In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The New Conquest History and the New Philology in Colonial Mesoamerica

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works

Latin American Studies The New Conquest History and the New Philology in Colonial Mesoamerica
Matthew Restall, Micaela Wiehe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0113


The New Philology and the New Conquest History are labels commonly used to describe two interrelated developments in the study of Colonial Latin America (primarily colonial Mesoamerica, which is our main focus here). Historians have primarily driven both with important contributions made by anthropologists, art historians, and geographers. The New Philology (NP) originated in the late 1970s and the 1980s with groundbreaking studies of early colonial Central Mexico based on the reading of alphabetic sources in Nahuatl, primarily mundane, notarial, archival documents. The work of historian James Lockhart of UCLA is recognized as foundational to this historiographical development. Building upon his work on Central Mexico, interest in analyzing notarial documents in Indigenous languages evolved to include all of Mesoamerica, and to a lesser extent yet increasingly into the Andean region of Latin America. Nevertheless, New Philology remains largely, but not exclusively, rooted in the analysis of primary archival sources—typically notarial—written in Indigenous languages. The New Conquest History (NCH) emerged in the 1990s, partially, but by no means entirely, out of the New Philology. A few earlier studies that mark the beginning of scholarly efforts to revisit traditional narratives of the Spanish evasion of the Americas include James Lockhart’s book Men of Cajamarca (Lockhart 1972, cited under the Andes and Other Counterpoints) and Inga Clendinnen’s book Ambivalent Conquests (Clendinnen 2003, cited under Guatemala, Yucatán, and Belize). One way to think of the two developments is as the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, although there is not a consensus among specialists regarding which studies would definitively go inside which circle. Broadly speaking, the NCH and NP have a common emphasis on Mesoamerica and indigenous Mesoamericans, but the NCH is focused more specifically on the sixteenth century, as opposed to the colonial period. The NCH has tended to be more broadly focused regionally, often including other regions of Mesoamerica outside of just Central Mexico, and it characterizes non-European actors, typically Indigenous and African, as conscious actors or even protagonists in the colonial narrative. Like the NP, the NCH gives Indigenous-language sources particular attention, but the NCH tendency has been to stress newly found sources or the reinterpretation of familiar ones—be they written in Spanish or an Indigenous tongue, or a nontextual visual source—to reveal multiple protagonists in, and perspectives on, contact phenomena and conquest moments. This bibliography primarily contains studies written in English with a few significant exceptions; however, the reader should be aware that there is an important parallel literature in other languages, most obviously in Spanish.

Reference Works

This section privileges the historiographical perspectives of James Lockhart and his former students. Terraciano and Sousa 2011 is a historiographical essay that is an effective and detailed complement to this Oxford Bibliographies article. Lockhart, the school’s main founder, is represented here in the form of two collections of essays that serve in various ways as historiographical reference points (Lockhart 1991 and Lockhart 1999), and in an online collection of essays (Lockhart, et al. 2007). Restall 2012 is a short essay, with a bibliography, that seeks to make a case for the New Conquest History as an incipient school of scholarship, while Restall 2003a and Restall 2003b are earlier efforts to illustrate NCH perspectives in the context of the Spanish conquests throughout the Americas, and the Afterword to Restall 2021 outlines the state of the field to date, including an extensive list of books published since 2002 that have contributed to the NCH. Finally, Restall and Fernandez-Armesto 2011 is a slightly different approach to the topic.

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

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503621961

    This collection of essays complements Lockhart’s monograph The Nahuas after the Conquest (Lockhart 1992, cited under Monographs on Central Mexico) 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 Lockhart 1991 and is of some relevance to early colonial Mexico.

  • Lockhart, James, Lisa Sousa, and Stephanie Wood, eds. Sources and Methods for the Study of Postconquest Mesoamerican Ethnohistory. Eugene: Wired Humanities Project, University of Oregon, 2007.

    An online collection of essays by two dozen scholars describing and discussing a wide variety of primary sources and topics relating to colonial Mesoamerican history, with a particular emphasis on Indigenous-language materials.

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

  • Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003b.

    This short, accessible volume aims to articulate many of the ideas that are explored in works of the New Conquest History, attempting to redefine the conquest of the Americas by addressing “common misconceptions” about the invasions and their consequences.

  • Restall, Matthew. “The New Conquest History.” History Compass 10.2 (2012): 151–160.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2011.00822.x

    A brief historiographical essay that suggests how the NCH might be defined and where it might be headed.

  • Restall, Matthew. “Afterword.” In Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest: Updated Edition. By Matthew Restall, 159–174. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    The contents of this short, accessible volume articulate many of the ideas explored in works of the New Conquest History by addressing “common misconceptions” about the invasions and their consequences. The Afterword and corresponding notes, which are additions to the updated edition of this work, outline the state of the field in 2021 and include an extensive, though not comprehensive, list of books published since 2002 that have contributed to the New Conquest History.

  • Restall, Matthew, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions 301. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Similar in interpretation to Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Restall 2021). This accessible volume is briefer, updated, contains new material, and features the input of veteran world historian Fernández-Armesto.

  • Terraciano, Kevin, and Lisa Sousa. “The Historiography of New Spain.” In The Oxford Handbook of Latin American History. Edited by José C. Moya, 25–64. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    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. This essay helps the reader to see how the NCH and NP fit into the larger historiography of the region.

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