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Smallpox amongst the Aztecs, Florentine Codex Book 12

IN THE NEWS: epidemic, self-isolation, dedication and the preservation of memory

This classic image - from Book XII of the Florentine Codex - graphically depicts the suffering of the Nahua (Aztec) people during the first of three catastrophic outbreaks of disease following the Spanish invasion of Mexico. Significantly, the drawing is in monochrome, as if colour - and life - have been ‘drained out’ of the book. The story is a tribute to a small group risking themselves to keep their people’s history alive... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Depictions of epidemics and widespread deaths in the years 1520, 1538 and 1545 in the Codices Telleriano-Remensis, Mexicanus, Moctezuma, Tira de Tepechpan and en Cruz
Pic 1: Depictions of epidemics and widespread deaths in the years 1520, 1538 and 1545 in the Codices Telleriano-Remensis, Mexicanus, Moctezuma, Tira de Tepechpan and en Cruz (Click on image to enlarge)

Most scholars writing on Mexico before and after the Spanish invasion today agree that: a) ‘pre-Columbian America was relatively free of disease’ (de Montellano 1990: 120), b) Mexico was ‘virgin soil’ for ‘crowd’ or ‘herd’ diseases introduced from Europe such as measles, smallpox, typhus and cholera, against which the locals had no immunity, c) a series of major outbreaks of epidemics hit Mexico in the 16th century, and d) there was consequently a catastrophic decline in population throughout Mesoamerica, but also e) there is wide DISagreement as to the exact extent of that decline and the size of the pre-invasion indigenous population. This is not the place to take this argument up (see the online article below by Robert McCaa for an excellent and rational summary of the controversy). Eyewitness accounts have documented massive epidemics in and around the years 1520, 1545 and 1576, the last two causing possibly most deaths of all (Bernardino de Sahagún, the Franciscan missionary who compiled the monumental Florentine Codex claimed that fully half the local population perished as a result - but then recent scholars have claimed the same for the later one, see e.g. Florescano 1994: 112). Nahua historian Chimalpahin summed up the outcome thus: ‘There were deaths all over New Spain. We Indians died, together with the blacks, but only a few Spaniards died’ (Townsend 2019: 183).

Pic 2: This page from the Codex en Cruz (plate IV) depicts (far right) a Nahua vomiting blood in the smallpox epidemic of 1545
Pic 2: This page from the Codex en Cruz (plate IV) depicts (far right) a Nahua vomiting blood in the smallpox epidemic of 1545 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish were quick to blame these disasters on the evils in Mexican society, the Franciscan Motolinía claiming ‘God smote and chastised this land and those who dwelt in it, both natives and foreigners, with ten harsh plagues’ (Horacasitas & Heyden 1971: 33). Ironically, indigenous Mesoamericans took a similar line, following the native tradition of associating the origins of illnesses with deities, sorcerers, fateful calendar signs, and the breaking of prohibitions, i.e. the ‘collapse of the standards of old’: ‘It was said that they must have committed some sin to die young’ (Gruzinsky 1988: 83). Traditional healers proved impotent - ‘No kind of remedy, herb or purge, can deliver us from this so violent danger’ (Gruzinsky 1988: 81). When it came to diseases of the skin the Mexica in particular attributed smallpox to individual deities such as Xipe Totec and Tezcatlipoca (the latter in one of his many guises, Titlacahuan) (de Montellano 1990: 131-2): he represented ‘the sins of the Mexicas and their king, as well as the imminent death that awaits them’ (Olivier 2003: 160). Ever more desperately they begged him to put an end to epidemics - inevitably feeling he, and the entire family of gods, had deserted them in their greatest time of need.

Pic 3: Studio reconstruction of the Florentine Codex (3-vol facsimile)
Pic 3: Studio reconstruction of the Florentine Codex (3-vol facsimile) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sahagún and his group of (possibly ten) faithful Nahua students - guided by local town elders or principales - carefully documented these epidemics, noting the month in which they began, their frequency (roughly every decade), duration and impact. The five most mortal infectious and contagious diseases were: smallpox or hueyzáhuatl (1521), measles or tepitonzáhuatl (1531), mumps or quechpotzahualistli (1550), whooping cough, and worst of all plague or matlazáhuatl (1545, 1575); each of these was called a cocoliztli or pestilence (Malvido 2010: 24). The equivalent Maya term was mayacimil (‘easy death’), characterised by great pustules that ‘rotted their bodies with a great stench so that the limbs fell to pieces in four or five days’ (Morley 1946: 99).
Sahagún with his team of young Nahua students (members of the Nahua nobility who were being educated by the Franciscans at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, Mexico City) dedicated the best part of thirty years to completing the monumental 4-volume encyclopaedia, finishing it in 1577 (Magaloni 2007: 10). With its 12 books of bilingual text and 2,468 illustrations, the vast majority in colour, the work remains a masterpiece of research and dedicated scholarship.

