Cover image for Forgotten Franciscans: Works from an Inquisitional Theorist, a Heretic, and an Inquisitional Deputy By Martin Austin Nesvig

Forgotten Franciscans

Works from an Inquisitional Theorist, a Heretic, and an Inquisitional Deputy

Martin Austin Nesvig


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ISBN: 978-0-271-04872-7

104 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
4 b&w illustrations/1 map

Latin American Originals

Forgotten Franciscans

Works from an Inquisitional Theorist, a Heretic, and an Inquisitional Deputy

Martin Austin Nesvig

“A fascinating collection of writings by early colonial Franciscans. These three pieces give the reader a new and unique insight into the members of the order. These works allow us to glimpse the doctrinal conflicts within the order and to explore the sensitive relationship with the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Far from the saintly lives of the missionaries, these works offer a view of the inner workings of the order and the thought processes of some of its members.”


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The Franciscans were the first missionaries to come to Mexico, and the Franciscans developed important and lucrative ties with the newly rich conquistador elite and the faction behind Cortés. The order quickly became the wealthiest, having the most dramatic missionary churches, owning prime real estate in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and being de facto rulers of large indigenous communities. Forgotten Franciscans offers documents and written works by three Spanish Franciscans of the early modern period who, while well known by their contemporaries, have been largely forgotten by modern-day scholars. Alfonso de Castro, an inquisitional theorist, offers a defense of Indian education; Alonso Cabello, convicted of Erasmianism in Mexico City, discusses Christ’s humanity in a Nativity sermon; and Diego Muñoz, an inquisitional deputy, investigates witchcraft in Celaya. Together they offer new perspectives on the mythologies and realities of Franciscan thought in the New World.
“A fascinating collection of writings by early colonial Franciscans. These three pieces give the reader a new and unique insight into the members of the order. These works allow us to glimpse the doctrinal conflicts within the order and to explore the sensitive relationship with the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Far from the saintly lives of the missionaries, these works offer a view of the inner workings of the order and the thought processes of some of its members.”
“Martin Nesvig recovers the words and deeds of three long-forgotten Franciscans who were far removed from the archetypal sixteenth-century missionary role, yet were part of the struggle to preserve the Christian religion and transfer it to a new world. This work helps us understand sixteenth-century Franciscans’ complex theological standing, which could swing between orthodoxy and challenges to the established canons of the faith. The Franciscan order harbored brilliant theoreticians, spiritual dissenters, and near hermits driven to serve as censors of the faith. Nesvig enriches our vision of this religious order and indicates new ways for renovating the study of their role in Mexico in the early modern period. There are still some gems to be discovered in the rich archival records of the Inquisition and the Franciscan order, and this work proves it.”
“This volume provides a useful balance between accessible contextualization and expert discussion of sources that will be greatly appreciated by both students and specialists.”
“These writings, critically edited and carefully translated into English by Martin Austin Nesvig, help the reader to rethink the stereotypical model of the sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary. . . . The scholarship with which Nesvig edits these texts is remarkable. . . . We believe that this book offers graduate students an interesting opportunity to go in depth into some Franciscan topics that are poorly treated in programs of Latin American history.”
“Both the neophyte and the specialist will benefit from Nesvig’s lucid translations of these remarkable texts and from his enlightening introductions to each of them.”

Martin Austin Nesvig is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Miami.



List of Illustrations



1. The Inquisitional Theorist in Defense of Indian Education

Alfonso de Castro, “On Whether the Indians of the New World Should Be Instructed in Liberal Arts and Sacred Theology” (1543)

2. The Heretic on the Nativity of Jesus

Alonso Cabello, “Sermon on the Nativity of Our Lord” (Cholula, December [24?], 1577)

3. The Inquisitional Deputy on Witches

Diego Muñoz, “Witness Statements in Celaya About Witchcraft” (1614)





