Dating the Oldest Manuscript
Authorship of the Manuscript
Originality of the Manuscript
Significance of the Manuscripts
The Monumentos guadalupanos in the Ramirez collection, now housed in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library, includes three manuscripts of the Guadalupe narrative. There is strong reason to believe that the oldest of these dates to the sixteenth century. If this is in fact the case, it can no longer be sustained that Luis Lasso de la Vega or some anonymous assistant of his authored the Nican mopohua in the late 1640s. The existence of this ancient manuscript may also have implications regarding the provenance of Antonio Valeriano's Guadalupan history. We will need to carefully consider whether this might be Valeriano's original manuscript, a copy, or even a source text for Valeriano.
A detailed discussion of the New York manuscripts was first published by Ernest J. Burrus, SJ in “The Oldest Copy of the Nican Mopohua” (CARA Studies on Popular Devotion Vol. 4, No. 4, Washington, DC, 1981). Burrus characterized each of the three manuscripts as follows:
- A tattered, worn, mid-sixteenth century manuscript of eight leaves (sixteen pages), covering the first third of the apparition narrative.
- A late sixteenth century manuscript of twenty-four leaves contains the full apparition narrative, written in a more formal literary style. On the twentieth leaf, where the narrative ends, there also begins a poem on the Rosary, in a much later script, which ends two leaves later. This is followed by a blank page and a "Prayer to the Most Blessed Virgin of Loreto" (with notes about the sanctuary of Loreto) on the last two leaves.
- A "quaderno" of four very large leaves, which appears to be a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century copy of the most ancient manuscript, being similarly incomplete.
To make some general observations about the manuscripts in reverse order: the third manuscript is likely a copy made by some nineteenth century scholar seeking to preserve the content of the original. We have already seen that this was a common practice for preserving antiquities, with León y Gama and others. Thus, when we find a manuscript of late date, this does not necessarily mean it is a forgery or inauthentic. In the days before scanners, photocopiers, or even mimeographs, this was the only way to preserve the content of deteriorating antiquities.
The second manuscript cannot be the Valeriano original, because it is immediately followed by a poem on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, whereas, according to Sigüenza, the Valeriano manuscript was followed by additional miracle narratives added by Fernando de Alva.
The oldest manuscript was dated to the mid-sixteenth century by Burrus, on account of the following facts.
The paper, the watermarks, the spelling of the words, the form of the individual letters, the expressions and the language-- all are characteristic of mid-sixteenth century Spanish documents, as anyone can ascertain from a careful comparison with dated writing of the same period and in the same area. The treatise explained by Friar Alonzo de la Vera Cruz may serve as an example of the script of the time. I edited a facsimile of his 140 pages in volume III of the series, The Writings of Alonso de la Vera Cruz. Deserving particular notice are the letters "b," "h," "ç," (before "e" and "i") and initial "rr" as in "rreal/rreligiose." (Burrus, “The Oldest Copy of the Nican Mopohua,” p. 4.)
N.B. In a later publication, Father Burrus clarified the last sentence: “I am here alluding to Vera Cruz's text, as edited and translated by me; not all peculiarities are paralleled in the Nican Mopohua because of the differences in the languages involved.” [Burrus, “The Basic Bibliography of the Guadalupan Apparitions (1531-1723),” CARA Studies in Popular Devotion, 1983, p. 27.]
Burrus consulted with Father Mario Rojas, who eventually prepared a translation of the manuscript’s text. Father Rojas noted that not only the spelling and writing, “but also the vocabulary and language, sentence structure, idioms and style” were characteristic of the mid-sixteenth century. Compared with the second manuscript (dated about forty years after the first), the oldest manuscript “written in a much more popular style, reflects the way Indians spoke at the time.” (Ibid., pp. 5-6.)
We do not need to take Burrus and Rojas at their word, though both were competent scholars in this field, for the original manuscript is publicly available. In 2004, a photographic copy was printed in the Boletín Guadalupano (February, March, and April issues), along with the transcribed text and Father Rojas’ translation. [These documents are available at: http://www.boletinguadalupano.org.mx/boletin/Acontecimiento.htm Due to a publication error, the April issue has a duplication of folio 195v where the last page, 198v, should be.] I will refer to this photographic reproduction of the original source for the remainder of our discussion of the document.
