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Book of the Month

January 2003

Historia de


Mexico: 1585
Sp Coll MS Hunter 242 (U.3.15)

The choice for the first book of the month of 2003 is Diego Muñoz Camargo's Historia de Tlaxcala. This is a Sixteenth Century manuscript originating in post-Spanish conquest Mexico and deals with the social, political, military, religious and cultural history of the Province of Tlaxcala. This manuscript has been chosen not only because it is beautiful, unique and historically important but also because it is currently being exhibited in London at the Royal Academy's Aztecs exhibition. This exhibition is the most comprehensive survey of Aztec culture ever mounted, bringing together some 350 outstanding works highlighting the splendours, variety and sophistication of the Aztec civilisation.

Folio 249r
  Christopher Columbus symbolically offers the "New World" to Charles V

The Historia is a very unusual manuscript in that it can be separated into three different sections; one textual and two pictorial written in Spanish and native Náhuatl. The three different sections have names in their own right; the textual section is known as the Relaciones Geográficas or Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala while the two pictorial sections are known as the Tlaxcala Calendar and Tlaxcala Codex. Although the subjects and issues covered in all three sections are linked, it is unclear whether they were all produced at the same time, though it is known that they were not produced by the same author. Written on European paper using pen and china-ink, the manuscript survives bound in its original vellum with gilded and goffered edges.

The textual section is the easiest part to date, originally having been written between 1581 and 1584 by the Tlaxcaltecan historian, Diego Muñoz Camargo. The text is an extended version of the questionnaire, the Relaciones Geográfica, issued at the order of Philip II of Spain and sent to every town and province of New Spain. It covered topics such as population demographics, political jurisdictions, languages spoken, physical terrain and native vegetation to name but a few. The information gathered would provide a massive database on what the Spanish Empire comprised of and the possibilities achievable for the Crown with the resources at its disposal.

The task of commissioning a response to the questionnaire in the Province of Tlaxcala fell to the alcade mayor, the Alonso de Nava. He thought Diego Muñoz Camargo, an educated mestizo (half-Indian, half-Spanish) the most appropriate person to prepare a report. Camargo was the son (probably illegitimate) of a Spanish conquistador and an indigenous Indian woman. He spent a good period of his youth in Mexico City where he became fluent in Spanish and the local Indian language, Náhuatl, through teaching Indians who had been brought back from Florida. Camargo became acquainted with Tlaxcala through properties his father owned in the town, later settling and marrying a Tlaxcaltecan noblewoman, Leonor Vázquez. He was well enough respected and had a good enough grounding in native Tlaxcaltecan history and language that few would have been more qualified for the task of writing the Relaciones Geográfica.

Both the textual Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala and the supplementary pictorial Tlaxcala Codex deal with the history of the province of Tlaxcala from the beginning of the conquest of the region by the Spanish. At the time of Hernan Cortés' arrival (1519), the Mexican plateau was predominantly populated by Náhuatl-speaking Indians whose close-knit political organisation, the Aztec empire, had been developing for around 150 years. The one great exception to this Sixteenth Century superpower was the province of Tlaxcala. Sitting to the east of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), the Tlaxcaltecas had defended a territory of some size and held the Aztecs, or Mexicas as they are often known, at bay while the Aztec Empire began to engulf them. On their arrival, the Spanish were welcomed with open arms by the Tlaxcaltecas who became their main indigenous ally in the war to conquer the Aztec Empire.

Folio 239v
  The erection of the first cross in New Spain by the twelve friars from the order of St. Francis

Folio 239r
  A human sacrifice ceremony observed by Spaniards.  They are denounced for holding the pagan offering of a decapitated quail 

The Tlaxcala Codex can be considered a supplementary section of Camargo's Descripción, as they both deal with the same topics; the joint history of the Tlaxcaltecas and the Spanish in their wars against the Aztecs and the evangelical battle for Christianity. The Codex comprises of 157 images drawn in pen and china-ink and then captioned above in Náhuatl (although many of the Náhuatl captions have subsequently been lost through cropping). Each image and caption has then been glossed underneath in Spanish by a different hand. These drawings are almost certainly not the work of Camargo since certain errors exist in the drawings and captions that suggest a less-well-informed person carried out the work. It has been suggested that the Codex might in fact be an independent work, copied in whole, or part from an existing work. Some eighty of the drawings appear to be nearly identical to those found on the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, a mid Sixteenth Century Mexican manuscript which may have acted as a form of template for the Codex.


