The Role of Religion in "The Conquest of New Spain"

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During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the dominant force in Western civilization. As the Dark Ages came to a close, the monarchies of Europe began to consolidate power; providing an alternative power base. With the Protestant Reformation came another blow to the influence of the Church. Spain, the forerunner in the Age of Discovery, was a fervently Catholic country. During the 16th century, the monarchy combined the forces of "cross and crown" in its imperial policy; much to the dismay and ultimate destruction of the indigenous peoples of the New World. Through an examination of Aztec polytheism and the Catholicism of the conquistadors, comes the central role of religion in the successful conquest of New Spain.

When the Spaniards arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 1519, they encountered the advanced society of the Aztecs. With Tenochititlan at its capital, the Aztec empire was vast. The Aztecs had substantial wealth from trading and extensive payments of tribute from conquered peoples. Bernal Diaz in his The Conquest of New Spain comments, "We were dazzled at the richness of the country that we passed through" (282). The Spaniards encountered a powerful, advanced people in the New World, making Cortes and his crew of approximately 600 seemingly ensured of defeat. The Aztec religion lends much to Spanish success in conquest.

A major element of Aztec life was religion, as often is in the case in ancient civilizations. The Aztecs were a polytheistic people, and they often made use of human sacrifice to please their gods. Diaz often makes reference to the blood-stained walls of the Aztec temples in his account of the conquest. In reference to the success of Cortes and his soldiers, an anci...

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... convert them by any means necessary. The idea that conversion made for a bettering of the people also aided in taking to harsh treatment. As for the actions taken against the natives, violence, murder, and rape were among the many. Such acts are fairly barbaric, not expected of a civilized society. Also, these actions are contradictory to Christian doctrine making them even more controversial.

The Spanish defeat of the Aztecs has been extensively criticized for many years. Religion was a motive for discovery, enabled the Spanish to enter the heart of the empire, and was used as justification for torture of the natives. The centrality of religion as a force in Spanish conquest is undeniable. Virtually all of Aztec culture was destroyed and the Spanish victory has had lasting effects for both natives and Europeans up to and including the present-day.
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