Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Versión en Español

"Bernardino de Sahagun and the Codex Florentine"

The major work by Friar Bernardino de Sahagun, his history in NahuatI and Spanish, or, as it is known today, the Codex Florentine, is once again attainable. This is a new facsimilar edition that Casa Editorial Aldus co-editing with Libros Mas Cultura cleanly brings forth. In comparison with the first reproduction made by the Mexican government in 1979, this edition is not presented in three volumes, but four, just like it appeared in the original. We know this because Sahagun made it a point in his dedication to priest Friar Rodrigo de Seguera, his protector, at the beginning of Book IV of the mentioned work. There he said:

"You have here, observant Father, a work worthy of the eyes of a king, which
was obtained in staunch and lengthy struggle. This is Book IV of said work.
There are other six after this, all of which complete a dozen,
distributed among four volumes."

The new facsimile reproduces, consequently, the old and very valuable form that this work had, and which is nowadays kept in the Medicean-Laurentian Library in Florence.

Lucky are those who can acquire it or have access to it in libraries and other repositories where copies of this codex might been kept. This is because in it we have the final presentation, thought by Sahagun, of the fruits of lengthy research. These were done by him among the elders and the wise Nahuas from several places of the central high plateau -Tepepuico, TIateloIco, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan- helped in addition by several of his old native students.

The long-living Friar Bernardino, who was a contemporary to Charles V and Philip II, had been born in 1499, in Sahagun Village, in the kingdom of Leon. The Benedictine Monastery of Saint Facundo and Saint Metodio flourished there in this important cultural center. Proof of this is offered by the publication, a little after Bernardino embarked to Mexico, of an analytical index of all of Aristotle's works, prepared with great care by Abbey Alfonso Ruiz.

When Bernardino was quite young, he moved to Salamanca to study in its famous university. There he learned Latin and old history and deepened his knowledge in history of Spain, as well as in several branches of law, philosophy, and theology. While he was still enrolled in this university, which was the center of Spanish Renaissance, he decided to follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi and took the holy orders of the Franciscans. He was ordained priest in 1527; two years later, he chose as destiny to go to the newly conquered New Spain. He would spend most of his life there, until his death in Mexico City in 1590.

The first years he stayed in Mexican land he worked as an evangelist among Nahua groups from the central parts of the country. There he learned their language and began his knowledge of their culture. He thought this was the best way to obtain their conversion into Christianity. In 1536, when the Imperial School of the Holy Cross of TIateloIco, sponsored by Charles V, was formally inaugurated, he was assigned as one of the first teachers. The purpose for founding this new school was to give academic and religious training to young Nahuas, mostly, although not exclusively, sons of pipiltin. nobles.

Bernardino would be connected to this school for the rest of his life, except for a few intervals. There he formed four of his most distinguished disciples, who collaborated later with him in his research on Nahua language and culture. Their names are Antonio Valeriano, from Azcapotzalco; Martin Jacobita and Andres Leonardo, from TIateloIco; and Alfonso Vejarano, from Cuauhtitlan.

Insofar as a meeting point for intercultural exchange, the School was one of the best endeavors that the meeting of two worlds brought forth. Young natives learned Latin, grammar, history, music, Holy Scripture, religion, and philosophy. Likewise, there were native teachers. Among other things, they gave lessons on medicine, traditional pharmacology; the art of codex painting; history of Nahua people, and other subjects as well.

In the School, at the time of the great plague that afflicted New Spain during 1545 and the next year, Bernardino effected his early research. Fruit of this research was the translation of forty huehuehtlatolli, testimonies of the old word. Here we find the most elevated of the Nahua wisdom. These texts were included later in his General (or universal) history of the things of New Spain, that is, as Book VI of what we know as the Codex Florentine.

Some years later, back in the School, as he had once more worked as an evangelist in several towns of the central high plateau, Sahagun produced another research of great importance. He asked elder natives , who had been witnesses to the Conquest, to give their testimonies about it. The group of texts he compiled integrated Book XII, that is, the last one of the Codex Florentine. These and other testimonies of a different source were used to produce the "Vision of the Vanquished".

Sahagun continued for some years his work as a teacher at the School of the Holy Cross of TIatelolco. In 1558, he himself tells about, in his General history..., how he received from Friar Francisco de Toral, newly appointed Provincial of the Holy Gospel, the order to do research about the old history or the Nahua people and the secrets of their language. This assignment and the project began by Bernardino marked the beginning of the long process of research that ended in 1576. Then he organized in twelve books the transcription of the largest part of the texts in NahuatI compiled by him and his collaborators in Tepepulco, TIatelolco, and Mexico.

He accompanied this great documentary group with a version in Spanish which is not literal, but periphrastic. In other words, he extended in some parts what he expresses in the NahuatI version in order to make it more comprehensive to his European readers and, in others, he shortened it by suppressing what he thought was unnecessary to publish in Spanish. The result of this work, as is expressed by Sahagun in the Introduction to book VI of the Codex Florentine, was a work in two columns with numerous illustrations, most of them in color. Said work was known as General (or universal) history of the things of New Spain. We name it also today as the Codex Florentine because, as is referred before, it is kept in the Medicean-Flaurentian Library in Florence.

