October 26, 2012

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book VI: Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book VI is concerned with rhetoric and moral philosophy. It contains texts that Sahagún collected around 1547, in the earliest stage of his research into indigenous culture, from oral recitations by Nahua elders. Known as Huehuetlahtolli (Ancient word), these texts embodied, according to Sahagún, “the rhetoric, moral philosophy, and theology of the Mexican people, in which there are many curious things exhibiting the beauties of the language and very delicate things relating to the moral virtues.” Although he was repelled by Aztec religion, Sahagún was deeply impressed by the wisdom and beauty of the ancient texts, and he quotes at length, for example, a talk delivered by a Nahua father to a daughter who has reached the age of reason. An illustration of parents exhorting their children is at folio 80r. In the original binding, Book VI was the beginning of the second volume. It thus opens with a dedication to Rodrigo de Sequera, commissary general of the Franciscan Order and a great admirer of Sahagún’s work. A similar dedication originally was placed at the beginning of Book I, but it subsequently was torn out and survives only in a later copy of the codex.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book XI: Natural Things

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book XI, the longest in the codex, is a treatise on natural history. Following the traditional division of knowledge common to many European encyclopedic works, the Florentine Codex deals with “all things divine (or rather idolatrous), human and natural of New Spain.” Thus, having dealt with higher beings and humans, Sahagún turns to animals, plants, and all types of minerals. For the discussion of medicinal herbs and minerals, Sahagún drew upon the knowledge of indigenous physicians, creating what the scholar Miguel León-Portilla has called a kind of pre-Hispanic pharmacology. The discussion of animals draws upon Aztec legends about various animals, both real and mythical. The book is an especially important source for understanding how the Mesoamericans used natural resources before the arrival of the Europeans. Many animals raised in Europe, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and horses, were unknown to Mesoamerican peoples. Instead they raised rabbits, xoloitzcuintli (a breed of hairless dog), birds, and, in particular, turkeys. They supplemented their diet with wild boars, deer, tapirs, birds, frogs, ants, crickets, and snakes. Other animals were hunted chiefly for their skins, such as the jaguar and other felines, or for their feathers. Book XI contains numerous illustrations of animals, including mammals (jaguar and armadillo), birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book VII: The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of the Years

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book VII is about the sun, the moon, and the stars. It contains an account of the creation of the sun and the moon in what the Aztecs called the “fifth age of the world,” which Sahagún drew from ancient poems and legends shared with him by the elders. The illustration at folio 228v depicts the rabbit in the moon. The ancient Mesoamericans claimed that the outline of a rabbit could be seen in a full moon, a visual effect that results from the combination of dark spots caused by the alteration of rises and craters on the moon’s surface, but which they explained mythologically. In the Aztec account, before the creation of the day the gods met at Teotihuacán to create the sun so that it might illuminate the world. For this to happen, someone had to sacrifice himself. The god Tezcuciztecatl (also seen as Tecciztecatl) volunteered, but another god was also required. Everyone else was afraid and no one stepped forward, so they turned to Nanahuatzin, who was covered with pustules, and he accepted gracefully. Both gods prepared themselves for sacrifice by doing penance for four days. Tezcuciztecatl performed self-sacrifice using feathers, gold, and sharp fragments of precious stones and coral, while Nanahuatzin used humble materials and offered up his blood and pus. A large fire was lit and all the gods gathered around it at midnight, but when the moment came for Tezcuciztecatl to throw himself into the fire to be transformed into the sun, he hung back. Nanahuatzin, in contrast, bravely threw himself into the fire and began to shine. Only then did Tezcuciztecatl, who was envious, follow suit to be transformed into a second sun. The gods had not reckoned on there being two lights of equal brightness in the sky, so one of them took a rabbit and hurled it into the second sun to diminish its brightness, which is how it came to be the moon, with the shape of a rabbit visible on its face.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book VIII: Kings and Lords

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book VIII is concerned with kings and nobles, forms of government, elections of rulers, and the customs and pastimes of the nobility. In addition to being interested in these topics for their own sake, Sahagún was motivated by linguistic considerations to describe as many aspects of Aztec life as he could. It was only by doing so, he explained, that he could bring “to light all the words of this language with their literal and metaphoric meanings and all their manners of speech and the greater part of their antiquities, good and evil.” Book VIII is rich in illustrations relating to the Aztec way of life. The paintings at folios 219, 261, and 280–81 relate to clothing. They show the loom, how clothing was made, and textile patterns worn by the nobility. The majority of the Aztec population could only wear clothes made from agave yarn, undyed and without adornment, but the nobles wore colored cotton clothes decorated with shell or bone-and-feather patches. The illustration on folio 269r shows the game patolli, described by Sahagún as similar to dice, in which the players gambled jewels and other possessions by letting fall three large beans onto a large cross painted on a mat. The illustration on folio 292v depicts tlachtli, a ball game originally linked to the Mesoamerican view of the cosmos as the product of a clash between opposing but complementary forces, such as life and death, day and night, fertility and barrenness, and light and darkness. The struggle was reproduced in the game, as two teams representing opposing cosmic forces faced each other on a court, striving to bounce a heavy rubber ball as many times as possible against the side walls of the court. According to Sahagún, the game was a diversion of the nobility that had lost its earlier religious significance.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book IX: The Merchants

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book IX is about merchants, officials responsible for gold and precious stones, and feather working. The pochteca (merchants) were an important group in Aztec society. They undertook long journeys in search of precious commodities and goods, and they were valued for the information they gathered in the lands they visited, which the Aztecs often used to plan wars of conquest. Pack animals and the wheel were unknown in Mesoamerica, so goods were carried on foot by tlameme (porters), who placed their loads in a cacaxtli (wooden frame), which was supported by a cord that went around the porter’s shoulders and forehead. Folio 316r contains an illustration showing porters with their loads. Arte plumario (feather art) was one of the minor arts practiced in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Feather-art products were reserved for the Aztec elite—the king, nobles, priests, and warriors—who wore items such as cloaks, fans, and headdresses principally for ceremonies. Folio 370r has an illustration showing artisans at work on a headdress. Also discussed in Book IX is smoking, which the Mesoamericans did during banquets and religious ceremonies, using both pipes that were filled with herbs and grasses or by smoking cigars made by rolling up tobacco leaves. Smoking is depicted on folio 336r.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book X: The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book X is about Aztec society and covers such subjects as the virtues and vices of the people, food and drink, the parts of the human body, and illnesses and remedies. In this book, Sahagún describes the process of making chocolate from cacao beans, which is also depicted on folio 71v. The beverage made from pure cacao and spices was considered the greatest delicacy, and was reserved only for the nobles. Book X also discusses agriculture and food preparation. The Aztec economy was based mainly on agriculture. Farming was the responsibility of the commoners, who cultivated land assigned to them and the land of the nobles and rulers. The staple crop was corn, from which the Aztecs made a kind of bread. Preparing food was the task of women, and is depicted on folio 315r. While the commoners had a very simple diet, the elite ate richer and more abundant fare. Sahagún includes a long list of dishes flavored with different sauces. The last chapter in Book X, on “the nations who have come to inhabit this land,” includes two lengthy texts, derived from Sahagún’s questioning of Nahua elders, on the history of Mesoamerica. One tells of Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs; the other gives an overview of the cultural evolution of the Nahua peoples.