François Chevalier’s La formation des grandes domaines au Mexique: terre et société aux XVIe-XVIIe siecles holds an honored place as a standard treatment of high merit, a status achieved immediately upon its initial publication (Paris, 1952). It was earlier translated into Spanish (México, 1956). It now is rendered into English by Alvin Eustis, Long familiar to specialists, this recent edition may reach the wider audience of those to whom foreign tongues form a barrier. It may be hoped that in an affluent society many of them will have the $8.50 which the publisher is charging, but libraries catering to undergraduate or public needs have no recourse. They must have the volume.
The Chevalier work has twice been reviewed in these pages. Lesley Byrd Simpson, who edited the present version and wrote the Foreword to it, provided a long treatment of the original French edition that essentially summarized main points, and noted certain inevitable lacunae (HAHR, XXXIII, 108-113, February, 1953). Equally perceptive and able was the critique written by Woodrow Borah (HAHR, XXXVII, 504-506, November, 1957) on the second or Mexican edition. Yet there is always something different which can be said about a work as rich and seminal as Chevalier’s volume.
First, however, let us look at this English translation. It should be emphasized that the English text is not always the same as the French. Thus, for any scholarly use, a return to the 1952 original is requisite. Editor Simpson in a letter to the reviewer indicated that he had omitted from the original what he describes as some of the “windy passages.” These omissions are not specified. Without attempting a detailed collation, it would appear that in fact nothing of major significance has been left out, but warning is here given that quotations from the English version must always be checked.
Nor does this translation provide the scholarly apparatus of the French original and its Spanish counterpart. All notes disappear, and the bibliography becomes “selective,” although the editor makes reference to the amplified comprehensive one in the 1956 Mexican publication. Considerations of cost mentioned by Simpson as the reason for suppressing the notes undoubtedly were a factor in the exclusion of the magnificent illustrative materials—photos of ancient maps, paintings, and the like—which are such a striking feature of the Mexican production; even its supplementary maps are lacking. The Foreword reproduces almost verbatim Simpson’s 1953 review, cited above. He omits the remarks on his own reservations about Chevalier’s coverage.
There are a couple of new features. One is a handsome Diego Rivera drawing on the title page (original in Carleton Beal’s Mexican Maze, 1932). There is also an end-papers map sketching Mexico in the 17th century, showing main areas of wheat, sugar cane, cattle, sheep production, and other details. On the map, accurate in most details, the Mixteca Alta is placed too far to the east. In short, the English translation is probably quite useful for teaching, as collateral reading. Even for that, the graphic materials of the Mexican edition should be made available as a supplement.
Both Simpson and Borah pointed out the great value of Chevalier’s synthesis, but also its shortcomings. These are partly inherent in his method and intent: lack of quantitative data, scant attention to the social impact of commercial production of sugar and wool and possible imposition of Gallic rationality to bring fragmentary data into synthetic coherence. Borah noted in 1957 that five years after the advent of Chevalier’s work we were still utilizing it to provide details of monographic research, not applying new monographic work to test the strength of the Chevalier thesis. With one or two notable exceptions, the situation remains the same more than a decade after Grands domaines first appeared.
As is well-known, this reviewer feels strongly that regional variations offer a useful key for analysis of Mexico, that generalizations derived from one region do not necessarily hold for all or even for others. We now have, in Charles Gibson’s masterful work on the Valley of Mexico, a rather full record for that critical area. Does it support or amend the Chevalier thesis? We also have some puzzles not fully covered by the Chevalier hypothesis. In the semi-arid North, the hacienda indeed was a major institution, utilizing enormous tracts; yet in Yucatán, apparently seldom considered part of New Spain for comparative purposes, a similar habitat was also the scene of an hacienda complex, but one structured quite differently from the Bajío or North Mexico. These and other similar considerations suggest that an academic session at one of the annual gatherings of the Conference on Latin American History might fruitfully re-examine the Chevalier thesis in light of scholarly work on Mexico and other world areas having somewhat parallel phenomena.