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The Codex Mexicanus: Time, Religion, History, and Health in Sixteenth-Century New Spain

  • Lori Boornazian Diel (a1)

About 60 years after the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico, a group of Nahua intellectuals gathered in Tenochtitlan. On the very site of the heart of the Aztec empire stood a city of a new name: Mexico City, capital of New Spain. There the Nahuas set about compiling an extensive book of miscellanea, now known as the Codex Mexicanus. Owned by the Bibliothèque National de France, the codex includes records pertaining to the Christian and Aztec calendars, European medical astrology, a genealogy of the Tenochca royal house, and the annals of preconquest and early colonial Mexico City, among other intriguing topics.

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1. The entire manuscript (Fonds Mexicain 23–24) is accessible online through the Bibliothèque National de France:

2. Ernst Mengin published the only thorough study of the Codex Mexicanus. See his “Commentaire du Codex Mexicanus, nos. 23-24 de la Bibliothèque National de Paris,” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 41:2 (1952): 387–498. His was certainly a valiant effort, given that Mexican manuscript studies were still in their infancy at the time he worked. Nevertheless, he left gaps in his explication of the work and failed to link the Mexicanus's unwieldy contents into a unified whole.

3. Robertson, Donald, Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Early Colonial Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 123 .

4. The calendric sections of the work have received the most attention. A number of specialists interested in native timekeeping and its relation to intellectual thought in preconquest and early colonial central Mexico have analyzed the calendric portions of the Mexicanus specifically or more broadly through comparisons with other works. For examples, see Prem, Hanns, “Comentario a las partes calendáricas del Codex Mexicanus 23–24,” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 13 (1978): 267288 ; Prem, , Manual de la antigua cronología Mexicana (Mexico: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 2008); Brotherston, Gordon, “Indigenous Intelligence in Spain's American Colony,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 36:3 (2000): 241253 ; Brotherston, , Feather Crown: The Eighteen Monthly Feasts of the Mexica Year (London: British Museum, 2005); Brotherston, , “America and the Colonizer Question: Two Formative Statements from Early Mexico,” in Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate, Moraña, Mabel, Dussel, Enrique, and Jáuregui, Carlos A., eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 2342 ; Spitler, Susan, “Colonial Mexican Calendar Wheels: Cultural Translation and the Problem of ‘Authenticity,’” in Painted Books and Indigenous Knowledge in Mesoamerica, Boone, Elizabeth Hill, ed. (New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, 2005), 271288 ; Spitler, “Nahua Intellectual Responses to the Spanish: The Incorporation of European Ideas into the Central Mexican Calendar” (PhD diss., Tulane University, 2005); and Aveni, Anthony, Circling the Square: How the Conquest Altered the Shape of Time in Mesoamerica (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2012).

5. Prem, “Comentario,” 268; Spitler, “Colonial Mexican Calendar Wheels,” 284–285; Spitler, “Nahua Intellectual Responses to the Spanish,” 88.

6. For more on colonial discourse and its relation to the artistic and textual productions of Latin America, see Seed, Patricia, “Colonial and Postcolonial Discourse,” Latin American Research Review 26:3 (1991): 181200 ; Adorno, Rolena, “Reconsidering Colonial Discourse for Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Spanish America,” Latin American Research Review 28:3 (1993): 135145 ; and Dean, Carolyn and Leibsohn, Dana, “Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America,” Colonial Latin American Review 12:1 (2003): 535 .

7. Fernández, María, Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 1 .

8. In Joaquín Galarza's analyses of Aztec writing, he used the Mexicanus's translation of Spanish saints' names into Aztec pictorial script to elucidate the phonetic potential of this writing system. See Galarza, , “Glyphes et attributs chrétiens dan les manuscrits pictographiques mexicains du xvi siècle: le Codex Mexicanus 23–24,” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 55 (1966): 732 ; and Galarza, , Tlacuiloa, escribir pintando: algunas reflexiones sobre la escritura Azteca (Mexico: Tava Editorial, 1996).

9. For an overview of Aztec pictorial histories, see Boone, Elizabeth Hill, Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000); and for a review of the divinatory codices, see Boone, , Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).

10. Andrés, De Li, Reportorio de los tiempos, Delbrugge, Laura, ed. (London: Tamesis, 1999), 2 .

11. de Chaves, Gerónimo, Chronographia o reportorio de los tiempos (Seville: Alonso Escrivano, 1576).

12. Martínez, Enrico, Reportorio de los tiempos y historia natural de Nueva España (Mexico: Centro de Estudios Historia de México, 1981).

