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The Codex Quetzalecatzin comes to the Library of Congress

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring profound changes in the conditions of human existence…
                                                                          –Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

Time and money are spent in collecting the remains in wood and stone, in pottery and in tissue and bone, in laboriously collating isolated words, and in measuring ancient constructions…But closer to the very self, to thought and being, are the connected expressions of men in their own tongues.                                                                                                                       –D. Brinton (1883)

The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, the Codex Ehecatepec and Huitziltepec, or the Charles Ratton Codex, is an extremely rare colored Mesoamerican manuscript and one of the most important indigenous manuscripts from the earliest history of the Americas to become available in recent years. Several months ago the Library Congress acquired this world treasure from a private collector in France, and has now made it available to the public digitally, allowing it to be seen and studied by scholars across the world, for the first time in more than a century.

The Codex Quetzalecatzin. Collections of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

As is typical for an Aztec, or Nahuatl, codex of this early date, it relates the extent of land ownership and properties of a family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are depicted on the manuscript. With Nahuatl stylized graphics and hieroglyphs, it illustrates the family’s genealogy and their descent from Lord-11 Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480, was the major political leader of the region. It is from him the Codex derives one of its many names.

Lord-11 Quetzalecatzin (in red) as depicted on the Codex. Collections of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The manuscript dates from between 1570 and 1595, making it an extremely rare example of a pre-1600 indigenous American codex. It was created at a time when many cartographic histories were being produced both as a part of a Spanish royal investigation into the human and community resources in the Spanish colonies, and when indigenous families were trying to reassert their ancient land claims. These maps were largely made by indigenous painters and scribes, and that is reflected in the structure and make-up of the Codex Quetzalecatzin. Particular features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic illustrative conventions, such as the symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and of course hieroglyphic writing. The glosses on the manuscript, which utilize the Latin alphabet, are clues to its colonial-era composition, as are the names of some of the indigenous leaders such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo.” Naming conventions such as these provide evidence that at least some indigenous elites were granted the Spanish title of nobility (“don”) and had been baptized with Christian names.

Extent of the Lands shown in the Codex Quetzalecatzin. Map created by John Hessler, Geography and Map Division.

Like many Nahuatl codices and manuscript maps of the period it depicts a local community at an important point in their history. On the one hand, the map is a traditional Aztec cartographic history with its composition and design showing Nahuatl hieroglyphics, and typical illustrations. On the other hand, it also shows churches, some Spanish place names, and other images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish rule.  Maps and manuscripts of this kind would typically chart the community’s territory using hieroglyphic toponyms, with the community’s own place-name lying at or near the center. The present codex shows the de Leon family presiding over a large region of territory that extends from slightly north of  Mexico City, to just south of Puebla. Codices such as these are critical primary source documents, and for scholars looking into history and  ethnography during the earliest periods of contact between Europe and the peoples of the Americas,  they give important clues into how these very different cultures became integrated and adapted to each others presence.

The form and color of the codex reflects many of the deep artistic stylizations found in indigenous books made throughout Mesoamerica and uses naturally extracted pigments and dyes, like Maya Blue, and cochineal, to create the bold coloring that strikes anyone who looks at the Codex. Color was an important element in all Nahuatl and Maya books and many early sources survive that narrate how they were prepared and used. Perhaps the most important source for our knowledge of the materials and plants used by ancient Americans in the design and construction of the codices comes from the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana, compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun around 1575-1577. His manuscript gives us deep clues on how the Codex Quetzalecatzin was made and painted and is now commonly known as the Florentine Codex.

Detail of Maya Blue on the Codex Quetzalecatzin. Collections of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The Codex Quetzalecatzin, because of its extreme rarity, and because of its relevance to the early history of European contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress. To get a sense of the manuscripts rarity, it should noted that only around 450 Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts survive to the present day, and less than 100 pre-date 1600. The acquisition of this world treasure by the Library of Congress adds to the rare and world class indigenous manuscripts already in its collections, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex, and we look forward to its study by scholars everywhere.

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