The Codex Mendoza

Dr. Baltazar Brito and Dr. Gerardo Gutiérrez.

The Codex Mendoza is the most significant and iconic document from sixteenth-century New Spain that describes the empire of the huey tlatoani (emperor) Moctezuma Xocoyotzin on the eve of the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World. This document records the history of the expansion of the empire under the Triple Alliance through conquests of each of its rulers and the organization of almost 400 subjected altepetl or cities in thirty-eight tribute regions covering a 200,000 square-kilometer (77,220 square-mile) area. It would be fair to say that the study of the structure of the empire has been possible largely thanks to the existence of this codex and its associated documents. The exact date of the making of the Codex Mendoza is open to debate, but a viable hypothesis posits that between 1541 and 1542 Viceroy Mendoza ordered master of indigenous paintings Francisco “Gualpuyoguacal” to create it, while the Spanish glosses were probably added by canon Juan González. Despite any uncertainty surrounding by who and when the codex was manufactured, the question of why it was made is clearer. Essentially, it obeyed the ongoing need of the Spanish monarch and officials to know more about the nature of its newly conquered lands. To fulfill this mission, the manuscript was structured according to European reading formats and was profusely glossed in Spanish.

Once it was completed, the Codex Mendoza was sent to the Spanish monarch. However, it never reached its final destination, because it was intercepted by French buccaneers. And so, cosmographer André Thévet (1516–1590) recorded it as in his power in 1553. Writer and diplomat Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616) took it to England in 1588 and following his death, his library was inherited by cleric Samuel Purchas (1577–1626). Sometime later English jurist and scholar John Selden (1584–1654) acquired the codex for his collection of Asian manuscripts. His collection was acquired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1659. The rediscovery of the Codex Mendoza for Mexican historiography has been attributed to noted Edward King, Viscount of Kingsborough (1795–1837), who published it in his magnificent multi-volume Antiquities of Mexico.

Traditionally, it has been believed that the Codex Mendoza was structured into three sections. The first part contains the foundation of Tenochtitlan by Mexica tribal leaders; the chronological list of nine emperors, beginning with Acamapichtli to end with Moctezuma II, each emperor represented beside the toponyms or place names of the cities he conquered during his reign which totaled 214 altepetl in addition to 22 garrisons. The second part records the tribute payments rendered to the empire by thirty-eight provinces. The third part is an account of the stages or ideals in the everyday life of the Mexicas. It includes ceremonies surrounding birth, education, labor or tequio, marriage, warfare, and service performed to the bureaucratic structure of the empire, ending with withdrawal from civil life in old age.