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Latin Americana Collection

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Mexican Inquisition Documents
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Mexican Inquisition documents

As the oldest research library specializing in the history of Western North America, The Bancroft Library holds remarkable collections of original documents reflecting the history of Mexico and Central America as well. Bancroft's curators constantly seek out rare and unique items and collections that will build on the Library's greatest strengths. An astonishing opportunity presented itself at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, where the curators discovered a remarkable cache of manuscript records of the Mexican Inquisition. The collection comprises sixty-one volumes and covers the period from 1593 to 1817. News of the collection spread quickly through the fair and numerous individuals approached staff from Bancroft to be certain we were aware that the collection was on the floor.

Indeed we were! Furthermore we recognized that this might very well be the last large group of Inquisition records likely to come onto the market. Most other portions of the records already form part of permanent research collections, including Bancroft. The curators rapidly evaluated the offer. By acquiring the collection Bancroft would double the size of its holdings of original Inquisition documents, easily making itself the largest single repository of original Mexican Inquisition manuscript records outside of Mexico. At the same time the curators recognized that they would need to seek assistance in funding the acquisitions. The intensity of interest in the materials and the significant number of individuals alerting us to the collection suggested that we would be able to reach out for funding help. But most important of all, we needed to determine that the material could legitimately be acquired, for the largest collection of Inquisition documents is now part of the National Archives of Mexico. Bancroft's curator of Latin American materials telephoned the National Archives and learned that they were aware of the collection we wanted to acquire. Because of a long-standing cooperative approach between Bancroft and the Mexican Archives, they endorsed our acquisition of the fifty-nine volumes. With the assurance that we could legitimately purchase the collection we committed ourselves to doing so.

The richness of the archival documents can only be suggested in a brief survey. Most of them are procesos or trials that typically include the indictment supported by genealogical lists, records of property, and the most minute details of evidence. The history of the Inquisition remains a central element to understanding the juxtaposition of Christian culture to other cultures of both the Old and New Worlds. The Inquisition traces its origin to 13th-century France, where it was established to protect religious orthodoxy. Introduced into Castile in the late 15th century, it was especially aimed at "New Christians," primarily Jews converted to Christianity. In the Americas the Inquisition was established primarily to protect against the Protestant menace. Although it periodically focused on the secret practice of Jewish observance, Crypto-Judaism, the Inquisitors focused primarily on other breaches of orthodoxy and sexual misconduct, especially among the clergy: the solicitation of sex in the confessional, moral turpitude, bigamy, blasphemy, superstition and witchcraft. One bizarre trial accuses a priest of profanation of the sacraments by blasphemously marrying two dogs.

Richard Greenleaf, dean of colonial Inquisition scholars, has recently issued a call to rethink the "tired clichés about the Mexican Inquisition" by probing more deeply the documentary sources. Rolena Adorno of Yale, this country's most distinguished scholar of colonial Spanish American literature, calls Bancroft's new collection a gold mine for the type of "hands-on" learning that students can only get by working with original documents, whether to understand one of the basic institutions of viceregal society in New Spain, to examine beliefs and practices of popular culture, or to learn about the relationship between strict procedure and the lack of due process. Thus this collection will serve the needs of advanced research scholars as well as giving our students the ability to work with, analyze, and learn from, original documentary sources.


Collection Guides and Reference

Guides to the Latin American Collections of The Bancroft Library
Latin Americana Reference Works in The Bancroft Reading Room
Mexican and Borderlands History
Latin American Studies: Guides, Catalogues, Indexes, and Bibliographies

Return to Latin Americana Homepage


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