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4th London Nahuatl Study Day flyer

4th Nahuatl Study Day in London

One of our teaching team attended the fourth Nahuatl Study Day and Workshop, held at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, London, on 8th July 2017. Full marks once again to Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano for single-handedly organising and hosting this event so well. Presenting papers/leading workshop sessions, alongside Elizabeth, were Romy Köhler of Bonn University, Angélica Baena of Mexico’s National University UNAM, and Professor Andrew Laird of Brown University (USA). (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The pages from Gordon Brotherston’s book ‘Painted Books from Mexico’ showing the first part of the Codex Tepotzotlan
The pages from Gordon Brotherston’s book ‘Painted Books from Mexico’ showing the first part of the Codex Tepotzotlan (Click on image to enlarge)

This year we were treated first to an introduction by Elizabeth Baquedano to the 16th century Codex Tepotzotlan, housed and on display in the Ulster Museum, Belfast - it was gifted to the museum in 1833 and was written on amate paper. Described by Gordon Brotherston as ‘a perfectly proportioned and executed text on native paper’, the codex (at least Part 1, presented in the workshop) consists of ten columns and five horizontal registers and documents tribute items from each of the places named. From our point of view, drawing as it does on native script, it lends itself to a study of a whole range of glyphs depicting goods, quantities, people, places, animals and more - the underlying text stressing the injustices suffered by the local labour force in the early colonial period. Ingeniously, the codex ‘reads’ at one level as the actual landscape near Tepotzotlan (‘The Place of the Hunchback’). ‘Its sophistication’, writes Brotherston in his book Painted Books from Mexico ‘as a piece of legal evidence goes quite beyond anything expected or even recognisable in a western court’.

Angélica Baena had us conversing in Nahuatl - just!
Angélica Baena had us conversing in Nahuatl - just! (Click on image to enlarge)

Next, Romy Köhler presented an interesting paper on the introduction of Catholic confession into 16th century Mexico, considering how Franciscan missionaries used oral Aztec language to transform ‘early colonial syncretistic forms of confession’ - based on devotion to the goddess Tlazolteotl - into Christian confession. We could see how stealthily the missionaries attempted to swing Nahua minds from Tlazolteotl (deity) to Tlapouhqui (sage) to the invisible god Tloque Nahuaque and eventually to Christ - who the locals simply co-opted into their pantheon (along the lines of ‘the more the merrier...’)
After a visit to the British Museum, the study day continued with an interactive session led by Angélica Baena looking at specific features of Nahuatl - from disfrasismos (paired metaphors) to simple conversational phrases, such as Campa tichanti? (‘Where do you live?’) and Nichanti nican London (‘I live in London’)

Andrew Laird on Nahuatl after the Spanish Conquest
Andrew Laird on Nahuatl after the Spanish Conquest (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, Andrew Laird treated us to a visual and intellectual feast in his study of how rapidly Nahuatl changed after the Spanish invasion. Most post-colonial texts in Nahuatl show how vulnerable they proved to be to European influence - in terms of iconography (e.g., the appearance of the snake in the foundation story of the Aztecs, featuring for the first time, in the Codex Aubin in 1576, half a century after the Conquest: the snake gave the eagle a civic significance, making it ‘legible’ to Europeans as well as to Mexicans); and in terms of ideological assimilation. Andrew focused closely on the work of Sahagún, decoding the Franciscan’s aims and strategy in assembling his classic (Florentine) Codex: writing it initially in Spanish and only subsequently seeking an accomplished Nahuatl translation, preparing the work as a language-learning text (to give missionaries tools and references for their work) rather than as a historical document, setting the text out to align it to European rhetorical traditions, making his Nahua students learn Latin so that their writings would conform to European conventions (classical principles of speech construction at the time were only available in Latin). As a result, written Nahuatl became ‘stretched’ and also constrained as a language, in the hands of young indigenous students strongly encouraged to think and view the world in European terms.

Elizabeth Baquedano, organiser of the Study Day
Elizabeth Baquedano, organiser of the Study Day (Click on image to enlarge)

Our thanks to organisers, scholars, hosts and students alike for making a success once more of this excellent series of Nahuatl Study Days in London. Here’s to number five...!

Picture sources:-
• Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 03rd 2017

Learn more about paired metaphors in Nahuatl...

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