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Catholic Polygamy in New Spain?

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Title page of Speculum Coniugiorum of Alonso de la Vera Cruz (Mexico City: 1556)

If you’ve been wondering whether your polygamous marriage to three Tarascan women was still valid after you converted to the religion of the conquistadors, look no further. A title recently acquired for the Rare Book Collection of Law Library of Congress answers this and other burning questions on the topics of marriage, canon law and the interaction between indigenous Mexican custom and Spanish law. Speculum Coniugiorum (Mexico City: Juan Pablos, 1556) is part meditation on the meaning of the sacrament of marriage, part legal textbook and part ethnography. The Latin title can be translated as The Mirror of Marital Unions, or more colloquially, The Marriage Handbook.  An extraordinary book in many respects, it is one of the earliest book-length publications on the topic of law to have been printed in the Americas. The printer, Juan Pablos, who was active in Mexico City from 1539 until his death in 1561, is generally considered to have been the first printer operating in the New World. This edition’s association with Pablos, as well as its age as an American imprint, places it in a select category of particularly rare, difficult-to-obtain books.

The author of Speculum Coniugiorum was Fray Alonso de la Vera Cruz (born Alonso Gutierrez in the Toledo diocese) (1507-1584), one of the leading intellectual figures of colonial Mexico. An Augustinian friar and a philosopher trained in scholastic method at the University of Salamanca, Vera Cruz spent most of his life training missionaries and ministering to the Indians.

Interestingly, it seems that as a young man, Alonso Gutierrez never imagined that he would leave Spain for a life in the wilderness of the New World. By 1536, he had already accepted a coveted lectureship in philosophy at Salamanca. He was on track for a successful career in the academy. It would, however, never be. A chance conversation with an Augustinian missionary, who had returned to Spain after several years of work in Mexico, opened Gutierrez up to the possibilities of life in the New World. Before long, he was ready for a change of plans. In 1539, he sailed to New Spain, joined the Augustinian order, took the name Vera Cruz and embarked on a career of teaching and institution building that lasted for most of four decades. He founded monasteries for his order and houses of study throughout western Mexico; he created the first European library in the New World, at least the first to which any reference remains (in the Tarascan town of Tiripetio); he was on the first staff of professors at the University of Mexico, serving as professor of scripture and theology; and he was four-times elected Provincial of Mexican Augustinians. Then there were his written works.

A diagram illustrating degrees of consanguinity; the names Plato and Socrates are used here as stand-ins for family relations.

Foremost among these was De Dominio Infidelium et Iusto Bello (1553-1556), a treatise that set out to defend and explain the natural and civil rights of the Indians vis a vis the claims of Spanish civil, ecclesiastical and military authorities. It is for this work that Vera Cruz is most remembered. Vera Cruz was not, of course, the only Catholic cleric to address the topic of the legal and civil rights of the indigenous people of the New World. Bartolome de las Casas, for instance, was already in the 1550s becoming infamous for his treatise, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which described the atrocities that the Spanish committed against the Indians in conquering the Greater Antilles. Las Casas’ book went far in promoting the so-called “black legend,” that is, the demonization of the conquistadors and more generally all Spanish efforts to colonize the Americas. Vera Cruz’s teacher and mentor from the University of Salamanca, the great scholastic philosopher, Francisco Vitoria (1483-1546), had also taken up the cause of rights for the indigenous people of the Americas as early as the 1520s, elaborating a natural law argument for treating Indians as human beings. Vera Cruz was both more moderate and less polemical in his written work than Las Casas was. His thought was also less abstract and syllogistic than Vitoria’s. One of the reasons Vera Cruz’s writing retains its interest is that unlike Vitoria, whose knowledge of the Indians was second-hand, Vera Cruz lived among the people that he wrote about; he observed their lives closely for seventeen years before attempting to describe them in print. In that time, he mastered the Tarascan language and created schools to teach native languages to other priests.

Speculum Coniugiorum went through a number of editions in the sixteenth century and was apparently popular as a handbook for missionaries in need of detailed explanations of the customs and beliefs of Aztec and Tarascan Indians. The 1556 first edition of the work can now be found in the Rare Book Collection of Law Library of Congress.

Comments (4)

  1. Interesting post. But, would you please provide particulars of how does Speculum Coniugiorum answer the burning (and provocative) question which serves as a title to this post? Thank you.

    • Dante, Thanks for the comment! The book is available for consultation at the Law Library Reading Room, by appointment, weekdays from 9:30am-4:00pm. You didn’t really think I’d spoil the surprise, did you? All the best, Nathan

  2. how he explain the natural and civil rights of the Indians

  3. can we get the answer plz

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