Silvia Spitta, a professor of Spanish literature at Dartmouth, has suggested in her 2009 book Misplaced Objects that the ancient Nican mopohua manuscript mentioned by Burrus in 1981 is an unsubstantiated claim uncritically followed by others, and that several scholars have challenged whether such a manuscript is actually in the New York Public Library. (p. 114) This baseless skepticism was written in apparent ignorance of the fact that photographs of the tattered document were published with the library’s permission in 2004. Here we have an example of how modern liberal scholarship, under the pretext of critical thinking, often fails to inquire deeply into the facts, and instead falls back upon pre-conceived narratives. In this case, Spitta assumes that religious scholars are overly credulous, and is more concerned with giving a pseudo-anthropological explanation of their opinions than with investigating the verifiable fact of the manuscript’s existence.
Although the existence of the manuscript in the New York Public Library is well substantiated, it remains to be seen if we can verify Burrus’ original claim that it should be dated to the mid-sixteenth century. Burrus was correct to observe that the manuscript uses some orthographic archaisms that were more common in the sixteenth century than in the seventeenth, such as the use of the cedilla before ‘e’ and ‘i’, the use of mill instead of mil and the absence of accent marks on Spanish words like sabado. These characteristics can also be found in mid-seventeenth century documents, however, though not as frequently, and certainly not in Lasso de la Vega’s printed Nican mopohua.
Other archaisms indicate that the manuscript’s author was an Indian who learned written Nahuatl as taught by the Franciscans in the sixteenth century. One characteristic of this style is the frequent use of ‘h’ as a glottal stop, as in itocayohcan (fol. 191v, line 4) and inahço cahmo. (fol. 196r, line 3) Lasso de la Vega, by contrast, follows later orthographic conventions, keeping the glottal stop only in a proper name with an established spelling, Cuauhtitlan, while omitting it elsewhere. The New York manuscript also makes use of an overbar over vowels to indicate a final nasal, another convention of sixteenth century ecclesiastical Nahuatl. As was common in the sixteenth century, our manuscript does not always clearly make breaks between words, and when it does, it exhibits irregularity with its use of the article in, which can find itself before or in the middle of a word break, e.g., in xxxxx, i nxxxxx, or i ni nxxxxx. Most strikingly of all, the author often uses &lsqou;z’ instead of ‘s’ in Spanish loanwords (e.g., Dioz, obizpo), showing a limited knowledge of written Spanish.
These characteristics are all strongly consistent with a sixteenth century origin, but we cannot exclude the early seventeenth century, as we still find documents from that period exhibiting the older styles. Still, it is difficult to reconcile these features with a mid-seventeenth century dating, which would be necessary to ascribe authorship to Lasso de la Vega or his ghost writer. First, it is certain that Lasso de la Vega was not the author, since he was fluent in Spanish. If our manuscript is a draft by one of his Indian assistants, it is astounding that someone of such limited education (evidenced by his spelling of Spanish terms) should be knowledgeable of so many archaisms. Nor is it likely that someone would deliberately forge a document to make it look like a predecessor of the Nican mopohua. No one thought highly of Lasso de la Vega’s work until the early twentieth century, and the New York manuscript is certainly centuries older than that.
Burrus also claimed to have found European watermarks on the paper indicating a sixteenth century origin. He said these were clearly visible under strong light on both sides of folios 193 and 196. (Burrus, “Basic Bibliography of the Guadalupan Apparitions,” op. cit., p.8.) These watermarks are not visible on the scans found in the Boletín Guadalupano, but no other scholar has challenged Burrus’ assertion. Indeed, Burrus was not predisposed to see watermarks, for he originally believed that the manuscript was written on maguey, due to its coarseness. Still, we cannot date the manuscript precisely without a sketch of the watermark, which Burrus never provided, despite expressing an intent to do so. (Burrus, “The Oldest Copy of the Nican Mopohua,” op. cit., p. 31.) Even if we identified the watermark, for example, as the famous “pilgrim and staff” that was common in that period, this would still give a broad range of dates, from the 1540s to the end of the century. Still, it would provide further evidence against a late composition contemporaneous with Lasso de la Vega’s publication.
