by Karl Young
The story of the conquest of Mexico by a small band of European soldiers of fortune is one of the most engaging sagas in human history, and, at least in its outlines, one of the best known to contemporary audiences. But the story of the Mexican rulers conquered by Cortez, the Mexica Aztecs, a tribe of nomads who had come from the northern deserts and within a few generations conquered nearly all the world known to them, is equally gripping, if not as famous. It is a tale of pilgrimage and omens, of lightning raids and ritual skirmishes, of stoic perseverance and uncanny luck, of defeat and near annihilation, of divine mandates and individual aberrations, of sudden reverses and desperate gambles against impossible odds, of shifting alliances and stunning spectacles, of palace intrigues and judicious marriages, of delicate compromise and stone- faced brinksmanship, of draconian protocol and whimsical chivalry, of carefully adjusted social organization and the forging of the largest and most flamboyant empire meso- America had seen. It is this story that the author of Codex Boturini set out to tell. How fully he could tell it we cannot know, because the manuscript ends in a rip in the middle of the twenty second page. We cannot even know whether he continued from this point or stopped his painting here. The empty space at the lower right of page 21 and the bottom of the surviving portion of page 22 suggest that some circumstance forced him to stop at this point, but it is also possible that he had artistic or symbolic reasons for leaving these spaces blank, and that more of the story was told on a portion of the manuscript that is now lost. In its present state, the manuscript tells of the origins of the Mexica on Aztlan island, their wanderings through central Mexico, and their defeat and humiliation at the hands of King Coxcoxtli. At the beginning of page 22, we see two Mexica, freed from their Colhuan captivity, with knives in their hands and nasty expressions on their faces, looking for revenge, perhaps with a sense of their destiny as future lords of their recent masters. The middle of the twenty second page is a poignant place for the manuscript to break off.

As it now remains, the book is a strip of amatl (fig bark) paper approximately 19 cm tall and 549 cm long, folded accordion fashion into pages averaging about 24 cm across. Figures are drawn in black ink. Except for a reddish ink connecting dates, no color is used. The quality of line is similar to that of other Mexican manuscripts: it is fluid and supple, providing a precise frame for objects rendered. Dates are drawn in a neat and regular manner. Humans, place signs, and other symbols are drawn in a sort of simplified shorthand that might seem awkward if the figures were taken out of the overall design of the manuscript. Composition in most indigenous books is dense and crowded, suggesting the patterns of oriental rugs to some commentators. This is not the case with Codex Boturini. The scribe, as Donald Robertson has pointed out, leaves generous areas of open space, at times suggesting a spaceless landscape, an open field in which persons, dates, and place names can interact in freedom and solitude. Most of the pages of the book contain columns of dates, like those on pages 18, 19, and 20. The curved and rectangular shapes balance and play against each other in a wide range of designs, providing pleasing variety as well as carefully modulated rhythmic development. The scribe tends to present human figures in groups of four and five, primarily for the religious and cosmological significance of these numbers. He works well within this limitation, showing as much versatility in handling these clusters of four as in overall composition. The course of the Mexica is indicated by a path of footprints moving along with the narrative. This trail may seem childish or cute, but its significance goes deeper than may appear at first glance. The footprints help unify the design of the manuscript. In many Mexican books, and even in ceremonies and in architecture, footprints indicate the presence of an unseen god. These footprints, then, probably do not represent the impression left by the feet of the passing Mexica, but the path of their primary god, Huitzilopochtli. We may read them as the fate the Mexica must follow, or, to put it in the terms of other cultures, their Tao or their Wierd. The style of Codex Boturini is deceptively simple: though it shows none of the soul-wrenching force of Codex Borgia, or the serene mastery of Codex Vindobonensis, or the colorful grandeur of Codex Borbonicus, its artist was a master who deserves our respect.

The provenience of the manuscript has provoked little debate. On the grounds of style and content, we can feel relatively sure that it was produced in or near Mexico City-Tenochtitlan. A number of scholars have assigned it a preconquest date, but cogent arguments have been advanced for an early colonial (c.1521 - c.1540) date of composition. Perhaps the best evidence for this is a tree on the third page which seems to show strong European influence, though such contamination apparently does not occur elsewhere in the codex.

