This digital edition of the Codex Mendoza represents the first attempt in the world to create a digital resource that permits an in-depth study of a Mexican codex. Through this work the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH; National Institute of Anthropology and History) demonstrates the broad-based utility of this type of edition and the need to seek new forms of representation for such complex systems of knowledge. At the same time, the effort furthers the permanent calling of the INAH to study, preserve, and spread awareness of the cultural patrimony of the Mexican people.

The following description outlines the background, justification, and technical characteristics of the present digital edition.

Mexican Codices

Mexican codices are pictorial and iconic documents that pre-Hispanic cultures (primarily the Mexicas, Mayas, and Mixtecs) used to preserve and transmit their knowledge. They were produced on different types of surfaces, mainly on deerskin or bark paper. Gordon Brotherston (1992) describes the essential characteristics of codices as non-phonetic, although some might record concept-sounds, such as those produced by the Mayas. They are highly flexible in terms of presentation, for they can be structured as a chronicle told through historical events, a map, or a tribute list. This holistic integration of writing, images, and mathematics, clearly breaks with Western notions of writing.

One of the principal characteristics of codices, according to Brotherston, is that the knowledge contained in most of them is not actually recorded in a language that represents a language, as in the case of modern languages. Codices are part of a different communication system that also invoked oral tradition and other semantic elements no longer used today. They are composed of images and icons that work in tandem with the memory, voice, and knowledge of individuals able to read them:

the pictorial histories are closer to being scripts, and their relation to their readers is closer to being that of a play’s script to its actors. The Aztec pictorial histories were read aloud to an audience, they were interpreted, and their images were expanded and embellished in the oration of the full story. The pictorial histories were painted specifically to be the rough text of a performance. (Boone 1994: 71)

In this way, codices can be understood as elements in a performance much more complex than the intimate and solitary act of reading that we practice today. Elizabeth Hill Boone has defined this type of representation and transmission of knowledge among pre-Hispanic cultures as semasiographic systems that represent ideas in iconic form that operates in a way independent from language. The images in the codex functioned as the text in themselves and the relationship between these pictorial elements held the meaning (Boone 1994: 20).

The Codex Mendoza

The Codex Mendoza was created under the orders of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to evoke an economic, political, and social panorama of the recently conquered lands. It was made in 1542 and since 1659 it has been in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

The Codex Mendoza was created under the orders of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to evoke an economic, political, and social panorama of the recently conquered lands. It was made in 1542 and since 1659 it has been in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

Frances Berdan, the author of what is probably the most comprehensive study of the Codex Mendoza tells us: “This unique manuscript combines a history of imperial conquests, a tally of provincial tribute, and an ethnographic chronicle of daily life that collectively constitute the most comprehensive of the known Mesoamerican codices” (Berdan and Anawalt 1997: xi). In this sense, it is a document essential for an understanding of the pre-Hispanic history of Mexico. The Codex Mendoza is also regarded as one of the primary sources that shows how knowledge was represented in Mesoamerican codices before the conquest. The glosses in Spanish on each of the annotated pages are an invaluable source that sheds light on how these cultural objects functioned. The juxtaposition of the iconography and Spanish gloss is not the sole expression of two opposed systems of thought: the codex was painted by Mexican scribes on Spanish paper, instead of indigenous amate bark paper or deerskin (Berdan and Anawalt 1997: xii).

The Digital Edition

The characteristics of the Codex Mendoza make it a unique document for study. In the first place, in form and content it displays an ongoing ambivalence between European and Mesoamerican cultures, Spanish and Nahuatl languages, between semasiographic and phonetic systems, text and images. This dialogue between different registers and ways of storing knowledge takes on greater complexity when we set out to translate it into a digital resource. Unlike a plain text, such as a colonial manuscript, transferring the codex to a digital medium implies completely different efforts.

Miguel León-Portilla (2003) has said that all attempts to translate codices to words or written text have been unsatisfactory because these pictorial sources are extremely complex systems of representing knowledge. León-Portilla raises the question: What could survive if we translate such complex systems of representation into word systems? Taking this query further, can we use digital tools to semantically enrich the representation of these artifacts?

As Miguel León-Portilla has insightfully noted, taking a codex to another format is not a simple task, given all that is lost by transferring the images from their original context and “container” on paper. Nevertheless, León Portilla established a well-targeted analogy between codices and CD-ROMs in his book Códices: los antiguos libros del nuevo mundo. There he tells us that both codices and these new devices contain several diverse ways of reading, combined with sounds and images. Just as codices, CD-ROMs have or had a totalizing purpose by including diverse facets of knowledge (León-Portilla 2003: 67, 117, 122). This analogy suggests that a digital format (the technological equivalent of a CD-ROM today would be a digital application for the Internet or for cellphones) might be the most appropriate medium to represent a codex.

At the same time, one of the most important theoreticians of digital humanities, Willard McCarty, refers to the complexity and loss of meaning that a literary or artistic work can undergo by being translated to a digital medium. “One is the inevitable and radically severe loss-in-translation which these constraints impose on any real-world object, especially severely on works of art or literature” (McCarty 2008: 254)

In both cases, translations as noted by these experts entail a loss. However, unlike what León-Portilla has observed, the translation of the codex is not done on paper, but rather in a dynamic multimedia; unlike what McCarty points out, the translation into a digital medium is not from a static document like a fragment of prose, but rather an object as complex as a pre-Hispanic codex.

