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The Codex Mendoza.

FRANCES F. BERDAN & PATRICIA RIEFF ANAWALT. The Codex Mendoza. 4 volumes in boxed set: 1 Interpretation and appendices (xx + 254 pages); 2 Description (237 pages); 3 Facsimile (152 pages); 4 Parallel images, transcription, translation (148 pages). 1992. Berkeley (CA) & London: University of California Press; ISBN 0-520-06234-5 leather- and cloth-bound in box $495 & |pounds~260.

Long one of the Bodleian Library's less noticed treasures, the Codex Mendoza is among the most dramatic documents that we have from that epochal meeting of Old and New World cultures that began in 1492 and lasted half a century, ending only with the subjugation of the Aztec, Inca and Maya societies that were America's own pathway to civilization. Drawn by Aztec scribes on Spanish paper, its Mesoamerican iconography glossed in European script, it recorded the realm of Motecuhzoma II for the benefit of Charles V.

Combining a chronicle of Aztec victories and a summation of imperial tribute, both rescensions of archival data, with an ethnographic account of Aztec life, all drawn in the manner of pre-Columbian pictorials, the Codex Mendoza is both spectacular as art and invaluable as a source of information on the economy and culture of the empire destroyed by Cortez in 1521.

The codex itself was painted 20 years later: its history as known three centuries on was succinctly stated by Cabrera (1822: 120):

'Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of Mexico, ordered a collection of paintings to be executed amounting to sixtythree, which he caused to be explained by the learned natives, and their elucidations to be translated into the Spanish language for Charles V. The ship in which they were sent was captured by a French privateer, and in consequence they fell into the hands of Fevet, geographer to the then king of France. From his heirs they were purchased by Hakluit, author of the voyages . . . he remitted them to England.'

Andre Thevet was a noted French cleric, who wrote his name in the codex in 1553; Richard Hakluyt, chaplain to the English embassy in Paris, acquired it from him by 1587, five years before Thevet's death, as H.B. Nicholson shows in his introductory essay (I: 1-11) on the history of the Mendoza. From Hakluyt it passed to Samuel Purchas, who noted the 'Mexican picture history' in Purchas his pilgrimage (1613), bought the codex after Hakluyt's death in 1616, and in 1625 included a translation of the text in Hakluytus Postumus: Or, Purchas His Pilgrimage. Inherited by his son in 1626, it was bought by John Selden, who owned two other Mexican pictorials (the Codex Selden and the Selden Roll), and in 1659 was left to the Bodleian Library, where it became 'Ms Arch. A. 1. Seld.' and was forgotten.

Cabrera clearly did not know where it was, nor did Humboldt, and it was only with Lord Kingsborough's publication of Antiquities of Mexico (1829-48) that it again came to public notice, the pictorial pages being reproduced in the first volume of that ambitious emprise, and the Spanish and English versions of the text in volumes 5 and 6. Over the past century and a half there have been several further editions, the best of which, by James Cooper Clark (1938), was unfortunately almost totally destroyed in the Blitz. Now we have the definitive version, in full-sized facsimile, with an exemplary apparatus criticus: Drs Berdan and Anawalt, their contributors, and the University of California Press, have good reason to be satisfied.

The edition comes in four volumes, boxed (not stoutly enough for frequent use, judging by the way mine has begun to fall apart) and bound in burgundy leather and cloth; the edition of 1250 is printed on the last of the mill run of 90# St Gall Text made for the press' Plan of St Gall, and quite a few sheets of this fine paper are left blank, especially at the beginning of volume I, to emphasize the 'deluxe' description that the press quite accurately gives in the technical credits at the end of each volume.

The manuscript that has been the focus of all this scholarly attention consists of 71 folios, bound (some time after 1607) in with a 14-folio disquisition on the comparative values of Greek and Roman monetary units and their English and French equivalents in the late 16th century. The paper is Spanish, using runs with several different watermarks, as Wayne Ruwet shows in his 'physical description' (I: 13-20); there is a genteel disagreement by Bruce Barker-Benfield (I: 20-23) as to whether one watermark represents 'three hats' or 'three swords or daggers' -- it depends on which way up one reads the sheet in question. Ruwet's study of the gatherings shows that the first and second parts of the codex, the victory chronicle and tribute list, were all on paper with a 'pilgrim' watermark (which Barker-Benfield is able to divide into four variants); the third part, the ethnography, was almost all on cross-watermarked paper, with three sheets at the end of other kinds. The inks and pigments used have not been analysed, although, as Ruwet notes, the advent of PIXE (proton-induced X-ray emission) non-invasive and non-destructive analytical methods now make this possible; given the syncretic nature of the document in other ways, it would be of great interest to see whether European inks and colours were used at all, or whether even the Spanish glosses were written with traditional Mesoamerican materials. The Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford University, located less than half a mile from the Bodleian, is one of the best places in the world to carry out this task (as a 1988 proposal from this reviewer pointed out): perhaps the lacuna in knowledge emphasized by this new edition of the Codex Mendoza can now be filled.

