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Collage of manuscripts

Summer Workshop

June 5–16, 2023 | Princeton University Library, Dumbarton Oaks, and Library of Congress

Missionary Manuscripts in Mesoamerican Languages


Mesoamerican languages were first documented by missionaries. They created rich textual materials, ranging from catechisms and sermons to dictionaries and grammars. These sources offer an invaluable view into the world of the linguistic and cultural encounter and the process of conversion in Mesoamerica.

In a unique collaboration, the Princeton University Library, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Library of Congress will host an intensive two-week summer workshop June 5–16, 2023, focused on their in-house collections of missionary documents written in Mesoamerican languages. Participants will receive an introduction to the rich body of texts that offer an invaluable view into the world of the linguistic and cultural encounter and the processes of conversion and colonization. The program will be directed by Frauke Sachse (Dumbarton Oaks), Garry Sparks (George Mason University), and Allison Caplan (University of California, Santa Barbara), including guest lectures by Robert Haskett (University of Oregon) and Stephanie Wood (Library of Congress, University of Oregon).

Program Description

The first/earliest documentation of Indigenous languages in the Americas were produced by missionaries. Missionary writings in Mesoamerican languages include texts that were used in the conversion, such as catechisms, sermons, hymns, and theological treatise, as well as dictionaries and grammars that served in the education of friars and clerics. In the process of creating such written records, missionaries established alphabets as well as norms and standards for description and translation. Indigenous converts were closely involved and contributed to this process. Missionary writings are inextricably linked to Mesoamerican historiography, as Indigenous authors adopted the Latin script to create new hybrid literary genres that follow the Mesoamerican book tradition.

The workshop offers an introduction to the missionary records in Mesoamerican languages, drawing on collection materials from the Garrett-Gates Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts at the Princeton University Library, the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Books Collection, and selected materials in the Special Collections from the Library of Congress.

Participants will receive specialized and contextual knowledge about this body of source materials, with a particular focus on documents in Mayan languages and Nahuatl. The curriculum will include, among others, the following topics: missionary documents and text genres and their intertextualities; conversion through alphabetization; Indigenous agencies and Mesoamerican book traditions; European textual antecedents and religious traditions; the concept of arte and missionary grammatical description; missionary lexicography; translation practices; collectors and collection histories; archives and digital repositories.

This summer workshop is an intensive program requiring full participation throughout. In the first week (June 5–9), the workshop will be held at the Firestone Library at Princeton University in New Jersey, Mondays through Fridays, 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. In the second week (June 12–16), the program will move to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, and include a day visit to the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress.

Admission Requirements

The summer workshop is directed at doctoral students, including recent graduates and recent postdocs in any field that benefit from access to colonial/missionary resources in Mesoamerican language (e.g., Anthropology, Linguistics; Art History, Religious Studies; History, Colonial Studies, etc.). Other complete applications may be considered on a case-by-case basis if space is available.

The workshop will be taught in English, but good Spanish reading ability is an essential requirement and basic knowledge of a Mesoamerican language desirable.

Accommodation and Expenses

There is no fee for participation in this program. Successful applicants will receive accommodation on campus in Princeton and at Dumbarton Oaks (except for participants living within 50 miles of Princeton or Washington), a contribution to travel and meal costs of $1,000 (paid as a check upon arrival in Washington), and free lunch on weekdays at Dumbarton Oaks during Week 2. They will also receive access to the Firestone Library and a Reader badge for Dumbarton Oaks for the duration of the program. Participants will have to make their own travel arrangements to/from Princeton and Washington.


Applications, to be written in English, must be submitted electronically by Friday, March 31, 2023, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

To apply, applicants must provide the following:

  • A letter of interest, describing their academic background, why attending this workshop is important for their intellectual and professional goals, and any potential topics that they propose to pursue in their research (doctoral students are asked to include a 500 word abstract of their dissertation)
  • Curriculum Vitae
  • One letter of recommendation. Candidates are strongly encouraged to request the letter from a faculty member who has instructed them and is familiar with their work.

Selection criteria will include (but are not limited to) the program’s relevance to applicants’ present and future research projects.

International candidates are eligible to apply; however, J-visa sponsorship is not available.

Successful applicants will be notified by late April. For further information, please write to

Image source: Collage of manuscripts including details from the title pages of pt. 1 and 2 of Alonso de Molina’s Vocabulario en lengua Mexicana… (1585), Dumbarton Oaks; Domingo de Vico’s Theologia Indorum, vol. II, Garrett Gates Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts ms. 175, Princeton University Library (Photo: Frauke Sachse); Vocabulario en lengua castellana y guatimalteca … Garrett Gates Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts ms. 226 (Photo: Princeton University Library); Sermonario en Pokonchí, Garrett Gates Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts ms. 235 (Photo: Princeton University Library); Manuscript 1015, Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress (Photo: Library of Congress).