In an open-air chapel in central Mexico, in the shadow of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes, a Franciscan friar sprinkled holy water on a crowd of some two thousand Nahuas and proclaimed them baptized. None of the Indians understood the Latin pronouncements, though they did understand the one-hour instruction given to them in Nahuatl prior to the ceremony. There was a long Mesoamerican tradition of adopting the gods of victorious tribes and empires, and proclaiming submission to this new Christian god, whose flesh they were to eat in symbolic form in a wafer, was not entirely unusual for them. But they understood little of the concept of transubstantiation or of the demand of monotheism that this new submission implied. This was because many of the Franciscans were pressed for time. For them, steeped in a vision of the world nearing the end, only friars and those loyal to friars would be saved when the Apocalypse came. When the Judgment Day did come—and they were convinced it would be soon—the Indians they had baptized would be saved from the devil.

This is a familiar narrative and one that was carried out throughout Mexico in the sixteenth century, but it would be stereotyping to associate it with all Franciscans, or with all Dominicans, Augustinians, or Jesuits. Many Franciscans did not believe in mass baptism, and the Dominicans, as a whole, opposed it and were even wary of baptizing Indians at all.

The papacy conferred considerable privileges on the Franciscans in the New World. Although the Dominicans had been active in the Caribbean for two decades, the Franciscans, in 1524, were the first missionaries dispatched to Mexico. Developing important and lucrative ties with the newly rich conquistador elite and the faction behind Cortés, at whose specific request they had come, the Franciscans quickly became the wealthiest order, with the most dramatic missionary churches and prime real estate in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and acted as de facto rulers of large indigenous communities.

As described in both colonial and modern histories, the Franciscans in Mexico became known for a variety of things. One was their heavy emphasis on baptizing the Indians, derived, for many of them, from a millenarian recomposition of condemned ideas of Joachim of Fiore. This view was deeply ingrained in the mentality of many of the early Franciscan missionaries, including the founder of the Mexican mission, Martín de Valencia, and the French Franciscan Maturino Gilberti, who was denounced to the Inquisition for his belief (which he shared with the Augustinian cofounder of the University of Mexico, Alonso de la Veracruz) that diocesan clergy were not necessary for the salvation of the Indians.

Likewise, the Franciscans became known for their attempts to establish schools for the indigenous elite, the best-known being the Franciscan college (Colegio de la Santa Cruz) established in Tlatelolco, in the northern part of the Valley of Mexico, in 1536. This mission was an outgrowth of two strands of Franciscan thought. First, in an effort to convert the Indians to Catholicism, the Franciscans immediately began to learn indigenous languages and produce indigenous language books. Second, it was inspired by humanist views of Church reform—a return to basic sources like the Bible and early Church fathers instead of medieval theologians, an emphasis on Latin education, and a belief that among all nations some individuals were destined for the priesthood and higher education in theology. At Tlatelolco, Franciscan friars trained Indian elites in Latin and Spanish language, humanist philosophy, and theology. Simultaneously, the friars studied Nahuatl, the lingua franca of central Mexico, through which they could investigate Nahua customs, religion, society, and history. The most famous product of this investigation, and the crown jewel of the Franciscan missionary project, was the massive General History of New Spain compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, today known as the Florentine Codex.

A third component of the Franciscan missionary endeavor is less savory. Franciscan worries that Indians would backslide into paganism along with their old customs like human sacrifice led to some of the most notorious events in the so-called spiritual conquest of Mexico, and one of the most shocking destructions of indigenous culture the world has witnessed. The first bishop of Mexico, Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, destroyed thousands of images and hundreds of pre-Hispanic books and pictographic histories. And in the Yucatán, Franciscan friar missionary Diego de Landa burned hundreds of Maya pictographic works.

