From the Valley of Mexico to the Rylands: introducing Mexican MS 1

In this blog curator Dr Zsófia Buda shares the story of one of our three Mexican manuscripts.

The vast collections of the John Rylands Library never cease to surprise the curious curator. There are plenty of little-known collections and obscure items on the shelves waiting to be (re)discovered. The Rylands’ three Mexican manuscripts are among these objects. This blog tells the story of Mexican MS 1.

Mexican MS 1 was acquired by Enriqueta Rylands as part of the Crawford collection in 1901. The manuscript is a fragment of a legal document dealing with Tepotzotlán (today a small town north of Mexico City). The fragment containing six folios discusses land boundaries. We are lucky enough to know the whereabouts of the rest of the document: there is a second fragment at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and a third in the Newberry Library in Chicago. Adding up the three fragments we can reconstruct the entire document. It must have started with the Paris fragment depicting the Aztec Emperor Xolotl from pre-colonial times, followed by the Chicago fragment with the rest of the images. While these two fragments are mostly pictorial, the Rylands fragment does not have illustrations, only text, and it was most probably located at the end of the original document.

Fig. 1. The Aztec ruler Xolotl as represented in the Paris fragment; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mexicain 81, f. 1v.

Since this is a legal document, we should not be surprised to find a list of signatures at the end (folio 6r and 6v). The first signature is by Don Bartolome de la Cruz, AKA Eagle Heart, the governor of Tepotzotlán. The manuscript ends with a type of colophon in which the scribe introduces himself: “I, Don Juan Cortés, Wind[storm] Notary here in this town… made this record” (folio 6v; translation is by Byron McAfee, see Robertson, 1975).

Fig. 2. “Colophon” by the notary Don Juan Cortés (To[n] Xihuan Coltex). JRL, Mexican MS 1, f. 6v.

The Techialoyan codices

We know of almost 50 such legal documents or fragments relating histories and land boundaries of settlements in what is today Mexico. They are called the “Techialoyan codices” (also called Village and Land Books) – after one of the first such documents that was studied – and are held in libraries all around the world. They are all written in the Nahuatl language in European characters. They all start with a historical or genealogical introduction, mostly pictorial, and end with the main text about the land distribution and boundaries of various settlements (pueblos) in the Valley of Mexico. They were likely prepared in connection with land claims, and used in land disputes between the indigenous elite and the colonising Spaniards.

You may observe the curious, fibrous nature of the paper Mexican MS 1 was written on. As many other Nahuatl manuscripts, the Techialoyan codices were written on amatl or amate, a paper made of the bark of fig trees (amatl is the Nahuatl word for paper and book).

Detail of a folio from Mexican MS 1 containing handwritten text in Nahuatl.
Fig. 5. Detail of a folio showing the fibrous nature of the amatl made of tree bark. Mexican MS 1, f. 1r.

Dubious dates

Although according to the text, it was written on 10 May 1534, we have reason to believe that it was produced later and backdated. This is true of all Techialoyan codices: they are dated to the first half of the sixteenth century, but they contain anachronisms and mistakes that make one suspect the dates. Our Mexican MS 1, for instance, claims that Antonio de Mendoza (1495-1552), the first viceroy of New Spain – as the Spanish Empire’s colonial dominions in North and Central America were called – visited the town in 1534. However, he became viceroy only a year later and it is very unlikely he would have visited such a small, insignificant settlement. Also, the indigenous signatories at the end of the document have Christian and Spanish names. Since the first mendicant friars arrived in Mexico in the 1520s, and the first Christian chapel in Tepotzotlán was probably built in the 1550s, this manifestation of Christian acculturation seems improbably early. There are many more signs that point to a later date of production, probably the late seventeenth or eighteenth century (see Robertson, 1960). Are they forgeries or copies of earlier documents? Opinions differ on this question.

Detail of a folio from Mexican MS 1 containing handwritten text in Nahuatl with the name Antonio de Mendoza marked.
Fig. 6. The Viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza is mentioned as a witness to the document. JRL, Mexican MS 1, folio 1v.

The adventures of a manuscript

Mexican MS 1 has an adventurous history. Before arriving at Lord Crawford’s library, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, it travelled through countries and changed hands several times. It was once owned by the famous Milanese nobleman Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (1698-1749), who while living in New Spain accumulated a large collection of native manuscripts, paintings, and maps. From the catalogue of Boturini’s collection we know that at this point the document – let’s call it the Tepotzotlán codex – was still intact, in one piece, containing all 25 folios (Paris fragment 9 folios, Chicago fragment 10 folios, Rylands fragment 6 folios):

Otra mapa en el papel indiano enquadernado a manera de libro en cuarto, de veinticinco fojas. Lleva por principio la imagen del emperador Xolotl … … tratando exprofeso de la provincia de Tepotzotlan…” [Another map on Indian paper bound together as a quarto book, 25 folios. It has the image of Emperor Xolotl in the beginning… dealing with the province of Tepotzoltan]

Entry of a printed catalogue written in Spanish.
Fig. Boturini, Catalogo del Museo Historico Indiano del Cavallero Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci. 1746. Credit:

The same catalogue helps us with the dating of our manuscript: since it features in the catalogue published in 1746, we know that it must have been produced sometime before then.

In 1742/3, when a misfortune fell on Boturini and he was imprisoned, his collection was confiscated and left to decay for years. Decades later, Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin (1802-1891), another famous collector of Mexican manuscripts and drawings, acquired many objects from Boturini’s collection, among them the Tepotzotlán codex. It seems that still in Mexico the cataloguer of the Aubin collection, Boban Eugene André Boban Duvergé (1834-1908), himself an art dealer, acquired the codex together with other items from Aubin’s collection. It is very likely that Boban is responsible for the fragmentation of the codex: apparently when he decided to bring Aubin’s collection to Europe he had them taken apart and mixed to look insignificant in the eyes of customs officials at the port of Vera Cruz.  

We can trace two further previous owners: a certain “Branford” (about whom we know nothing except the surname) and the Earl of Crawford. Finally, it was bought by Enriqueta Rylands as part of the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, Crawford’s library in 1901.

Isn’t it amazing how by following the story of this thin volume, we can trace the footprints not only of collectors but conquerors and whole civilisations? And you have still to hear the story of Mexican MS 2!

If you wish to know more…

Berger, Uta. Mexican Painted Manuscripts in the United Kingdom. London: British Museum, 1998. Print. Occasional Paper (British Museum) ; No. 91.

Catalogo del Museo Historico Indiano del Cavallero Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci. Madrid: Juan de Zuniga, 1746. (second work in the volume).

Mönnich, Anneliese. “Zwei Techialoyan-Fragmente.Das Ms.Mexicain 81 der Nationalbibliothek zu Paris. Aztekischer Text mit deutscher Übersetzung von Anneliese Mönnich. Aus dem Nachlaß.” Indiana: Estudios Antropológicos sobre América Latina y el Caribe 10 (1985): 147-161.

Robertson, Donald. “The Techialoyan Codex of Tepotzotlán: Codex X (Rylands Mexican MS. 1).” The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 43, no.1 (1960): 109-130.

Robertson, Donald. “24. Techialoyan Manuscripts and Paintings, with a Catalog” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volumes 14 and 15: Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources, Parts Three and Four edited by Robert Wauchope, Howard F. Cline, Charles Gibson and H.B. Nicholson, 253-280. New York, USA: University of Texas Press, 1975.

Wood, Stephanie. “Don Diego García de Mendoza Moctezuma: A. Techialoyan Mastermind?” Estudios de cultura náhuatl 19 (1989): 245–268.

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