Indeed, the preponderance of evidence in the manuscript itself strongly suggests a sixteenth century composition, though there is no justification for specifying the middle of that century, as Fathers Burrus and Rojas insist. The New York library’s manuscript index gives the date as c. 1548. The basis for this date is not given, though one might infer it was written shortly after the death of Zumárraga, who is referred to as the “recent bishop.” (This could mean he was recently elected at the time of the story, or recently deceased a the time of writing.) The manuscript is placed among the older documents in the Ramirez collection, suggesting that Ramirez himself believed this to have been written no later than the sixteenth century. There probably would be no controversy in giving this manuscript an early date were it not for two facts: (1) several scholars are heavily invested in the thesis that there was no written history of the Guadalupan apparitions before 1648; and (2) Lasso de la Vega himself gave several strong indications that he was either the sole author or at least played a substantive role in the composition of the Nican mopohua.
The first objection can be discarded, as it is not evidentiary in nature, but is based on theoretical preconceptions. An example of this question begging can be found in Stafford Poole, who writes, &ldqou;Attempts to date this document prior to Laso de la Vega’s publication rest on frail evidence and are impossible to reconcile with the total silence of authors and commentators prior to 1648.” [Emphasis added.] (Stafford Poole, “The Woman of the Apocalypse,” in The Church in Colonial Latin America,, ed. John F. Schwaller, Scholarly Resources, 2000, p.226.) It is precisely this supposed silence that we wish to question, and it is circular reasoning to dismiss a proposed fact—the existence of an early Guadalupan narrative—on the grounds that it contradicts the negation of that fact.
The second objection is more substantial, for, as we have discussed, Lasso de la Vega gave several clear indications that he was claiming a degree of authorship for the apparition narrative he published. If the oldest New York manuscript was not the work of Lasso de la Vega and was indeed written prior to the 1649 publication, we cannot escape the conclusion that the Nican mopohua—that is, the apparition narrative—is not at all the work of Lasso de la Vega, his professions to the contrary notwithstanding. This consequence is clear because the New York manuscript is identical in content with the published Nican mopohua word for word (with one exception), differing only in orthography and some repetitions across page breaks. Clearly, one document must be a direct or indirect copy of the other. So which one is more original?
It is debatable whether or not the oldest New York manuscript is a copy of another document. Poole claims the manuscript’s crossed out words and repetitions are clear signs of copying. He neglects to mention, however, that the repetitions occur only on the beginning of the reverse side of a page, so these could have been deliberate attempts to guarantee continuity in the narrative. On one occasion (folio 193) the author rewrites exactly three whole lines, apparently because the third to last line was messy. When the author smudges out something, it is generally not to suppress a copying error, for he then rewrites the same letters. Evidently, the reason for most of the cross-outs is that the letter or word was not written neatly or legibly enough. There is an exception on folio 193, where he is of course copying his own writing from the other side, and mistakenly transcribes chili i nipan from the fourth to last line, before crossing it out and copying the correct words mochi ticpohuiliz, which were directly below. While we certainly cannot exclude the possibility that this document is copied from another, the evidence is not nearly as clear as Poole suggests.
This much at least is clear: the New York manuscript was not copied from the 1649 printed version of the Nican mopohua. Unless this was a deliberately cunning forgery (an extremely unlikely possibility, lacking a credible motive), there would be no reason to introduce the countless orthographic archaisms and inconsistencies, especially the use of ‘z’ in place of ‘s’ in common Spanish terms, as well as the dizzyingly irregular word breaks. If this were a clever forger, he did an especially good job of affecting literary ignorance and an uncertain hand. The manuscript evidence is much more strongly suggestive of a man of limited handwriting ability, though, if he is the author of the text, he was evidently a master of spoken Nahuatl. Though incapable of sophisticated forgery, he would certainly have been capable of transcribing the printed Nican mopohua much more correctly if he indeed had it in front of him. This not being the case, we must instead take the more obvious conclusion, that the printed Nican mopohua was based on this manuscript or one like it, and the printed version made appropriate modernizations of orthography for common Nahuatl terms, while retaining some of the original odd spellings for names like ‘Sumarraga’. Indeed, it is hard to see why Lasso would use such a spelling except out of deference for the received original.