These trajectories and narratives about Franciscan thought and activity in Mexico tend, however, to flatten the considerable ideological diversity of the order in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The collection in this volume of documents in translation—a defense of Indian education from 1543, a sermon on the Nativity of Christ from 1577, and investigations into supposed witchcraft in 1614—aims to provide some first-hand depictions of that complexity of ideas as they related to the missionary project in Mexico and the broader ideological trends in the Franciscan order. For example, Erasmus became deeply influential among Franciscans and other intellectuals in Spain, the Low Countries, and Mexico. He had been particularly critical of an array of late medieval practices in Christendom, especially pilgrimages, building of shrines, and the cult of the saints and Mary. In place of these practices Erasmus promoted a stripped-down, interior, and Christocentric spirituality involving greater scrutiny of one’s own conscience, reading the Bible, and a return to humanist education. Although his ideas found numerous admirers and devotees, including many Franciscans, there were also many traditionalists who saw them as heretical and sacrilegious. Likewise, although the millenarian strand of thought was common among Franciscans, hardly all Franciscans subscribed to it. Many Franciscans viewed Mexico as an unspoiled religious terrain that would provide innocent Indians as perfect new catechumens; others viewed Indians with suspicion, seeing them as prone to polygamy and drinking too much pulque.

Many Franciscans who would have been recognized by their contemporaries are now largely forgotten by historians. Others, less well known in their time, are even less remembered. This volume hopes to add further texture to the prevailing picture of early modern Spanish Franciscans with a range of materials from three Franciscans who were involved either directly or indirectly with the missionary project in Mexico. All three were connected intimately with the Inquisition. Alfonso de Castro, an influential theologian from Salamanca who was confessor to kings, actively published on inquisitional law in the 1530s and 1540s. Alonso Cabello was born in Seville but became a Franciscan friar in Mexico City in the 1560s. His affinity and admiration for Erasmus and his criticisms of monastic life made him the object of scrutiny, and he was twice prosecuted for heresy by the Mexican Inquisition in the 1570s. Diego Muñoz, a semihermit friar born in Cholula, was a deputy (comisario) of the Mexican Inquisition in the remote rural areas of Michoacán for nearly forty years (1588–1626) and was the Inquisition’s sole agent in the mountainous western area of Michoacán.

Castro wrote a defense of the rights of Indians to become educated in theology and train for the priesthood. Cabello penned a variety of philosophical dialogues in which he criticized monasticism, but here we present his 1577 sermon on the Nativity of Christ. Muñoz is known today for his chronicle of the Franciscan mission in Michoacán, written around 1585, but here we present some of the details of his activities as inquisitional deputy when he investigated presumed witchcraft in Celaya in 1614.

These three friars span a wide chronological range and represent divergent ideological trends in the Franciscan order in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Castro was active as an intellectual in Salamanca during the early decades of the missionary and conversion project in Mexico. His concerns about the education of the Indians were part of the broad debate about the proper role of Indians in the Church and the relationship between the missionaries and their Indian charges. By the time Cabello delivered his Nativity sermon in 1577, however, the fervor and idealism of the early missionary years had waned. Indian populations had declined horrifically, and the sense of a vibrant, millenarian Church had gone into retreat. The influence of Erasmus held on in Mexico much longer than it did in Spain, and Cabello was squarely in the middle of a fight for the ideological heart of the Mexican Franciscan enterprise just as Sahagún’s massive linguistic, ethnographic, and historical project was ordered banned by the Spanish crown. By the time Muñoz walked into the central square of Celaya in October of 1614 to deliver the announcement that the Inquisition was to investigate witchcraft, the Indian population had reached its nadir. The Franciscan mission was still active in Michoacán, but it had fallen on hard times, and even the principal monastery of the province in Valladolid was literally falling down. Muñoz was living in a shadow world in Michoacán, where Indian populations had almost disappeared in the hot lands and where he spent his time meditating on the nature of the soul in remote mountain villages.

Each of the documents presented here offers a window into a unique moment in the development of the Franciscans in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Castro has been almost entirely forgotten, mostly because his works were not translated out of their original Latin and went into general disuse after the eighteenth century. Cabello was at the center of the controversy over Erasmus on the ground level in Mexico, but his works were never published and were consigned to the files of the Inquisition, where they went largely unnoticed until Marcel Bataillon mentioned them in his history of Spanish Erasmianism. Muñoz penned hundreds of letters and took hundreds of depositions as the Inquisition’s deputy, but, like Cabello’s material, this has remained as manuscript buried within the hundreds of volumes of material in the Mexican Inquisition’s files.

