SpeakerBarbara A. Tenenbaum

Institution Library of Congress

SubjectHuexotzinco Codex (Part of the Harkness Collection, Manuscript Division)

This manuscript is considered by the Library of Congress as one of its Top Treasures. Scholars call the “books” fashioned by Mesoamericans “codex or codices in plural.” A codex is usually a drawn manuscript that opens like a screen-fold rather than bound in the way to which Europeans were accustomed.

This particular manuscript, 8 sheets of amatl paper made from tree bark, was created by the people of the town of Huexotzinco in the present state of Puebla, Mexico at around 1531. It was made at the request of Conquistador Hernán Cortes as part of a lawsuit he filed against the First Audiencia of New Spain. Cortes had relied heavily on indigenous warriors such as those from Huexotzingo in his battle against the hated Aztec regime. Following the defeat of the Aztecs in Mexico City, Cortes took the responsibility of converting the people of Huexotzinco to Christianity for which he was supposed to receive their tribute. But when he was in Spain during the years 1528-1530, the Audiencia collected the tribute instead and, according to the indigenous peoples, asked much more of them than was previously required.

What makes this Huexotzinco Codex so extraordinary is that it contains what scholars consider to be the first pictorial representation of the Madonna and Child in the New World. Perhaps it was put there deliberately by the Indian artists to help them make their case by showing the Crown and Spanish jurists just how civilized they were and that they were devoted Christians. In other words, that Cortes had done right by them. The Codex contains pictorial representations of exactly how much tribute was demanded so that those judging the case could determine whether their arguments were valid.

Cortes and the people of Huexotzinco were victorious both in Mexico and in Spain and in 1538 King Charles agreed with that determination and ordered that two-thirds of all tributes bestowed had to be returned.