After these essays on the manuscript itself, the remainder of volume I is taken up with a series of interpretive studies by the editors and others. Kathleen Stewart Howe (I: 25-33) contributes an essay, based on her M.A. thesis, on the relationship of indigenous and European styles, making clear the hybrid nature of the codex as a 'European commission grafted on to an indigenous tradition'. Mexican pictorials were information storage systems, with style subordinated to clarity of transmission, while in Europe alphabetic writing had long absorbed this function, leaving imagery as 'a system for recreating a sensuous reality' and carrying 'complex cultural messages best presented by naturalistic convention'(p. 25). Elements of this European narrative style contribute to the use of shading to create volumetric form in the Codex Mendoza, where the native tradition used flat depictions with added attributes to explicate reality. Use of such ideas varies: the workshop process meant that different tasks in delineation and colouring were done successively by different people, and Howe shows that the craftsman who added the green pigment was less traditional than his colleagues. It may have been a question of age and training: in 1541, two decades after the conquest, some of the younger workers may have never known Mexico without Spanish political and cultural control. The fusion and clash of two ways of making and using images that Howe explicates is one of the things that makes the Codex Mendoza such a dynamic document.

The first of its three sections (folios 1-18r) is, as Elizabeth Hill Boone says in her contribution (I: 35-54) 'one of the best known of the Aztec pictorial histories . . . accompanied by amplifying texts and glosses'; it presents (p.35)

'the founding of the Aztec-Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan prior to the year Two House (1325) and the fifty-one year rule of |the eponymous~ Tenoch. This is followed by the reigns and conquests of the nine Mexica hueytlatoque (great rulers) beginning with Acamapichtli, the founder of the dynasty, and ending with Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, who died during the Spanish conquest. As an early Colonial example of a xiuhamatl (year book) or xiuhtlapohualamatl (year-count book), part 1 of the Mendoza shows the progression of time from year to year. . . . information is organized into discrete units, each composed of a glossed illustration and a text . . . presented across facing pages . . . so that the founding of Tenochtitlan is one unit and each reign forms another.'

Such historical manuscripts fall into several types, and Boone presents a revised typology of four main classes: secular histories (with migration and imperial history subtypes); dynastic lists (where relationships are political, though also often genetic); genealogies (where they are genetic, though also often political); and victory chronicles. Boone places the Mendoza firmly in the last of these, pointing out that although the manuscript contains genealogical information, it was clearly not conceived as a genealogy, and that it lacks too many kinds of usual information to be a true secular history. It has more information than a typical dynastic list, however, and falls somewhere between that and the secular histories in content: 'it can be compared to a dated dynastic list to which the identities of subjected towns have been added: Part 1 of the Codex Mendoza is a victory chronicle |and~ seems to be the only one of this type to survive' (pp. 44-6). The count of years provides the backbone into which the reigns and conquests of the Aztec rulers are fitted, but in almost all cases the events of a reign are treated as a single block of history, not discriminated by years within the reign; Boone calls this a res gestae, a history 'where the deeds or events of specific individuals or groups outline the story, and time and place are often given but are subsumed' (p. 46).

Chapter 5 (I: 55-79) by Frances Berdan describes 'The Imperial Tribute Roll of the Codex Mendoza', the second major section of the manuscript (folios 18v-54v). This accounting of Aztec tribute for the years 1516-1518 gives us an economic map of the Aztec empire: each tributary province, known by the name of the first town listed, shows the place glyphs of the constituent towns around the margins. The tribute list begins at the top of the page with textiles (cloaks, loincloths, women's skirts and tunics), followed by the battle-costumes used by warriors of different ranks, and accoutrements such as shields and headdresses. Below these in many cases appear more quotidian contributions, bins of agricultural produce including maize, beans, chia and amaranth, and miscellaneous items such as honey, woven mats, feathers for headdresses and gourd bowls for serving food. Some provinces had to provide richer things: the tribute of Tochtepec (folio 46r) included gold diadems and necklaces, strings of greenstone (perhaps jade) beads, and cargoes of cacao beans (the beans served as currency; consumption of the beverage was confined to the elite).