<1> The Inquisitional Theorist

Alfonso de Castro was born in Zamora, Spain, in 1495. We know little of his family. He began his university studies around 1507, probably at Alcalá, the newly formed university founded on principles of humanism. In 1510, Castro took the Franciscan habit in Salamanca, where he spent a considerable amount of his illustrious career. By 1515 he held a chair of theology at Alcalá, and he was subsequently master of theology in the Franciscan house at Salamanca. He became an intimate of Charles V, who made him his confessor as well as royal advisor. In 1526 he traveled to Assisi as a delegate to the Franciscan general chapter meeting and thereafter returned to Alcalá to resume his university studies from 1528 to 1532. By 1535 he had made Salamanca his permanent home and received a licenciate in theology from the University of Salamanca. In 1545 and 1547 he attended the Council of Trent as Philip II’s theologian. In 1551 he became superior of the Salamanca Franciscan house. He was nominated to the see of Compostela in 1557 but fell ill and died on February 4, 1558, before having taken possession of the diocese.

Castro, a prolific and wide-ranging writer, was best known for his sophisticated discussions of the theory and law of the Inquisition and heresy. The Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in the 1220s, and jurists and theologians had been writing so-called inquisitional treatises since the fourteenth century. Castro’s Adversus omnes haereses (Against All Heresies) went through twenty editions between 1534 and 1568, making it the all-time most-printed inquisitional treatise. De justa haereticorum punitione (On the Just Punishment of Heretics), a much more serious treatise, was first printed in 1547 and solidified his reputation as a formidable theorist. Castro’s style is complex but elegant. Yet even while he defended the Inquisition and the necessity of the defense of Catholicism against Lutheranism and other heresies, Castro admired Erasmus and had a real sympathy for humanism.

The cumulative effect of Castro’s intellectual corpus was mixed. For example, his homilies on various psalms established him as one of Salamanca’s best public preachers. On the other hand, his erudite discussions of law and heresy cemented his legacy as the only important Franciscan theologian of the sixteenth century to take up jurisprudence in relation to divine law and theology. Castro also trained some of the future censors of the Mexican Inquisition, including one of the censors called in the trial against Cabello in 1577 in Mexico City. While Castro never set foot in the Americas, he was clearly well versed in the debates about the legitimacy of the Conquest of the Americas. He was a friend of the holder of the prime chair of theology at the University of Salamanca, Francisco de Vitoria, who had lectured on some of the reasons he felt the Conquest of the Americas was unjustified.

<1> The Heretic

Cabello was born around 1555 in Seville and went to Mexico when he was three years old with his father, Marcelino Cabello, and his mother, Doña Hierónima de Alemán. Although we do not know anything about their backgrounds, his mother’s honorific doña and his father’s status as a licenciado (a university graduate lawyer) suggest they were well heeled. His father served as alcalde (magistrate) of Oaxaca City and Puebla, and during his youth Cabello lived with his father there from approximately 1558 to 1565. The younger Cabello went to Mexico City when he was ten, around 1565, and subsequently professed in the Franciscan order at age thirteen, around 1569. Fray Alonso resided in Franciscan houses in Michoacán, Cholula, and Toluca before returning to Mexico City to study theology.

Cabello’s case is today largely forgotten but was clearly something of a cause célèbre in the debates of the 1570s over Erasmianism, humanism, monastic vows, and the Franciscans. Cabello was actually tried twice—once in 1573 and again in 1578—and his story reads something like a pícaro novel, though the details are not always precise. Cabello was arrested in Cholula in October 1578 after rumors that he had preached a Nativity sermon in the Franciscan friary in 1577 despite being forbidden after his 1573 conviction for heresy from exercising anything but the most menial of duties in the order. After his arrest a search of his cell turned up the manuscript copy of his Nativity sermon, which is reproduced here: “In nativitati domini ad Kalendam.” This is an extremely rare case of a manuscript version of a sermon in colonial Mexico surviving. Occasionally prominent and lucrative sermons given on the feast days of major saints or on the sanctification of a new saint were published in colonial Mexico. For example, the Dominican friar Francisco de Arévalo, well known as an orator, gave the feast day sermon for Saint Thomas Aquinas on March 6, 1632, in Mexico and copies of the sermon were printed. Likewise, Alfonso de Castro had a collection of his sermons published in Latin in Salamanca in 1568. But manuscript sermons were usually lost and tended only to survive if they were confiscated as part of a trial.