Since the New York manuscript antedates the 1649 printing, we must assume at the very least that it was a draft prepared by one of Lasso’s Indian assistants prior to publication. Even on this minimalist assumption, there is no room for any authorship at all by Lasso himself, so his indications that he wrote the narrative must be false. What little we know of Lasso’s character suggests he would not deliberately seek false honor for himself, and in fact his apparent claims of authorship come in the form of some self-deprecating remarks. It is more likely, then, that his apparent claims are to be interpreted poetically, not literally. This is not an unreasonable construction, for:
Lasso's own introduction, being written in Nahuatl, has no precise vocabulary for the European distinctions between authoring and penning, writing and printing, editing and publishing: the simple verb "to paint" serves for all of these, as well as for the miraculous painting of Our Lady's Image. Lasso's intent, in any case, is not to inform us of his sources but to reconcile us to his having presumed to use the native tongue. (Martinus Cawley, "Anthology of Early Guadalupan Literature," CARA Studies on Popular Devotion, Vol. II: Guadalupan Studies, No. 8, p. 2.)
As a result of this ambiguity, we could easily interpret Lasso’s prologue as saying “I have printed your miracle in the Náhuatl language,” and “This has moved me to publish in the Náhuatl language…” Fr. Cawley is correct to suggest that Lasso’s emphasis was more on the use of the native tongue than on questions of authorship. It was extremely unusual, to say the least, to write a religious history of this character in Nahuatl, and he would have to overcome potential objections by the censor in order to publish this work.
The letter authorizing the license, written by P. Baltasar González, says he has examined the Guadalupan narrative, “which in proper and elegant Nahuatl, the bachiller Luis Lasso de la Vega, chaplain and vicar of said sanctuary, has proposed to send to press.” This statement, though praising the prose, does not directly state that Lasso composed the narrative himself, only that he sought to send it to the press.
Even where Lasso prays for the gift of tongues, it is possible that he is praying not so that he can compose the narrative—the prologue is often the last thing to be written—but so that its publication and promulgation among the natives will be successful. Such an interpretation would have a poetic parallelism: Lasso again “paints” the apparition in Nahuatl and gives it to the Indians, just as the Blessed Virgin gave her painted Image to them on Tepeyac.
Even on the most conservative interpretation of the physical facts of the New York manuscript, we find that Lasso de la Vega was not the author of the Nican mopohua. This finding is not incompatible with the evidence in his prologue to the Huei tlamahuizoltica. Once Lasso’s authorship is refuted, there is no longer any obstacle to accepting an earlier date for the manuscript, somewhere in the mid- to late sixteenth century. Poole’s objection that this contradicts the evidence that there was no written Guadalupan apparition narrative prior to 1648 is arbitrary and circular reasoning, and is itself contradicted by the facts. Florencia, Becerra Tanco, and Sigüenza all attested to having seen Guadalupan manuscripts much older than P. Sánchez’s publication, so the discovery of one such manuscript by no means contradicts the historical evidence, but corroborates it.
Just because the New York manuscript is ancient, however, it does not follow that this is the same manuscript seen by the aforementioned witnesses. Lamentably, Burrus and many other Guadalupan scholars have uncritically accepted that this manuscript is the long-sought Valeriano original, notwithstanding the many contradictions this thesis would entail. Accordingly, Burrus will cite the seventeenth century witnesses as though they were talking about the New York version of the Nican mopohua, when in fact they were discussing Valeriano’s work or Alva’s translation of it. We will now examine the evidence why one might think this manuscript was written by Antonio Valeriano, as well as the indications contradicting this thesis.