Detail from folio 239r
  Caption in
Náhuatl describes how people are killed in the "house of the devil".  Many original captions were lost through cropping when the manuscript was bound


Folio 245v
A map of the monastery of Tlaxcala including the church, bell tower, orchard and 73 steps to the church patio

The text and accompanying Codex drawings deal with many different events and nuances of Sixteenth Century Tlaxcaltecan life. The city of Tlaxcala is described, with all of its main streets and buildings; the Casas Reales of the four leaders of Tlaxcala along with the churches and monasteries established are all detailed. The allied campaign that the Tlaxcaltecas and Spanish waged against the Aztecs is documented in full. The battle of Cholula and its subsequent destruction, the death of the Aztec King, Motecuhzoma II, the noche triste, where the Spanish were driven from Tenochtitlán, the battle of Otumba and the final battle for Mexico are all described.

Folio 316r
The battle of Nochtlan

The evangelical battle to convert the Indians from their traditional gods to the Christian faith is also documented. From the arrival of the first twelve Franciscan friars, the erection of the first cross, the first baptisms, to the meting out of swift justice to those converts slipping back into "idolatrous" ways. In order to evangelise the Indians, the Spanish seemed determined to show the power of their god over the polytheist native religion. This not only involved preaching of the gospel but also the destruction of indigenous places of worship and the burning of many ancient written religious and cultural histories. Camargo is very critical of these destructive acts; as a historian he would have recognised the irreparable damage being done in the Spanish drive to convert the Indians to Christianity. He recognised the importance of preserving whatever history the Indians still had and spent much time in his text describing the traditional beliefs of the Indians. He describes the belief in the existence of four worlds before the current one and traditional ideas on genesis. This recognition in the importance of traditional culture and history is probably why the third pictorial section of the Historia; the Tlaxcala Calendar is included.

Folio 242r
Franciscan friars burning traditional books and clothes.  The images in the fire represent the destruction of the old gods whose masks correspond to the twenty signs of the tonalamatl

Folio 241v
Punishment and "justice" for a convert to Christianity who has "slid back" into idolatry ways.  According to the Náhuatl caption he is to be hanged the very next day

Recto of insert between folio 177 and 178

The Calendar comprises two separate astronomical diagrams describing the traditional Mexican calendrical system. These diagrams take the form of two calendar wheels that are found between folios 177 and 178 of the manuscript. The first, designed by Francisco de las Navas, a Franciscan monk correlates the twenty signs of the tonalamatl, at the centre, with the 52 years of the xiuhmolpilli, at the circumference, showing how the four special signs combine with thirteen special numbers to produce 52 year names. These are further correlated with the Christian calendar, from 1 Reed (1519) when Cortés arrived to 13 Rabbit (1570). The second calendar wheel was designed by an Indian governor of Tlaxcala, Antonio de Guevara. It shows, 18 months of the Mexican year and the five days without feasts of the 365 day year; the sign for each feast, an explanation of the sign and the name and the correlation with the months of the Christian calendar. A note explains how each month is divided into a 20-day period named after the moon, meztli, which is depicted in the centre of the wheel. Among the many calendar wheels included in histories of the Spanish colonial period, these two wheels have the acknowledged distinction of being the earliest.

Although Camargo is very critical of the acts of cultural and historical destruction perpetrated by the Spanish, the overall tone of the Historia is far more ambivalent. The shared history of the Tlaxcaltecas and Spanish and the unique relationship they maintain is suggested quite deliberately throughout. The Historia was compiled as a gift for Philip II and these references were almost certainly an attempt to curry favour with the Crown and establish privileges for the Tlaxcaltecas. Camargo was interpreter for a Tlaxcaltecan delegation of Indians including Antonio de Guevara who travelled to Spain in 1584. It was in Madrid, the next year, that the copying and binding of the Historia was finally completed. The purpose of this visit was to secure additional privileges for the Tlaxcaltecan court; the adulatory nature of the Historia may have assisted the delegation, for the same year Royal cedulas were issued granting a series of new exemptions and immunities to Tlaxcala.  However, the benefits - irregardless of the manuscript's significance in their being granted - were short-lived. Subsequent years saw the Spanish authorities pursue a rigorous programme imposing stronger Crown control over New World territories in order to ensure maximum profit: this included the reversal of Tlaxcala's exemptions. As Eleanor Wake notes, very quickly, "Tlaxcala became but another source of tributary income".

Verso of insert between folio 177 and 178

The Historia de Tlaxcala appears to have remained in the Biblioteca Real, housed in El Escorial near Madrid at least until the early Seventeenth Century after which its fate becomes obscure until purchased by Dr. William Hunter for his museum established in 1768. Upon his death, Hunter bequeathed his collection; the Historia included, to Glasgow University. The manuscript remained largely unknown to scholars for some considerable time and did not appear on the census of Mesoamerican manuscripts of 1975. René Acuña published the first facsimile edition of the manuscript under the title Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala, Mexico in 1981 and the Historia has since gained deserved and widespread recognition as one of the most historically important early Mesoamerican documents extant.



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Robert MacLean January 2003