Eventually, after his two trials for heresy and Erasmianism and the reading of prohibited books, Cabello was exiled from Mexico and returned to Spain. We do not know his fate or if he was prosecuted by the Inquisition there. It is clear, however, that despite the efforts of the Inquisition both in Spain and Mexico, as well as the efforts of antihumanist conservatives like Melchor Cano and Inquisitor General Fernando Valdés, Erasmus continued to be popular among certain segments of the Franciscan order well into the second half of the sixteenth century. Cabello fell squarely in the middle of the debate on Erasmus and demonstrates the difficulty of attempting to quash ideas, especially when there were strong supporters of such ideas within corporate entities like the Franciscan order.

<1> The Inquisitional Deputy

Muñoz was born in Cholula around 1550 and spent most of his adult life in rural Michoacán, far from the center of Franciscan political and administrative activities in the Pátzcuaro basin and Valladolid. We do not know who his parents were, though the seventeenth-century chronicler of the Franciscan mission in Michoacán, Alonso de la Rea, says they were “noble and virtuous,” which really tells us nothing, because missionary chronicles usually stressed the virtue of members of their orders. It is most likely that he was a criollo (an American-born Spaniard), since any admixture of Indian or African blood would have disqualified him from taking on higher orders, though exceptions were occasionally made and rules broken.

Muñoz took his vows to the Franciscan order in Tzintzuntzan, probably some time in the 1560s though possibly as late as the early 1570s. During the 1580s, as far we know, he spent most of his time in the Pátzcuaro area and appears to have gathered a good knowledge of local, mostly Purépecha, culture, as well as some facility with the Purépecha language. Around 1585 he completed a chronicle of the Michoacán province of the Franciscans, which was never published in his lifetime. He also became guardian of the Franciscan houses of Pátzcuaro and Querétaro in the 1590s. Eventually he was elected provincial (the highest-ranking official of a province) twice (ca. 1600 and ca. 1610) and was, it seems, the first criollo ever to be elected to this office. He presided over the interim chapter meeting of the Franciscan province of Michoacán in Uruapan as provincial in April 1603. Yet for all his activity and success in administration of the Franciscan mission, he appears to have preferred a contemplative and solitary life. He often wrote to his superiors in Mexico City asking to be relieved of his duties.

From the late 1590s through about 1608, after having lived variously in Pátzcuaro and Querétaro, he appears to have resided primarily in the region west of Valladolid in Pátzcuaro, Uruapan, and Tancítaro and was the Inquisition’s deputy in the region. By about 1608 he had moved to a small hermitage in Acahuato, which would be his mostly permanent home until his death in late 1625 or 1626. His motives for this move are not clear, but it seems that he had a real affinity for solitude. Acahuato is a remote hamlet between Apatzingán in the low-lying tierra caliente (hot lands) and the high-altitude region near Tancítaro. During these three decades he sent an impressive amount of material to the Inquisition in Mexico City. Most of this material survives today as depositions that he took in his legal capacity as comisario as well as his correspondence with the inquisitors in Mexico City. Among it can be found a wide range of discussions of local customs, “superstitions,” spells, cures, incantations, religious attitudes, and shenanigans by the local clergy. Soliciting young women in the confessional seems to have been widespread. Blasphemy was common among the general population.

