The Florentine Codex
This is an excerpt from the twelfth book of the Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino Sahagún (1499-1590). Sahagún was a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529. The manuscript, commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, consists of twelve books that cover a range of different topics. The twelfth book focuses on the Spanish conquest of Mexico between 1519 and 1521. Around 1553-55, Sahagún gathered accounts from indigenous elders who lived in the Mexica (Aztec) capital of Tenochtitlan during the Spanish conquest. These firsthand accounts formed the basis of the twelfth book. Written from the perspective of the indigenous elders who experienced these events, Sahagún's work provides a unique window into the tumultuous events in central Mexico during the early 16th-century.
Excerpt from General History of the Things of New Spain. Book XII: The Conquest of Mexico by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.
The Spaniards approached Tenochtitlan from the south, crossing to the city along the causeway from Ixtapalapa. The Nahua accounts concentrate on those things that were new and strange like horses and crossbows but also seek to find parallels and comparisons between their own practices and customs and the ways of the strangers. Here, for example, Cortés is compared to the tlacatecatl or military commander. The welcoming “speech” of Moctezuma and his concession of authority to Cortés is particularly interesting and raises questions about the nature of “polite” political discourse among the Nahua as well as the possibility of later interpretations and explanations being placed in the historical record after the conquest.
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Fifteenth chapter, where it is said how the Spaniards came from Itztapalapan when they reached Mexico.
Then they set out in this direction, about to enter Mexico here. Then they all dressed and equipped themselves for war. They girded themselves, tying their battle gear lightly on themselves and then on their horses. Then they arranged themselves in rows, files, ranks.
Four horsemen came ahead, going first, staying ahead, leading. They kept turning about as they went, facing people, looking this way and that, looking sideways, gazing everywhere between the houses, examining things, looking up at the roofs.
Also the dogs, their dogs, came ahead, sniffing at things and constantly panting.
By himself came marching ahead, all alone, the one who bore the standard on his shoulder. He came waving it about, making it spin, tossing it here and there. It came stiffening, rising up like a warrior, twisting and turning.
Following him came those with iron swords. Their iron swords came bare and gleaming. On their shoulders they bore their shields, of wood or leather.
The second contingent and file were horses carrying people, each with his cotton cuirass, his leather shield, his iron lance, and his iron sword hanging down from the horse’s neck. They came with bells on, jingling or rattling. The horses, the deer, neighed, there was much neighing, and they would sweat a great deal; water seemed to fall from them. And their flecks of foam splattered on the ground, like soapsuds splatting. As they went they made a beating, throbbing, and hoof-pounding like throwing stones. Their hooves made holes, they dug holes in the ground wherever they placed them. Separate holes formed wherever they went placing their hindlegs and forelegs.
The third file were those with iron crossbows, the crossbowmen. As they came, the iron crossbows lay in their arms. They came along testing them out, brandishing them, (aiming them). But some carried them on their shoulders, came shouldering the crossbows. Their quivers went hanging at their sides, passed under their armpits, well filled, packed with arrows, with iron bolts. Their cotton upper armor reached to their knees, very thick, firmly sewn, and dense, like stone. And their heads were wrapped in the same cotton armor, and on their heads plumes stood up, parting and spreading.
The fourth file were likewise horse[men]; their outfits were the same as has been said.
The fifth group were those with harquebuses, the harquebusiers, shouldering their harquebuses; some held them [level]. And when they went into the great palace, the residence of the ruler, they repeatedly shot off their harquebuses. They exploded, sputtered, discharged, thundered, (disgorged). Smoke spread, it grew dark with smoke, everyplace filled with smoke. The fetid smell made people dizzy and faint.
And last, bringing up the rear, went the war leader, thought to be the ruler and director in battle, like [among us] a tlacateceatl. Gathered and massed about him, going at his side, accompanying him, enclosing him were his warriors, those with devices, his [aides], like [among us] those with scraped heads [quaquachictin] and the Otomi warriors, the strong and valiant ones of the altepetl, its buttress and support, its heart and foundation.