Few preconquest books have survived, though we know that large numbers of them were produced before the coming of the Spaniards. The Mexican people continued to make them for some time after the conquest, picking up more and more European techniques as time went by. Types of pre-Columbian manuscripts include religious books, histories, genealogies, books for determining suitable marriage partners and interpreting dreams, books used in divination and the practice of law, and a wide variety of bureaucratic documents including tribute lists, demographic surveys, and political dossiers. The system of writing was iconographic: it represented ideas by highly stylized pictures. Though some manuscripts employ forms of rebus writing, the iconographic system did not dictate a fixed sequence of words, as does our Roman alphabet, but rather a set of concepts that could be verbally formulated in a number of different ways. In fact, a book of this sort could be read by people who did not speak the language of the original scribe. This must have been particularly useful in the Valley of Mexico where many peoples speaking many different languages came together. And it is one of the reasons why an interpretation of the sort presented here can be understood by people whose Nahuatl vocabulary is limited to a few English loan words like "tomato" and "coyote" (from "tomatl" and "coyotl").

An important feature of the books is that they can be given what I call a brief or extended reading. In a brief reading, the reader would simply identify the figures in the book and recognize their functions. In an extended reading, the reader would elaborate on this, filling in myths, legends, historical data, etc. associated with the figures but not specified in the book itself. Despite the strong visual character of the codices, writing was an adjunct of speech in preconquest Mexico and books were essentially tools for oral performance, even, paradoxically, when the spoken languages belonged to different families. In my interpretation of the final pages of this manuscript, I have tried to suggest both a brief and an extended reading. In the brief reading (which appear on the pages that can be found by clicking on the appropriate lines under the facsimiles) I have identified the icons and indicated their functions in blocks of type, the placement of each block of type corresponding in position on the page to the figure being interpreted. The extended readings appear on pages accessible by the next click. In these I have taken the relevant material from chronicles, transcriptions of oral poems, and modern histories (see bibliography) and filled out the information given in the manuscript with material from these sources. Although in places like the lament on page 20, I have closely based my working on the language of the indigenous sources, we cannot know how close a reading of this sort comes to the extended readings of the people who originally used this sort of book. We may assume that they included much of the same information I have filled in, but how they used it is a matter of pure conjecture. From a formal point of view, the extended reading should be seen as a contemporary poem with heuristic value. I offer my reading simply as a suggestion and an illustration of how historical information known to the reader might have been added to what is explicitly stated in the text. Although any reading of a manuscript of this sort must be hypothetical, in this case we have a good deal of collateral information from other sources, and the disagreement between the interpretations of the various students of the work are minor in comparison to the variant readings of books like Codex Vindobonensis and Codex Borgia. The facsimile is my own redrawing of the manuscript pages, rather than a photographic reproduction. In reading these pages, bear in mind that in all but the largest monitors the facsimile is significantly reduced from the original size.

It is impossible at the present time to determine exactly how Codex Boturini was originally used, but I will make several conjectures, based in part on the style of the manuscript and on my study of Mexican book painting in general. One possibility is that this is a sketch history, essentially meant to place events in a chronological framework. Books of this sort could have been used for quick reference or they could be collated and used as sources for more elaborate and detailed works such as Codex Nuttall or Codex Vindobonensis. Then again, Codex Boturini could have been used as a text book for students who had some knowledge of iconographic writing, but not enough to read the denser, more complex books. Teachers could adjust the details of lessons to the capacity of the students, while making sure they committed the basic narrative to memory. It is also possible that the book was used by a Singer of Tales, not unlike the Yugoslavian bards studied by Lord and Parry. In this case, the book would not be so much a score for the singer as a visual correlative for his audience. We can imagine the bard sitting in the middle of a semi-circle of listeners, unfolding the book before them as he sang. The large and simple figures would be easy for an audience of a dozen or so people to see. Then again, the book could have been produced for the Spanish conquerors as an explanation of Mexican history and proof of the indigenous people's legitimate claim to their lands. If this were so, the author would want to state his case as simply and as directly as possible, using large designs in the hope of making his message sink into the foreigners' minds. This could be the visual equivalent of the kind of situation where one person hopes that by saying something simply enough, loudly enough, and crisply enough he will be understood by someone who does not understand the speaker's language. A problem with this possibility, however, is the artist's mastery of such large and open designs: it would seem probable that he had had considerable practice in this style and didn't develop it spontaneously in a moment of crisis. Another possibility is that this is the only surviving example of a style of book painting that employed negative space, large, open design, etc.