Because of its comprehensive quality, Inquisition documentation has been used by a wide range of social, cultural, religious, and intellectual historians. The Inquisition operated as a court of law that had jurisdiction primarily over violations of Catholic doctrine, or heresy. Heresy was considered the explicit rejection of some article of faith or doctrinal point as defined by the Church, theologians, or the General Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition also had jurisdiction over certain types of blasphemy and “propositions” or those statements that were seen as attacks on the Church but which were not heresy strictly speaking. For example, to say that Mary and Joseph had had sexual intercourse in order for Mary to become pregnant was seen as heresy because it rejected the article of faith of the virgin birth of Christ. On the other hand, statements like “Mary Magdalene is a whore” or “the pope is a pedophile” were not specific heresies but could be prosecuted by the Inquisition. The Inquisition also claimed jurisdiction over certain kinds of witchcraft and “superstitions,” the solicitation of sexual favors in the confessional by priests (as a violation of the sacrament of confession), and bigamy (as a violation of the sacrament of marriage). Finally, because inquisitional officials were exempt from most civil court litigation, cases like homicide, rape, theft, assault, and other charges brought against them were heard by the Inquisition.

During inquisitional investigations, witnesses could be compelled to appear in court, or they could appear voluntarily. According to inquisitional law, an edict of the faith, which enjoined all the faithful to unburden their consciences if they had committed any heretical acts or knew of any such acts in the community, was read in the main church of a given town. In large cities like Mexico City, Puebla, and Valladolid, this usually occurred annually. But in smaller cities it was less frequent. The Inquisition in Mexico operated on two geographic levels. The inquisitors themselves, who were the judges of the inquisitional court, resided in Mexico City and heard trials there. Throughout the rest of Mexico, local comisarios (deputies) were stationed in larger towns.

Comisarios were empowered by the inquisitors to announce the edict of the faith, to conduct interrogations of witnesses, and to arrest suspects. But they were not empowered legally to conduct actual trials. In some cases inquisitors sent orders to a local comisario to carry out some kind of sentence. But in general, only inquisitors conducted formal trials and levied sentences and punishments. In the gravest cases, inquisitors could “relax” a convicted heretic to be executed by secular authorities, though the perception of this type of sentence is considerably exaggerated. Sentences such as fines, public whipping and humiliation, galley slavery, and reclusion in a monastery or hospital were more common.

In many rural areas, no comisario was present. This meant that in much of rural Mexico, local people had little contact with the Inquisition and its agents. In the case of Michoacán discussed here, Muñoz was the only inquisitional comisario from about 1588 until 1626 for an expansive area that included most of the current state of Michoacán as well as the southeast part of Jalisco, the far western portion of Guerrero, and even occasionally the southern part of Guanajuato. There was an inquisitional comisario stationed in the diocesan capital, Valladolid, but these comisarios were known for their spectacular corruption and also tended only to deal with the city population. The implications of this are breathtaking. Many assume that the Inquisition was a highly efficient mechanism of control and social repression. But consider for a moment what modern-day life would be like if in a region roughly the size of the state of Iowa there were only one sheriff. The lawlessness would be legendary. This was the case, at least in terms of inquisitional law and control, in seventeenth-century Michoacán, and Muñoz was clearly fighting a losing and unwinnable battle against the perceived forces of heresy, blasphemy, and impiety.

Muñoz does not appear to have had much career ambition. In many ways he was a kind of idealized Franciscan friar, devoted to a life of contemplation, poverty, and administering to the sick and uneducated. He often complained in his letters of administrative duties and asked to be allowed to return to his hermit-like existence in the mountains near Acahuato. Nor was he much of an active missionary. He left no discussion of intense conversion efforts, and chronicles of the order mention him as a pious, humble man. He remains something of an enigma. Perhaps it is fitting that he has been largely forgotten by historians, and if in posterity he wished to remain anonymous and forgotten, I hope he will excuse the light cast on him in these pages.

The documents that follow expose both deep rifts in Franciscan thought as well as considerable diversity and complexity: admiration for coupled with deep distrust of Erasmianism; idealistic views of Indian education coupled with views of Indians as superstitious and backward. By shining a light on largely forgotten Franciscans of the early modern period, we can reconsider the mythologies and realities of Franciscan thought.