Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, the first mestizo book

Text by Mar Gámiz


It is widely known that the indigenous were supressed by the Spanish, not only manu militari (through military force), but because of great population reductions caused by the epidemics imported by the Europeans and, to a great extent, due to the evangelical task of the missionaries.

Both reasons are also the causes that promoted the production of one of the philological monuments that lay the foundations for the society born from the culture shock and that can be considered the first mestizo book.

For three long years, from 1545 to 1548, the population of the Mexican valley was devastated by one of the cruelest epidemics of the time: smallpox, or cocoztli, in Nahuatl. Since it was the third epidemic of the 16th century, the local inhabitants had developed certain herbal experiments to counteract the discomfort caused by the new illnesses and the Spanish were somewhat more sensitive to indigenous medicine.

On the other hand, the Franciscan and Augustinian missionaries had established schools in various parts of the New Spain where they taught grammar, music and theology to the children of the local nobility. Evidently, the first trial came out, if not wrong, Babelic, because neither the friars knew the specifics of the American language or the indigenous those of Spanish. Little time passed before the friars learnt Nahuatl, Tarasco, Maya, Otomí and other local languages, as well as for them to teach not only Spanish, but Latin, because they had a goal in mind that later turned absurd and irrational: to create an indigenous clergy.

One of the schools that was working towards that goal with more effort was Santa Cruz of Tlatelco, famous for various reasons. For one, it was there that Friar Bernardino de Sahagún studied Nahuatl and collected the story of the Mexica village. Another was that learning Latin was so advanced there that its founder, bishop Juan de Zumárraga, was called the “school of the grammarian Indians” and sufficiently integrated to create a species of Latin mestizo, that abounded in the Hispanic constructions, colloquial expressions and neologisms of Nahuatl origin.

Founded in 1536 with a humanist impulse that decayed in 1583, the Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco School lived ten exemplary years where the knowledge between cultures was mutual: the religious introduced the indians to Western culture and at the same time, the latter specialized in regional languages and were sensitive to their uses, traditions and stories.

The intellectual life of the school was so intense, that it even survived the cocoztli epidemic. In those years, Santa Cruz of Tlatelolco included in its ranks an elderly indigenous doctor by the name of Martín de la Cruz. With no studies like those taught at the school, but with years of experience and inherited knowledge, he cured the illnesses that the students and friars alike had with such success, that when smallpox reached, not only did they resort to him in search of remedies, but he decided to record the old man’s knowledge to posterity. This was decided for two reasons: the first and most obvious, have a recipe book handy for when Martin would no longer be; the second and most compelling, to show the Crown the work that was being done in the school to ask for more economic support.


Thus the writing of Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis or Treaty on indigenous medicinal herbs was proposed. Told by Martín de la Cruz and illustrated by students of the school, it was translated to Latin by another student advanced in grammar: Juan Badiano, which is why the codex is known as “De la Cruz-Badiano.”

A little over twenty years after the conquest, the first mestizo book was produced: the indeginous knowledge transmitted in the canonical shape of the West, in two historic languages. 15.2 cm wide, 20.6 cm tall and 2 cm thick, a medicinal herbarium is structured in the shape of a book in three chapters with 64 pages of Italian paper bound. Organized according to the illnesses of the body, it begins with the head and ends at the feet, the name of all plants is recorded in Nahuatl and the description of use and recipes are in Latin.

Once concluded, in 1552, the son of the viceroy Antonio de Mendoza presented it to the Spanish crown and obtained official financing for the school. On the other hand, he also obtained the specific concessions to market American medicinal herbs, an activity from which few Spanish obtained profit, but among them, Nicolás Morades from Sevilla stands out, who, based on Libellus, wrote and published his work Medicinal history of things brought from the Western Indies.

For more than 200 years, the first mestizo book was dug out on three occasions: 1) at the beginning of the 17th century, when Diego de Cortavila y Sanabria, pharmacist of King Felipe II incorporated it to his library collection; 2) in 1624-25, during the visit of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who bought the book then and catalogued it as “Codex Barberini Latin 241” in his private library, and 3) when it caught Cardinal Bassiano dal Pozzo’s attention, a colleague of Barberini, so much so he made a copy, which would end up in the library of the English King George III.


The Libellus’ luck radically changed at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1902, Barberini’s library was moved to the Vatican in Rome. It was discovered once again in 1929 and in the 1930s, two independent scholars, Emily Walcott Emmart Trueblood and William Gates published some Latin texts with English translations and illustrations. In 1952, Francisco Guerra published a Spanish version of Libellus with a selection of drawings and in 1964 (440 years after its arrival to Spain), the Mexican Institute of Social Security published a facsimile version, with translations in Spanish, in color and with a scientific analysis.

In 1990, Libellus returned to Mexico during the visit of Pope John Paul II. Since then, it is sheltered at the National Library of Anthropology and History.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the scientific analysis published in 1964 which was later submitted had to be done by Mexicans since it was easier for them to identify the plants since the names of the plants in Nahuatl have survived till today. Thus the continuity of miscegenation can be proved to have taken place at the beginning of the 16th century.



Osorio, Ignacio. La enseñanza de latín a los indios, Mexico: UNAM / IIF, 1960.


“Códice de la Cruz-Badiano, medicina prehispánica”, Arqueología mexicana, special edition no. 50, June, 2013.

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