Some thoughts on Sahagun and the Florentine Codex

Working in a field like the Atlantic World means I have access to all sorts of sources! A couple of days ago, I was looking at the role of the Dutch Golden Age in mediating cultural transmission through a number of their more popular cartographers. Today, I’ve backtracked about a century from the middle seventeenth-century to look at the Florentine Codex, the product of a Franciscan friar named Bernadino de Sahagun. The Codex was compiled over the last four decades of Sahagun’s life. As a result, the document is some 2400 pages, compiled into twelve books, which focuses on the pre-colonial life and beliefs of the Nahua people. Sahagun’s methods are so reminiscent of modern ethnography that it’s caused some of the most accomplished historians of this time period to crown him the first anthropologist of the “New World.”

One of the phenomenal elements of this document is its dedication to being a true Atlantic project: if one looks at the varying digital scans offered by the Laurenziana Library in Florence, they’ll see that Sahagun wrote both in Spanish and Nahuatl, allowing him to render the information given to him as faithfully as possible.


There are too many methodological innovations that Sahagun brought to the table. He took his information and verified it from a number of sources ranging from elders, cultural authorities and women, and used that plurality to determine confidence in the information. He worked extensively with his students while at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, allowing them to contribute labor and research to the project, while crediting them. He built questionnaires, but abandoned them where different methods allowed for more valuable information. He analyzed the attacks of Cortés and others from the perspectives of those who were defeated. He adapted methods to the means of information transmission within Nahua culture.

I could scarcely begin to give a summary of the Codex’s contents. Suffice it to say, the twelve books cover a number of topics ranging from the gods of the Nahua to the natural world surrounding its state. While Sahagun had given the project the tentative title of La Historia Universal de las Cosas Nueva España, only one of the twelve books is about history: book twelve gives an account of the conquest as told by Sahagun’s subjects some forty years removed from the events of Cortés. The other ones are loosely organized based on varying facets of Nahua life and culture. Full table of contents are available from a number of sources.

What interests me about the document more than anything else is something that French historian Serge Gruzinski would later term “The Mestizo Mind.” The post-conquest period was integral to the development of what might be called a mode of “crude integration.” This was an integration of economies, culture, religion and identity that was done primarily on the terms and conditions of the colonists. I’ve explored this idea with more specific reference to colonial modes of organization: a large element of encomienda labor was specifically geared to creating relations that would allow for the introduction of proper civilization to Indigenous subjects. Between the point of contact and the end of the sixteenth century, there was a crisis of structure and organization largely situated in issues of soteriology that reflected a broader sense of confusion for Europe. Who were these people? How on earth did they get there? What does this mean about God and the plan?

Sahagun’s efforts were meant to help guide future work in the process of integration, but we must be careful how we situate his goals. Histories of integration in popular imagination often start with Brown vs. Board of Ed. (1954) and flesh out a history of struggle with the idealized goal of ending “separate but equal” doctrines that were seen as the main problem. Sahagun is not part of this tradition; while he falls on the side of the coin with Bartolomé de las Casas of Europeans concerned with listening to Indigenous subjects, he is also part of the broader colonial project that focused on the resolution of a European state. As a Franciscan friar, Sahagun was directly invested in fulfilling the mandates of earlier papal decrees, which gave the colonies to Spain on grounds of evangelizing purposes. The magnum opus of his career was intent on making conversation between Nahua subjects and Hispanic priests easier to maintain.

This was an unequal integration; contributions for the European perspective often focused on the development of civilization; the influence of Indigenous or African contributions to the Mestizo Mind were seen as detractions from such a development. As an example, Farriss documents the practice of Maya placing idols into the shrines of Saints as a method by which the Maya made sense of European practice given with their background; through the teachings of the priests–and as the results of later catechisms would bear out–the Maya had understood the cults of Sainthood as being similar to their own polytheistic take on religion. Of course, this was unacceptable, regardless of which set of Indigenous peoples constituted the subject. This was best demonstrated by the infamous auto-de-fe of Maní, in 1563. Fray Diego de Landa destroyed nearly all evidence of Maya history, as well as beating and burning thousands of individuals. Integration between the Hispanic–and more broadly, European–narratives and Indigenous identity was often a violent and coercive process.

We saw a tendency in the maps of Visscher to re-inscribe Indigenous populations into a narrative bound by the iconography of old; so Rome and Mexico City were juxtapositions, while followed by a number of Roman Emperors. In a similar sense, Book I of Sahagun’s Codex describes the varying gods and goddesses of the Nahua belief systems, and continually roots these gods and goddesses with Christian and Roman comparisons. So Tonantzin, Mother Earth, is compared with Eve by Sahagun, and later her sacred spaces become tied to those of Lady Mary. Huitzilopochtli is compared with Hercules as patron god of war, and human sacrifice with a number of cults focused on the relationship of the dead in war and his worship.

“otro hercules” top left corner.

These comparisons served two purposes. First they gave the friars of later generations a point of familiarity amongst a language with no linguistic recognition to the classics. A number of conversion practices–although they had to be careful lest Inquisition accuse them of heresy–used comparative methods to get ideas about the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and others across to Nahua and other Indigenous Subjects. Second, it furthered the continual project of re-inscribing the unknown into known territory. Where Indigenous populations had no history recognizable to the new colonial powers, a continued emphasis on Roman origins allowed for new means of legible history. To this end, a number of Europeans writing about their experiences amongst Indigenous populations would use these comparative methods to “explain away” the problem of histories. Fernandez Gonzalo de Oviedo would suggest, for example, that these groups may have been one of the lost tribes of Israel, which lost itself to the influence of Satan upon arrival in these geographic spaces. Jose de Acosta would (correctly) predict that a land bridge must have existed (incorrectly) within biblical times, to allow for the population of these regions.

Even where interest in Indigenous populations was rooted in history on their own terms, it was often loaded with confirmation biases. It is in this sense that Ramón Pané would (hopefully) write about a “monotheistic spirit” that the Taíno of Hispaniola held about the spiritual landscape upon their island. Bartolomé de las Casas would point out that, if the rumors of human sacrifice were true, it would mean the Nahua would be perfect Christians, as they demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice humans in order to ensure the satisfaction of the gods.

Links to pursue this further: J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble have successfully translated the entirety of the work into English, and while the volumes are expensive, most public libraries should be able to find a copy.

But who needs translations when we have the internet? The Laurenziana in Florence has offered digital high-resolution scans for anyone with an internet connection! Take it upon you to do some serious iconographic analysis!

For context in which this book came out, I don’t think James Lockhart’s The Nahuas After the Conquest has been displaced yet as the comprehensive examination of this time of insecurity and infancy for colonial relations between the Nahua and Spain.


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