Now that this new facsimilar edition is being published, I have added at the beginning the research where I refer this long process of investigations, revisions, organization, as well as its final structure in books and chapters. In order to provide means to a better comprehension of what the Codex Florentine is, I have entitled this work About the orality and the codexes to the General history. With these words I wish to emphasize that the so called General (or universal) history of the things of New Spain had as primary sources the orality of the native elders and the codexes they presented to Sahagun.

Make a note that I published this work as a lengthy article in volume 29 of Studies on the NahuatI Culture, yearbook edited by the Historic Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. This volume appeared in 1999 in honor of the 500th anniversary of Bernardino's birthday. I reproduce it here, duly authorized, because I consider it an introduction that gives light on how Sahagun's research was conducted until said testimonies were integrated in his final work, which is no other than the Florentine Codex. This work is the fruit of the endeavor and knowledge exercised by Sahagun; concerning its literal content, it is the result of what the elder natives, who had a deep knowledge of their culture, transmitted to Sahagun.

The presentation of this work makes unnecessary to continue telling in this Introduction about the life and times of Friar Bernardino from 1558 on, when he moved to Tepepulco, in the nowadays state of Hidalgo, in order to begin his research. I published a biography about him in 1999, sponsored by our University and the National College. In that biography and in this facsimile edition I give explanations about the method used by Friar Bernardino in his research, about his interest in linguistics, and the way he finally distributed his documents.

Here I will describe summarily the contents of the General history.... that is, the Codex Florentine. The first volume contains five books which deal, respectively, with the gods, the calendar, holidays, and ceremonies; the origin of the gods; the judiciary astrology (tonalpohualli or count of the days and the destinies); all the omens and foretelling of the future. The second volume contains only the sixth book, about rhetoric, moral philosophy, and theology of the Mexican people. In turn, the third volume includes books seven, eight, nine. and ten. They are about natural astrology; lords and kings, their elections and government; about the merchants and officers who dealt with gold, precious stones and feathers; about the vices and virtues of the natives, members of the body and nations that people this land. The fourth and last volume is integrated by two books, the eleventh and the twelfth. They respectively deal with the properties of animals, trees, metals, and colors; and about Mexico's conquest.

Friar Bernardino, in addition to his inquiries about the Nahua language and culture, prepared other works conceived specifically to evangelize the natives. It is true that, as a missionary, his endeavor was to acquire deep knowledge about the Indian culture, in order to discover and fight its idolatries. But it is also true that, as he progressed in the knowledge of the native soul and their creations, Bernardino grew more and more captivated by them. It would be easy to quote here many of his expressions of admiration and respect over what he was discovering about the natural, human, and divine things in the universe of the native people. Enough with mentioning that in some place in his work he said that several huehuehtlahtolli, testimonies of the old words, "would be worthier of being spoken at the pulpits to young men and women because of the language and style in which they are, than many other sermons".

With reference to the works of evangelization that were written by Sahagun, I would like to mention at least his different sermons in NahuatI, the Book of Dialogues, where he recreates archetypically the dialogues that existed among the twelve first Franciscans who arrived in Mexico in 1524 with some native wise men and high priests. Another of his considerably interesting works is his Christian Psalmody, the only work he was able to see published in Mexico, in 1583.

This tireless Franciscan, who lived almost ninety one years, and who, due to his work method and the results he obtained in inquiring about the native culture, has received the title of "Father of Anthropology in the New World", experienced many contradictions and unpleasantness. He was twice deprived of his manuscripts. A Franciscan who visited the province, misunderstanding zealous and negligent, excommunicated him. Bernardino survived this and other adversities. He kept working until the last days of his life, and kept close to his old disciples.

According to several annals in NahuatI: "0n the 5th day of February, 1590, Friar Bernardino de Sahagun passed away. He had been in TIateloIco and was buried here in San Francisco, in Mexico City, accompanied in his burial by the lords of TIateloIco". Lastly, I will quote another testimony by the wise chronicler of Chalco-Amecameca, Domingo Francisco Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuantzin. This is what he said:

"He wrote, according to what he inquired to the elders in olden days;
to those who kept the painted books, according to what was painted in them,
in olden days to the elders. Thanks to them, he spoke of all
the things that happened. In the olden days."

With the contribution of those elders and his own effort, the rescue was consummated. Many, many years after the Universal (general) history of the things of New Spain was taken to Spain by another visitor, Father Rodrigo de Seguera, it finally was found in Florence. Because of the fact it is kept there, as I have already mentioned, it is called the Codex Florentine. Now, thanks to Marcela Alvarez del Castillo Herrera, from the publishing house Libros Mas Cultura, and thanks to Casa Aldus and to its educated Manager, Mr. Jose Sordo Gutierrez, we are able to hold in our hands a faithful copy of this precious manuscript.


MIGUEL LEON-PORTILLA
Researcher Emeritus of the UNAM,
Member of the National College

Top