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The Core Curriculum

The Nahuas and Bernardino de Sahagún

1590 CE –

The Death of Moctezuma, from the Florentine Codex, Book 12. (Wikimedia Commons)The Death of Moctezuma, from the Florentine Codex, Book 12. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Florentine Codex, originally entitled Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (General History of Matters in New Spain), is a bilingual Nahuatl – Spanish encyclopedic text, composed between 1545 and 1590. This vast work documents in 12 books the religion, natural history, cultural practices and first decades of the fall of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The last of those books, probably its most famous section, contains an account of the invasion of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés and his troops, ostensibly written from an indigenous point of view. Originally requested by the Spanish crown as a means for understanding and controlling the natives of its nascent overseas empire, the Florentine Codex was later confiscated by religious authorities who considered it a dangerous record of sacrilegious practices.  The work was eventually recovered by European scholars from the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Florence and turned into a fascinating object of historical and ethnographic study.  Today, the Florentine Codex survives as the single most important textual source for Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic culture, as well as for the native viewpoint regarding the Spanish invasion.

The Florentine Codex's main author, who identifies himself as such in the text, was the  Franciscan friar and missionary Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590). Educated at the University of Salamanca and praised during his student years for his prowess in the Latin language and its morphology, Sahagún was recruited in 1529 as a part of the Franciscan effort to evangelize the Aztecs. His linguistic gifts proved decisive for his work in the colonies, since he quickly became reasonably fluent in Nahuatl, the most prestigious and disseminated native language of Mesoamerica and the preferred dialect of the Nahua elite.

Having learned how to deal with “infidels” from the Church’s experience with Jewish and Muslim populations, Sahagún and his fellow Franciscans adopted several of its standard strategies for the Americas, including the education of young natives in the Catholic faith. Thus, Fray Bernardino became instrumental in the foundation and growth of the Imperial College of Tlatelolco.  Established by the Franciscans in New Spain (modern Mexico) in 1530, Tlatelolco was the first European institution of higher learning in the new colonies.  During his years at the Imperial College – inspired by such works as Ambrogio Calepino’s Cornucopiæ (a Latin lexicon), Pliny’s Historia Naturalis and Isidore de Seville’s Etymologiae – Sahagún conceived the monumental project of a trilingual Nahuatl-Latin-Spanish summa, or exhaustive synthesis, of the culture, natural environment and religious practices of native Mesoamericans.  His explicit objective was furnishing young Spanish missionaries freshly arrived from Europe with the tools necessary for identifying idolatrous practices and learning the native tongue.

In order to compose this incredibly complex work, Sahagún employed two groups of native men proficient in Nahuatl.  Sahagún dubbed the first group the “responders.” These were village elders (whose names the Franciscan never recorded), who were recognized as knowledgeable authorities among their tribes and from whom Sahagún gleaned cultural information. The second group Sahagún called the “assistants.” These were students of the College of Tlatelolco and members of the Nahua elite who had learned Spanish and Latin from the friars at a very early age and shown aptitude for linguistic and religious study.  Sahagún lists the names of this group in the manuscript and extols their diligence.  Indeed, these assistants would seem to have written most of the Florentine Codex. And they undoubtedly played a major role in the composition of the Nahuatl text, which is the source of the Spanish version and perhaps the most authentically Aztec material found in the work, other than its nearly 2,000 illustrations.


 Aztec Warriors wielding wooden clubs with sharp obsidian blades. (Wikimedia Commons)Aztec Warriors wielding wooden clubs with sharp obsidian blades. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Role of the Nahuas in the Composition of the Text

Sahagún himself admits that without his native collaborators the Florentine Codex could not have been written. Thus, rather than being its author, the Franciscan might be better characterized as the inventor and manager of the complex method used to compose it. 

First, Sahagún would write a series of questionnaires inspired by inquisitorial techniques.  The questions themselves were designed to probe into a certain topic and to extract from the natives as much information as possible, including a great number of related Nahuatl words. Later, with some of his assistants present, he would interrogate responders and take copious notes. In all likelihood, the responders made use of drawings in their answers as the Nahuas manufactured such images, and engaged in ritual retellings of events therein depicted, in order to preserve their culture and transmit it to their youth.  Later, Sahagún repeated the questions to other responders, correcting or adding to his questionnaires, to ascertain ever more precise information; and finally, he and his assistants synthesized the resulting written material and illustrations into the Codex. The Spanish translation was Sahagún’s own work and there are significant differences between the Nahuatl and the Spanish, since Sahagún often comments on what the assistants had written in Nahuatl or complements it with more explicitly Christian views.

Given the complexity of this process, it is not an easy task to determine how authentically native the perspective of the Codex actually is. As Victoria Ríos Castaño has noted, at least three filters might have been applied to the text in different sections. Firstly, the responders might have self-censored their accounts of cultural and religious practices given their well-founded wariness of Spanish intentions and their awareness of Sahagún's own hostility towards their religious practices. Secondly, the assistants may have further altered the elders' responses to more closely resemble ideas and values absorbed while students at the Imperial College. Finally, Sahagún himself undoubtedly distorted accounts of the Nahuas' ancestral practices in hopes of motivating his missionary audience to work harder at eradicating native idolatry. 

Regarding Book 12 of the Codex, however, it is important to note that the published edition was not the version Sahagún preferred. Indeed, in 1585 the Franciscan completed a significant revision of that book that includes passages written from the Spanish point of view and that openly praises Hernán Cortés and his soldiers. Therefore, even though the Codex should be read with a degree of skepticism, it seems that Sahagún himself eventually came to feel that the account of the Mexican conquest he had helped to compose was decidedly too Aztec in its perspective. 


Written by Humberto Ballesteros, Department of Italian, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Lockhart, James. “A double tradition: Editing Book XII of the Florentine Codex.” In Of Things of the Indies: Essays Old and New in Early Latin American History. California: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pages 183 – 203

Lockhart, James. We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. California: University of California Press, 1993

Ríos Castaño, Victoria. Translation as Conquest: Sahagún and Universal History of the Things of New Spain. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2014