Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Jerónimo Mendieta

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A Spanish missionary; born at Vitoria, Spain, 1525; died in the City of Mexico, 9 May, 1604. While still a youth he took the habit of St. Francis at Bilbao, and arrived in New Spain at the end of June, 1554. Being desirous of helping in the conversion of the Indians, he applied himself with zeal to study the Mexican language, and it is said that, although a natural defect interfered with his speaking Castilian and kept him from preaching to Spaniards, yet, when he mounted the pulpit to address the Indians in their language, he spoke clearly and without stammering. At Tlaxcala he probably had for his father guardian F. Toribio de Motolinia, the last survivor of the first band of twelve Franciscans. He was so highly esteemed in his province that the provincials, Diego de Olarte and Miguel Navarro, took him with them on their visitation of the convents and the Indians, while the entire province, assembled in chapter, judged him capable of selecting at his own individual discretion all the provincial officers, a selection which in the event proved satisfactory to all.

In 1569 Mendieta accompanied Miguel Navarro on his way to the general chapter in France, and while on his journey he remained in his native town, Vitoria. Here he put himself in communication with Juan de Ovando, the distinguished magistrate of the Council of the Inquisition, who had been nominated visitor of the Council of the Indies and was afterwards its president. Ovando no doubt already knew Mendieta by name, through his letters written from New Spain in 1562 and 1565 to the commissary, Bustamante, and to King Philip II. The questions propounded to Mendieta by Ovando concerned the civil as well as the religious administration, the two being, in consequence of the existing relation between Church and Crown, very closely interwoven; and Mendieta's replies reveal not merely isolated opinions, but a fairly complete and systematic theory of government. In his view the authority of the Viceroy of New Spain should be increased; that of the Audiencia diminished, and limited exclusively to judicial matters. In the administration of justice, except in criminal cases, he would desire separate tribunals for Spaniards and for Indians, particularly in suits concerning the possession of land. As to the question of compulsory Indian labour, in agriculture and mining, he was perplexed. The difficulty was a serious one: if the Indians were not compelled to work, then, perhaps content with their land and what little they obtained from it, they would not assist the Spaniards, and these latter could not by their own unaided efforts provide for themselves and for the other Spaniards who inhabited the cities, nor could they, without the Indians, derive from the mines the profit which they looked for. Lastly, however, Mendieta pointed out that in some cases the Indians voluntarily entered into contracts to work for hire, and that this ought to be wisely encouraged and facilitated. His love of the Indians impelled him to speak unfavourably of the Spanish colonists. He advocated complete separation of the two races in different towns and villages, saying that the Spaniards ought to have only such settlements as might be necessary to secure the country against foreign invasion; and he would have these Spanish settlements situated on the borders of the Chichimecas and the savage tribes, with the sole object of guarding the frontier. The Indians, he said, ought all to be confined to certain towns chosen by themselves, and some of these towns ought to be transferred from their actual sites to others more suitable. To Ovando's inquiry, by what means the friars and the bishops could be made to dwell together in peace, his answer clearly betrays his fiery character and the partiality of his views. He suggests the appointment of two bishops in each diocese, one for the Spaniards and one for the Indians, clearly giving it to be understood, at the same time, that the bishops ought all to be chosen from the religious orders. The secular clergy he treats without either mercy or justice, although it appears from the testimony of Bishop Montufar that at that time they were performing their duties correctly, that they knew the language of the aborigines, and were on good terms with the friars. Mendieta concluded by proposing that a commissary-general of the Indies should be appointed with residence at Seville, who should arrange all the affairs of his order with the Council of the Indies. This last was the only one of his suggestions which met with approval, the first commissary-general appointed being Francisco de Guzman, in 1572, to whom Mendieta immediately wrote his congratulations.

On 26 June, 1571, his general ordered him back to New Spain, asking permission, as was usual, from the Council of the Indies. Jerónimo de Albornoz, Bishop of Tucuman, a member of the council, opposed the granting of the permission, but these difficulties were overcome in 1573, when Mendieta set out, taking with him several religious of his order. In 1575 and 1576 he was guardian of Xochimilco; in 1580 he was at Tlaltelolco, and in 1585 was superior of the convent of Tlaxcala. Soon after this he accompanied the commissary, Alonso Ponce, on visitations, and by his admirable tact and prudence kept himself out of those troubles which arose within the order from the opposition of the provincial and his partisans to Ponce's execution of his commission. In 1591 he was guardian in Santa Ana of Tlaxcala, and in 1597 of Xochimilco. He was buried in the convent of Mexico.

Having undertaken to write the history of the Indies on his return from Spain, he was delayed in executing the work for twenty-five years by the large number of duties which he had to discharge, and, in addition, the consultations and negotiations with which he was charged by the Government. It is known, for instance, that, while he was guardian at Tlaxcala, he was busy with the work of removing four hundred families of Christian Indians, to colonize among the Chichimecas. Mendieta's principal work is his "Historia Eclesiastica Indiana". The general, Cristobal de Capitefontium, gave him the command to write on 27 June, 1571; the work was not completed until 1596. He sent it immediately to Spain, as he had been ordered to do, and never had any further knowledge of it. No writer later than Torquemada ever quoted it, until, through the exertions of Señor Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta the manuscript, acquired at Madrid, was printed in Mexico in 1870. It is divided into five books. The first book, consisting of seventeen chapters and a prologue, treats "Of the introduction of the Gospel and the Christian religion in the islands of Española and the neighbouring regions which were first discovered". The second, containing forty-one chapters and a prologue, tells "Of the rites and customs of the Indians of New Spain and their infidelity". The third, containing sixty chapters and a prologue, treats "Of the manner in which the Faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ was introduced and planted among the Indians of New Spain". The fourth, containing forty-six chapters and a prologue, treats "Of the improvement of the Indians of New Spain and the progress of their conversion." The fifth book is divided into two parts: the first contains fifty-eight chapters, and "There are related the lives of the noble men, apostolic workers of this new conversion, who have ended in peace with a natural death"; the second part, only ten chapters, treats "Of the Friars Minor who have died for the preaching of the Gospel in this New Spain". In this work he displays, without fear or human respect, and even exaggerates at times, the vices, disorders, abuses, tyrannies, and wrongs done by the colonists; he goes so far as to flout the Government, not excepting the sovereign himself. The lofty spirit of rectitude and justice which dominates the work enhances the value of its simple, terse narration, while the vigour and freedom with which it is written, as well as its clarity and propriety of language, render it pleasing to the reader.

MENDIETA, Historia Eclesiástica Indiana (Mexico, 1870); ICAZBALCETA, Obras (Mexico, 1905); BERISTAIN, Biblioteca hispano-americana septentrional (Amecameca, 1883); BETANCOURT, Menologio franciscano (Mexico, 1873).

Camillus Crivelli.