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Aztec Codices: Boturini Codex, Codex Ixtlilxochitl & the Badianus Manuscript

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

After the Conquest of Mexico, a lot of Aztec culture was lost. However, a lot also survived in the form of codices. In this lesson, we'll check our three of these codices and see what they tell us about Aztec life.

Aztec Codices

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. In some cases, that may be true. In others, a picture can be worth a whole lot more. Take, for instance, the Aztec codices.

A codex (plural: codices) is a book, so Aztec codices were books written by the Nahuatl-speaking people of the Aztec Empire. Mostly, these authors were Mexica, the people who lived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. The Mexica did not have a formal written language, but used pictographs painted onto books of bark which served like mnemonic devices to help the reader memorize or recite the information. The authors of the codices, painters called tlacuilos, were extremely revered people within society. After the Conquest of Mexico, Spanish priests started commissioning tlacuilos to create new codices, in an effort to preserve something of Aztec culture before it was lost entirely. So, these pictures are worth a lot more than 1,000 words. They're the history of an entire civilization.

The Boturini Codex

There are about 500 surviving Aztec codices written in the colonial era, but we're just going to look at three today. Let's start with the Boturini Codex, named for an 18th-century Italian collector who once owned it, Lorenzo Boturini Bernaducci.

The Boturini Codex was written way back in the 16th century, sometime between 1530 and 1541. This makes it one of the older colonial codices, dating possibly only a decade from the end of the Conquest. The book itself is made in the traditional amatl style as one long piece of fig-bark paper, folded like an accordion into 21 pages. Unlike most codices, the images are not in color, but only outlined in black ink.

The Boturini Codex details the history of the Aztec pilgrimage to the Valley of Mexico
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So, what do these pictures show? The Boturini Codex is one of the most important surviving chronicles of the history of the Mexica people. Specifically, it details the journey of the Mexica from their mythical homeland of Aztlán, from which they were expelled, and the subsequent journey to the Valley of Mexico. This is where they eventually founded the city of Tenochtitlán (today Mexico City) and started their empire. The Boturini Codex is one of the most important surviving sources of this story. Considering the subject matter, it's also known as la Tira de la Peregrinación, the strip (of long paper) of the pilgrimage.

The Codex Ixtlilxochitl

The Codex Boturini detailed Mexica mythological history, but other codices focused on daily life in the Aztec Empire. One such book was the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, which deals with pre-contact Aztec culture and in particular the ceremonial calendar of the Aztec year. This ritual calendar was created around 1550, and is associated with the Texcoco nobleman Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a Nahua lord baptized by the Spanish.

The Aztec Empire recognized two calendar systems, and the Ixtlilxochitl Codex represents the Xiupohualli, the solar calendar. In this system, the year was divided into 365 days, with 18 months of 20 days and a set of unassociated, unlucky remainder days called the Nemontemi.

A ruler of Texcoco, as he appears in the Codex Ixtlilxochitl
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The codex outlines the months of the year, as well as the holidays and sacred ceremonies of each month. These are all ceremonies that would have been celebrated in Tenochtitlán's central plaza, around the great twin pyramid. Again, this is a pictorial book, so the holidays and months are all represented through pictograms. For example, the first month of the year (Atlacahualco) was shown as a man bending at the knees with open arms, as if making an offering to the Sun. The original owner of the codex also wrote descriptions of each pictogram in Spanish below the image, which has helped historians piece together the Aztec calendar and all of its holidays.

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