In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 16th-Century New Spain

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Latin American Studies 16th-Century New Spain
Matthew Restall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0021


The 16th century was a period of dramatic change in Mesoamerica. Beginning with first contacts in the 1510s, followed by a series of invasion campaigns that ran from 1519 into the second half of the century, the arrival of Spaniards and their African auxiliaries transformed the region into a new entity. The colonists called it New Spain. Yet, despite the profound changes in every arena of human activity—political rule, trade and tribute, ethnicity and social structure, demographics, religion and other cultural expressions—continuity was also considerable. Mesoamerica did not disappear; rather, it became colonial Mesoamerica. In the wake of war and epidemic, native peoples rebuilt their communities and consolidated a traditionally localized sense of identity. These complexities are reflected in the historiography of this place and time. As a generalization, over the past half century the historical literature has shifted from an emphasis on Spaniards, their conquests, and their institutions in Central Mexico, toward the indigenous and black experiences, social and cultural history, and the examples of regions outside the center. Two interrelated schools of scholarship have had a major impact: the New Philology, which rose to prominence in the 1980s and the 1990s; and the New Conquest History, which has emerged since the 1990s. Both are explained in this article. This bibliography focuses on works that study the period from 1520 to 1600, although many relevant studies fall outside of those dates. The geographical boundaries of New Spain varied greatly in the colonial period; here they are treated as more or less contiguous with the cultural area of Mesoamerica, stretching from northern Mexico down through Guatemala. This bibliography privileges monographs in English over dissertations, edited volumes, editions of primary sources, articles, and studies in Spanish (and other languages). This is because of space constraints and because monographs are excellent guides in leading researchers to those other items.

Reference Works

Although many textbooks are available on colonial Latin America, and a number on Mexico, very few deal exclusively with colonial Mexico; Altman, et al. 2002 is recommended here by way of a textbook that introduces the key themes of 16th-century Mexican history. Terraciano and Sousa 2010 is a historiographical essay that is an effective complement to this online bibliography. Restall 2003 covers in detail one school of scholarship within the field of colonial studies, the New Philology; the historian who arguably founded that school, James Lockhart, is represented here in the form of two collections of essays that serve in various ways as historiographical reference points (see Lockhart 1991 and Lockhart 1999).

  • Altman, Ida, Sarah Cline, and Juan Javier Pescador. The Early History of Greater Mexico. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

    A textbook, designed specifically for undergraduate classroom usage on colonial Mexico, written by well-established scholars.

  • Lockhart, James. Nahuas and Spaniards: Postconquest Central Mexican History and Philology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.

    This collection of essays complements Lockhart 1992 (cited under “New Philology” Monographs) and focuses on central Mexico; it serves to introduce many of the themes of colonial Mexican historiography through the 1980s.

  • Lockhart, James. Of Things of the Indies: Essays Old and New in Early Latin American History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    This second collection has a broader scope but complements the 1991 volume and is of some relevance to early colonial Mexico.

  • Restall, Matthew. “A History of the New Philology and the New Philology in History.” Latin American Research Review 38.1 (February 2003): 113–134.

    DOI: 10.1353/lar.2003.0012

    A historiographical essay defining this school of scholarship up to 2002, discussing the contributing studies, and suggesting where it might go in the future.

  • Terraciano, Kevin, and Lisa Sousa. “The Historiography of New Spain.” In The Oxford Handbook of Latin American History. Edited by José Moya, 25–64. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A useful and up-to-date summary of how the study of New Spain has developed, presented as a readable essay and covering the whole colonial period.

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