Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: American Trailblazer by Robin Varnum and Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint by André Vauchez
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: American Trailblazer by Robin Varnum, University of Oklahoma Press, 368 pages
The first lines of a book are usually a clue as to how good the rest of the book will be. Robin Varnum starts out her preface to the biography of the Spanish explorer with a bang: “I cannot claim that recorded U.S. history begins with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, but it very nearly does.” The book continues on from there in a scholarly yet readable way. The story is exciting — it cannot help but be, as few lived a more interesting life than Cabeza de Vaca.
The dates of his birth and death aren’t clear, but he was probably born in the small Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera, shortly before Columbus encountered America. His family were hidalgos, members of the lower nobility. As a young man he fought in Italy for King Ferdinand the Catholic and Pope Julius II. In 1526 Cabeza de Vaca received a royal appointment as treasurer of an expedition to La Florida in the Americas. Headed by Pánfilo de Narváez, the expedition set out the following year with five ships and 600 men. They hoped to explore and conquer the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, south of what is now Texas, but their geography was muddled, to say the least.
From the beginning, things did not go well. Some 140 men deserted on Hispaniola. Two ships — under Cabeza de Vaca’s care — were lost in a hurricane off the coast of Cuba; 60 men and 20 horses drowned. The expedition left Cuba for the mainland without enough food and short on basic equipment such as carpenters’ tools. Narváez’s navigator, Miruelo, soon became lost. Instead of sailing to the western side of the Gulf of Mexico, the ships ended up far north and east, possibly at Tampa Bay. Narváez had started from Cuba with 80 horses. Only 42 survived the voyage. Stores were running low, and there was little food to be found on land. He sent his navigator back to Cuba to get one more ship.
Narváez then made a fatal mistake. He divided his party, taking the horses and 300 men into the unexplored wilderness of the Florida peninsula. The ships, with 100 men and 10 women aboard, were to sail along the coast, in the same direction as the overland party. The two groups never saw each other again, although the ships searched for Narváez and his men for a year.
The land party found some villages where the natives were growing corn, but it never found the rich lode of gold that had lured Narváez deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Swift rivers, lagoons, and virgin forests proved almost impassable to the Europeans and their horses. Through hunger, sickness, drowning, exposure, and skirmishes with Indians, all but four men died. That was after they ate their horses and sometimes even the corpses of their comrades. Cabeza de Vaca survived because tribes of traveling hunter-gatherers took him in. He was harshly treated — like a slave, he said. Yet his hosts suffered equally from bad weather and lack of food.
In spite of his hardships, the Spaniard was observant. He noted how his masters adorned themselves, made shelter, hunted and foraged, and treated their women (badly). He was also resourceful. He learned several Native languages. For a time he became a traveling merchant, taking advantage of his status as an outsider, a person who took no sides in intertribal conflict. After four years, Cabeza de Vaca joined up with three other survivors of Núñez’s expeditionary force: Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Dorantes’ African slave Estevanico. By that time, 1533, they were in what is now Texas.
The next year, when the different tribes they were serving came together for the prickly-pear harvest, the Christians escaped and headed south, toward where they hoped Spanish settlements lay. As he was the oldest and the highest-ranking officer, Cabeza de Vaca was the band’s leader. The men became faith healers — Cabeza de Vaca was apparently the most skilled — and were reverently passed from one tribe to the other across what is now northern Mexico. The men lived as their hosts did, eating deer, bison, spiders, grubs, wild greens, piñon, cactus, mesquite beans, and cultivated maize. As their fame as healers spread, they were more and more respected. Some groups that hosted them were hunters; others were mainly gatherers. At the northernmost part of their route, they came upon people who grew maize and lived in multistory apartment houses.
In 1536 the four men reached the Pacific coast and ran into Spanish slave hunters. Cabeza de Vaca was horrified at the brutality of his fellow Christians but enlisted their help to return to Spanish territory. In Mexico City, Cabeza de Vaca reported to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, explorer Hernán Cortés, and Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga about his nine-year journey. He pleaded for the Spaniards not to enslave Indians. His two Spanish companions from Núñez’s expedition settled in Mexico. Estevanico went north once again, with Fray Marcos de Niza, to look for gold in the Seven Cities of Cíbola and was apparently killed near Zuni Pueblo. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where in 1542 he published a book about the journey, La
Relación. It was a text combining geography, anthropology, and adventure. Even before the book was published, he left Spain for South America, where he was to govern the province of Río de la Plata, today Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina.
Still a defender of the Indians and an opponent of enslaving them, he ran afoul of the province’s entrenched Spanish powerbrokers. In 1545 he was shipped off to Spain in chains, the victim of one of Latin America’s early coups. Cabeza de Vaca died about 1560, after spending most of the rest of his life trying to regain his reputation and recover the funds he had spent on his Río de la Plata expedition. He was a defender of America’s Native peoples, an explorer, an early geographer, and an anthropologist — but above all a survivor.
