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Crumbling Manuscripts

Franciscan friars set fire to Mesoamerican books and sacred garments.

This section reviews four unfinished manuscripts that offer material testimony to the collapse of Mesoamerican society under the colonial regime: the Florentine Codex, Codex Telleriano-Remensis, Tira de Tepechpan, and Codex Mexicanus.

In this drawing, Franciscan friars set fire to Mesoamerican books and sacred garments. From the flames emanate images of Nahua gods. The Nahuatl text above reads, “Here the friars burned the sorcerers,” and the Spanish text below reads, “Fire of all the clothes, books, and attires of the idolatrous priests burned by the friars.” Mesoamericans recorded their histories and worldviews in codices of astounding visual richness. Tragically, the great majority of these manuscripts were destroyed by the Spanish, for their non-Christian content, and by Mesoamerican leaders who wanted to rewrite history. Confronted with the destruction of their repositories of knowledge and devastated by epidemics and exploitation, many sixteenth-century Indigenous scholars worked tirelessly to save their knowledge from looming oblivion, writing a handful of books under colonial supervision. Produced at the height of epidemic devastation, these manuscripts were often left unfinished, as scholars and artists ran out of supplies or fell ill during their production.


Image Source

  • Diego Muñoz Camargo. Historia de Tlaxcala. 1585. University of Glasgow Library, Scotland, MS Hunter 242 (U.3.15), fol. 242r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Archives & Special Collections.

Further Reading

  • Muñoz Camargo, Diego. Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala. Translated by René Acuña. Online ed. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2017. 

Exhibit Items