Berdan compares these pictorial lists with those in the Matricula de Tributos, an early 16th-century tribute roll of 33 provinces which is clearly related, and which some scholars believe to be the source of the Mendoza's data. She discusses where tribute went, arguing in favour of the Mendoza being a record of incomings to Tenochtitlan only, and not to either Texcoco or Tlacopan, its nominal partners in the so-called Triple Alliance. The complexity of the Aztec tribute system was such that accounting registers would have been needed: the codex seems to be a portion of one such, for one (albeit the principal) metropolitan city and for a short period just before the conquest. A series of useful maps shows which provinces provided what goods in tribute: bast fibre textiles, raw cotton, quachtli, large plain cotton sheets used for mantles, and oversized ones from the coastal regions where cotton was mainly grown; warrior costumes, from provinces close to the Valley of Mexico, and food staples, as might be expected, from the same area. Chile peppers came from the Huaxteca region on the Gulf Coast, honey from the subtropical valleys of Morelos, cacao from both coastlines, and notably from Xoconochco, on the Pacific coast of Chiapas and Guatemala, the furthest reach of the Aztec imperium. Jade, turquoise, amber, gold, copper and fine feathers came in from the peripheral provinces, not in all cases those which had natural sources of them: clearly some inter-provincial exchange was necessary to put together the required tribute for Tenochtitlan, and this might well have been an intentional policy, to integrate the imperial economy at the regional as well as metropolitan level. Such possibilities may be worth more scrutiny than they receive here.

Edward Calnek, a distinguished specialist in Aztec ethnohistory, has analysed the ethnographic content of the third part of the Codex Mendoza (folios 56/7v-71v). Unlike the victory chronicle and the tribute roll, this description of the Aztec life cycle has no prehispanic model: it was formulated to Spanish requirements, begins with the ritual naming of the newborn and ends with the pulque-drinking pleasures of old age. As the late Donald Robertson pointed out (1959: 101), 'the artist conceived his design in a single, continuous strip rearranged to the pages of the codex', usually in four horizontal zones, and later (I: 160-61) Calnek reconstructs this tira of the mind's eye. Male and female lives are chronicled separately, with each year of childhood from three to fifteen indicated along with appropriate rations (half a maize tortilla per meal at three, two at thirteen). Recalcitrance was punished by jabbing with maguey spines, holding the wilful boy over a fire of burning chile peppers or making him sleep tied up on the ground. Brought to order, he is shown being trained as a warrior. Women had few careers apart from marriage, although they are shown as midwives and curers. Two ends to life are shown on the same page: the vicious executed for adultery, drunkenness and theft, the virtuous being visited and honoured by their grandchildren. The text is didactic and moralizing as well as educative; the emphasis on certain crafts suggests to Calnek that the compilers of this section came from the skilled artisan class of the upper macehualtin, and the avoidance of certain topics (such as sacrifice) an understanding of the Spanish audience the account was written for.

Chapter 7, by Berdan (I: 93-102), analyses glyphic conventions, including calendric and numerical signs, personal names and titles, place-names, and events and actions (these last found mainly in the ethnographic third section). Pictographic, ideographic, and phonetic glyphs are pointed out, and Berdan emphasizes that their variability was probably normal in manuscripts of the period.

Anawalt's comparative analysis of the costumes and accoutrements portrayed (I: 103-50) is the last interpretive chapter before the 11 appendices (all brief except for Berdan's listing of place, personal and title glyphs (I: 163-238)). Anawalt has used the Mendoza before to good effect in her Indian clothing before Cortes (1981), and brilliantly in 'The Emperors' cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances' (1990) to adumbrate the Toltec realm still surviving in the collective consciousness, and proclaimed in textile designs from certain provinces of the Aztec Empire, made using the tie-dye plangi technique. Here she contrasts the apparel shown in the Mendoza with analogous examples from other early Colonial pictorials, explores the significance of the disparities and considers what the selective costume repertory of the Mendoza reveals about the document itself.

