The Rise of Christian Education and Mission Schools in 1500s Mesoamerica

written by Katie Kuykendall '24
edited by Ellie Kim '25 and Sam Lee '23

After conquering Mesoamerica, a large part of Spanish colonial ambitions was to convert Indigenous people to Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism. To do so, many of the religious orders, like the Dominicans and Franciscans, created schools at their missions to educate the sons of elite Indigenous families with Christian ideologies.  The creation of missionary schools in Mexico built upon the pre-existing institutions in the educational system, called calnecacs, which educated sons of elites with skills necessary to enter the society’s bureaucracy.[1] Like missionary schools, calnecacs required the sons of Indigenous elites to be sent away from home for education and motivated them to pass on religious and spiritual traditions. Despite this similarity, the two should not be conflated, as missionary schools served a far more sinister purpose. Spanish missionary schools in Mesoamerica, while sharing the basis of the Indigenous educational institutions of calnecacs, were instead used as a tool for conversion and domination.

Migration played a large part in creating the elevated status of warriors in the Aztec Empire. It is worth noting that despite widespread use today, Aztec was not a term used by contemporary sources. In actuality, the Mexica people migrated from the north to the Basin of Mexico to form what is known today as the Aztec Empire or Triple Alliance. They formed this empire by conquering different populations in the area, the majority of whom were Nahuas.[2] During their migration from the north, the Mexica people learned about forming political institutions and alliances in one of the most politically volatile areas in Mesoamerica. In thisclimate, it was not only political savviness that maintained Mexica power, but “their extraordinary talent for war.”[3] This notion explains the prominence of warriors’ place in ritual sacrifice. The requirements for warriors to attain the ideal afterlife, either through dying in battle or in ritual sacrifice, highlight the importance of warriors’ place maintaining political power.[4] Not only was this subsequently sensationalized for many years but it was used by the Spanish to justify their goals of conversions and commitment of atrocities in the name of religion.

Prior to the Spanish conquest, Indigenous communities in Mesoamerica were divided along political and religious lines. The Aztec Empire spread its version of religion the farthest, making it likely to have been what Spaniards encountered in Mesoamerica. Within Mesoamerica, the Triple Alliance focused on making tributary states of Nahua, or Nahua-speaking people, and other communities in Central Mexico. Contemporary accounts suggested commonalities between sacrifice rituals of those within the Triple Alliance and those without.[5] Rather than full syncretism, regular tribute was directed at a new patron god named Huitzilopochtli for the Aztecs.[6] This suggests that human sacrifice, while a widespread mechanism between different communities, was directed towards the Triple Alliance via tributary states. At the very least, the Aztecs have the most surviving records and primary sources, although even those created by Aztec authors may have been recorded decades after their conquest. They also suffer from translation errors, as Indigenous languages borrowed very little from European languages.[7] Nonetheless, these accounts provide records of themes found in the mythological origin of the Aztecs. Primarily, that of rebirth, where a sun was “established” and later perishes, plunging all the humans at the time into an extreme alternative fate.[8] According to this origin story, the reign of the Triple Alliance fell under the time of the Fifth Sun or the sun of movement.

While many Indigenous people converted to Christianity, they did so on their own terms, blending Christian elements with long-standing beliefs from empires in central America, both Aztec and Mayan, about the universe, particularly time. Belief in the movement of time as cyclical, stemming from the origin of the story of the five suns along with other factors outside of Indigenous spirituality, aided in general conversion to Catholicism. Despite Christian conversion being coercive, only certain elements would be chosen to practice.[9] Colonial records, particularly those pertaining to religious and spiritual matters, are biased enough to make gleaning information difficult. Codexis are the main primary documents used by historians, many of which were recorded by priests based on native accounts. As a result of this origin, they are subject to an imperialistic lens and translation errors. Examination of reports regarding family life and married couples, particularly divorce suits, domestic violence filings, and distribution of household members, shows continuities from pre- and post-conquest social norms.[10]  The significance of this can be seen when compared with filings of similar types of reports in contemporary Iberia. Significant numbers of reports do not even appear until the mid to late 1600s.[11] Many norms were associated with foundational texts, rituals, and institutions, like marriage. This is not to say that every community converted to Christianity: some people only adopted certain elements of the religion while others adopted none at all. On the other hand, both religions exerted influence on each other in different ways. One example comes from an unconverted Mayan group that started using candles in ceremony, which they had not used in ceremonies prior to encounters with the Spanish.[12] Alternatively, colonial records show a concerted effort by Spanish missionaries to include local traditions in Christian marriage ceremonies through the writing of the vows of the ceremony.[13] Both reflect the way both Spanish and Indigenous people had an influence on the other, in both intended and unintended ways.

