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Mexico’s Colonial Past Deepened Through A New Discovery

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The following is a guest post by historian Benjamin Reed, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former Kislak Short-term Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.

The Library of Congress holds roughly 68 million manuscripts, so it should come as no surprise to uncover unique and rare materials while working as a scholar in residence here. Still, I was thrilled to come across a unique account of an Archbishop’s tour through part of southern Mexico (New Spain, as it was then known) in the late seventeenth century when I began my tenure as a Jay I. Kislak Fellow this past September.

The account is a notarized transcript of an Archbishop’s tour of Mexico City to Acapulco and back from November 1687 to January 1688. It is a single item in the Henry Albert Monday Collection Relating to Mexico held by the Library’s Manuscript Division, which is a diverse array of prints, manuscripts and iconographic materials collected by Monday (1876-1944) while he lived and worked as a doctor in Mexico during the early 20th century. Monday’s daughter, Virginia May Monday de Ovalle, sold the collection to the Library of Congress in 1982. Though the materials have been available since the collection’s acquisition, scholars have only just begun to tap into what Monday collected and use them to deepen our understanding of Mexico’s colonial past.

The Archbishop pastoral visit was conducted by Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, a tenacious clergyman who served as one of the longest tenures as Archbishop to-date, from 1682 to 1698. Aguiar y Seijas dramatically changed the political culture of Catholicism in New Spain. Although he has long held a notorious reputation as a misogynist for his relations with the famous Mexican writer and “First Feminist of the Americas” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, scholars have recently acknowledged Aguiar y Seijas’s wide-reaching influence in colonial Mexican society. He collaborated with local administrators in the Archdiocesan cathedral, convents, and monasteries of the religious orders, and personally engaged with lay parishioners in urban and rural settings to set a new standard for the image of secular priests in the colony.

Page from Aguiar y Seijas manuscript, Pastoral Box 14, Henry Albert Monday Collection Relating to Mexico, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Page from Aguiar y Seijas manuscript documenting his pastoral visit of 1687-1688. The document brings scholars closer to a full survey of the Archdiocese of Mexico conducted by the Archbishop during the 1680s. Pastoral Box 14, Henry Albert Monday Collection Relating to Mexico, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photo by Benjamin Reed.

As the Catholic Church has increasingly opened its archives in recent years, scholars have now begun to unpack the many dimensions of pastoral visits in colonial Mexico. Other portions of Aguiar y Seijas’s work are fundamental to Peter Gerhard invaluable account of New Spain’s historical geography. Berenise Bravo Rubio and Marco Antonio Pérez Iturbe have published preliminary studies of the visits conducted by Aguiar y Seijas in the northern and western regions of the Archdiocese from 1683-1684. Still, scholars lament that visitation records remain scarce before the eighteenth century.

The notarized transcript of the pastoral visit in the Monday Collection brings us much closer to a full survey of the Archdiocese of Mexico conducted by Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas during the 1680s. The 280-page manuscript is a rich historical ethnography of mid-colonial society. The Archbishop and his entourage visited fifteen primary sites along an itinerary looping from Mexico City, south to the port of Acapulco, and back again in the fall and winter 1687-1688. The tour criss-crossed the boundaries between Crown territories and Hernán Cortés’ estate, the Marquesado del Valle; between Dominican and Augustinian missionary provinces; between the diocesan boundaries separating Mexico and Puebla; and between the towns, estate farms (haciendas), textile mills and roadside inns that populated the region.

At each visitation site, Aguiar y Seijas served as an interim priest in residence, performing mass, hearing confessions, conducting baptisms and confirmation rituals, and adjudicating grievances aired by the local parishioners. The notarial account provides a regional census avant-la-lettre describing the demographics of each settlement. The Archbishop’s inspection of local missionary activities tested the efficacy of the religious orders’ efforts to evangelize and educate colonial Mexico’s Christian populations. Thus in addition to the production of elevated moments of high ceremony associated with a visit from the most powerful priest in the region, the pastoral visit functioned as a surveillance tool among the missionaries of New Spain to evaluate how well local priests fulfilled their own roles in society and facilitated the spiritual conversion of indigenous parishioners into fully constituted Christian subjects.

The riches of the Monday Collection are many (researchers can peruse the finding aid here). Those interested in the mid-colonial history of Mexico, the diocese of Puebla, and the activities of the Dominican Order in that region will find an especially rich trove of original material. For my part, I plan to present preliminary research findings at the “Missionary Encounters in the Early Modern World” Workshop, scheduled to take place May 27-29, 2015, at the University of Minnesota.

*Author’s note — additional scholarship on the pastoral visits of New Spain include the following works:

  • Peter Gerhard, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972 [Revised Edition, 1993]).
  • Berenise Bravo Rubio and Marco Antonio Pérez Iturbe, “Tiempos y espacios religiosos novohispanos: la visita pastoral de Francisco Aguiar y Seijas (1683-1684)” in Religión, poder y autoridad en la Nueva España, ed. Alicia Mayer and Ernesto de la Torre Villar (México: UNAM, 2004): 67-83.
  • –. “Hacia una geografía espiritual del Arzobispado de México, la visita pastoral de José de Lanciego y Eguilaz de 1715” in De sendas, brechas y atajos: Contexto y crítica de las fuentes eclesiásticas, siglos XVI-XVIII, ed. Doris Bieñko de Peralta and Berenise Bravo Rubio (México: INAH, 2008): 147-165.
  • Clemente Cruz Peralta, “Las cofradías de la Huasteca según los libros de visitas pastorals (siglos XVII-XVIII)” in Las voces de la fe: las cofradías en México (siglos XVII-XIX), coord. Eduardo Carrera et al., (México: CIESAS, 2011): 187-223.
  • Leticia Pérez Puente, Gabriela Oropeza Tena, and Marcela Saldaña Solis, Autos de las visitas del arzobispo fray Payo Enríquez a los conventos de monjas de la ciudad de México (1672-1675) (México: UNAM, 2005).


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