Introduction to the Mexican Manuscripts

A couple of months ago I wrote about the Maya manuscripts– a collection of four codices from the Maya region that speak to the values of the Maya. Today’s blog post deals with a related– and much broader– topic: the Mexican manuscripts. 

Although the Maya manuscripts do all appear to come from within the borders of modern-day Mexico, they are not the same as the manuscripts crafted in Central Mexico. Different cultures created these manuscripts, namely, the Aztec/Mexica and Mixtec. 

How are the Mexican manuscripts different from the Maya codices?

There are key differences between the manuscripts crafted in Central and Southern Mexico (Oaxaca, mainly) and those made by the Maya. The first– and perhaps most obvious– difference is their varying style. The angularity of the Mexican manuscripts stands in stark contrast to the flowing calligraphic style of the Maya codices. The iconography (visual images and symbols) is also completely different, in order to represent a more Aztec or Mixtec way of life. 

Another difference between the two categories of scripts is the type of writing system used to communicate the message of the manuscript. As I have written about elsewhere, the Maya had a complex logosyllabic hieroglyphic writing system that they had used for centuries at the time the codices were created. Central Mexico, however, employed a very different system. Pictography was the preferred communication method, and although it does use notation symbols such as day signs and numbers, the system is not nearly as detailed as the Maya hieroglyphic writing system.

Why do we have more manuscripts from Central and Southern Mexico?

I mentioned above that the topic of the Mexican manuscripts is a broad one. This is mainly due to the fact that there are many more manuscripts from Central Mexico. Although all Precolumbian books were considered dangerous by the Spanish, there was not a mass book-burning in Central Mexico that equalled the size of the one carried out by Diego de Landa in the Yucatan peninsula.

As the capital of the new Spanish empire, Central Mexico became a collecting hub for all important artifacts and objects that would be sent to Spain or kept by conquerors. It was also the site of the creation of many more manuscripts that the Spanish required of their Aztec subjects, in order to explain the Mexica view of the world to the king. Because of this, many of the manuscripts that we have today are not actually pre-Hispanic, even if they deal with material from before the arrival of the Spanish. They frequently appear in a blended style: Mesoamerican content represented in both indigenous and European painting styles. This also means that we have to bear in mind that sometimes the retelling of history might be different from what actually happened. 

What kind of manuscripts have been found? 

Section of the Codex Borgia, a divinatory codex. Reproduction of original by Richard Gutherie, image property of Mesoamerican Studies Online.

The treatment of the Mexica by the Spanish was obviously not commendable in any way. However, thanks to the Spaniards’ curiosity, there are manuscripts on every topic under the sun– from calendrics to ritual to cosmology to trade, even sections on the occupations of Mexica citizens and how to properly discipline children. 

The main categories of the Mexican manuscripts are listed below. I’ve included a few examples, and I’ll periodically highlight specific examples of each Mexican manuscript! 

  • Divinatory codices: used for calendars, rituals and reading the fates of people and marriages
  • Pictorial histories: recorded histories of important people, cultures and dynasties
  • Maps: show territories and pilgrimage routes
  • Lienzos: record histories and also occasionally show maps
Section of page 20 of the Codex Nuttall, a pictorial history. Image courtesy of the public domain.

In the end, these manuscripts are what have contributed to the wealth of knowledge that we have about the Mexica and Mixtec. Imagine just how much more we would know about the rest of Mesoamerica with more codices available for study!

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