The Adoption of Crusade Ideology in Mesoamerica

Many motives drove Christopher Columbus to sail west toward the Indies, but one purpose that drove the westward voyage of this complex and often inconsistent man was the dream of converting the Great Khan of Cathay and joining with him in a final, great, and successful crusade against Islam, which in turn would usher in even greater events. In his so-called Book of Prophecies, a compilation of texts prepared essentially between 1501 and 1505 for the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, the master mariner placed the discovery of the Indies into the grand divine plan for the forthcoming salvation of all humanity, the Final Judgment, and the End of Time. He argued that his voyage to the west had been the first step in the process of liberating Jerusalem, itself a necessary step in the unfolding of God’s plan of universal salvation. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not he actually believed these messianic prophecies (and it seems clear that he did), it is clear that Columbus was appealing to a widespread belief that the road to Jerusalem lay through the Indies. After all, he was appealing to two crusaders, the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando, who had conquered Granada on January 2, 1492, and who saw victory over the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula as another stepping stone in their God-sanctioned struggle against Islam, a struggle that was foreordained to result in triumph.

Even after it became clear that Columbus had not sailed to the Indies, at least some European churchmen continued to harbor the hope that the lands and peoples of the Americas would be the means for the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Islam, and they apparently imparted that dream to at least some of their Indian converts. Festivals celebrating the victory of Christians over Moors became an integral part of Catholic religious culture throughout Latin America wherever Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought the faith after 1492. Among these were the Tlaxcalans, whose religious pageants offer an important example of how thoroughly Catholic Christianity was assimilated in the New World.

The Tlaxcalans, themselves Nahuatl but nevertheless traditional enemies of the Mexica and their Aztec empire, had been defeated by Hernan Cortés in September 1519, and following that defeat they allied with the Spaniards in their march against the Aztec empire. Thousands of Tlaxcalans participated in the fighting and proved to be a decisive factor in the Spanish victory. A number of Cortés’s lieutenants married Tlaxcalan women of high birth, and despite initial reluctance to give up their ancestral deities, the Tlaxcalan chiefs were baptized as Christians sometime after July 1, 1520.

Mock battle pageants between “Christians and Moors” had been a popular expression of Reconquest realities and ideology in the Iberian Peninsula since at least the late thirteenth century. Now they were translated to the New World and its Christian converts.

We are fortunate to have a description of a Corpus Christi pageant performed by the Christian Indians of Tlaxcala in 1539 to celebrate the peace treaty between Emperor Charles V and the king of France and recorded shortly thereafter by the Franciscan missionary Fray Toribio de Benevente Motolinia in his History of the Indians of New Spain. In this elaborate pageant, which was composed at least in part by the Tlaxcalans but clearly with the help of their Franciscan mentors, the playwrights portrayed the future conquest of Jerusalem by the combined armies of Charles V’s European possessions and New Spain and the consequent baptism of its presumed occupier, the Muslim sultan of Cairo (although, in fact, Jerusalem had passed into Ottoman hands in December 1516).

Significantly, the pageant included several large and spirited mock battles, which apparently served to underscore the fact that holy war and the festivals that celebrated divinely mandated conflict and bloodshed were as much a part of this new religion of the Tlaxcalans as they had been when they and other Mesoamerican tribes conducted “Flower Wars,” preconquest battles fought for the purpose of capturing enemy warriors who were then sacrificed to a local deity. Often the sacrifice was either preceded by or took the form of a mock battle, when the captive was given an ineffective wooden sword with which to battle a fully armed adversary.

The most striking aspect of this pageant and its mock battles is that all of the combined crusader forces, European and Indian, fail to take Jerusalem despite their bravery. The Christians only succeed when the combined Indian forces of New Spain are joined in the fray by a heavenly patron on a brown horse, Hippolytus, a third-century soldier-saint on whose feast day, August 13, 1521, the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies had captured Tenochtitlan. Indeed, just as the Tlaxcalans are led by Saint Hippolytus, the Spaniards, who now sweep to victory alongside these new Christians, are led by Santiago Matamoros- Saint James the Moor-slayer-on a horse “as white as snow.” Significantly, Santiago was the patron-saint of the Reconquista, the crusading wars of reconquest waged by Christian Iberians against the Muslims of Spain from roughly the mid-eleventh century to late fifteenth century.

According to legend, the apostle Saint James the Greater, whose relics were believed to have been miraculously transported to Compostela in northwest Spain, had initially appeared to lead the Christian forces of Asturias to victory at the mythic Battle of Clavijo in 844. He was also the namesake of the Order of Santiago, the most powerful of the Iberian military orders, founded in 1170 in Leon. Significantly, Hernan Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, belonged to that order, as did many of his subordinates. And we are told by the sources that these conquistadors regularly shouted out the traditional Spanish battle cry, “Señor Santiago,” as they went into battle in the Americas.

The meaning of this Tlaxcalan pageant is clear. There is every reason to conclude that the Tlaxcalans were anxious to present themselves, and fellow Nahuatl converts to Catholicism (including their former enemies, the Mexica), as latter-day crusaders and as having accepted totally the Spanish crusading ethos despite whatever animosities they still harbored against their conquerors.

Moreover, the Tlaxcalans were fully aware, as were the Spaniards, that Cortés’s small army of Spanish soldiers could never have conquered the Aztec empire without the tens of thousands of Indian allies who marched with him, and chief among these were warriors from Tlaxcala. As a consequence, Tlaxcala became a privileged, largely self-governing province under Spanish colonial rule and was showered with honors and privileges.

The ideology of crusade was such a driving force in the Spanish conquest of Mexico that even the conquered and converted felt it necessary to claim identity with it. And what sort of crusade was that? By 1500, indeed well before that date, the crusade had metamorphosed into a struggle of apocalyptic proportions and with deep millenarian overtones. Put simply, it was a global, even cosmological, struggle between Catholic Christendom and Islam, heresy, heathenism, unbelief, and every manner of error, which included the “heathen errors and practices” of preconquest Mesoamerica.

Bibliography Gillespie, Jeanne. Saints and Warriors: Tlaxcalan Perspectives on the Conquest of Tenochtitlan. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2004. Harris, Max. Aztecs, Moors, and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. Matthew, Laura E., and Michel R. Oudijk. Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. Motolinia, Toribio de Benevente. History of the Indians of New Spain. Edited and translated by Francis Borgia Steck. Washington, DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1951.

2 thoughts on “The Adoption of Crusade Ideology in Mesoamerica

  1. Crusades: Volume 7
    Benjamin Z. Kedar, Jonathan Phillips, Jonathan Riley-Smith
    Routledge, 12 Aug 2016


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