I'm reading about the Huexotzinco Codex on Wikipedia. Wikipedia describes the document as a "Nahua pictorial manuscript", and claims that it was used as evidence in a Spanish court case.

However, the Wikipedia article also contains several images of the codex. And I have to say, looking at the images, I don't see how the codex could be used as testimony or have any sort of meaning. For example, what on earth is this image supposed to represent?

Huexotzinco Codex

My two related questions are: how can the Huexotzinco Codex be read? How was it used as testimony in the Spanish court system?

  • 3
    I've reluctantly downvoted this question, because of its apparent narrow-mindedness in suggesting that words are required to convey meaning and in not seeing how the given image represents some sort of number. I can tell from your excellent answer (which I upvoted long ago) that you do understand very well how the manuscript conveys meaning without 'words', and presumably you phrased the question thusly in order to attract the interest of those who don't, but I have to judge the question on its own merits, just on the contents of the post itself. Sorry.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 11:05
  • @Randal'Thor you could interpret this question as asking "what is the Codex saying". I don't think it's at all obvious that "the given image represents some sort of number".
    – user111
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 15:11

1 Answer 1


I view the Huexotzinco Codex as important because it tells the indigenous perspective of Spanish colonization using the indigenous writing system. The Spanish made a concerted and deliberate effort to burn indigenous manuscripts and suppress indigenous perspectives. And unfortunately, the Spanish were successful: out of a literary tradition as prolific as any other, about a dozen pre-conquest manuscripts remain, as well as two-dozen post-conquest manuscripts. It's impossible to put into words the knowledge lost or the destruction caused to a culture as important as any other.

The Huexotzinco Codex is a pictorial manuscript. Pictorial manuscripts were a complex art form used to represent everything from historical manuscripts to calendars or almanacs to land claims to tax records. In terms of how to interpret the Huexotzinco Codex, it probably is closest to the pictorial tax records used by the Triple Alliance (Aztec empire). In economic terms, the Triple Alliance is somewhat similar to modern economies: the Triple Alliance had markets and an extensive tax system. The Triple Alliance empire kept detailed tax records, such as the tax record found in the Codex Azoyú. I don't have permission to reproduce the image, but you can view an image of the tax record on page 62 of this PDF.

The tax record is a five by six grid with images in each grid. This is a complicated document, but essentially the columns on the right record the month using glyphs, while the columns on the left record the quantity of taxes sent to the empire. Each row, therefore, records the tax send at that particular time. Bear in mind that the text also includes information about the political context of various changes in the amount of taxes given to the empire, by (for example) including depictions of various officials at various points in the tax record. For more information, click on the above link, or take a look at the article "Negotiating Aztec Tributary Demands in the Tribute Record of Tlapa".

To return to the Huexotzinco Codex, which I will include images of because the codex is located in the Library of Congress and is in the public domain, we see that it follows a similar structure. While it doesn't include any month or year glyphs (perhaps due to spanish influence, perhaps due to the fact that the codex refers to more or less a one time event), we see that the quantities of tax are clearly drawn out. For example, here is an image of page seven in the manuscript:

Page seven of the Huexotzinco Codex

It's not that difficult to see the quantities of goods clearly laid out. For example, the twenty-one circles on the right side of the document represent 21 gold plaques. Keep in mind that some of images represent multiples of goods: for example, the darts on the second row represent bundles of darts. (For more images and more explanation of the images, take a look at The Harkness Collection in the Library of Congress; manuscripts concerning Mexico: a guide).

Of course, the Huexotzinco Codex is a post-conquest document, and it records not taxation by the Triple Alliance but the abuses of the Spanish in Huexotzinco (Harkness Collection). The Huexotzinco Codex was evidence in a lawsuit between Hernán Cortés (the Spaniard who conquored the Tripple Aliance) and the first audiencia (Spanish officials) (Harkness Collection). The first audiencia had extracted tribute from Huexotzinco, but Cortés argued that he had the rights to Huexotzinco, and that the first audiencia were stealing from him (Harkness Collection). Indigenous voices were included in the lawsuit as evidence of the fact that the first audiencia had extracted tribute from them (Harkness Collection). Of course, the fact that they were included at all was not without controversy, as the testimony of Gregorio de Saldana shows (page 184 of the Harkness Collection):

The Indians presented by the contrary party lack credibility, and they should not be given credence because they are Indian vassals of the said Marques, and all the Indians in general are bad Christians, drunks, liars, idolaters, eaters of human flesh, vile persons who will perjure themselves for anything whatsoever. And much less should the paintings which the contrary party presents be given credence, because they were made by the same infidel and barbarous Indians, and my parties were not cited for it and so they could have painted whatever they wished.

("paintings" refers to the codex.)

As to how the codex was included as evidence and interpreted by the Spanish: first, the "Indians" gave oral testimony in which they referenced the codex. For example, to quote from the testimony of "Esteban, an Indian who was previously named Tochel, which in the Christian language means rabbit":

And as to the maize which they have given to the said factor, they have it painted in a painting which he asked to be shown. And when he saw it he said through the said interpreter, regarding the sixteen black pictures painted after the fashion of the combs of the Indians, that each picture represents four hundred loads of maize and the other sixteen black bands, after the fashion of outstretched banners of the Indians, each one of them is twenty loads.

It's also possible that the codex was interpreted by a Spaniard familiar with the codices. For example, in a related court case also involving the indigenous people of Huexotzinco, Fray Toribio de Motolinia (a Spaniard) gave testimony where he interpreted the codices. Given that the records from the trial include not just the Huexotzinco Codex but also a replica of the Huexotzinco Codex that was annotated in Spanish, it's possible that something similar happened in that trial (Harkness Collection).

In the picture of the Huexotzinco Codex that I included in this answer, you may have noticed that there were several images of humans. These images represent indigenous people from Huexotzinco who were enslaved by the Spanish. Slavery, not European plagues, is the real reason why indigenous populations in the Americas were decimated, the slavery of indigenous peoples laid the foundation for the slave trade and the enslavement of Africans, and the slavery of indigenous peoples continued long after slavery was abolished.

Some things to take away from this answer:

  1. How can we understand the contradiction between the fact that the Spanish burned indigenous texts and the fact that the Spanish relied on these texts to run their colonial government.

  2. What would be lost if the indigenous texts were converted into European forms? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Aztec writing system?

  3. How did the Spaniards and the indigenous people of Huexotzinco make sense of each other, and in particular their different forms of government, legal systems, and writing?


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