Varnum’s book does not sensationalize his life. Instead it adds layers of information that are useful in understanding the times in which Cabeza de Vaca lived. Varnum’s detours from the explorer’s story are illuminating, and they cover matters from European politics to Spanish social customs to American geography. The author includes the results of recent archaeological studies made along his route, something missing from earlier books on Cabeza de Vaca. She compares his experiences to those of other Spanish conquistadors such as Hernando De Soto, Francisco Coronado, and Cortés — more fortunate than De Soto, less cruel toward Native Americans than Coronado and Cortés.
The book is scholarly, well-written, and thorough. Yet at the end, every reader should step back from the details and realize what a miraculous journey Cabeza de Vaca had.
Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint by André Vauchez, translated from the French by Michael Cusato, Yale University Press, 416 pages
French historian André Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint is probably the most comprehensive account we have of one of Christianity’s best-known figures. Though the book is densely packed with information, drawing as it does from sources that span the past 800 years or so, it’s also full of nuance and engaging detail, providing insight into the enduring legacy of the so-called Poor Man of Assisi. Throughout the book, Vauchez asks us to consider Francis as “an emblematic figure of the harmony which ought to reign between human beings and religions” — a figure who was passionately, radically devoted to God but who was also firmly planted in the real world. Ultimately, Vauchez accomplishes something rather impressive: He humanizes his subject while simultaneously explaining why he is so beloved and revered.
The book is arranged into four sections, only the first of which is strictly biographical. Though most of what we know of Francis’ life comes from a handful of authors writing in the 13th century, the reliability of these earliest accounts is not something all scholars agree upon; Vauchez deftly weaves them together to create a cohesive, if not entirely seamless, portrait of the saint’s life. The book’s second and third sections explore Francis’ legacy in the decades and centuries following his death, from medieval times to today. The fourth section is broken up into seven essays, each focusing on aspects of Francis’ practice and beliefs; it’s arguably the most readable, and the most provocative, part of the book.
Francesco di Bernardone was born in 1181 or 1182 in the central Italian town of Assisi. The son of a textile merchant, Francis didn’t exactly enter the world with a silver spoon in his mouth, but by all accounts his family was comfortable. He was originally named Giovanni, but Francis’ father, Pietro, changed the baby’s name to Francesco, or “Frenchman.” Vauchez points out that this name, which was unusual at the time, suggests Pietro’s emulation of France, whose culture was very much in vogue at the time of Francis’ birth; it’s a subtle way of implying that Francis was born into a class-conscious family that valued the finer things in life, as well as the opinions of others. Vauchez describes the Italy of Francis’ youth as politically rocky, with contentious rivalries between neighboring townships and within cities themselves. In his early twenties, Francis fought in a battle against Perugia, where he ended up a prisoner of war, sickly, depressed, and bereft of hope. Many have pinpointed this trying period as the definitive shift in Francis, whereby a patriotic, fun-loving youth transformed into a rigorous ascetic. Vauchez is more cautious in this respect, and he describes Francis’ conversion (around 1204 or 1205) as one that “occurred in a climate of torpor and melancholy,” with Francis finding his voice “only in long and painful fits and starts.” In emphasizing that Francis was not what he calls a “spiritual meteorite,” Vauchez keeps Francis firmly rooted in the real world. Describing Francis’ dramatic renunciation of his father’s inheritance, Vauchez demonstrates sensitivity and insight; he concedes that while Francis’ eschewal of his family’s wealth had pious motives, it was also an act of youthful rebellion — one that young people of any period can relate to.
Vauchez is at his most captivating when he describes his subject’s intense love for God, writing that “[Francis’] prayer was interlaced with tears, groans, and supplications,” a fervor that “led him into a state of spiritual inebriation. ... His relationship with God did not follow a regular progression.” In the years following his conversion, Francis gained a slow but steady following. Ultimately, peace — stemming from brotherly love, penitence, and renunciation of the material world — was his simple message, one that held huge appeal for those living in uncertain feudal times. In the early 13th century, monks’ communities were stationary, self-sufficient operations, run according to hierarchical structure; interaction with outsiders was often limited. Francis’ insistence on equality, extreme poverty (which negated the possibility of land ownership and income), and community engagement was indeed regarded as radical. He and other friars minor, as they were known, often slept outdoors or in simple shelters, and they spent their days repairing churches, praying, and offering aid to those more destitute than even themselves. Throughout the book, Vauchez succinctly elucidates Francis’ beliefs. Explaining Francis’ stance on morality, for example, Vauchez writes, “‘Sin’ is not a matter of moral judgment, but a real-life condition in which the individual attributes to himself the merit of good things that God has given him and then directs his action toward the exaltation of the self. This makes a person lapse into indifference, if not hostility, toward his neighbor.”
It’s ironic that after reading André Vauchez’s book, so focused as it is on Francis’ humanity, we come away feeling assured that Francis was deserved of his reputation as an exceptionally holy figure — one whose legacy can be attributed in equal parts to his humanity and his spirituality.