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Although the oldest New York manuscript probably dates to the sixteenth century, it remains to be seen if Antonio Valeriano is its author. Boturini, we may recall, possessed some signatures and handwriting samples of Valeriano. According to Boturini’s catalog, these samples were in the Libro de Tributos de San Pablo Teocaltitlan. Fortunately, this is one of the many Boturini codices still extant. It is numbered 376 among the Mexican manuscripts in the National Library of France (i.e., the Aubin collection). [Photographic scans available at http://www.amoxcalli.org.mx/codice.php?id=376]
I have not been able to find an expert comparison of Valeriano’s known handwriting with that of the most ancient manuscript of the Nican mopohua. It should be noted, however, that historians familiar with documents by a particular author have frequently performed such analysis themselves, as indeed Boturini had hoped to do. Handwriting analysis is not a scientifically rigorous procedure, a fact that has recently been recognized by federal courts in the United States, starting with the Daubert case, which found that there is no financially disinterested academic validation of this practice. The court in United States v Saelee (2001) had “serious questions about the reliability of methods currently in use,” and found that in one test, “the true positive accuracy rate of laypersons was the same as that of handwriting examiners; both groups were correct 52 percent of the time.” Further, the underlying premise that everyone’s handwriting is unique has never been demonstrated. In the absence of rigorous controlling standards, no handwriting analysis could ever amount to more than a subjective non-scientific expert opinion.
Based on my own analysis, I think that the handwriting in the oldest manuscript of the Nican mopohua is consistent with authorship by Valeriano, but not probative. There are some differences between the handwriting in the Nican mopohua manuscript and Valeriano’s notes in the above-mentioned codex number 376, but in my view these differences can be explained by the supposition that the latter document (dated 1574) was written about twenty years later in Valeriano’s life, and in a more cursive script.
Points of similarity between the Nican mopohua handwriting and Valeriano’s include ample spacing between lines and strong pen pressure, reflecting a confident personality, though clearly the man who wrote the New York manuscript was less expert with the pen at that time. The lines of text (on non-ruled paper in both cases) are generally straight and even, except in the bottom half of the pages of the Nican mopohua, where they start to slope upward from left to right. This can happen after slight unevenness accumulates over many lines, and there is no text of Valeriano’s in Codex 376 with sufficiently many lines for us to judge whether he would have exhibited the same tendency.
Regarding letter formation, the best samples of Valeriano's writing can be found in his annotations on pages 17r and 21v of Codex 376. He adds a foot to his ‘p’, unlike the other writers in the same codex, but similar to the practice of the Nican mopohua author. He often puts a loop on the top of his ‘h’, makes his ‘i’ short, adds a lead stroke to the ‘m’, sometimes a tail on ‘q’, and makes a sloping ‘y’, which are all points of agreement with the Nican mopohua manuscript.
Valeriano’s lettering in the codex tends to have more flourishes, and is written in a more cursive style, in apparent haste, sometimes crammed in wherever there happens to be room. The author of the Nican mopohua, by contrast, had blank leaves to work with, and took great care to write as neatly and as legibly as he could, usually without connecting letters in cursive. This difference in context, in my view, suffices to account for some of the difference in script between the two documents. Naturally, Valeriano adds much more flourish to the letters in his signed name, but even here we can note that the basic structure of his capital ‘A’ is similar to that of the Nican mopohua, and by no means universally used by writers of that time.
I should also note that Valeriano is not consistent in his letter formation even within the known samples of the codex, so we can expect some variation between documents written twenty years apart. In the 1550s, he would have still been studying under Fray Sahagún, and therefore would have the carefully controlled strokes of a student of letters, rather than the free semi-cursive of 1574, where he signed and annotated the book of tributes as a man of high office. This would account for why the Nican mopohua text, if anything, is a little more shaky, with slightly uneven lines, as though the author had learned to write relatively recently.
My wife Robin, who is something of a graphophile, independently confirmed that many of the letters are the same in both writing samples. She was blinded to my hypothesis and to the identity of both documents. In particular, she noted the similarity of the ‘m’’s, though she also observed that letters like ‘y’ have added flourish in the codex. I encourage readers to consult the original documents referenced above, to make their own judgments.
