Supplementary readings for Week 4's lectures include excerpts
Treatise against the Serpentine Disease... (c.1510) by Ruy
Diaz de Isla (1462-1542);
the writings of an anonymous
author in Tlatelolco (1528);
the Florentine Codex, or Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva
España (c.1579), created under the supervision of Fray Bernardino
de Sahagún (c.1499-1590);
Ailments of the Body
and Medicines Suitable to Use for Their Cure, from Book X
The Plague Named
Totomonjztli, from Book XII
Brief Relation of the Gods and Rites of Heathenism (c. 1629) by
Beneficiado of the District of Tzumpahuacan;
Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians
Native to This New Spain (1629) by Hernando
Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646);
A Briefe and True Reporte of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590)
by Thomas Hariot
"June 2001: And the Moon Be Still as Bright" (1948), in The Martian
Chronicles by Ray
Bradbury (1920- ).
Around the turn of the sixteenth century, New World natives came into contact with people and
things indigenous to the Old. Each population harbored microbes unfamiliar
to the bodies of the other, and for which they had acquired no natural
immunity or routine defense.
This week's reading selections center on accounts of the consequences
attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the transfer of infectious agents
to a new population. The featured diseases are:
syphilis (from the New to the Old World); smallpox (from the Old to the
New World); and chickenpox (from Earth to Mars).
The smallpox epidemic that decimated the Aztecs in Teochtitlan is described in the Florentine Codex. Thomas Hariot (1560-1621)
was a contemporary of Shakespeare, Galileo, Francis Bacon, and William
Gilbert. He was an active participant in Ralegh's plans to establish
a permanent English colony in the New World, and even traveled there himself
as part of an adventurous group determined to stay for a year to test the
feasibility of such a feat. In his Briefe and True Reporte... (1590), Hariot describes a deadly sickness, now
thought to be smallpox, that ravaged the native population following
contact with the English settlers.
How does Hariot's account compare with those of the Aztec and
Spanish in Mexico?
Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499-1590) was a Franciscan friar
who came to Mexico in 1529. Franciscans believed the Aztecs were
the lost tribes of Israel and that their past cultural achievements were
comparable to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Working as
a missionary gave Sahagún the opportunity to learn Nahuatl--the Aztec
language--and become familiar with native customs. By 1558, Church
authorities were becoming increasingly concerned about the resistance of
native belief systems to Christian indoctrination. Hoping to remedy
the situation, they ordered Sahagún to develop an accurate knowledge
of Aztec religion, deities and rituals, a richer vocabulary for teaching
Christianity to Aztecs in their own language, and a complete account of
the Aztec world view so that Aztec society could be restored to its pre-conquest
splendor based on Christianity. The resulting document, called the
Codex (1579), details every facet of Aztec life in hundreds of hand
drawn and painted illustrations accompanied by verbal descriptions in both
Spanish and transliterated Nahuatl.
How do the attitudes toward Aztec culture expressed in the
Florentine Codex compare with those written fifty years later (1629) by Hernando
Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646)?
Ruiz de Alarcón was born in Mexico to Spanish parents. He
graduated from the University of Mexico in 1606. By the time he took
holy orders, the church officials were looking with more and more suspicion
on the mixing of Christian and native beliefs. Ruiz de Alarcón
was active in pursuing those who violated church law, and he worked hard
to publicize the pagan rituals and beliefs so they could be recognized
Homespun European and Aztec Healing Methods
In early 1527, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c.1490-c.1557) left
Spain as a part of a royal expedition to lay claim to the mainland of North
America. Beset by storms, disease, and hostile natives, what was
left of the limping expeditionary force in late 1528 was shipwrecked on
Galveston Island off the Texas coast. Thus Cabeza de Vaca became
one of the first Europeans to set foot in the West. By 1534, only
four of the original crew remained. Cabeza de Vaca, who had earned
a reputation among the natives as a healer, and his three fellows traveled
inland across Texas and the Southwest into northern Mexico, where, in 1536,
they were "rescued" by a band of their countrymen who were on a slave-taking
How does he portray native healers and their methods?
Ruy Díaz de Isla (1462-1542) was a Spanish physician living
in Barcelona in 1493 when Columbus and his crew returned from their first
voyage. Years later, he described his own encounter with many of
these men at that time, recalling that they were suffering from some unknown,
but terrible affliction, which he called a "serpentine disease."
Based on these observations, Díaz de Isla compiled these recollections
in Tractado contra el Mal Serpentino: que
vulgarmente en España es llamado Bubas (Treatise against
the Serpentine Disease, which in Spain is commonly called the Buboes).
This treatise was probably passed around informally between 1510-1521 and
finally published in 1539. In 1535, historian Gonzalo Hernandez de
Ovideo y Valdez (1478-1557), the son of a physician who had traveled with Columbus,
also attributed the disease to Columbus's sailors, some of whom, he claimed,
served as mercenaries in the French army of Charles VIII at the siege of
Naples in December, 1494.
After reading about Cabeza de Vaca's methods of healing, compare
them with those of the Aztecs described by Sahagún, Don Pedro Ponce,
and Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón below. Do you think that Sahagún's
descriptions of good and bad physicians reflect Aztec or European opinions?
In 1530, physician Girolamo Fracastoro (c.1478-1553) published a poetic
account of this scourge, entitled "Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus,"
from which the disease derived its name. In it, Fracastoro extols
the miracle cure for the disease made from the wood of the guaiacum,
a tree native to the New World. And he promotes a view voiced by
others before him that remedies are always providentially located near
the source of the disease they cure.
Was syphilis a new disease brought home to Europe by the first
wave of explorers in the New World? Or did Europeans only become
aware of it after the printing press made it possible to circulate written
descriptions to a wider audience? Why is this controversy still unresolved
in this day of modern science and medical technology?
Why do you think Ray Bradbury picked chickenpox as the disease
which annihilates the Martians? Given the accounts you've read of
past events, how realistic is Bradbury's "future"?