Aztec codices (Nahuatl languages: Mēxihcatl āmoxtli Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkatɬ aːˈmoʃtɬi]) are books written by pre-Columbian and colonial-era Nahuas in pictorial and/or alphabetic form. These codices provide some of the best primary sources for Aztec culture. The pre-Columbian codices mostly do not in fact use the codexform (that of a modern paperback) and are, or originally were, long folded sheets. These sheets were typically made from stretched deerskin or from the fibers of the agave plant. They also differ from European books in that they mostly consist of images and pictograms; they were not meant to symbolize spoken or written narratives.
Particularly important colonial-era codices that are published with scholarly English translations are Codex Mendoza, the Florentine Codex, and the works by Diego Durán. Codex Mendoza is a mixed pictorial, alphabetic Spanish manuscript.Of supreme importance is the Florentine Codex, a project directed by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who drew on indigenous informants’ knowledge of Aztec religion, social structure, natural history, and includes a history of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire from the Mexica viewpoint.The project resulted in twelve books, bound into three volumes, of bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish alphabetic text, with illustrations by native artists; the Nahuatl has been translated into English. Also important are the works of Dominican Diego Durán, who drew on indigenous pictorials and living informants to create illustrated texts on history and religion.The colonial-era codices often contain Aztec pictograms or other pictorial elements. Some are written in alphabetic text in Classical Nahuatl (in the Latin alphabet) or Spanish, and occasionally Latin. Some are entirely in Nahuatl without pictorial content.
Although there are very few surviving prehispanic codices, the tlacuilo (codex painter) tradition endured the transition to colonial culture; scholars now have access to a body of around 500 colonial-era codices. Doubtless a large number of prehispanic and colonial indigenous texts have disappeared over time; however, the large extant body of manuscripts that does survive can now be found in museums, archives, and private collections. There has been considerable scholarly work on individual codices as well as the daunting task of classification and description. A major publication project by scholars of Mesoamerican ethnohistory was brought to fruition in the 1970s, of which a large portion of the material is related to central Mexico. The four-volume Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources, Handbook of Middle American Indians has two volumes focusing on pictorial manuscripts, including a reproduction of many images of pictorials; one volume deals with publications of Mesoamerican documents found in collections, and printed religious and secular accounts; and one entirely devoted to the Relaciones geográficas.
In the two volumes on pictorials, a general survey outlines the origins of Mesomerican manuscripts, classifies them, and situates them in a regional survey. The types of information in manuscripts falls into several categories: calendrical, historical, genealogical, cartographic, economic/tribute, economic/census and cadastral, and economic/property plans.A census of 434 pictorial manuscripts of all of Mesoamerica gives information on the title, synonyms, location, history, publication status, regional classification, date, physical description, description of the work itself, a bibliographical essay, list of copies, and a bibliography.Indigenous texts known as Techialoyan manuscripts are written on native paper (amatl) are also surveyed. They follow a standard format, usually written in alphabetic Nahuatl with pictorial content concerning a meeting of a given indigenous pueblo’s leadership and their marking out the boundaries of the municipality A type of colonial-era pictorial religious texts are catechisms called Testerian manuscripts. They contain prayers and mnemonic devices. An interesting type of pictorial codex are ones deliberately falsified. John B. Glass published a catalog of such manuscripts that were published without the forgeries being known at the time.
Some prose manuscripts in the indigenous tradition sometimes have pictorial content, such as the Florentine Codex, Codex Mendoza, and the works of Durán, but others are entirely alphabetic in Spanish or Nahuatl. Charles Gibson has written an overview of such manuscripts, and with John B. Glass compiled a census. They list 130 manuscripts for Central Mexico. A large section at the end has reproductions of pictorials, many from central Mexico.
Another mixed alphabetic and pictorial source for Mesoamerican ethnohistory is the late sixteenth-century Relaciones geográficas, with information on individual indigenous settlements in colonial Mexico, created on the orders of the Spanish crown. Each relación was ideally to include a pictorial of the town, usually done by an indigenous resident connected with town government. Although these manuscripts were created for Spanish administrative purposes, they contain important information about the history and geography of indigenous polities.[14
Colonial-era local-level Nahuatl language documentation is the foundational texts of the New Philology, which utilizes these texts to create scholarly works from the indigenous viewpoint. These are often are sometimes found as a single, documentary corpus, while such documentation can also be found scattered in legal documentation in individual lawsuits. There are a variety of documents, and include censuses such as The Book of Tributes (c. 1535); wills and testaments, such as The Testaments of Culhuacan and The Testaments of Toluca, town council records, such as The Tlaxcalan Actas. Colonial-era indigenous elites also kept documentation of their properties and privileges, as part of their cacicazgos.