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Toribio de Benavente Motolinia

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Franciscan missionary, b. at Benavente, Spain, at the end of the fifteenth century; d. in the City of Mexico, 10 August, 1568. He was one of the first band of Franciscans who sailed for Mexico with Fray Martin do Valencia, and survived all his companions. Upon entering religion, he changed his name of Paredes for that of Benavente, following the then regular custom of the order. As he and his companions on their way to the City of Mexico passed through Tlaxcala, the Indians, seeing the humble aspect and ragged habits of the religious, kept repeating to each other the word motolinia. Fray Toribio, having asked the meaning of this word and learned that it was the Mexican for poor, said: "It is the first word I have learned in this language, and, that I may not forget it, it shall henceforth be my name." Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness of the arrival of the first friars, singles Motolinia out from the others, saying of him: "Whatever was given him he gave to the Indians, and sometimes was left without food. He wore very torn clothing and went barefoot, and the Indians loved him much, because he was a holy person." When Motolinia and his companions arrived at the City of Mexico, Cortes went out to receive them, accompanied by all his captains and the chief men of the place. The religious carried wooden crosses in their hands; Cortes and those with him knelt and kissed their hands with the deepest respect, and then conducted them to the lodgings prepared for them. The Indians wondered much when they saw those whom they considered supernatural beings prostrate at the feet of these humble and apparently despicable men. Cortes seized the opportunity to address a discourse to the caciques (chiefs) and lords who accompanied him, recommending due veneration and respect, as he himself had shown, for those who had come to teach them the Christian religion. When Cortes set out on the expedition to Las Hibueras, the influence of Motolinia over the Indians was so great that the conqueror commissioned him to see that "no rising took place in Mexico or the other provinces" during his absence. Motolinia subsequently made a journey to Guatemala, where he made use of the faculties which he had to administer confirmation, and thence passed to Nicaragua. Returning to Mexico, he was guardian successively at Texcoco and Tlaxcala, and was chosen sixth provincial of the Province of Santo Evangelio. When Don Sebastian Ramirez de Fuenleal, president of the second Audiencia, decided to found the settlement of Puebla, Fray Toribio, who had joined in requesting this foundation, was one of the commissioners chosen to carry out the work, with the auditor Don Juan de Salmeron. In association with the guardians of Tlaxcala, Cholula, Huexotzingo, and Tepeaca, and employing a large number of Indian labourers, they built the city. Motolinia said the first Mass here on 16 April, 1530, and with his companions made the allotments of land choosing for the convent the site upon which is still to be seen the beautiful church of San Francisco. He himself left in writing the total of baptisms performed by him, amounting to 400,000, "which," says Padre Torquemada, "I who write this have seen confirmed by his name." The Indians loved him tenderly for his virtues and, above all, for his ardent charity. He died in the convent of S. Francisco, in the City of Mexico, and the crowd at his burial had to be restrained from cutting in pieces the habit which his corpse wore, pieces of which they would have taken as relics of a saint.

Among the writings of Motolinia is his famous letter to Emperor Charles V, written on 2 January, 1555. It is a virulent attack upon Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, intended to discredit him completely, calling him "a grievous man, restless, importunate, turbulent, injurious, and prejudicial" and moreover an apostate in that he had renounced the Bishopric of Chiapas. The monarch is even advised to have him shut up for safe keeping in a monastery. While it is impossible to save the memory of Motolinia from the blot which this letter has p laced upon it, some explanation of his conduct can be given. He may have foreseen the extremely grave evils that would have resulted to the social system, as it was then established in New Spain, if the theories of Las Casas had become completely dominant. Indeed, when it is remembered that these theories jeopardized the fortunes of nearly all the colonists, not only in Mexico, but also throughout the New World--fortunes which they had perhaps amassed illegally, but, in many instances, in good faith and at the cost of incredible labours and perils--it may well be understood why so tremendous an animosity should have been felt against the man who not only had originated the theories, but had effected their triumph at Court; who was endeavouring with incredible tenacity of purpose to put them into practice, and who, in his directions to confessors, asserts that all the Spaniards of the Indies must despoil themselves of all their property, except what they have acquired by commerce, and no longer hold encomiendes or slaves. The theory of encomiendas was not in itself blameworthy; for the Indians, being like all other subjects bound to contribute towards the expenses of government, it made no difference to them whether the paid tribute direct to the government or to the holders of royal, commissions (encomiendas). What made the system intolerable was the mass of horrible abuses committed under its shadow; had las Casas aimed his attack more surely against these abuses, he might perhaps have been more successful in benefitting the Indians. It is certain that the "New Laws", the greatest triumph of las Casas, remained virtually inoperative in Mexico; in Chiapas and Guatemala they led to serious disturbances, and in Peru they resulted in a civil war fraught with crimes and horrors, amidst which the aborigines suffered greatly. Such was the man whom Motolinia sought to oppose, and his attitude was shared by men of the most upright character, e.g. Bishop Marroquin, the viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza, and the visitador Tello. However pardonable the intention, it is impossible to forgive the aggressive and virulent tone of the aforesaid denunciation. He wrote some works which were of assistance to Mendieta and to Torquemada, one of the chief being his "Historia de los Indios de Nueva España".


BERISTAIN, Biblioteca hispano-americano septentrional (Amecameca, 1883); ICAZBALCETA, Obros (Mexico, 1903); ALAMAN, Disertaciones (Mexico, 1844); BERNAL DIAZ DEL CASTILLO, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (Mexico, 1904); BETANCOURT, Menologio franciscono (Mexico, 1871);CARRIÓN, Hist. de Puebla (Puebla., 1896); México à través de los siglos, II; MENDIETA, Hist. eclés. indiana (Mexico, 1870); Colección de Documentos para la historia de México, I (Mexico, 1898).

About this page

APA citation. Crivelli, C. (1911). Toribio de Benavente Motolinia. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Crivelli, Camillus. "Toribio de Benavente Motolinia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by W.S. French, Jr.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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