Archaeology of a Book: An experimental approach to reading rare books in archival contexts

Reading the Advertencias

Though this project is primarily concerned with the social history of a work, the history of a book is always intertwined with the words that it contains. This page provides a brief overview of the text of the Advertencias, explaining what it is about, who its intended audience may have been, and the role the book has played in modern scholarship.

The Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales is a confessional manual: a book that aids in the administration of the sacrament of confession. First established among Christian practitioners between the third and seventh century, confession as a regular practice accompanied by penance was formally established between the twelfth and thirteenth century. After annual confession became obligatory in 1215, various summae were written to help guide this practice; the confessional manuals of subsequent centuries were vernacular variations on this model. They frequently guide the priest on an exploration of a penitent's soul, and call for instruction on the requirements for salvation (Christensen 162-3).

In his  Nahuatl and Maya Catholicisms (2013), Mark Christensen explains that American confessional manuals were an important part of the process of indigenous indoctrination. Christensen identifies seventeen Nahuatl confessionals composed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, beginning with Alonso de Molina's 1565 manual (pictured here) and ending with an anonymous 1803 text. These American manuals were distinguished, as Christensen describes, by both their style and their content. Written at least partially in indigenous languages, they employ a unique indigenous rhetoric - the Advertencias, for example, includes a bilingual catechism. Their content, furthermore, frequently refers to local practices. In the Advertencias, for example, there is an extensive discussion about the theft of fruits from an orchard: if a native steals "unas Peras de un arbol, las quales su señor tenia guardadas para de ellas hazer un presente, como comunmente estos Naturales guardan sus frutillas," Bautista writes, he sins mortally (f14r). The New World poses new problems for confessors; at the same time, in describing these problems, Bautista provides information about local cultural practices.
Christensen describes Bautista's goal as the simplification of confessional practices among indigenous converts, explaining: "Bautista produced his Advertencias to reduce the burden of all confessors, both within and without the order, and instruct them on what was necessary and unnecessary in a confession. His two-volume work exempted natives "of little capacity" from having to remember their sins, know the sacraments of the Christian doctrine by memory, and show real contrition because their invincible ignorance excuses [them]" (172-173). While this attitude towards indigenous peoples sounds patronizing and even dangerous to modern ears, it does reflect a certain degree of compassion towards new converts and an effort to adapt religious practices to a new context. However, as Christensen observes, it doesn't seem likely that many confessors were influenced by Bautista's work: despite the large distribution of the Advertencias, later confessional manuals largely ignored the advice it gave.
The Advertencias were influential in other ways, however. One remarkable instance is illustrated by the online exhibition "California's Legal Heritage," produced by the Robbins Collection at the University of California, Berkeley. The exhibition features the Advertencias in its section on Spanish Law in the Americas, writing:
Though largely concerned with Catholic teaching and practice, the works of men like Bautista and fellow missionary scholars had a profound impact on the evolving legal and political development of Spanish America. Their treatises established principles and arguments for colonial administrative practices and native rights and privileges that informed the secular legal works of future generations of jurists such as Juan de Solórzano and helped to shape the decisions of the crown.
In addition to its influence in religious and legal discourse, the large number of surviving editions means that it has remained at the center (or at least at the periphery) of the marketplace for early colonial Mexican books. The Collection and Acquisition paths will explore this history in more detail.

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