Isabel Rodríguez, doctor to Hernán Cortés’ troops

José Carlos Mena Sánchez

The capture of Tenochtilan

Hernán Cortés’ great adventure began in 1519. After the invaluable help of his Tlaxaltec and Totonac allies, as Cortés only had several hundred men, including infantrymen, horsemen, arquebusiers, crossbowmen and auxiliaries, he took the Mexica capital of Tenochtilan on 13 August 1521, after a prolonged siege. It was a momentous event and a tremendous clash of cultures in the middle of the 16th century.

In addition to Aguilar, a Spaniard held by a Mayan tribe for eight years, Cortés had the invaluable help of Doña Marina, “La Malinche”. The combination of the two was fundamental to understanding the peoples they encountered, each with its own language, customs, social system and way of warfare. La Malinche, given to the Spanish conquistadors as a slave after the battle of Centla, was fundamental in the life of Cortés, and even bore him a son, whom he named Martín.

Women for history

But she was not the only woman who participated in the conquest of the Mexica empire, nor was she the only one who lived through a thousand adventures and dangers. In that unknown world, where death swarmed in the thick of the forest, where hardship mingled with the exotic, where danger lurked in the shadows and battles were interspersed with parliaments, many women were protagonists. It is not known for certain how many women entered Tenochtilan with Hernán Cortés, but the sources point to approximately twelve.

Today I would like to focus on one of them, Doña Isabel Rodríguez. Although many details of her life are unknown, the chroniclers of the time mention her, especially Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar and Juan de Torquemada.

The expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez

It seems that Isabel, like several other women, arrived on the coast of present-day Mexico accompanying her husband, Miguel Rodríguez de Guadalupe, who was part of the expedition led by Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba, to capture Cortés. The expedition was commanded by Pánfilo de Narváez and was surprised at night by the conquistador from Extremadura once he heard the news. He thwarted Velázquez’s plans.

Cortés convinced most of the expeditionaries to join his army and sent Pánfilo back to Cuba. Miguel, Isabel’s husband, was one of those who stayed with Cortés for the great adventure, and she, willing and able, did not stand idly by while her husband fought. Using her intelligence and skill, she undertook a tremendous task of medical care, treating and curing many wounded, both Spanish and their indigenous allies. He acted as a doctor to those troops.

Other authors

Many authors have written about this heroine, who gave her all to heal the soldiers. Cervantes de Salazar, in his Crónica de la Nueva España (1575), reflected the excellent work of Doña Isabel as a doctor to the troops of Hernán Cortés:

… as the fights were so continuous, many wounded came out from one side and from the other, so that there was not a day that, especially of the friendly Indians, there did not come out a hundred wounded, to whom a Spanish woman, whose name was Isabel Rodríguez, as best she could, bound their wounds and healed them – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one true God, and this she did no more than twice, and often no more than once, and it happened that even though their thighs had been slashed, they went to fight another day in good health, a great argument and proof that God was with our people, because by the hand of that woman he gave health and strength to so many wounded, and because it is something that I heard from many and from all, it seemed to me that I should not let it pass in silence.

Hugh Tomas, the great Hispanist, in his work The Conquest of Mexico, also shows us the fundamental role played by Isabel Rodríguez in the healing and expert care of Hernán Cortés’ troops.

And more recently, the writer and expert on Hernán Cortés, Iván Vélez, in his work La Conquista de México, offers us these words about our protagonist:

“While the Mexica took advantage of this to hinder the movement of the brigantines, in the Spanish camp the wounded were cared for. There, amidst the murmur of psalms, the wounds were burned with oil and dressed. The gunner Juan Catalán, but also the pious Isabel Rodríguez and the mulatto Beatriz were very skilled in these tasks…”

Doctor until the end of his days
It is true that we do not know much more about Isabel, but it is enough to give us a glimpse of her skill and courage in a new world, full of dangers. A primary medicine to heal wounds and alleviate pain, a war medicine that was, little by little, improving for the benefit of her patients.

Doña Isabel Rodríguez was widowed and remarried, settling in Tacubaya, where, it seems, she continued to practice medicine for the rest of her life. Medicine and adventure, a woman at the forefront and a story to remember of this heroine who entered Tenochtilán on 13 August 1521 and cared for, aided and cured the troops of the great Hernán Cortés.

Another heroine for the history of Spain, another great woman who helped lay the foundations of a great empire. There were many more.

(Thanks to Daniel Arveras for the information he offers on his website and for his magnificent books that enlighten us so much).

Sources

This post was translated from:

Mena, J.C. (2021) ‘Isabel Rodríguez, médico de las tropas de Hernán Cortés’, 27 January. Available at: https://sonrisasenelcamino.es/isabel-rodriguez-medico-de-las-tropas-de-hernan-cortes/ (Accessed: 15 December 2021).

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1519 Hernán Cortés starts his two-year campaign against the Aztec Empire.

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