Bernardino de Sahagun: Biography & the Florentine Codex

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Bernardino de Sahagun's Florentine Codex is one of the richest historical sources on the language and culture of the Aztecs. This lesson explores Sahagun's life, as well as the creation of the Codex.

Bernardino de Sahagún: Scholar of the Aztecs

In 1492, Spain transformed from a small European power into a global empire seemingly overnight. Millions of people in the Americas, all with their own histories and cultures, fell under Spanish control. As Spain consolidated control over its territories, it sought out information on the wildlife, culture, religion, and history of the Americas. Central to this effort was Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who composed one of the first European manuscripts on the history, culture, religion, and language of the Aztec people.

This manuscript, known as the Florentine Codex or the Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), remains one of the best existing resources on Aztec culture, as well as an interesting case study in how sixteenth-century Europeans approached science and history.

A portrait of Bernardino de Sahagun
Bernardino de Sahagun

Early Life and Arrival in Mexico

Bernardino de Sahagún was born in Sahagún, Spain in 1499. After studying at the University of Salamanca and joining the Franciscan order, Sahagún went to New Spain (modern-day Mexico) in 1529. There, he joined the college of Santa Cruz in Tlaltelolco. In addition to learning the Aztec language, Nahuatl, Sahagún instructed indigenous students in Spanish culture. He took a unique approach to converting the indigenous Aztec peoples to Christianity, believing that the best way to make inroads into Aztec communities was to understand their culture and language. Sahagún's superior at the university, who appreciated Sahagún's mastery of the Aztec language and conversion methods, instructed him to construct a history of the Aztec people.

The Florentine Codex: An Aztec Encyclopedia

Starting in the 1540s and continuing for approximately seven years, Sahagún researched Aztec history and culture. In addition to enlisting the help of his indigenous students at Santa Cruz, he sent questionnaires to the leaders of towns in central Mexico, asking them about their town's culture and religion. The sending of questionnaires was a common Spanish bureaucratic practice during the Spanish colonial period, but Sahagún was among the first Spanish officials to do so. Sahagún and his students wrote down their responses in Nahuatl, which was a pictorial form of writing. They then phonetically transcribed the Nahuatl using Latin letters. Finally, Sahagún translated the Nahuatl transcriptions into Spanish.

A drawing of Aztec warriors in the Florentine Codex.
Aztec Warriors in Florentine Codex

Sahagún organized the Florentine Codex similar to a modern-day encyclopedia. Each page had two columns, with the original Nahuatl text on the right and Sahagún's Spanish translation on the left. Containing over 1,800 illustrations combined, each of the Codex's twelve books covered a different subject matter, including Aztec history, the major gods, the Aztec social structure, and Aztec beliefs about the natural world. Using this easily accessible reference, European scholars could fully engage with Aztec language and culture. Several decades later in 1569, the Codex was finally completed and taken to Spain by Fray Rodrigo de Sequera, commissary general of the Franciscans.

This drawing in the Florentine Codex depicts an Aztec marketplace.
Aztec merchant in Florentine Codex

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