Women's clothing is fairly standard, a loose huipilli blouse with a coloured border worn over a skirt; women appear only in part 3, and it seems that here the artists were more concerned to show activities than costume, perhaps because that was what was being asked of them. Anawalt points out that in the Florentine Codex, the greatest ethnographic source on Aztec life, Sahagun details a range of distinctive female costume styles. Males also lack elaborate clothing in part 3: even the hueytlatoani Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin is shown in a plain blue-green tilmatli, in spite of his turquoise diadem. Ritual attire is barely shown because the codex avoids portrayal of sacrifice as far as possible, although religious symbolism is shown in some of the warrior costumes. These, shown as tribute in part 2 of the codex, and in the training of boys in part 3, included the cuextecatl of a newly-fledged captor of two prisoners, the tzitzimitl 'frightful spectre' with its death's-head helmet, and the ocelotl jaguar bodysuit with jaguar-head helmet. Jaguar suits are known on earlier vase paintings from the Maya lowlands, whence many of the jaguar skins used by the Aztec probably originated, and in the highlands on the Cacaxtla murals, painted six centuries before the Aztec era began: warrior orders in Mesoamerica were instituted in the Classic period (AD 250-900), if not before.

Volume II is a page-by-page description of the pictorial folios, beginning with the founding of Tenochtitlan on folio 2r, the initial event in the victory chronicle, and ending with the resolution of eight lives, six executed for infringements of the Aztec social code and two in honoured age, on folio 71r. For part 1 the run of years in each reign, a potted biography of each ruler and an account of his conquests and a list of sources are given; for part 2 a detailed map of the tributary area, a list of towns and tribute and an exegesis of all of these are included. These descriptions are meant to be used with the facsimile in volume III open to the relevant page, and doing so makes the entire scheme of the tributary system and the immense flow of goods from the provinces into Tenochtitlan spring into reality in one's mind. The section on part 3 includes a summary of the content of each folio, then descriptions of the images, each accompanied by a useful line drawing and relevant citations from Sahagun's Florentine Codex.

Volume III is the heart of the enterprise, the facsimile of the Codex Mendoza itself from new colour photographs of the original. It begins with a view of the spine (marked with a large black 'I' and red 'X'), the blank upper board outside and its inside with Andre Thevet's signature, one of several scattered through the manuscript. Another, with the date 1553, appears at the top of folio 1r, the beginning of the Spanish text, along with a Greek inscription in a different hand; this last is not included in the transcription and translation (IV: 7), and although noted by Ruwet (I: 14) is nowhere discussed. To follow the text pages it is necessary to have volume IV open, for the pictorials volume II, flanking the facsimile: one needs a hefty desk to use this edition of the Mendoza as it is intended to be used.

The transcription in volume IV also includes line renditions of the images, each accompanied by the Spanish glosses, which appear in English instead when more than the name of a pueblo is involved, as with 'instruments of war' instead of 'instrumentos de guerra' on folio 10r. (On this same folio, however, the gloss accompanying the falling figure of Moquihuix, defeated king of Tlatilulco, is inexplicably omitted from the transcription). The tribute items are identified, and the glyphs of different quantities translated into arabic numerals: this is definitely a user-friendly edition, with helpful footnotes every now and then such as the explanation that a Caribbean rather than Nahuatl word for chile pepper is being used (IV: 124 for folio 60r), or an aside that 'the annotator may have been rushed, or simply careless' (IV: 124 for folio 60r).

Most editions of prehispanic manuscripts demand a high degree of bibliographic skill as well as expertise in the field concerned: the new Codex Mendoza, while applying rigorous standards of scholarship and employing a bevy of the finest specialists in the field, can actually be read, understood and used by anybody with the desire to know more about the vanished world of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire, recorded by the last generation to know it before it fell.


ANAWALT, P.R. 1981. Indian clothing before Cortes: Mesoamerican costumes from the codices. Norman (OK): University of Oklahoma Press.

1990. The Emperors' cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances, American Antiquity 55: 291-307.

CABRERA, P.F. 1822. Teatro Critico Americano. London: Henry Berthoud; and Suttaby, Evance & Fox. (published and bound with A. del Rio, Desription of an ancient city).

COOPER CLARK, J. 1938. Codex Mendoza: the Mexican manuscript known as the 'Collection of Mendoza', and preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. London: Waterlow & Sons.

KING, E.K. (Lord Kingsborough). 1829-48. Antiquities of Mexico, comprising facsimiles of ancient Mexican paintings and hieroglyphs. London: R. Havell.

PURCHAS, S. 1613. Purchas his pilgrimage. London: W. Stansby for H. Fetherstone.

1625. Hakluytus Postumus: Or, Purchas his pilgrimage. London: W. Stansby for H. Fatherstone.

ROBERTSON, D. 1959. Mexican manuscript painting of the early colonial period: the metropolitan schools. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.
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Author:Hammond, Norman
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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