For the native Mexica people of Tenochtitlan, the decades after their empire’s fall to Spain in 1521 must have been a nightmare, or at best a time of profound change. The centuries-old capital (upon which the modern-day Mexico City sits) was the seat of the vast Aztec empire, and was one of the largest cities in the world. In the late 1500s, a cadre of its intellectuals undertook the compilation of an extraordinary book.

Their mission was to make a book filled with information essential for survival in the rapidly changing world of colonial Mexico, according to The Codex Mexicanus: A Guide to Life in Late Sixteenth-Century New Spain (University of Texas Press, 2018) by Lori Boornazian Diel. The pictorial manuscript, or codex, was produced by and for the Mexica people, but it’s a mix of Spanish and Nahuatl text and the pictorial script of the Aztecs — which is what the Spanish called the Mexica people.

The codex’s authors were obviously striving for a true representation of the new, blended culture. In the first section, we see a Christian saints’ calendar correlated with Aztec monthly festivals. “I think a main part of it is that the natives have embraced Christianity but they’re also preserving their old ways, so they’re making sure they’re remembering their native calendar and history, and that there’s a new identity they have as Aztec Christians,” Diel told Pasatiempo. “To me, that’s the focus I had to take to make sense of what they did. And the pictorial system of writing communicated the native sphere more than it would the Spanish sphere.”

That pictorial writing can be seen throughout the codex. In one example from a two-page genealogy of the Mexica royal house, the name of a ruler, Acamapichtli (Handful of Reeds), is denoted by a hand, just behind a seated figure, holding three reed sticks. In front, a hieroglyphic compound shows a cactus (noch-tli) on top of a stone (te-tl). The meaning is “Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus,” or Tenochtitlan.

Sometimes the Mexica used hieroglyphics to phonetically “spell” Spanish names. For example, one combination in the calendar pages includes a little adobe wall (xan), a bird (tot-tl), and an arrow (mi-tl), adding up to xan-to to-mi, an approximation of Santo Domingo, or Saint Dominic, a Castillian priest and founder of the Catholic Dominican Order.

Diel had a revelation about a series of glyphs on two pages in the middle of the long history section. She discovered that the codex compilers had used hieroglyphs to record, as a pictorial catechism, a section of the Roman Catholic Articles of Faith, translated into the Nahuatl language from Spanish. “That was kind of a big thing for me because the hieroglyphs had always bothered me, and I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.”

The catechism is made up of hieroglyphic compounds. In the first of the series, we see corn kernels (cin-tli) and beans (e-tl), a bird’s head (toto-tl), footprints, and a rump (tzin-tli). In a simple telling of Diel’s translation, these glyph-words, along with toca for “follow,” add up to In ineltocatzin, or “Here are his believed things,” the Nahuatl beginning of the Articles of Faith.

The five stanzas of that pictorial catechism appear on pages 52 to 54, about halfway through the codex, which has 102 pages on 51 leaves of bark paper. The “pocket book” is quite small — easily portable — at about four inches high and eight inches long.

The book’s second section is devoted to zodiac-based, European medical practices. Early on, there’s a lunar-cycle chart that was used to determine the best days for bleeding or purging. The logic of medical astrology in use among the Nahua is explained by the fact that the population had recently been devastated by an epidemic. “What’s interesting is that the natives themselves had their own medical practices, but those aren’t really in the book,” Diel said. “I suspect it was because what was making them sick were the European diseases, and they probably figured that the European cures would get rid of them.

“Also, I think Spaniards were suspicious of native medicine in terms of the practices. They were very interested in the plants and medicinal properties, but not in the ritual basis of the pre-Conquest healing practices.”

Diel, a professor of art history at Texas Christian University, is the first researcher to write about the entirety of the Codex Mexicanus. Others have referred to it rather trivially as a miscellany, but she asserts that its various sections add up to a most useful reference for natives who were attempting to navigate the new reality of colonial rule. The epidemic and pressures to adopt Christianity were not the only challenges in the latter part of the 16th century. The Spanish rulers were also demanding tribute payments from their subjects.

The codex was a guidebook and also reaffirmed the cultural history and religious beliefs of the Mexica. Most of the document is focused directly on what Diel calls their “epic history.” Included is a genealogy, which, she writes, “communicates the divinity of Tenochtitlan’s rulers by linking them with the sacred past and suggesting that its dynastic line was directly descended from the gods.”

The first page of that genealogy refers to the migratory Mexica ancestors. “Almost all Mexica histories begin with the migration from the north, which some sources date back to the 13th century,” Diel said. “When the empire began, it was like in the 15th century when they were conquering other territories, and there’s a reference in the Florentine Codex [housed in a library in Florence, Italy] about how the ruler burned the old histories and created new ones that would celebrate the Mexica and the Aztec empire more. That codex was compiled by a Spanish friar who interviewed native people, so half is in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and the other half is in Spanish. I reference that source in my work so much because there’s just so much information in it.

“There are some pre-Conquest histories from an area called the Mixteca in Oaxaca, but for the Aztecs themselves none have survived,” she continued. “A lot of them were stored in ancient libraries that would have been connected to the Aztec palace, and I’m sure the Spaniards would have targeted those. And then just two decades later the Spanish are like, ‘We really want to know about Aztec history.’ ”

Although the Codex Mexicanus was new in 1598, when Juan de Oñate led the Spanish colonization of the province of New Mexico, Diel said he and the people in his party probably knew nothing about it.

“Most likely because the Spanish did value education of the native people, my thinking is that whoever created it had to be educated into the Spanish way of life and knowledgeable about Christianity, and then when anyone had a question related to the calendar they could go to the community and consult the book,” she said. “But I’m arguing that it would have been pretty much unknown to most people.”

In her book’s 240 pages, Diel offers great detail on “Time and Religion in the Aztec and Christian Worlds” (chapter 2), as well as on the history of the Mexica people, astrology, and medicine. The book’s 117 images include photographs of every page of the Codex Mexicanus. ◀

The Codex Mexicanus: A Guide to Life in Late Sixteenth-Century New Spain by Lori Boornazian Diel is published by University of Texas Press, 240 pages, $55.