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December 2010



Why was this image selected as the frontispiece for Juan de Esteyneffer, Florilegio medicinal, Amsterdam: [1719]?
Click image for more information.
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

Nature, Medicine, and Faith on the Northern Frontier of New Spain
The Florilegium Medicinal by Juan de Esteyneffer

by Cynthia Radding

The Florilegium Medicinal brings together two articles of faith in eloquent, if simple, prose—physical health and spiritual salvation are closely connected; both constitute pillars of Christian evangelization. To save souls, it was necessary to heal bodies; thus, Esteyneffer reiterated his basic conviction that medical knowledge and religious faith went hand in hand in the Jesuit missions of northern New Spain, citing biblical references for Christ’s commandment to his disciples to heal the sick and bring them the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand and Luke’s account of Peter and John who preached and healed simltaneously. For the present-day reader, this beautiful compendium of  medical diagnoses and remedies raises questions about the nature of knowledge in eighteenth-century New Spain, exemplified by medical practices in the frontier regions of Spain’s largest colony in North America.

The author of this remarkable work, Johann Steinhoffer, was a Jesuit brother who served in the missions of Nueva Vizcaya during the early eighteenth century. Born in Silesia, Steinhoffer entered the Jesuit order in 1686 and by the early 1690s, he had arrived in New Spain (colonial Mexico), where he Hispanized his name as Juan de Esteyneffer. At the turn of the 18th century Esteyneffer began his service in Sonora and Pimería Alta, where he gained familiarity with the o’odham, tegüima, and rarámuri languages. Esteyneffer wrote the Florilegio medicinal, first published in Mexico in 1712, and later published in Amsterdam, Madrid, and again in Mexico, to aid in the healing of the “poor,” or the Indians— all those who lived and labored in “remote” provinces far from medical personnel and pharmacies. He dedicated his work to the Virgin of Valvanera, whose image graces the 1719 edition held at the John Carter Brown Library, and to his brethren in the Society of Jesus. Organized in three parts, the Florilegio provided systematic instruction on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, surgical methods, and the composition of common medicines. For each group of diseases, Esteyneffer noted in the margin of his text the names of the saints who were particularly efficacious in their cure.

Esteyneffer’s knowledge accrued from his medical training in Europe and his observations in the missions, thus his references to plants and their uses highlight indigenous groups of the northern borderlands. Esteyneffer’s remedies incorporated the maguey plant, using both the leaves and the aguamiel, for healing wounds and clearing the head and stomach of flegm. While Nahua names punctuated his Florilegio, more often than not he identified plants by their local terms: Toxi, in Sonora, for a vine that grows on the trunks of the live oak; xuá, a resin used by the Ópatas to counter poisons, and the jicarilla de Julimés, whose healing properties Esteyneffer learned from the rarámuri. Esteyneffer combined these local ingredients with Mediterranean pharmacopia, and integrated these detailed descriptions of medicinal remedies into a European schema of humors to explain the occurrence of disease and the path to recovery.
ffer, Florilegio Medicinal de todas las enfermedades (México, 1712; Amsterdam, 1719). The excellent modern edition prepared by Mexican medical anthropologist María del Cármen Anzures y Bolaños (Mexico: UNAM 1978) provides a complete explanation of the medical philosophies that informed Esteyneffer’s work and a glossary of the terms from both the Old and New Worlds that appeared in the Florilegio.

The Florilegium provides a stark portrayal of the northern frontier of New Spain, where Esteyneffer labored in the Jesuit missions. He characterized them as lacking in the basic pharmacopia of known medicines in Europe and far from “the cities and places of abundant harvests” in central Mexico. Esteyneffer’s confrontation with the desert landscapes and forested slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental influenced his approach to knowledge. Like other Europeans of his time, Esteyneffer saw himself  as the conservator of scientific knowledge and the benefactor of his indigenous charges in the missions.  He conceived of his work as a compendium of classical authors, complemented by “medicines found only in this land.” Native voices appear only indirectly in this book; yet reading the author’s remedies and medicinal recipies closely, we find that the Jesuits and other missionary Orders depended on indigenous knowledge of regional ecosystems more than they would readily admit. Esteyneffer’s careful compilation has preserved some of that knowledge for present-day scholars, and it serves as a pointed reminder that natural history and medical practices went hand-in-hand in the both the earthly life and the religious call-to-salvation in Spain’s North American frontier.

Cynthia Radding, Gussenhoven Distinguished Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was the Helen Watson Buckner Memorial Fellow, John Carter Brown Library, June-September 2010.


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