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This drawing from the San Salvador Codex shows the portraits and names of Indigenous workers next to the amount in pesos (red circles) they were underpaid.

Library Acquires Rare Codex from Central Mexico

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Theft, fraud, harassment, withholding of payment — courts around the world hear these charges all the time. Yet, they’re far from modern. The Library’s newly acquired San Salvador Huejotzingo Codex, for example, documents a legal proceeding from 1571 in which Indigenous Nahuatl officials in central Mexico accused their village’s Spanish administrator of these very same crimes.

The Library purchased the rare codex this fall. It contains new details about the earliest legal structures in Mexico after Spanish colonization and the way Indigenous people used Spanish laws to defend their rights. The codex is one of only six 16th-century pictorial manuscripts from central Mexico known to still exist. With its acquisition, the Library now holds three of the six manuscripts.

“The San Salvador Codex adds significantly to the Library’s collection of Indigenous manuscripts from the early contact period,” said John Hessler, recently retired from the Geography and Map Division. “It is by any measure a world-class acquisition.”

The manuscript has 96 pages on 48 folios and includes six foldout drawings in Mixtec and Nahuatl hieroglyphs in red, yellow, coffee, green, blue and black carbon ink. Written by at least two different Indigenous hands, the hieroglyphs illustrate charges against Alonso Jiménez, the canon of San Salvador, a village to the south of Mexico City. Jiménez, a church official, administered the village on behalf of Spanish colonial authorities.

Two lawsuits arose after a colonial inspector arrived in San Salvador unannounced in 1570 to assess how well it was being managed. The Indigenous people reported mistreatment and harassment of their nobles and accused Jiménez of charges including refusing to pay for the services of artisans, charging for woolen blankets meant to be free, taking more corn than the church was entitled to and stealing textiles.

“It gives you insight into this village, what life was like in this village,” Hessler said. “People are helping the canon make his furniture. They’re farming corn and getting woolen blankets, and they’re also being exploited. We get a real sense of the everyday out of this document, which makes it so important.”

One drawing depicts different amounts of maize, tortillas and other foodstuffs provided to Jiménez as tribute from 1570 to 1571. Another drawing features the faces and names of carpenters not paid for constructing the local church and making Jiménez’s furniture. Yet another represents the value of paintings done for him in tortillas — it shows how many tortillas each painting was worth.

Robert Morris, a G&M acquisitions specialist, alerted Hessler that the codex was available for purchase in 2019. The news came as a complete surprise.

Before the codex came on the market, scholars didn’t know of its existence. “It does not appear on any of the inventories of Mesoamerican manuscripts or Indigenous drawings,” Hessler said.

On top of that, only three colonial-era manuscripts with Indigenous drawings, plans or maps have come up for sale in the past century.

“It is a super-rare opportunity when one gets a chance to buy something like this,” Hessler said. “We have been so lucky in the last five years to purchase two of these, the Codex Quetzalecatzin and also this one.” The Library acquired the 1593 Codex Quetzalecatzin in 2017.

After learning of the San Salvador Codex’s availability, Hessler set out to investigate its authenticity and provenance. He consulted experts, the most prominent being Baltazar Brito Guadarrama, director of Mexico’s National Anthropology Library. Early on, Guadarrama examined a digital copy of the codex provided by the Basil, Switzerland, antiquarian manuscripts dealer conducting the sale.

Hessler traced the provenance of the codex to 19th-century France, where an aristocratic family long owned it. More recently, a Texas collector purchased it, then sold it to the Swiss antiquarian dealer. A few months before the Library purchased the codex, the dealer flew it to the Library, where Conservation Division experts viewed it under ultraviolet light. Library curators, including Hessler, also examined it.

“The manuscript is solid in its provenance,” Hessler said. “It looks like what it’s supposed to be.

Like the San Salvador Codex, one of the Library’s other 16th-century central Mexican pictorial manuscripts — the 1531 Huexotzinco Codex, acquired in the late 1920s as part of the Edward S. Harkness Collection — also narrates a legal dispute. It features testimony against representatives of the Spanish colonial government by the Nahua people of Huexotzinco.

Although it originates beyond central Mexico, yet another colonial-era map at the Library, the Oztoticpac Lands Map, is a Nahua pictorial document drawn for a court case in the city of Texcoco around 1540.

What makes the newly acquired San Salvador Codex remarkable is its completeness, Hessler said. The Huexotzinco Codex presents only the Indigenous side of a dispute, while the Oztoticpac Lands Map is just a map and, again, contains only Indigenous testimony.

The San Salvador Codex, on the other hand, has all the information about the lawsuits involved: the Indigenous testimony in Nahautl, the canon’s defense in Spanish, signatures of the parties, drawings and even the verdict.

The court acquitted the canon on some charges and found him guilty of others. As part of his penalty, he had to pay two pesos of gold to be shared among people who provided him with six jars fig tree oil.

“It’s incredible, both in its detail and in the fact that you have the complete story,” Hessler said. “From that perspective, it is rare.”

The codex arrived at the Library from Basil on Sept. 23. In early October, several experts including Guadarrama came to the Library to view it.

“Guadarrama, who has spent his career looking at manuscripts like this, was moved to tears on seeing it in person,” Hessler said.

The Library is now scanning and cataloging the codex to make it available online.

As for Hessler, he retired from the Library on Oct. 31.

“This was a great way to go out, I have to say,” Hessler said. “In my career, it’s one of the top two or three acquisitions I ever made.”

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Comments (2)

  1. When will the codex be published online for us to view it? Thanks.

    • Hi there,

      No set date, but I know that it’s a priority! It helps to remember the staggering size of the Library’s collections. There are tens of millions of items waiting to be digitized and some of the items can have hundreds of pages. With a special object such as the codex, there are preservation guidelines to follow.


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