13. All translations by author, unless otherwise noted.

14. Prem, “Comentario,” 275.

15. Ibid., 283.

16. Kobayashi, José María, La educación como conquista: empresa franciscana en México (Mexico: El Colegio de México, 1974).

17. Mathes, W. Michael, The America's First Academic Library: Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (Sacramento: California State Library Foundation, 1985); Silver Moon, “The Imperial College of Tlatelolco and the Emergence of a New Nahua Intellectual Elite in New Spain (1500–1760)” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2007).

18. Mathes, W. Michael, “Humanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Libraries of New Spain,” Catholic Historical Review 82:3 (1996): 412435 .

19. Mathes, “The America's First Academic Library,” 32.

20. Leonard, Irving, Books of the Brave (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 201203 ; González Sánchez, Carlos Alberto, Los mundos del libro: medios de difusión de la cultura occidental en las Indias de los siglos XVI y XVII (Seville: Diputación de Sevilla, Universidad de Sevilla, 1999), 214 , 219, 226, 246.

21. O.S.A., Arthur Ennis, Fray Alonso de la Vera Cruz O.S.A. (1507–1584): A Study of His Life and His Contribution to the Religious and Intellectual Affairs of Early Mexico (Louvain: Imprimerie E. Warny, 1957), 174 .

22. García, Antonio Rubial, El convento augustino y la sociedad novohispana (1533–1630) (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1989), 124128 .

23. Peterson, Jeannette Favrot, Visualizing Guadalupe: From Black Madonna to Queen of the Americas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 1316 .

24. Peterson, Jeannette Favrot, The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 171176 .

25. De Li, Reportorio, 5–6.

26. Galarza, Tlacuiloa, escribir pintado, 43.

27. Ibid., 40.

28. Ibid., 46.

29. While I suspect that the majority of information in the Mexicanus was added between 1579 and 1581, with updates added until 1583, this dating for the work is impossible to reconcile with the correlations included on the Mexicanus's perpetual calendar. For example, using the commonly accepted Caso correlation, the only years in which the Ochpaniztli festival could have fallen on September 12 in the Christian calendar were between 1592 and 1595. However, again using the Caso correlation, September 12 never fell on the Aztec day of 12 Flint during these years. The only Christian years in which the Ochpaniztli festival would have fallen on 12 Flint were 1520 (September 20) or 1572 (September 7). In this case, perhaps the contributor was actually setting down the correlations between the monthly festivals and tonalpohualli that were true at the time the Christian and Aztec calendars collided, just after the Spanish arrival.

30. Chaves, Chronographia, 172r–183v.

31. Andrés de Li, Reportorio de los tiempos, 22.

32. Constituciones del Arzobispado y provincial de la muy insigne y muy leal ciudad de Tenoxtitlan, Mexico, de la Nueva España (Mexico: Juan de Pablos, 1556).

33. Anonymous, Repertorio de los tiempos (Valladolid: Francisco Fernandez de Cordova, 1554), 27v; Chaves, Chronografia, 134v–135v.

34. Johannes Regiomantanus, Kalender (Augsburg, 1512), 20r. Original book owned by the Bavarian State Library.

35. Valadés, Diego, Rhetorica christiana (Perugia: Apud Petrumiacobum Petrutium, 1579), 100 .

36. Cummins, Thomas B. F., “From Lies to Truth: Colonial Ekphrasis and the Act of Crosscultural Translation,” in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450–1650, Farago, Claire, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 159160 .

37. Peterson, The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco, 171, 174.

38. Burkhart, Louise, The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989), 7374 .

39. Prem, “Comentario,” 275.

40. Austin, Alfredo López, The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas, Thelma Ortiz de Montellano and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, trans. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), 380381 .

41. Repertorio de los tiempos (1554), 22r–26v.

42. O'Boyle, Cornelius, “Astrology and Medicine in Later Medieval England: The Calendars of John Somer and Nicholas Lynn,” Sudhoffs Archiv 89:1 (2005): 7 .

43. Bober, Harry, “The Zodiacal Miniature of the Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry: Its Sources and Meaning,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11 (1948): 134 ; O'Boyle, “Astrology and Medicine,” 5.

44. Boone, Painted Books and Indigenous Knowledge in Mesoamerica, 107.

45. Ibid., 110.

46. Translated in Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 102.

47. Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning, 29.

48. Chaves, Chronografia; Martínez, Reportorio.

49. For a more thorough study of this genealogy, see Diel, Lori Boornazian, “The Codex Mexicanus Genealogy: Binding the Mexica Past and the Colonial Present,” Colonial Latin American Review 24:2 (2015): 120146 .

50. Gibson, Charles, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 169 .

51. Cuauhtlehuanitzin, Domingo Chimalpahin, Annals of His Time, Lockhart, James, Schroeder, Susan, and Namala, Doris, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2006), 139 .

