It is well known that Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún was one of the most gifted students of Nahua culture in sixteenth-century Mexico. The most famous of his works is the 12-volume encyclopedia of Nahua history and culture known as the Florentine Codex in its Nahuatl version and the Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España in Spanish. The manuscript known as the Primeros memoriales represents Sahagún’s first effort to record the information given to him by his native informants. It dates from Sahagún’s residency in the town of Tepeapulco in about 1558. There he interviewed the local elders and notables about preconquest times. To illustrate their conversations, the natives used pictures of the old style. Sahagún then organized this information into four chapters: “Rites and Deities,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Rulers,” and “Human Things.” The final product included both the drawings and an accompanying Nahuatl description or gloss.
Ellen T. Baird’s analysis of the Primeros memoriales ranges widely. The first three chapters place the Primeros memoriales in their appropriate context and tell the story of their creation. These chapters provide sufficient background for understanding the analysis of the work. Chapter 4 focuses on “The Placement and Role of the Drawings.” In this chapter Baird attempts to determine why the work was written the way it was, how the drawings were placed, and how pictorial and written data were combined. The format of the Primeros memoriales was European, not native. It was made from European paper, bound like a European book, with a two-column format—drawings, vertically aligned, on the right; Nahuatl terms and explanations on the left.
Chapter 5 analyzes the “Pictorial Structure of the Veintena Ceremonies.” The veintena ceremonies were the 18 feasts—months—of the Nahua year; each feast contained 20 days. Baird concludes that the scenes depicted were, in all likelihood, copied from pre-Columbian screenfold manuscripts by artists who were unfamiliar with the material they copied. This allows Baird to conclude that the artists were probably the four young students from the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco who accompanied Sahagún and assisted him in his studies.
The last two chapters analyze the style of the drawings; then, on that basis, Baird determines that six artists worked on the project and that two of the artists could have been local informants, with a stronger understanding of the material being copied and more experience in the Nahua pictorial tradition. Baird’s work is an invaluable study, giving great insight into Sahagún’s methods and the relationship of his works to their pre-Columbian predecessors.
The companion piece to Baird’s analysis is a new photographic reproduction of the Primeros memoriales manuscript by Ferdinand Anders. The original manuscript, also known as the Códice Matritense, is held in two locations, one part in the Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Historia, the other in the Biblioteca del Palacio Real, both in Madrid. Anders has reconstructed the original work according to the format first suggested by Francisco del Paso y Troncoso. The pages are reproduced full scale, in a photographic reproduction of excellent quality. This edition makes this important manuscript available to scholars in an excellent format.