In sum, I found that a comparison of handwriting was generally consistent with Valeriano’s authorship of the Nican mopohua manuscript. There was nothing that would positively exclude Valeriano as author, yet at the same time, the similarities were not definitive enough to exclude the possibility that the Nican mopohua was written by a different author.
Another approach to identifying the author of the Nican mopohua manuscript is examining its narrative content. Florencia, we may recall, made some indirect observations of the Valeriano manuscript via the Alva translation. Several of Florencia’s observations differ in substance from the version that was published by Lasso de la Vega in 1649. I summarize these distinctive features below.
- The words ‘mochi xochitl’ for the many flowers on the hill
- The date of the first apparition is Saturday, December 8
- Juan Diego receives lashes
- The expression “our father S. Francisco”
- Diverse kinds of flowers mentioned
- Image carried on the shoulders of Franciscans during procession
- Juan Diego died seventeen years after apparition
- Discussion of Juan Bernardino’s disposition before death, and Juan Diego’s feelings after uncle and archbishop died
Due to the incompleteness of the manuscript, we cannot check for the last four items nor the first in our list. Regarding the others, we find:
- The manuscript does not mention the date at all, but only says the first apparition was on Saturday, in the first days of December.
- There is no mention of Juan Diego receiving any lashes.
- It only says that Bishop Zumárraga was a “Priest of San Francisco.”
From the first discrepancy alone, it is already apparent that this ancient manuscript cannot be the same as the Nahuatl text in Fernando de Alva’s possession. Alva went to the trouble of writing a marginal note explaining why the Nahuatl original had an incorrect date, so there certainly was a date of December 8 in the Valeriano manuscript he translated. This error, along with the anachronism of Juan Diego getting flogged, was a later addition by Valeriano. No such anachronisms are present in the oldest New York manuscript, which even gives Zumárraga his proper title of Obispo rather than Arzobispo. If this manuscript was written by Valeriano, it is a more primitive version of his narrative than that possessed by Alva. The fact that Valeriano later introduced errors and anachronisms strongly suggests he was not a contemporary of Juan Diego (except perhaps as a young child). The author of the Nican mopohua does not profess to have known Juan Diego directly, so it is still possible this was another version by Valeriano.
Valeriano was a man of exceptional literary talent, fully capable of authoring the Nican mopohua, the style of which has been highly praised by scholars. It is possible that the manuscript possessed by Alva was a later edition of the original mid-sixteenth century relation, using a more formal style, with amendments and amplifications. The second oldest New York manuscript, originally dated to the very late sixteenth century by Burrus on account of its distinct watermarks, appears to be an example of stylistic modification. Its wording is generally similar to that of the oldest manuscript, except it uses a more formal style, adding reverential forms and suffixes repeatedly throughout the narrative. It also omits several parts of the narrative; these omissions are noted by the author, who was clearly revising an earlier account. While we cannot say for certain whether either of the New York manuscripts was written by Valeriano, it is quite possible in any case that Valeriano’s Guadalupan history was a reworking of the Nican mopohua, adding putative historical data such as those mentioned by Florencia.
If Valeriano is not the original author of the Nican mopohua, we will still have to account for the similarity of his work (as reported by Florencia) to the Nican mopohua. Sigüenza’s claim that Valeriano was the true author of Alva’s Nahuatl manuscript need not imply that Valeriano used no written sources. In fact, we may have an important clue suggesting an earlier source in the very title of the work, as reported by Florencia: Relation of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was translated from some very ancient papers that an Indian had, with other curiosities. This title was taken from Alva’s translation, and Florencia seems to assume that Alva invented this title, so that “the very ancient papers” refers to the Nahuatl original, which Sigüenza tells us was written by Don Antonio Valeriano. This would mean ‘an Indian’ (un indio) refers to Valeriano, which would be highly disrespectful on Alva’s part. Moreover, there would be no incentive for him to suppress the author’s name, since Valeriano was a man of great importance, and his reputation would have lent some authoritative weight to the narrative.