This helps us understand the need and the advantages of considering a digital edition of Mexican codices. Of course, this is not intended in any way to diminish the value of printed facsimiles that have been produced and that include critical studies that have enormously enhanced our understanding of codices. The idea is that the digital media that we can make use of today will enable us to better represent and study codices with the aid of new tools and technological developments.

Another aspect of digital editions that is worth exploring and that could easily be applied to the present edition is that the process implied by the development of this kind of resource can give the researcher, editor, or team greater awareness or at least a different perception of the document to be transferred to a digital format. It is a perspective extremely different from that implied by the creation of a printed edition. In the words of Jerome McGann: “electronic tools in literary studies don’t simply provide a new point of view on the materials, they lift one’s general level of attention to a higher order” (McGann 1997: 3).

One of the advantages of the present edition is that the material characteristics can be studied in greater detail by making use of the zoom feature. Another function allows us to link the content of the codex with multimedia elements stored in remote locations that will make it possible to expand understanding of the content.

Similarly, navigating and understanding the codex through maps and geographic representations is an innovative contribution, because it permits comprehension of the codex’s content in spatial dimensions.

Another reason why the digital edition of the Codex Mendoza is of particular significance is that it affords greater accessibility. As mentioned earlier, the Codex Mendoza has been in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University since 1659. The most complete publication and study of the codex was published by the University of California in 1992. The authors, Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, produced a complete facsimile edition that included translations into English and comprehensive studies. In 1997 they published a synthetic, condensed edition entitled The Essential Codex Mendoza. Today the book is out-of-print. Furthermore, it was solely published in English, which means that many Spanish-speaking students cannot access the content. Taking this into consideration, the digital edition of the Codex Mendoza is aimed at a broad range of users, with both general and specialized interests. In addition, the edition will be bilingual, English-Spanish, to make it accessible to a wider public. The scholarly public includes historians, paleographers, as well as students of Mexican or Latin American literature, humanities, sociology, and anthropology. Therefore, the Internet version will provide greater in-depth access, while the iOS version for mobile devices will focus on a more general public.


In the short term:

- Permit access to the Codex Mendoza to those who are interested in familiarizing themselves and studying a fundamental source on Mexico’s past.

- Create an edition of the document for universal accessibility allowing anyone interested in any part of the world to study the codex and thereby expand research on it.

- Create different levels of understanding of the text: materiality, content, and context.

In the long term:

- Create a research resource in the realm of digital resources, where users can add, extract, and share information.

- Apply the knowledge generated by the project to create digital editions of other codices.

- Motivate institutions to share information relevant to an understanding of the codex within the resource.

- Set a precedent for a policy of virtual repatriation of documents important for the Mexican nation.


The design of the present edition was created by taking into account the following considerations:

Multimedia: Given that Mexican codices operate on several semantic levels that come together in the codex, they can best be understood as multimedia devices, akin to what a digital edition can offer. In this sense, the design and structure of the site were conceived to be in sync with these characteristics, enabling the user to connect diverse types of media to the codices. In other words, text (monographs, studies, articles, and bibliography), images, and video can be incorporated into the digital edition of the codex to enrich its content.

Iconic: Elizabeth Hill Boone (1994) points out that the language in codices can be understood as an iconic language. Therefore, the design and navigation in the digital edition were devised to be as iconic as possible. The decision to use an iconic language to navigate the application responds to a synthesis of information while it also references the digital document. This reference does not imply a facile de-contextualization of Pre-Columbian symbols to be used in navigation; instead it is an appropriate context-based selection of iconic emblems.

Simplicity: Independently of the fact that we are dealing with complex cultural artifacts, the design and navigation are intended to be as simple and accessible as possible for the public.

Technological development

The images of the codex were provided by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University at high resolution (600 dpi).

The transcriptions and commentaries from the edition published by Berdan and Anawalt were incorporated to add an interpretational dimension to the codex. In addition the curatorial work of Baltazar Brito and Gerardo Gutiérrez added new materials, interpretations, and perspectives that expanded and updated current understanding of the codex. The same can be said of the digital curatorship of Peter Stokes, an expert in digital manuscripts from King’s College in London, who offered advice geared to optimize the functionality and navigation of the edition.


The digital Codex Mendoza demonstrates the importance of using technological tools to create a more open and accessible means of exploring and studying Mexican codices.

The importance of this work resides in the fact that it is the first endeavor of this kind in the world, while it also shows the INAH’s commitment to finding new ways of thinking, studying, and spreading awareness of Mexico’s cultural patrimony.


BERDAN, F. F. AND P. R. ANAWALT. (1997). The Essential Codex Mendoza. Berkeley: University of California Press.

BOONE, E. H. AND W. MIGNOLO (eds.). (1994). Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham: Duke University Press.

BROTHERSTON, G. (1992). Book of the Fourth World. New York: Cambridge University Press.

LEÓN-PORTILLA, M. (2003). Códices: los antiguos libros del nuevo mundo. Mexico City: Aguilar.

MCCARTY, W. (2008). “What's Going On?" Literary and Linguistic Computing 23(3): 253–261.

MCGANN, J. (1997). “The Rationale of Hypertext.” In Sutherland, K. (ed). Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.