Codex Mendoza: History & Origin

Instructor: Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer is a third year PhD student in women's studies and has a a Master's degree in History.

This lesson will explore the history of the Codex Mendoza, a 16th century Aztec manuscript that originated in what is now Mexico. It details the history and everyday life of the Aztecs.

The Codex Mendoza

Aztec lords. The founding of the fabled city of Tenochtitlan. War and conquest. These are some of the subjects covered in the fascinating 16th century manuscript called the Codex Mendoza. The creation of the codex and its subsequent history, including how it got to Europe and was captured by French pirates, before eventually ending up at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is a fascinating one.

The Creation of the Codex

A codex is a word that comes from the Latin word caudex meaning ''tree trunk'' or ''book'' (one formed from wooden tablets). It refers to an old book with sheets that are stitched together. This is the earliest form of a book, and the Codex Mendoza is a spectacular example of one. It gives us a view into the world of the Aztecs — one of the indigenous groups that lived in what is now Mexico from the 14th to 16th centuries — and is one of our best sources on the Aztec Empire.

The Codex Mendoza was created around 1542 and was commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza, the (first) viceroy of Mexico between 1535-1550. It was created just 20 years after the conquest of Mexico by Spanish forces, meaning that the creators were able to provide information about the pre-conquest Aztec Empire.

Antonio de Mendoza

De Mendoza meant the codex to be a gift for Emperor Charles V of Spain to provide him with information about his new subjects. It was painted on European paper and bound in the European style, but the pictures were drawn and painted in the style of the region by members of the Aztec people. The inscriptions, however, were written in Spanish by a Spanish priest who spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. He was thus able to ask questions about the pictures in order to provide clear explanations for the emperor in Spanish.


The codex is divided into three sections.

  • Section 1 is a copy of a lost Aztec chronicle detailing the lords of Tenochtitlan (now known as Mexico City) from circa 1325 to the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521.
  • Section 2 is a list of 39 provinces containing more than 400 towns that had been conquered by the Aztecs and were required to pay tribute.
  • Section 3 is a ''day in the life'' of the Aztecs, showing their daily activities, including the training of children.

A page from the third section of the Codex Mendoza showing the punishments and chores of children

The first page of the codex is a picture of the founding of Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco. Legend had it that the Mexica tribe (or the Aztecs, as we know them) would find an eagle sitting on a cactus growing out of a stone. The sun god Huitzilopochtli told the Mexica that when they saw this, they would know where to build their city. In the image from the codex, the people surrounding the eagle represent the 10 founders of the city. The figure directly to the left of the eagle is Tenoch, the lord after whom the city was named.

First page of the Codex Mendoza
codex frontspiece

A version of this image, of the eagle sitting on a cactus growing out of a rock, can still be seen today on the Mexican flag.

The flag of Mexico
Mexican flag

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