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Lost Pages and Hidden Libraries: my quest to find the first book printed in the Americas

This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

[…] truth is captive in a small number of little manuscripts which guard the common treasures, instead of expanding them. Let us break the seal which binds these holy things; let us give wings to truth that it may fly with the Word, no longer prepared at vast expense, but multitudes everlastingly by a machine which never wearies to every soul which enters life.               –Johannes Gutenberg

On June 12, 1539, a boat set sail from the Spanish city of Seville containing a cargo that would change the face of the Americas forever. On board was Giovanni Paoli (1500–61), perhaps better known by his Spanish name, Juan Pablos. He had been sent to the New World by Juan Cromberger (d. 1540), one of the most successful printers in Spain, to establish the first printing press on the new continent; with Pablos came all the materials and knowledge necessary to start publishing books in the Americas.

Juan Pablos arrived in Mexico City in October 1539 and quickly set up a press that would become known as the Casa de Juan Cromberger. Between Pablos’ arrival and his death in 1561, he published around 37 titles, taking over full ownership of the press after Cromberger’s death in 1540. Only some the titles printed survive to the present day.

Author looking for America's first printed book a private library in Guatemala

Author looking for America’s first printed book in a private library in Guatemala

His first book, the earliest known to have been published in the Americas, came off the presses in 1539. It was titled the Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Christiana en lengua Mexicana y Castellana, which translates to Short Compendium of Catholic Doctrine in Both Nahuatl and Spanish. The first archbishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga (1468–1548), wrote the book, apparently in both the indigenous language of Nahuatl and in Spanish.

Unfortunately, no copies of the book have come to to light in the centuries since. It is a book that I have searched for for decades, in Libraries around the world, from the Vatican in Rome, to private libraries in Central America. Through time the title has taken on legendary status, as scholars, collectors and antiquarians have continued to seek it out.

The distinction of being the first book printed in the Americas that can still actually be read completely goes to another Zumárraga title, Doctrina breve muy provechosa, or Brief and useful Catholic Doctrine, dating from 1543–44. The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds a copy of this extremely rare book. In it, one finds explanations and philosophical arguments related to the moral and theological principles necessary for a Christian life – the book was part of Zumárraga’s project to convert the peoples of Mexico to the Catholic faith.

Specialists who sit down to read book – which because of the typeface is not for the faint of heart – are immediately struck by the fact that it copies, in Spanish translation, much of the content of a far more influential book, the Enchiridion, known in English as the Handbook of a Christian Knight, penned in 1501, by the great humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536). Erasmus’ book was meant to be a guide for Christians who rule and who exert political and economic power over others.

Title Page to the Doctrina Breve, Rare Book and Special Collections, Library of Congress

Title Page to the Doctrina Breve, Rare Book and Special Collections, Library of Congress.

The Doctrina breve contains much more, however than a simple copy of Erasmus’ text. It narrates the Catholic articles of faith, explains the sacraments, talks about the various kinds of sin and works of mercy, and it delves deeply, in its 168 pages, into the importance of living a moral life.

The early printing press, wherever it was found, was often controversial. The one set up in Mexico City by Cromberger and Pablos in 1539 was no different, as it opened up the Americas to the revolution of print that had swept through Europe decades earlier. In 1559, nine years after Zumárraga died, the Mexican church temporarily banned the Doctrina breve, somewhat mysteriously. The Enchiridion was also considered by many in the church to contain heretical doctrine and it, too, was prohibited reading in 1559.

In that year, Alonso de Montúfar (1489-1572), who succeeded Zumárraga as the archbishop, called a meeting of prominent local clerics from monasteries and churches in and around Mexico City to discuss the Doctrina Breve and specifically to interpret the words, “the blood that had been shed [by Christ] was collected by the Divine power; at least that which was necessary for the Body and was united to the Divinity.” Their conclusion was that these lines and a few others, would be subject to misinterpretation if read by people who were not theologians and so they decided to ban the book, going against the advice of the more powerful Vatican Council of Indies who concluded that, “there is no reason for prohibiting the book of the Archbishop.”

Line that led to the banning of the Doctrina Breve. la sangre derramada sue recogida por la potencia divinal… Rare Book and Special Collections, Library of Congress.

One of the printed lines of text that led to the banning of the Doctrina Breve. “la sangre derramada sue recogida por la potencia divinal […]” Rare Book and Special Collections, Library of Congress.

The press Pablos founded in 1539 would go on to publish many of the earliest texts printed in the Americas including the first vocabulary of Nahuatl and grammars in other less well-known indigenous languages like Purépecha, which is a language isolate still spoken in the highlands of Michoacan, Mexico. In the Americas the printing press would slowly develop and give voice to both Indigenous and European thought, as the two cultures began the long and difficult process of accommodating each other in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What started as a trickle of books in 1539 increased rapidly and became, as Gutenberg himself said, “a spring of truth,” and would, in the Americas as in Europe, “like a new star, […] scatter the darkness of ignorance and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine […].”

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