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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

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Robin Martin

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.

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