American Letters, Part 1

The mechanisms by which Latin letters found their way to America: the Spanish route

Louis XIV was the picture of the absolute monarch: fabulously wealthy, owner of a powerful military, head of a court of simpering nobles, and—most importantly—possessing all the consolidated powers of church and state. He believed that he ruled by divine right. Any challenge to his religious views was, therefore, a challenge to his political rule. This stance allowed for no religion but the King’s. As such, Louis XIV executed a series of escalating persecutions against protestants, culminating in him stripping them of all rights previously afforded them, forcing hundreds of thousands of French protestants to flee the country.

France’s expulsion of the Huguenots came towards the end of a centuries-long period of political turmoil following the advent of the printing press. Protestant groups successfully challenged the authority of the Roman church, leaving room for Europe’s secular leaders—typically leveraging the same powers of the press as the Protestants—to make themselves religious leaders as well. Wars and campaigns of oppression wracked Europe. Millions died.

Spain made a particularly infamous entry in this process. Late in the 15th century, the Monarchs of Aragon and Castile united their kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Spain, and launched their own campaign of religious oppression. Inquisitions were nothing new, but this was the first Inquisition to feature a monarch, rather than the Pope, as head inquisitor. It coincided with a campaign of exploration, in which Spain colonized territories across the Atlantic Ocean. There, the Spanish found millions of people who were, unsurprisingly, not Catholic.

The Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521. Soon after, Franciscan Friars began converting the indigenous population to Catholicism. Seven years later, a prelate of their order, Juan de Zumárraga, would arrive in Mexico as Bishop Elect and appointed protector of the indigenous people. His record on the latter is mixed—he did actually protect indigenous people against the excesses of colonial governors, but later, as inquisitor, he brutalized them and their culture. However, as a religious leader he made some great contributions to the history of letters.

Knowing that his friars would benefit from written materials, Juan de Zumárraga sent for a printer. In 1539, Italian printer Giovanni Paoli (called Juan Pablos, in Spain) sailed from Seville to Mexico with a screw press and a Blackletter letterset. That year, he and Juan de Zumárraga produced the first book in the western hemisphere, Breve y Mas Compendiosa Doctrina Christiana en Lengua Mexicana y Castellana. Its title and content are unlikely to excite casual readers, but it was a very interesting book.

In the years since the conquest of Mexico, friars had learned the indigenous language, Nahuatl. Doctrine Breve, as a book made in the service of friars preaching in Nahuatl, was printed partly in Nahuatl, using the Latin alphabet. This had a resounding effect on the future of Nahuatl: it became a well-studied language in Europe, histories and literature were printed in the language, and for over a century after 1570 it enjoyed status as an official language of all Spanish colonies in the New World.

Besides the pragmatism of printing Doctrine Breve in Nahuatl, it was an interesting choice given that de Zumárraga was Basque. The Basque language is a language-isolate—a pre-Indo-European language fundamentally different from the Romance languages surrounding Basque Country in northern Spain. Like Nahuatl, it adopted the Latin alphabet. The Basque were also prolific maritime navigators and established contact with indigenous peoples around the gulf of St. Lawrence, where they developed an Algoquian-Basque pidgin. Juan de Zumárraga’s background may have lent him a linguistic perspicacity that made him the perfect candidate to write the first book in America.

A few years later, Juans de Zumárraga and Pablos would produce a book titled Doctrine Christiana. It was uncredited, aside from de Zumárraga’s name appearing on the bottom of the title page. It was, in fact, an edited version of Constantino Ponce de la Fuente’s book Sume de Doctrine Christiana, with additional content from the great Dutch scholar, Erasmus. Back in Spain, the Inquisition hated Erasmus, jailed Constantino as a heretic, and banned Sume de Doctrine Christiana. Constantino would die in jail, depriving the Inquisition a chance to burn him alive. Instead, they burned him in effigy, along with every copy of Sume de Doctrine Christiana they could lay their hands on.

Somehow, de Zumárraga’s Doctrina Christiana would escape notice. Despite the Inquisition being active in America, and despite Juan de Zumárraga’s role as both its publisher and an inquisitor, Doctrina Christiana survived. An ocean away from the religious persecution in Europe, the book enjoyed the kind of insulation only great distances could afford. This was a point with profound meaning for the future of persecuted religious minorities across Europe, and for the future of letters.