native Mexican nobility did receive an advanced Latin education at the Imperial College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, which was established in 1536 specifically in order to train an indigenous gubernatorial class. In spite of its focus on the sixteenth century, Latin of New Spain makes no mention of this extraordinary development, or of the work produced in this period by “Indian” Latinists. The anthology could have been enhanced by the incorporation of examples from their writings, such as Juan Badiano’s Libellus de medicinalibus indorum herbis (1552) or Antonio Valeriano of Azcapotzalco’s letter to Fray Juan Bautista.

The Latin passages in the book are clearly and correctly presented, although the Background Notes contain some errors: the Spanish for college is colegio, not collegio (164, 206); the Aztecs’ rivals from the city of Tlaxcala are known as Tlaxcaltecs or Tlaxcalteca, not “Tlaxcatlecans” (210). While the important distinction between Tenochtitlan and Teotihuacan is earlier made very clear (205), the heading ‘Tenochtitlán or Teotihuacan’ (213) suggests that these two very different cities were the same. (The final syllables of both those names should be accented here and throughout, if Spanish accentuation for Mexican names is being adopted consistently). The Spanish for plinth, which is also a customary word for city square, is zócalo, not solako (214). Williams defends her persistent reference to the Spaniards as “Hispanics” on the grounds that Spain was unified only in 1516 (xi). Even so, soldiers, settlers and missionaries from the Iberian peninsula are generally called Spaniards or Castilians, and they thought of themselves as such.

A project of this kind is a good idea, now that there is a growing recognition of the extent to which Latin humanism and classical learning took root in Spanish America and Brazil, long before any such legacies reached the northern continent. At the same time, some will take issue with the potted history in the Introduction (xv-xvii) and the tone of the Epilogue, headed by the Heraclitean dictum “Everything changes…” (186). The brutal realities of conquest and the inequities of colonial rule should not be downplayed or ignored. Nonetheless, Rose Williams’ orientation will open up a new world of Latin literature to a larger number of readers, and it may well make study of the Latin language more appealing to students who would like a change from the usual fare of Caesar and Cicero.