Pic 4: Artist’s impression of Sahagún at work with his team of Nahua informants on the Florentine Codex
Pic 4: Artist’s impression of Sahagún at work with his team of Nahua informants on the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

The first twenty years of work were dedicated to gathering information on the people and culture from all over Central Mexico, and an initial draft, in ‘alphabetic’ Nahuatl, was completed in 1569. The illustrations and the Spanish translation/interpretation were added later. What is less well known is that the entire oeuvre was ‘composed in dire circumstances’ (Magaloni 2007: 10). There were rumblings among Church authorities that the work might be ‘idolatrous’ for its documenting of native religions; worse, in the final stages of production the country was hit by a devastating epidemic in 1576. Sahagún and his team were forced to self-isolate in the College of Santa Cruz, shut off from the world. ‘They would not have seen their mothers, their fathers, their sisters and their brothers... and it was so that the memory of them would continue’ (Diana Magaloni). Sahagún himself interrupted his translation to write:-
’In this year 1576, in the month of August, a great universal pestilence began. It has been three months now since it started and many have died and continue to die, more and more each day... I am now at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, and I see that since it started and until today, the 8th of November, the number of dead has continued to rise; from ten to twenty, from thirty to forty, from fifty to sixty and eighty, and I know not what will happen from now on. In this pestilence, as in the other I mentioned before, many have died of hunger and of thirst, and lack of care and assistance: because it often happened in the past and happens today that an entire household falls sick and there is no-one even to bring a simple jar of water.’ (Magaloni 2007: 12).

Pic 5: Colour disappears from the Florentine Codex: Book XI, folios 178 (above) and 179 (below)
Pic 5: Colour disappears from the Florentine Codex: Book XI, folios 178 (above) and 179 (below) (Click on image to enlarge)

Their plight is played out not only in terms of physical survival (there are reports of the epidemic killing 80% of the indigenous population of Mexico City) but also literally on paper, in the lack of writing materials available to the team. Unable to re-stock from the market with supplies of pigments to colour the illustrations, suddenly, dramatically and visibly, from now on these are now rendered in monochrome. Two thirds of the way through Book XI - on ‘Earthly Things’, the largest book of the twelve, with over 1,000 entries on the country’s animals, birds, fish, herbs, metals and stones and 965 illustrations - the last one to appear in colour, in Chapter 7 (see pic 5) is no. 616, the first of the ‘stones which are also medicines’, quiauhteocuitlatl or lightning stone (‘One on whom lightning has flashed is to drink it’ - crushed, that is).
’The making of the Florentine Codex is therefore surrounded by disease, grief and death. Some of the painters are known to have died in the epidemic and this experience made the survivors painfully aware that their people and culture were threatened by extinction. In spite of the tragic circumstances, however, the team of scribes and painters continued their work’ (Magaloni 2007: 12).

Pic 6: Cochineal production, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 6: Cochineal production, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Ironically, only four chapters later, after dealing with ‘Precious stones’, comes Chapter 11 ‘which telleth of all the different colours... and how all the colours are made’. By then, maddeningly, the artists have no pigments left (bar a precious few, which they keep back to use in the final Book XII to render the death of Motecuhzoma) with which to depict those magnificent natural colours found in Mexican codices and sculptures. How frustrating to see vibrant ‘chili-red’ cochineal (nocheztli) depicted (pic 6) in black-and-white!
Knowing something now of the human challenges, the cost and the selfless dedication that went into the creation of this indispensable source of information on Aztec Mexico, we will never look at the Codex in the same way again. Moreover, Sahagún’s poignant sense of uncertainty in the face of smallpox resonates 500 years later in our own world besieged by a pandemic: ‘I don’t know how long it will last or how much harm it will do...’

Sources/references/further reading:-
• Boornazian Diel, Lori (2008) The Tira de Tepechpan: Negotiating Place under Aztec and Spanish Rule, University of Texas Press, Austin
Florentine Codex, Book 11 - Earthly Things (1963) (Sahagún), translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson (part 12 of 13 parts), School of American Research and University of Utah, Santa Fe, New Mexico
• Florescano, Enrique (1994) Memory, Myth and Time in Mexico from the Aztecs to Independence, University of Texas Press, Austin
• Gruzinsky, Serge (1993) The Conquest of Mexico, Polity Press, Cambridge
• Horcasitas, Fernando & Heyden, Doris (1971) ‘Fray Diego Durán: His Life and Works’ in Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar (Durán), University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Magaloni, Diana (2007) The World of the Aztecs in the Florentine Codex, Mandragora, Florence
• Malvido, Elsa (2010) ‘La Primera Gran Pandemia de Viruela (1520), Arqueología Mexicana, 101, Jan-Feb 2010, 22-27
• Márquez Morfín, Lourdes & Storey, Rebecca (2017) ‘Population History in Precolumbian and Colonial Times’ in Nichols, Deborah L. & Rodríguez-Alegría, Enrique (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs, Oxford University Press, 189-200
• McCaa, Robert (1994) ‘Spanish and Nahuatl Views on Smallpox and Demographic Catastrophe in the Conquest of Mexico’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 25:3 (Winter 1995), 397-431 (online version)
• Morley, Sylvanus G. (1947) The Ancient Maya, Stanford University Press
• Olivier, Guilhem (2003) Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’, University Press of Colorado, Boulder
• Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. (1990) Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick
• Townsend, Camilla (2019) Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, Oxford University Press.

Image sources:-
• Main & pic 6: Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 1: collage composed/digitised by Ian Mursell. Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, facsimile edition - Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995. Image from the Codex Moctezuma photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore. Image from the Codex Mexicanus downloaded from World Digital Library - Images from the Tira de Tepechpan from Boornazian Diel, op cit. Image from the Codex en Cruz downloaded from -
• Pic 2: see pic 1
• Pic 3: image scanned from introductory booklet included with Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex (see above)
• Pic 4: illustration by, courtesy of, and © Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 5: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 07th 2020

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