THE CODEX MENDOZA as an interactive platform

Text by Mar Gámiz

If there is something that characterizes the documental history of Mesoamerican codices it is the strange and sad luck they had in European territory, considering that for more than three hundred years very few scholars tried to interpret the indigenous writing. Trapped within the European incomprehension, the Mesoamerican codices were relegated to the category of precious objects, used perhaps for diplomatic exchange.

In this limulesque entry, the history of one of these great documents is told, from its creation in the 16th century, to its more recent digitalization and transformation into an app.


The vicissitudes of the Codex Mendoza

Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521, according to the historic convention. Not long after, the first Viceroy arrived, Antonio de Mendoza, with the pressing need to discover the state in which the rising New Spain was in, namely, what the geographic divisions were and what the story of the defeated town, the Mexicas, was. He thus entrusted the writing of said information to the Tlacuilos and sage indigenous that spilled pictograms and glossed logograms in Spanish and Nahuatl, on European paper and bound in the shape of a book.

Once completed, this book was placed along with other objects, destined for the Spanish king. Neither got to the desired hands, because French pirates intercepted them. Thus, the Codex Mendoza became part of André Thevet’s collection, cosmographer of the French court. In 1578, three years before his death, and his reputation as a declining scholar, Thevet sold the Codex to Richard Hakluyt, then chaplain of the British ambassador in Paris. Staunch follower of an expansive maritime policy of the Atlantic at a time when England could not compete with Spain’s supremacy over the New World, Hakluyt launched the compilation of a collection of English travel tales and purchased the Codex Mendoza with the hope of finding strategic information on the Spanish Empire in America. It is worth mentioning that Shakespeare used the collection of Hakluyt’s tales as a source to write The Tempest.


After Hakluyt’s death, Samuel Purchas, an Anglican pastor, inherited his documents and published the Codex Mendoza in 1625, for the first time, as part of a universal history and compilation of travel tales of various volumes entitled Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes. He printed it all, along with the English translation of the Spanish gloss.

The Codex Mendoza was part of the inheritance of Purchas to his son and was later acquired by John Selden, an avid collector of documents of the Western Hemisphere. Five years after Selden’s death, the Codex founds its last home at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.


The Codex Mendoza as a documentary source

According to Frances Berdan, anthropologist expert in the Codex Mendoza, the combination of the Mexica writing with the Spanish and Nahuatl gloss, combined with the level of detail in the descriptions, make the Codex the Rosetta Stone for the interpretation of the Mesoamerican people; namely, they provide clues to get closer to the indigenous epistemology, as the glosses reveal the limits that European knowledge had at that time.


In it, two systems of thought converge, which even today have not been fully communicated. Within the anthropologic and archeological efforts undertaken to reach the exact translating clues, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), alongside the Bodleian Library in Oxford and King’s College in London, worked all of 2014 on the digital edition of the Codex Mendoza (available free of charge here and on the app for iOS (which can be purchased here:


The digital edition of the Codex Mendoza meets the needs of the specialized contemporary reader. That is to say that the digital edition not only offers the complete original document, but a series of multimedia elements that successfully contribute to the contextual comprehension. In addition to being bilingual (Spanish-English), “surfing” the Codex is complemented with maps and geographic representations that locate us in space, and the materiality of the book can be appreciated in detail thanks to the zoom function. Needless to say, this is the greatest accessibility that the Codex acquires in this version, essential to the web.


Taking this edition as a base, this seems to be the most complete form of transmitting indigenous documentary sources up to now. To the extent that these documents can be consulted and comprehended by scholars of various disciplines, it will surely turn the versions of history that until now have defined, officially and unofficially, the Mexican national conception. With efforts like these, we tend to the construction of a new way of thinking and writing history.


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