There is much that is good in this book. The author’s stated intent is “to estrange the reader from Sahagún” (p. 7), replacing the familiar image of Bernardino Sahagún (ca. 1499–1590) as a kind of early modern ethnographer of indigenous central Mexico with a more historicized image of a late medieval Spanish friar obsessively groping his way towards a very limited understanding of a strange new world.

In the first part of the book, Walden Browne takes issue with several “myths” of Sahagún scholarship. He argues persuasively that Sahagún was a victim not of government persecution but of government inefficiency. Sahagún’s multivolume magnum opus, the Florentine Codex, he suggests, “was not confiscated by the bureaucratic government of Philip II so that it could be destroyed” (p. 34). It was appropriated so that it could be filed with a growing mass of centralized...

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