Printed Weapons

The Supreme Holy Spirit Has Sent Me to Evangelize by Franciscan friar Jerónimo de Mendieta, circa 1571. Missionaries used images to teach the Indigenous Christian concepts and beliefs. In this scene, a Franciscan friar on the pulpit points at depictions of the Via Crucis, or the Stations of the Cross, as he instructs and preaches to catechumens.

It would be very useful and convenient to have a printing press and a paper mill [in New Spain]...

Juan de Zumárraga, Franciscan friar and the first Bishop of Mexico (1535)

The printed book was key to the "spiritual conquest" of the Indigenous. At the petition of Bishop Fr. Juan de Zumárraga, the Spanish Catholic monarchy contracted with Sevillian publisher Juan Cromberger to bring the technology to Mexico City in 1539. Although the press primarily produced doctrinal texts for Indigenous acculturation, it also printed devotional literature aimed at the Spanish settlers.

It is no surprise that one of the earliest American books still in existence is an abridged Christian doctrine, Doctrina breve muy provechosa (1543-1544). In this book, Bishop Fr. Zumárraga compiled Christianity's basic tenets, including the sacraments, Ten Commandments, and mortal sins, among others. Nestled within a piecemeal border of crude decorative woodcuts, an engraving of a tasseled bishop's hat simultaneously denoted Fr. Zumárraga's patronage and authorship of the book.

Given his ardent support, the Franciscan Order in New Spain considered Bishop Fr. Zumárraga among its foundational members. In this hand drawing, Franciscan Fr. Jerónimo de Mendieta placed the bishop-friar directly below St. Francis of Assisi. On either side of him are other Franciscan bishops in New Spain, and behind them are the first twelve Franciscan friars to arrive in Mexico.

"Aquí comienza un vocabulario en la lengua castellana y mexicana", portada
"Doctrina cristiana muy útil y necesaria en castellano, mexicano y otomí", portada
"Vocabulario en lengua mixteca", portada

The religious orders―the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits―made the most use of the technology. Since they were at the forefront of the "spiritual conquest," they needed to expedite the reproduction and proliferation of their anthropological and linguistic knowledge to facilitate their Hispanicization efforts. They were not only the main producers of knowledge; they were also the main consumers of books. The religious fraternities created impressive libraries within their head convents for the education of future missionaries.

To denote ownership, the religious orders typically marked the page edges of their tomes with marcas de fuego, or firebrands. This technique, which was unique to Mexico, permanently modified the book by leaving behind a pronounced indentation that could be easily seen and felt even after the charring wore off. The practice began in the sixteenth century and persisted well into the twentieth century in Mexico. The Marcas de Fuego project is an ongoing international effort to catalog these firebrands.

Book brand from the Convent of San Francisco in Mexico City
Book brand from the College of Santa María de Todos los Santos in Mexico City
Book brand from the Franciscan College of Propaganda Fide of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Zacatecas
Book brand from the Imperial College of the Holy Cross of Tlatelolco in Mexico City

The C. L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department at The University of Texas at El Paso preserves some beautiful examples of these fire brands. Seen here are the book brands for the Convent of San Francisco, the elite College of Santa María de Todos los Santos, the Imperial College of the Holy Cross of Tlatelolco in Mexico City, and the Franciscan College of Propaganda Fide of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Zacatecas.


UT Catalog | Worldcat | Grañén Porrúa, María Isabel. Los grabados en la obra de Juan Pablos: primer Impresor de La Nueva España, 1539-1560. México: Apoyo al Desarrollo de Archivos y Bibliotecas de México, A.C., 2010.

UT Catalog | Worldcat | Fernández de Zamora, Rosa María. Los impresos mexicanos del siglo XVI: su presencia en el patrimonio cultural del nuevo siglo. México, D.F: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2009.

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