Whether these last possibilities are true or not, the possibilities themselves tends to support a characteristic of Central Mexican writing systems made clearer by modern computer use and particularly the world wide web. These iconographic writing systems could be read by people who spoke different languages. People in Tenochtitlan, for instance, could read books produced in the Mixtec region - books written by scribes who spoke a language not even belonging to the same family as Nahuatl. The polyglot nature of the great bottle-neck of the Americas, the Valley of Mexico, cannot be stressed too much. Numerous language families and their members jostled together in the area, and the wildly divergent speech sounds of a market in Texcoco must have created a strange audio-texture. If you listen to a recording of Nahuatl and then of Otomi, you'll get a sense of how far apart these languages could get. Perhaps no other place in the world housed such linguistic complexity in such a small area. A written language based on speech could not have functioned well in such an environment, and the iconographic nature of the writing system may indicate cultural sophistication rather than the primitive qualities often attributed to it.

When I began work on Codex Boturini in the early 1980s, I was looking at cognates and ancestors of contemporary visual poetry. If I had seen a computer screen at that time, nothing on it registered in my mind. Now after fifteen years of watching computer usage develop from plain ASCII text, totally reliant on the Roman alphabet to both software and the web with its heavy emphasis on icons that people who speak different languages can share, this possibility becomes more and more insistent. Perhaps in the strange global village that winds up the Tower of Babble we may begin to catch up with the sophistication of the Central Mexican scribes, and help us come to live saner lives in a multi-cultural world, keeping our identity without losing the ability to communicate with the other peoples of the world, as well as the many new arrivals in the Americas. African writers such as Reesom Haile and Ngugi wa Thiong'o seem to lead the world in writing in both their tribal languages and, often simultaneously with assistants, in English - preserving their identity without isolating themselves or their people. Perhaps the writing systems of Central Mexico will also move out from the shadows were they now linger and suggest a brighter light than anyone would have imagined just a few decades ago. We will never know how diverse were the styles and methods of preconquest book painting. A comparison of this manuscript with, say, Codex Borgia, Codex Laud, Codex Vindobonensis, the Matriculo de Tributos, the Selden Roll, and the Lienzo de Zacatepec shows that the resources of the native artist were broad and flexible, the product of a mature art. It also suggests how much has been lost.

Begin reading the Codex by clicking here

Codex Boturini is also known by several other names, the most frequently used being Tira de la Perigrinacion and Tira del Museo.

Anales de Tlateloco. Heinrich Berlin, ed. and trans. Ediciones Rafael Porrua, Mexico City, 1980.

Burr Cartwright Brundage A Rain of Darts. U. of Texas Press, Austin, 1972.

Jose Corona Nuñez, "Explicacion del Codice Boturini," in Antiguedades de Mexico, Vol. II. Secretaria de Hacienda y Credito Publico, Mexico City, 1964.

Nigel Davies, The Aztecs. U. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1973.

Libreria Echaniz [publishing house name], Tira de la Perigrinacion Mexica. Mexico City, 1964.

Paul Radin, The Sources and Authenticity of the History of the Ancient Mexicans. University of California Publications in Archaeology and Ethnology, 17 (1), Berkeley, 1920.

Jose Fernando Ramirez, Cuadro Historico-geroglifico de la Peregrinacion de los Tribus Aztecas . . . (No. 2). Imprenta de Jose Mariano Fernandez de Lara, Mexico City, 1858. [This is the basic study of the manuscript, the point of departure for most subsequent interpretations.]

Donald Robertson, Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Colonial Period. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1959.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, The Florentine Codex. C. Dibble & J.O. Anderson eds & trans. School of American Research, Santa Fe & University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1950-1969. 11 vols.

Juan de Trovar, Codice Ramirez. Editorial Leyenda, Mexico City, 1944.

An earlier working of these pages appeared in New Wilderness 13/Wch Way 6 Double Pelican, Albany, New York, 1985.

Copyright © 1982 and 1999 by Karl Young