The Florentine Codex is a 16th-century ethnographic research project in Mesoamerica by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Sahagún originally titled it: La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España (in English: the Universal History of the Things of New Spain). After a translation mistake it was given the name "Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España". The best-preserved manuscript is commonly referred to as "The Florentine Codex" after the Italian city of Florence where it is held in the Laurentian Library. In partnership with Aztec men who were formerly his students, Sahagún conducted research, organized evidence, wrote and edited his findings starting in 1545 up until his death in 1590. It consists of 2,400 pages organized into twelve books with over 2,000 illustrations drawn by native artists providing vivid images of this era. It documents the culture, religious cosmology (worldview) and ritual practices, society, economics, and natural history of the Aztec people. One scholar described The Florentine Codex as “one of the most remarkable accounts of a non-Western culture ever composed.” Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson were the first to translate the Codex from Nahuatl to English, in a project that took 30 years to complete. As of November 1, 2012, the World Digital Library offers high resolution scans of all volumes at The Florentine Codex.
Sahagún's primary motivation was to evangelize indigenous Mesoamerican peoples, and his writings were devoted to this end. He described this work as an explanation of the “divine, or rather idolatrous, human, and natural things of New Spain.” He compared its body of knowledge to that needed by a physician to cure the “patient” suffering from idolatry. He had three overarching goals for his research:
Sahagún conducted research for several decades, edited and revised it over several decades, created several versions of a 2,400-page manuscript, and addressed a cluster of religious, cultural and nature themes. Copies of it were sent back to the royal court of Spain and to the Vatican in the late 16th century to explain Aztec culture. The document was essentially lost for about two centuries, until a scholar rediscovered it in the Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) an archive library in Florence, Italy. A scholarly community of historians, anthropologists, art historians, and linguists has been actively investigating Bernardino’s work, its subtleties and mysteries, for more than 200 years.
The Florentine Codex is a complex document, assembled, edited, and appended over decades. Essentially it is three integral texts: (1) in Nahuatl; (2) a Spanish text; (3) pictorials. The final version of the Florentine Codex was completed in 1569. The Nahuatl Sahagún’s goals of orientating fellow missionaries to Aztec culture, providing a rich Nahuatl vocabulary, and recording the indigenous cultural heritage at times compete with each other within it. The manuscript pages are generally of two columns, with Nahuatl, written first, on the right and a Spanish translation on the left. There are diverse voices, views, and opinions in these 2,400 pages, and the result is a document which at times can appear contradictory.
Scholars have proposed several classical and medieval worldbook authors that inspired Sahagún, such as Aristotle, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, and Bartholomew the Englishman. These shaped the late medieval approach to the organization of knowledge. The twelve books of the Florentine Codex are organized in the following way:
The story of the conquest of Mexico is appended to the end of this presentation.
This follows the organizational flow of logic found in medieval encyclopedias, in particular the 19-volume De proprietatibus rerum of his fellow Franciscan Friar Bartholomew the Englishman. One scholar has argued that Bartholomew’s work served as a conceptual model for Sahagún, although evidence is circumstantial. With more confidence one can assert that both of these present the cosmos, society and nature of the late medieval paradigm.
The codex is composed of the following twelve books:
Sahagún was among the first to develop an array of strategies for gathering and validating knowledge of indigenous New World cultures. Much later, the discipline of anthropology would later formalize these as ethnography (the scientific research strategy to document the beliefs, behavior, social roles and relationships, and worldview of another culture, but to explain these within the logic of that culture). Ethnography requires the practice of empathy with those very different from oneself, and the suspension of one’s own cultural beliefs in order to understand and explain the worldview of those living in another culture. Sahagún systematically gathered knowledge from a range of diverse informants who were recognized as having expert knowledge of Aztec culture. He did so in the native language of Nahuatl, but then compared the answers from different sources of information. He sought out different kinds of informants, including women (which was unusual). Some passages appear to be the transcription of spontaneous narration of religious beliefs, society or nature. Other parts clearly reflect a consistent set of questions presented to different people designed to elicit specific information. Some sections of text report Sahagún’s own narration of events or commentary. He developed a methodology with the following elements:
These methodological innovations substantiate the claim Sahagún was the first anthropologist.
Most of the Florentine Codex is text, but its 2,000 pictures provide vivid images of 16th century New Spain. Some of these pictures directly support the text; others are thematically related; others are for decorative purposes. Some are colorful large, and consume most of a page; others are black and white sketches. The illustrations offer remarkable detail about life in New Spain, but they do not bear titles, and the relationship of some to the adjoining text is not always self-evident. They can be considered a “third column of language” in the manuscript. Several different artists’ hands have been identified, and many questions about their accuracy have been raised. The drawings convey a blend of Indigenous and European artistic elements and cultural influences.
Many passages of the texts in the Florentine Codex present descriptions of like items (e.g., gods, classes of people, animals) according to consistent patterns, and it appears that Sahagún deployed a series of questionnaires to structure his interviews. The following questions appear to have been used to gather information about the gods for Book One:
For Book Ten, "The People," a questionnaire may have been used to gather information about the social organization of labor and workers, with questions such as:
This book also described some other cultural groups in Mesoamerica.
Sahagún was particularly interested in Nahua medicine, and as such the information he collected is a major contribution to the history of medicine generally. His interest in recording medical information was not trivial, since many thousands of people died from plagues and diseases, including friars and students at the school. Sections of Books Ten and Eleven describe human anatomy, disease, and medicinal plant remedies. Sahagún named more than a dozen Aztec “doctors” who dictated and edited these sections. The passage on human anatomy appears primarily intended to record vocabulary. A questionnaire such as the following may have been used:
The text in this section provides very detailed information about location, cultivation, and medical uses of plants and plant parts as well as information about the uses of animal products as medicine. The drawings in this section provide important visual information to amplify the alphabetic text. The information is useful for a wider understanding of the history of botany and the history of zoology. There has been some scholarly speculation that Sahagún had some involvement in the creation of the Badianus Manuscript, an herbal created in 1552 that has pictorials of medicinal plants and their uses. Originally written in Nahuatl, only the translation to Latin has survived.
Book Eleven, “Earthly Things,” has the most text and approximately half of the drawings in the codex. The text describes it as a “forest, garden, orchard of the Mexican language.” It describes the Aztec cultural understanding of the animals, birds, insects, fish and trees in Mesoamerica. Apparently Sahagún designed a questionnaire about animals such as the following:
Plants and animals are described in association with their behavior and natural conditions or habitat. But then the responses of the Aztecs presented their information in a fashion that was consistent with their worldview. This led in some cases to contradictory and to modern readers somewhat confusing presentations of information. There are also sections on minerals, mining, bridges, roads and food crops.
The Florentine Codex is one of the most remarkable social science research projects ever conducted. It is not unique as a chronicle of encountering the new world and its people, for there were others in this era. Sahagún's methods for gathering information from the perspective from within a foreign culture were highly unusual for this time. He reported the worldview of people of Central Mexico as they understood it, and not exclusively from the European perspective. “The scope of the Historia's coverage of contact-period Central Mexico indigenous culture is remarkable, unmatched by any other sixteenth-century works that attempted to describe the native way of life.” Foremost in his own mind, Sahagún was a Franciscan missionary, but he may also rightfully claim the title as Father of American Ethnography.