Latin of New Spain

by Rose Williams, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers 2015, Pb 280 pages, ISBN 978-0-86516-833-6 (£13).

It has been an absolutely unexpected surprise to read carefully this book written by Rose Williams.  The book consists of two main sections, Before the Europeans  (1-98) and The coming of the Hispanics (99-198) followed by an extremely useful and accurate Epilogue (199- 280).

Williams has made an excellent selection from the Neo-Latin works of six writers from New Spain for the Latin classroom.  Both researching and teaching skills have been successfully met in this book.  As a result of this painstaking and accurate work, the book becomes a unique tool which is extremely useful for students and teachers wanting to know about Geography, History and Anthropology of the so-called New Spain…and about Latin in the XV, XVI, and even XXI centuries

The first section opens with a selection of De natura orbis by José de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit, who was a missionary and naturalist who spent most of his life in Perú and Mexico. Fragments from his recently mentioned book show how some writers in Antiquity - Aristotle, Pliny, Seneca - and some of the Christian fathers imagined the possibility of land existing beyond the pillars of Heracles.

Then Williams moves to a more interesting subject: the Origins of the Native Population and the difficulties of learning about their History according to the texts by Acosta. Those texts are still quite easy to translate.

Difficulties arise when the author introduces fragments from a contemporary   Mexican poet, Francisco José Cabrera. Following Virgilian patterns and schemes, Cabrera tries to create an epic similar to Aeneid for his Mexican people. He focuses on the impressive personality of Quetzalcoatl both king and god at the same time who was said, like Horus in Egypt and Adonis in Greek-Roman mythology, to be born from a virgin. Under the protection of this mythical king a city will be founded by the lake Texcoco. To be underlined are the many similarities between Cabrera’s and Virgil’s hexameters in Aeneid. Of course these texts are more difficult than one would expect.

Another Jesuit priest in the XVIII century, Rafael Landívar had previously written Rusticatio Mexicana. No doubt Cabrera was able to have read this long poem. Landívar followed Virgil´s patterns too; he describes life and activities of the inhabitants at the shore of Lake Texcoco; a very impressive set of floating gardens make the environment absolutely unique. However Landivar prefers to underline the strong and hard-working personality of the lake’s inhabitants.

The second section - The coming of the Hispanics - will surprise both students and teachers. They are perhaps not ready to translate texts written in Latin by the famous conquerors, Hernán Cortés and Christopher Columbus. A selection from a long letter addressed by this one to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella describes rich and fertile lands where simple people live in peace; they seem to be ready to turn towards the Christian religion.  The text is not difficult at all for translation and grammar exercises

Hernán Cortes –who was just seven years old when Columbus first stepped onto the New World, was moved by the report of Columbus’ findings. He was ready to find strong opposition by the Aztec people and hence to fight. He marched to Tenochitlan the famous city on the lake Texcoco, where the later-named city of Mexico would be settled. Cortés describes first of all the huge market places of the city, then he explains in detail the gods of the Aztecs; they seem to be demonic and monstrous to European deities. Little by little he will replace them by the Christian single God and Christian symbols. Texts selected for translation are easy enough to be understood by clever students at first glance.

To end, Williams introduces texts written by another humanist living in the XVI century: Francisco Cervantes de Salazar. This wise highly educated man wrote several Dialogues in Latin language. Rose Williams has made a selection of “aliquot dialogi”. Those dialogues present three fictional characters - two residents in Mexico –Tenochtilán - and one stranger; they all explore and discuss the city together at the time they are walking around: Tacuba street, the Forum or Plaza Mayor, the modest early cathedral, the university are described in a colloquial language, quite easy to understand for students at the classroom.

Finally, there is the most useful Epilogue you could ever imagine. It is made of five “appendixes”.  First, there is an index of significant persons places and terms; then a picture showing a Historical Timeline linking dates, events in Europe and events in the Americas; then another appendix on common figures of speech can be found; there is still a fourth one about rhythm and meter in poetry before ending with an impressive and extremely useful and accurate list of Neologisms.

Congratulations to the author for such a book as I have never seen before. It will contribute to a better and deeper knowledge of the so-called New Spain and to the Renaissance Latin language.

José Luis Navarro