There is a solution to this quandary, namely that the title recorded by Alva is a translation of the title used by Valeriano. This would mean that Valeriano based his history on papers and other antiquities he had acquired from some Indian of little importance. As an important official and noted scholar, he would have ample opportunity to come into the possession of documents such as these. If some version of the Nican mopohua was one of Valeriano’s source documents, he may have transcribed it (as se trasladó may be validly interpreted) into his history, with some modifications in style and content. On this assumption, Valeriano would have written his account towards the end of his life, around 1600, at which point his source documents might be considered very old. Such a relatively late dating of Valeriano’s work would explain why Sigüenza did not treasure this notebook as he did the sixteenth century canticle by Chimalpain.
Any Indian author writing Nahuatl in Latin letters in the mid-sixteenth century would have learned this from the Franciscans, most notably those of the College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. Valeriano was the most accomplished student of that school, and the similarity between his handwriting and that of the oldest copy of the Nican mopohua may be attributable to common schooling. The writer of the oldest copy of the Nican mopohua, then, was likely an Indian who studied at Tlatelolco in the mid-sixteenth century. Even if the manuscript we have was written decades later, such a man would likely have retained the orthographic style of his schooling.
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Regardless of which version of the Nican mopohua Valeriano may have used to compose his history, it is certain that the oldest New York manuscript contains the exact content (save for differences in spelling) of the source used by Lasso de la Vega for his publication. Judging from the scrupulous exactitude with which Lasso’s version replicates the original, it is reasonable to presume he did a comparably good job for the last two thirds of the narrative, which are missing from our ancient manuscript.
There is only one place where the New York manuscript has a word that is not preserved in Lasso’s 1649 printing. This can be found on the eleventh line of folio 192v, which reads in part:
...i ni xiptlahuan in tlacatl in tote cuiyo, Dioz in toteopixcahuan
...those who are in the image of the Lord (tlacatl) Our Lord (tote cuiyo), God (Dioz) our priests
Lasso’s Nican mopohua omits the word Dioz, reading instead:
…in ixiptlahuan in Tlacatl, in Totecuiyo, in toteopixcahuan
This difference is insubstantial, as it basically says “Our Lord” instead of “Our Lord God.” The omission was probably accidental, as there would be no reason to delete the word deliberately. If this manuscript were a copy of Lasso’s version, on the other hand, there would be no occasion for adding the word Dioz, either accidentally or deliberately. This variant is further evidence, then, of the priority of the New York manuscript.
Our characterization of the manuscript's author is consistent with what we know of the literary style of the Nican mopohua. Experts are in agreement in praising the quality of the Nahuatl, and attest to its authenticity. Louise Burkhart, James Lockhart, and Clodomiro Siller all find that the archaic vocabulary and style of the text are suggestive of a mid-sixteenth century composition. Even the skeptical Poole can do no better than point out that the use of Spanish rather than Nahuatl numbers and the phrase omocac misa (mass was heard) rather than omottac misa (mass was seen) would be more common in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. He nowhere offers a shred of positive evidence that would suggest a mid-seventeenth century provenance. If anything rests on “frail evidence,” it is his tenuous thesis that Lasso was the author of the Nican mopohua.
We cannot say for certain that this manuscript dates as early as the 1540s or 50s, though any source document that Valeriano considered a “very ancient” would had to have been at least that old. The existence of a variant text in the second New York manuscript shows that the Nican mopohua was sometimes copied and altered, so that we might speak of a textual tradition rather than a single fixed text. This would explain why Lasso did not consider his source to be especially ancient or authoritative, if his copy of the tradition was not that old. The discovery of the New York manuscript proves that Lasso’s printed version, whether he knew it or not, was identical to a version that existed sometime in the mid- to late sixteenth century.
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The existence of a textual tradition of the Nican mopohua with variants would make sense of what we have found in our examination of the work of Becerra Tanco and Florencia, who produce narratives that are similar to, yet decidedly distinct from Lasso’s version. Becerra Tanco was distrustful of what he perceived as florid embellishments in Lasso’s version, and drew upon sources that gave a more plain narration, yet still had several of the famous dialogues. Florencia’s use of the Alva manuscript also shows a general similarity to the Nican mopohua, but also includes distinct facts that were added by Valeriano, the original author of Alva’s translated history. The preservation of this textual tradition along at least three distinct lines (Lasso, Becerra Tanco, Valeriano-Alva-Florencia) implies a certain breadth and depth to the tradition.