Then all those from the various altepetl on the other side of the mountains, the Tlaxcalans, the people of Tliliuhquitepec, of Huexotzinco, came following behind. They came outfitted for war with their cotton upper armor, shields, and bows, their quivers full and packed with feathered arrows, some barbed, some blunted, some with obsidian points. They went crouching, hitting their mouths with their hands and yelling, singing in Tocuillan style, whistling, shaking their heads.
Some bore burdens and provisions on their backs; some used [tump lines for] their foreheads, some [bands around] their chests, some carrying frames, some board cages, some deep baskets. Some made bundles, perhaps putting the bundles on their backs. Some dragged the large cannons, which went resting on wooden wheels, making a clamor as they came.
Sixteenth chapter, where it is said how Moteucçoma went in peace and quiet to meet the Spaniards at Xoloco, where the house of Alvarado is now, or at the place they call Huitzillan.
And when they [the Spaniards] had come as far as Xoloco, when they had stopped there, Moteucçoma dressed and prepared himself for a meeting, along with other great rulers and high nobles, his rulers and nobles. Then they went to the meeting. On gourd bases they set out different precious flowers, in the midst of the shield flowers and heart flowers stood popcorn flowers, yellow tobacco flowers, cacao flowers, [made into] wreaths for the head, wreaths to be girded around. And they carried golden necklaces, necklaces with pendants, wide necklaces.
And when Moteucçoma went out to meet them at Huitzillan, thereupon he gave various things to the war leader, the commander of the warriors; he gave him flowers, he put necklaces on him, he put flower necklaces on him, he girded him with flowers, he put flower wreaths on his head. Then he laid before him the golden necklaces, all the different things for greeting people. He ended by putting some of the necklaces on him.
Then [Cortés] said in reply to Moteucçoma, “Is it not you? Is it not you then? Moteucçoma?”
Moteucçoma said, “Yes, it is me.” Thereupon he stood up straight, he stood up with their faces meeting. He bowed down deeply to him. He stretched as far as he could, standing stiffly. Addressing him, he said to him,
“O our lord, be doubly welcomed on your arrival in this land; you have come to satisfy your curiosity about your altepetl of Mexico, you have come to sit on your seat of authority, which I have kept a while for you, where I have been in charge for you, for your agents the rulers—Itzcoatzin, the elder Moteucçoma, Axayacatl, Tiçocic, and Ahuitzotl — have gone, who for a very short time came to be in charge for you, to govern the altepetl of Mexico. It is after them that your poor vassal [myself] came. Will they come back to the place of their absence? If only one of them could see and behold what has now happened in my time, what I now see after our lords are gone! For I am not just dreaming, not just sleepwalking, not just seeing it in my sleep. I am not just dreaming that I have seen you, have looked upon your face. For a time I have been concerned, looking toward the mysterious place from which you have come, among clouds and mist. It is so that the rulers on departing said that you would come in order to acquaint yourself with your altepetl and sit upon your seat of authority. And now it has come true, you have come. Be doubly welcomed, enter the land, go to enjoy your palace; rest your body. May our lords be arrived in the land.”
And when the speech that Moteucçoma directed to the Marqués had concluded, Marina reported it to him, interpreting it for him. And when the Marqués had heard what Moteucçoma had said, he spoke to Marina in return, babbling back to them, replying in his babbling tongue,
“Let Moteucçoma be at ease, let him not be afraid, for we greatly esteem him. Now we are truly satisfied to see him in person and hear him, for until now we have greatly desired to see him and look upon his face. Well, now we have seen him, we have come to his homeland of Mexico. Bit by bit he will hear what we have to say.”
Thereupon [the Spaniards] took [Moteucçoma] by the hand. They came along with him, stroking his hair to show their good feeling. And the Spaniards looked at him, each of them giving him a close look. They would start along walking, then mount, then dismount again in order to see him....
World Digital Library. "General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book XII: The Conquest of Mexico." Accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10623/#collection=florentine-codex
Excerpt from Schwartz, Stuart B. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.
Annotated by Raymond Hyser