Due to the fractious nature of empires in pre-conquest Mexico, temple schools were set up to educate the sons of elites. Calnecacs were part of the pre-Hispanic educational system in Mexico and educated the sons of wealthy and influential lords and leaders.These particular schools focused on the teaching of oral traditions, recitation, and other skills meant for jobs in the upper echelons of society.[14] Calnecacs furthered class divides between the sons of elites and non-elites. These divides were likely present prior to Spanish encounters, but exacerbated by the Spanish, as furthering divisions in order to accelerate conquest was often a strategy used by colonizers. Sending children away for school was not the only holdover from pre-conquest times. Alumni of the calmecac collaborated with priests to help create records of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Having the assistance of elder elites, who were at times coerced, would have lent an air of credibility to the newly formed colegios. With the priests focus on a Christian education, conversion as a “slow, cumulative, collective process” was cemented and institutionalized.[15]

Spanish priests, particularly the Franciscans, used mission schools to convert younger generations within Indigenous communities, effectively altering the paradigm in which native spiritual traditions were passed on. In the 1520s, schools started to be set up in Tenochtitlan-Mexico City with the mission to converting the sons of lords and rulers through a Christian humanist education.[16] As seen with marriage ceremonies, the preexisting local traditions, in this case calnecacs, had an influence on the later Spanish iteration. Despite trying to create a familiar format for Christian ideas to be disseminated, contemporary records show elites attempted to get around this by sending stand-ins for their heirs, like second sons, or sons of vassals.[17] Although, it should be noted that this was not without its own controversy within the missionary order, due to confessional tensions between Catholics and Protestants. Humanist education as developed by Erasmus, a Protestant scholar, conflicted with the Franciscan order on principle. Some officials within the church, like Bartolomé de Carranza and Constantion Ponce de la Fuente, who were deemed humanist thinkers but were also Catholic, were seen as controversial and, in some cases, even arrested.[18]

These missionary schools directly affected many generations of Indigenous people. Within the schools, Indigenous scholars helped to run the institution and teach the students. Some Indigenous people who collaborated with the Spanish at schools were those who attended calnecacs themselves and were well-versed in oral traditions. From these particular collaborations came the majority of written accounts of native tradition, copied down and passed on from the collaborators to the students, including the Florentine Codex. In addition to preserving a semblance of Indigenous records, the collaborations also allowed for the potential rise of standing for natives in the eyes of the church through conversion and assistance with education. For some, the results of institutionalized conversion called into question the principle of Spanish statutes concerning blood purity, as the rules for rising rank in the Church would need to be altered.[19] Blood purity laws were the legal code that required those wishing to advance in Spanish bureaucracy, whether secular or religious, to prove their Christian heritage. Those who could not provide proof of their family heritage were excluded from advantages given to Christians, including rising in governmental and ecclesiastical positions. Although there were others, particularly humanist thinkers such as those previously mentioned and other non-humanist, like Alfonso de Castro, that argued for the lessening, if not abolition of blood purity laws. Despite the wealth of information preserved—the main aspect focused on by many historians— mission schools had ulterior motives of conversion often achieved through violent means. Once in the schools, boys received curriculum geared towards “indoctrination,” and were later known as the ninos de monestarios (monastery boys).[20]

