Codex Nuttall. Facsimile of an Ancient Mexican Codex Belonging to Lord Zouche of Harynworth, England

Book review

reviewed by J. Walter Fewkes

When the Spanish conquerors landed in Mexico they found the natives in possession of books elaborately illustrated with colored pictures and conventional symbols, indicating a system of aboriginal paleography as complex as it was unintelligible to Europeans.

To the minds of the conquerors, fired with zeal for a propaganda of the Christian faith, these books, containing as they do many idolatrous pictures, stood in much the same category as idols, and every effort was made to destroy them. They were publicly burnt in the squares of the pueblos, in which bonfires, kindled by prejudice, perished many records of priceless value. If we can trust the statements of Torquemada, five Mexican cities brought thousands of these valuable documents to the governor, who destroyed every leaf of them.

In this wholesale destruction of a nation’s literature and art a few manuscripts escaped the flames, and were carried to Europe where they remained hidden from science until an awakening interest in Americana rescued them from obscurity and brought them to the attention of scholars. The few books which survived have been published by learned societies or by generous individuals, and are now available for study. But many of these publications are in limited editions or costly form beyond the means of most students. Up to the year 1892 no absolute facsimile was attempted. Since that time, however, quite a number have been republished in exact facsimile and have been more widely distributed.

The existing number of originals of these Mexican manuscripts is small, including four called Mayan and nine or more called Nahuatl. To increase this number is an addition to our knowledge of greatest importance. Mrs Nuttall, whose brilliant researches in Mexican antiquities are widely known, has in the last year made an addition to the existing Nahuatl codices, and has brought to the attention of scholars one of the most important and best preserved of all these specimens of aboriginal art. It is a fitting recognition of merit that this manuscript should bear her name.

The history of the rescue of all the Mexican codices is in itself interesting, but that of none more so than the codex of which Mrs Nuttall tells in a charming way in the opening pages of a brochure which accompanies the facsimile of the long-lost manuscript.

The existence of the document was first called to her attention by Professor Villari, who had seen it thirty years before in the hands of a friar of San Marco, Florence. This friar had “brought it to a salon, frequented by Florentine literati and scholars, in order to obtain an opinion about it.” Subsequently Professor Villari had frequently seen it in the Library of San Marco, and had begged the custodian to preserve it with care and guard it as a precious document. But in the course of time, when monastic orders were suppressed in Italy, the manuscript disappeared from its customary place. But Professor Villari furnished Mrs Nuttall with “an all important clue,” by the aid of which she learned that the lost manuscript had been presented to the Honorable Robert Curzon, fourteenth Baron Zouche, and that at his death it had passed into the possession of his son, the fifteenth baron of the same name, in whose library it then was, having been lost to view for a third of a century. Through the kind mediatorship of the Director of the British Museum, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, K.C.B., the codex was loaned by the owner to Mrs Nuttall for her inspection in the summer of 1898. Recognizing its great value, she had the opportunity of sharing her enthusiasm for it with Mr Charles P. Bowditch, of Boston, to whom she showed the codex in the Bodleian Library.

With characteristic generosity Mr Bowditch offered to furnish the means for its publication in facsimile, and the result is the beautiful reproduction of this lost and almost forgotten document.

In an “Introduction,” a fine specimen of typography from the University Press, Mrs Nuttall describes the codex, gives the history of how it was brought to light, its relation to the Vienna and other codices, its “language,” and general directions for reading it. In the same brochure there is also an all too brief discussion of the year and day signs, and a review of its contents. The pages of this introduction which will attract most attention and possibly call forth critical discussion are those which treat of the histories of certain so-called heroes or personages, as Eight-Deer, Lord Eight Ehecatl, and Lady Three-Flint. As we follow the history of the first mentioned, as interpreted by Mrs Nuttall, we discover, as she has pointed out, that the “codex does not contain what might be termed a consecutive written text, but merely consists of pictorial representations of events, accompanied by such hieroglyphic names which were necessary in order to preserve them exactly and fix them in the memories of the native bard, who would constantly derive inspiration from the printed page.”

Mrs Nuttall regards her codex as the handiwork of the same artist who painted that preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna, and by a chain of documentary evidence she shows that these two were probably the two native books given to Cortes by the messengers of Montezuma, and mentioned by the former as sent from Vera Cruz to Charles V in 1519.

This codex offers abundant material for the study of Indian symbolism, for scattered through its pages are figures wearing the symbolic paraphernalia of gods, animals of mythic character; pictures of altars, temples, and implements of war and peace, and conventionalized geometric designs. It affords important material bearing on the social position, dress, and facial decoration of women in ancient Mexico. There are pictures of chieftainesses engaged in warfare or council on an equality with chiefs, and, considered in connection with documentary record of like teaching, it affords great possibilities as an aid to a study of an obscure aspect of aboriginal sociology. Mrs Nuttall has in preparation a monograph in which she will “present a study of women in ancient Mexico, with special reference to the present codex.”

As the reviewer is a tyro in the study of Mexican pictography his judgment of the value of the interpretations given in the introduction to the codex has little weight, but he feels competent to give expression to the great importance of the discovery of this codex. In searching it out and bringing it to the attention of students Mrs Nuttall has made a most important contribution to science. To those who, by their generosity, enabled the Peabody Museum to publish the codex, students of American pictography owe a great debt of gratitude.

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