52. Diel, “The Codex Mexicanus Genealogy.”

53. Sahagún, Bernardino de, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book 6, Dibble, Charles E. and Anderson, Arthur J. O., eds. and trans. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982), 250 .

54. Boone, Stories in Red and Black, 242–243.

55. Chaves, Chronografia, 82r–83r.

56. Monographs on specific Aztec pictorial histories often use the Mexicanus annals history as a point of comparison. For examples see Dibble, Charles, ed., Codex en Cruz, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1981); Keber, Eloise Quiñones, Codex Telleriano-Remensis: Ritual, Divination, and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995); and Diel, Lori Boornazian, The Tira de Tepechpan: Negotiating Place under Aztec and Spanish Rule (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008). Boone, Stories in Red and Black, considers the Mexicanus history as a part of the larger corpus of Aztec pictorial histories.

57. Boone, Stories in Red and Black, 242.

58. Boone, Elizabeth Hill, “Aztec Pictorial Histories: Records without Words,” in Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes, Boone, Elizabeth Hill and Mignolo, Walter, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 67 .

59. Chaves, Chronografia, 67r–81v.

60. Martínez, Reportorio de los tiempos, 105–153.

61. Austin, Alfredo López, “Un repertorio de los tiempos en idioma Náhuatl,” Anales de Antropología 10 (1973): 285296 .

62. Ibid., 292.

63. Guernsey Allen, Anne E., “A Stylistic Analysis of the Codex Cozcatzin: Its Implications for the Study of Post-Conquest Aztec Manuscripts,” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 24 (1994): 259260 ; de la Paz, María Castañeda, “Filogía de un ‘corpus’ pintado (siglos xvi-xviii): de codices, techialyoan, pinturas y escudos de armas,” Anales del Museo de América 17 (2009): 8082 , 87.

64. Tavárez, David, The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 133139 .

65. Wichmann, Søren and Heijnen, Ilona, “Un manuscrito en náhuatl sobre astrología europea,” in XV Congreso Internacional de AHILA, 1808–2008: Crisis y problemas en el mundo atlántico, Buve, Raymond, Ruitenbeek, Neeske, and Wiesebron, Marianne, eds. (Leiden: University of Leiden, 2008), 106124 .

66. Bricker, Victoria and Miram, Helga-Maria, An Encounter of Two Worlds: The Book of Chilam Balam of Kaua (New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, 2002); George-Hirons, Amy, “Las siete planetas: Medieval Reportorios in the Book of Chilam Balam of Kaua,” in Celebrations and Connections in Hispanic Literature, Morris, Andrea and Parker, Margaret, eds. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), 7084 ; Caso Barrera, Laura, Chilam Balam de Ixil: facsimiliar y studio de un libro maya inédito (Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia y Artes de México, 2011).

67. Tavárez, The Invisible War, 139.

68. Frederick Schwaller, John, “The Ordenanza del Patronazgo in New Spain, 1574–1600,” The Americas 42:3 (1986): 253274 .

69. Ennis, Fray Alonso de la Vera Cruz, 181.

70. Austin Nesvig, Martin, “‘Heretical Plagues’ and Censorship Cordons: Colonial Mexico and the Transatlantic Book Trade,” Church History 75:1 (2006): 137 .

71. Austin Nesvig, Martin, “The Epistemological Politics of Vernacular Scripture in Sixteenth-Century Mexico,” The Americas 70:2 (2013): 165201 , esp. 174.

72. Tavárez, The Invisible War, 132–139; Farriss, Nancy, “Remembering the Future, Anticipating the Past: History, Time, and Cosmology among the Maya of Yucatan,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 29:3 (1987): 580581 .

73. Lupher, David, Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006). See also Pohl, John M. D. and Lyons, Claire L., The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2010), which considers how the classical past influenced the encounter between the Spaniards and the Nahuas.

74. Gruzinski, Serge, The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization, Deke Dusinberre, trans. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 100 .

This article is based on a paper presented at Telling Stories: Discourse, Meaning, and Performance in Mesoamerican Things, a conference sponsored by the Moses Mesoamerican Archive of Harvard University. The completed article benefited from the feedback and encouragement offered by fellow conference participants and its honoree, Elizabeth H. Boone. I also wish to thank Ben Vinson and an anonymous reviewer for their advice on this work. My research into the Codex Mexicanus was made possible with grants from the Texas Christian University Research and Creative Activity Fund and a Summer Fellowship at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, while the inclusion of images was supported by the Robert and Mary J. Sunkel Art History Endowment of Texas Christian University.

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