I Found It at the JCB

This month

February 2010

The Pages of My Chant Book:
Marginal Annotations in a Sahagún´s Psalmodia Christiana

by Ana Guadalupe Díaz Álvarez


Voice from a Nahua past


See the detail of this manuscript page in the JCB copy of Bernardino de Sahagún, Psalmodia christiana y sermonario de los santos del año en lengua Mexicana, Mexico, 1583.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

Opening an old book for the first time is always an exciting adventure. Satisfaction comes in not only reading what the author has to say, but also seeing evidence left by previous readers. Within this context, emendation of data—such as the cancellation of “inadequate” paragraphs or the addition of marginalia—is more than vandalism; the emendations are eloquent artifacts in the history of a book.

The Psalmodia christiana y sermonario de los santos del año en lengua Mexicana, by Bernardino de Sahagún, is a Nahuatl chant book that includes an introductory doctrina followed by chants for fifty-four church festivals. This is one of the most complex bi-cultural works published in the early colonial period for evangelizing the indigenous people of the New Spain (1). The 1583 edition, held by the John Carter Brown Library (2), is interesting not only for its content, but also for the record it shows through its pages of the testimony of different owners and readers. The marginalia includes handwritten comments, handwritten corrections of the printed edition (3), annotations (4), four different signatures (5), significant text written in Nahuatl, and is illustrated with two small pictures on the last page.

Written by different hands and at different times, the marginalia often reflects the acts of bored pupils scribbling during lessons. But here the final added text shows a creative solution by one of the readers of this book. Here the Nahua scribe of this fragment used the last page of the book to include a brief description of Heaven according to the European medieval world view. He accompanied the description with couple of small images that he drew, the sun and the moon. The sun is shown using European iconography, but the moon is shown as the face of a maid—with facial marks or tears referencing Mesoamerican iconography (seen on some female Nahua deities) and a halo similar to the one shown on images of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The author shows only the sun and the moon because those were the heavenly bodies recognized in his indigenous iconography; here he illustrates the European notion of the heavens by showing just these two heavenly bodies to represent the whole Christian cosmography. He even places the two images on the page in their proper places in the cosmographic hierarchy. This marginal text that I found at the JCB is valuable because it shows the particular reaction of one of the owners of the manuscript—a native who tried with his original act to update his own world vision by including the new Christianized cosmography. Here we see an extraordinary example of a strategy used by an indigenous author during evangelization and the active role he took in transcultural negotiation.

1. Louise M. Burkhart, “On the Margins of Legitimacy: Sahagun´s Psalmodia and the Latin Liturgy”, J.F. Schwaller (ed), Sahagún at 500. Essays on the Quincentenary of the birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún. Berkeley, California: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2003, 103-116. Alcántara Rojas Berenice, Cantos para bailar un cristianismo reinventado: la nahuatlización del discurso de evangelizacion en la Psalmodia Christiana de Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Doctoral dissertation, México: UNAM, 2008.

2. The document was purchased in 1905, from Francis S. Borton (1862-1929), an American clergyman and archaeologist from Los Angeles who lived in Puebla, Mexico. Bibliography files from the John Carter Brown Library.

3. The author of the marginalia did not like the grammatical uses of the printers and attempted to substitute the “oa” forms, by the “hua” syllable in one of the pages: fo.185r

4. fo. 85r, 184r

5. Phelippe Salazar, Ignacio de la Santa Cruz, Don [?] León, Don Benito Ramos.

Ana Guadalupe Díaz Álvarez, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, MEXICO, was a Maria Elena Cassiet Fellow during the fall of 2009.


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