The late 1500s brought about hysteria surrounding potential cases of idolatry in Indigenous communities. Though seen by historians today as coerced information, priests, like Diego de Landa brought forth evidence via an illegal inquisition of continued practices of human sacrifices in native communities. Besides the Spanish missionaries themselves, one of the biggest enforcers of uprooting idolatry were niños de monasterio. The missionary schools’ purpose was not only to convert the sons of Indigenous elites to Catholicism, but also to create large groups of informers and enforcers within the Indigenous communities. Records show the accounts of monastery boys being one of the primary forces combating supposed idolatry. Through the establishment of these schools, Catholic priests ensured the perpetuation of  teaching the history of Indigenous religion as being violent and nonsensical. Within the Florentine Codex, a 16th century manuscript concerning Mexico, the ceremony of Tlacaxipehual (flaying of men) had the largest share of illustrations.[21] Manuscripts such as these showed the violence of the act itself without explaining the context behind it. The act of ritual sacrifice itself was explained both through writing and visuals.As mentioned previously, Tlacaxipehual has the most dedicated pictorials in the Florentine Codex, providing ample visuals to the audience. Despite this, once the religious significance was left out audiences would have no context for why the ceremony was taking place, leaving the audience to come to their worst conclusions. With the full breadth of the context lost through the Codexis, Indigenous religion was seen as senseless and savage for centuries to come.

Spanish missionaries used the framework of preexisting structures in social and educational fields to try and expedite the conversion of Indigenous people. Despite these attempts the missionaries’ internal conflict about methodology, combined with the underlying motive of subjugation, culminated in a distinct lack of success in conversion outside of missionary schools.

[1] Spelling of “calmecac” varies by source, both “calnecac” and “calmecac” are used

[2] Deborah L. Nichols, and Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs, 2-3

[3] Nichols and Rodrigeuz-Alegría, Oxford Handbook, 98

[4] Inga Clendinnen, “The Feast of the Flayed Men,” 65

[5] Clendinnen, “Feast of the Flayed Men”, 67

[6] Nichols and Rodrigeuz-Alegría, Oxford Handbook, 3

[7] Clendinnen, “Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan: 1517-1570”, 137

[8] Anonymous, “The Origins of the Aztecs”, 62

[9] Lisa Sousa, The Woman Who Turned into a Jaguar, and Other Narratives of Native Women in Archive of Colonial Mexico, 77

[10] Sousa, The Woman Who Turned into a Jaguar, 107

[11] Scott K. Taylor, “Women, Honor, and Violence in a Castilian Town, 1600-1650.” 1081

[12] Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 173-4

[13] Sousa, The Woman Who Turned into a Jaguar, 79

[14] Jeanette Peterson and Kevin Terraciano, Florentine Codex: An Encyclopedia of the Nahua World in Sixteenth-Century Mexico, 78, 171

[15] Inga Cendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 98

[16] Jeanette Peterson and Kevin Terraciano, Florentine Codex, 90

[17] Ryan Dominic Crewe, The Mexican Mission: Indigenous Reconstruction and Mendicant Enterprise in New Spain, 1521-1600, 70

[18] Martin Austin Nesvig, Forgotten Franciscans: Writings from an Inquisitional Theorist, a Heretic, and an Inquisitional Deputy, 24

[19] Nesvig, Forgotten Franciscans, 24-25

[20] Ryan Dominic Crewe, The Mexican Mission, 71

[21]  Jeanette Peterson and Kevin Terraciano, Florentine Codex, 88

Works Cited

Anonymous. “The Origins of the Aztecs.” In The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson, 61–63. Duke University Press, 2022.

Clendennin, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003

Clendinnen, Inga. “The Feast of the Flaying of Men.” In The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson, 64–68. Duke University Press, 2022.

Crewe, Ryan Dominic. The Mexican Mission: Indigenous Reconstruction and Mendicant Enterprise in New Spain, 1521-1600, Cambridge University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest

Mendieta, Fray Jerónimo de. “The Spiritual Conquest.” In The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson, 108–15. Duke University Press, 2022.

Nesvig, Martin Austin. Forgotten Franciscans: Writings from an Inquisitional Theorist, a Heretic, and an Inquisitional Deputy. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Nichols, Deborah L., and Rodríguez-Alegría, Enrique, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016. Accessed December 4, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Sousa, Lisa. The Woman Who Turned into a Jaguar, and Other Narratives of Native Women in Archives of Colonial Mexico. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Taylor, Scott K. “Women, Honor, and Violence in a Castilian Town, 1600-1650.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 35, no. 4 (2004): 1079–97.