I Found It at the JCB

This month

January 2010

Lost Pipil Text:
Found at the JCB.
by Kathryn Sampeck


Lost Mesoamerican Text Found?


Teotamachilizti Iny iuliliz auh yni miquiliz TuTemaquizticatzim Iesu Christo quenami in quimpua teotacuiloque itech teomauxti = Ó sea, tratado de la vida y muerte de nuestro señor Jesu Christo, en lengua vulgar Mexicana de Guatemala,
Guatemala, 16--.

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

One of the greatest thrills in archival research is to realize you have found a “lost” document. One such text, a missionary text in a forgotten language from Guatemala, was examined by Walter Lehmann in the 1920s, but then disappeared from scholarly study.(1)  The language, Pipil, is a dialect of Nahua related to, but distinct from, the classical Nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs at the time of Spanish contact. I believe I have found Lehmann’s lost text at the JCB.

Around A.D. 1200, a diaspora of Nahua speakers spread through central and coastal Mexico and southward as far as today’s Nicaragua. The Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico, who spoke Nahuatl, are best known today while Pipil speakers populated Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Early colonial central Mexican texts tend to refer to Pipil as a “corrupt” form of Nahuatl. Pedro de Alvarado, for example, the conquistador of Guatemala, reported that his central Mexican auxiliaries noted that the populations in this southern area spoke a corrupt form of Nahua and recognized them as brethren of Toltecs .(2)
Early colonial texts in Pipil are relatively rare compared to the abundance of Nahuatl documents, so my interest was piqued when I saw the JCB’s catalog entry for Teotamachilizti Iny iuliliz auh yni miquiliz. Once I saw the book, I conferred with Tulane University linguist Judith Maxwell, who supported my identification of the text’s language as Pipil. However even then, though I was aware of the rarity of Pipil documents, I had yet to fully identify the importance of this particular book. Many times research is part serendipity. It was three months later, while listening to a conference paper about ongoing research by Laura Matthew of Marquette University  and Sergio Romero of Vanderbilt University concerning Nahua texts in the Audiencia of Guatemala,that I realized the JCB volume must be the “lost” Pipil work that Lehmann studied. The JCB’s Pipil text concerns the life of Christ, as did Lehmann’s text, and was part of Abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg’s collection.  Brasseur de Bourbourg was a Catholic cleric who studied and collected native documents during his extensive travels in Mexico and Central America as a missionary from 1848 to 1863. This collection included such treasures as the Popol Vuh, a sacred history of the Quiché (K’iché) Maya.  Brasseur de Bourbourg also brought to light other important examples of indigenous writing including the Madrid Codex, one of the only preconquest Maya codices, and Diego de Landa’s 1566 Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, a trove of information about Maya life and customs, including their writing system. Truly, Brasseur’s collection assembled and preserved some of the most important examples of Mesoamerican writing.

Of the 29 Pipil documents in the General Archive of Central America and other archives that Matthew and Romero have thus far identified, only three are missionary texts. Other Pipil texts are letters, land titles, notes of payment, and legal acts.  While these other genres of writing are indigenous efforts to establish their place in the colonial world, texts for missionizing were Spanish attempts to transform native minds and habits. The existence of the JCB volume suggests that the colonial Pipil community was both vibrant and distinctive enough that a more easily produced Nahuatl text would not suffice, as the author states, to “bring them to the feet of the Holy Mother Church.” But the wonder of this particular document is not only that it belongs to a corpus of a few documents in a near unknown language, but that it was re(found) at the JCB.

1.Walter Lehmann was the Director of the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin and wrote extensively about Mesoamerican linguistics. Lehmann recognized that this missionary text recounts the life of Jesus Christ and is written in Pipil. Lehmann, Walter. Zentral-Amerika, Teil I, Die Sprachen Zentral-Amerikas in ihren Beziehungen zueinander sowie zu Sud-Amerika und Mexiko. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1920.

2.Alvarado, Pedro de. An Account of the Conquest of Guatemala in 1524.  Edited by Sedley J. Mackie, with a facsimile of the Spanish original, 1525.  The Cortes Society: New York,

Kathryn Sampeck, Illinois State University, was a Donald L. Saunders / Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Research during the academic year, 2008 / 2009.


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