Aside from the manuscript already discussed, the only other extant version we have antedating Lasso is the second New York manuscript, which probably dates around or slightly after 1600. As a less original version, it is of less interest to us.
The twentieth century scholars Francisco de la Maza and Angel Maria Garibay claim to have seen a printer’s original manuscript of the Huey tlamahuizoltica, signed and dated 1646, in a private collection that was later dispersed. Poole has disputed this claim, asserting that “Working copies of manuscripts used by printers were not usually saved or rarely survived.” (Poole, “The Woman of the Apocalypse,” op. cit., p. 227.) Begging the pardon of this usually precise scholar, in fact printers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries frequently kept manuscripts in order to sell them illicitly. At that time, there was an extensive trade in manuscripts in parallel to that of the printed word, and men of wealth and stature took great pride in possessing handwritten works. (Fernando Bouza, Corre manuscrito. Una historia cultural del Siglo de Oro. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2001) This is why so many of Sigüenza’s documents disappeared into private collections. Nonetheless, this printer's manuscript has not been recovered, so we cannot verify its authenticity.
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In a sense, the New York manuscripts do nothing but confirm what we already could gather from a careful examination of the seventeenth-century Guadalupan authors, namely that a written Nahuatl tradition of the apparition narrative existed long before 1648, and this tradition already included fixed wording for the dialogue between Our Lady and Juan Diego. The discovery of the oldest manuscript confirms that Lasso preserved a sixteenth century version verbatim, though we cannot say for certain that it is the oldest version of the tradition. Becerra Tanco, for his part, believed some of it included later embellishment, and indeed the author of our extant Nican mopohua speaks as though he did not know Juan Diego personally.
Nonetheless, the manuscripts are prima facie evidence against the claim that there is no written testimony of the traditional apparition narrative prior to 1648. Their antiquity does not compel us to believe that they are accurate in every detail, but they do constitute evidence that the basic apparition story as we know it was already known to the Indians of the sixteenth century.
It is not reasonable to demand an absolutely original manuscript as a guarantee of authenticity, for much of our historical and literary knowledge is well established without autograph originals. As Burrus noted, we possess no manuscript originals for any of the Greek or Latin classics, nor of Dante and Shakespeare, yet we can establish that the extant content of these works has been preserved with substantial accuracy. (Burrus, “The Oldest Copy of the Nican Mopohua,” op. cit., p. 9) Even if we did not have the New York manuscripts, we could know from the seventeenth-century testimonies discussed that the Nican mopohua substantially preserves the common tradition. The oldest manuscript only gives us confidence that Lasso preserved one of the earlier versions of the text verbatim.
Written testimony, however ancient, cannot establish historical facts with any authority unless we know something of its broader context. Since we do not know the identity of the author of the Nican mopohua, save that he was probably an Indian educated by the Franciscans at Tlatelolco, we cannot say anything of his credentials. It is true that the esteemed Don Antonio Valeriano lent his authority to the narrative and amplified it, but this is no guarantee against factual mistakes in particular details. Public events as prodigious as the apparitions and subsequent miracles would surely have been witnessed and remembered by many people. If the account in the Nican mopohua is to be historically credible, it would need to be corroborated by competent witnesses who could attest, if not to the events themselves, at least to the widespread acceptance of these public facts from a very early date.
For reasons such as these, the ecclesiastical inquiry of 1666 did not content itself with the written history supplied by Becerra Tanco, but sought to establish the antiquity and breadth of the tradition by interrogating witnesses in Mexico City and in Juan Diego’s hometown of Cuauhtitlan. It was on the basis of these Informaciones that the decision was made to authorize the cult of Guadalupe with its own feast day, once it was established that the tradition was well founded and credible.
Continue to Part VI
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