Short Teaching Module: Codex Mendoza (16th c.)

Dana Leibsohn
Birth Rituals in the Codex Mendoza thumbnail image


In Mexico City, towards the middle of the 16th century, Nahuatl-speaking painters created the Codex Mendoza, one of the most lavish indigenous accounts of history and moral behavior known today. Across pages of expensive, imported paper, the painters of the C. Mendoza describe the conquests of Mexica (Aztec) rulers and note the tribute they collected from their subordinates: precious feathered warrior shields and strings of turquoise, bundles of cotton blankets and bins of beans. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below. Click on the images or text for more information about the source.

This short teaching module includes guidance on introducing and discussing the three primary sources.

Primary Sources

Birth Rituals in the Codex Mendoza

Birth Rituals in the Codex Mendoza thumbnail image
The image from the Codex Mendoza (produced ca. 1535-1550) describes the Aztec birth ritual of bathing and naming the child, which, according to accounts from the 16th century, was usually held on the fourth day after birth. It was attended by the parents and kin, who gathered in the house before sunrise to feast and observe the ceremony. The midwife who aided the birth conducted the ceremony, and she is shown holding the infant. After consulting with the tonalpouhqui, a person knowledgeable in the sacred books would determine the sign of the child based on the moment of birth. The image is a narrative, showing a sequence of events through the use of multiple images connected by dotted lines. The midwife took the infant from the cradle near its mother and carried it to a pottery vessel filled with water, placed on a mat. The midwife's counterclockwise footprints circle the mat, where two sets of symbolic objects are placed. Male infants were given a shield and arrows, tools for wood-, feather-, and metal-work, and the scribe's implements (depicted above the mat). Female children were given domestic objects: a broom, a reed basket and a spindle (depicted below the mat). The midwife performed four rituals with the water: she invoked the goddess of water and put drops of water on the baby's mouth, telling it to receive the water it needs to live upon the earth; she touched the baby's chest with her wet hand and invoked the purifying property of water that cleans the heart; she cast drops of water on the baby's head, telling the baby to let the water enter its body to dwell there. Finally, the midwife washed the child's body to keep evil away from it. After these four rites, a boy child was presented to the sky four times, calling on the sun and the astral gods, asking that he become a warrior. A girl child was not presented to the sky—a masculine god, but after the washing the midwife spoke to the cradle asking the protection of the mother goddess. Following the ceremony, the baby was given a name, often one based on the day and time of birth. This source is a part of the Codex Mendoza (16th c.) teaching module.

Disciplining Children in the Codex Mendoza

Thumbnail image of Disciplining Children in the Codex Mendoza
Aztec children were valued creations. Language used in rituals compared infants to precious stones and feathers, flakes of stone, ornaments, or sprouts of plants. The duty of parents and society, however was not to indulge but to socialize the child, so that they would not become "fruitless trees," as an Aztec proverb stated. According to sources written shortly after the Spanish conquest, such as the Codex Mendoza, society placed a high value on conformity, obedience, and decorum. The section of the Codex Mendoza that depicts daily life shows gender-specific punishments used in raising children. The image seems to show a sequence of punishments, first threatening the boy and the girl with three maguey thorns, the spike of the agave plant. In the second image, the woman is administering punishment to the girl by piercing her arm with the maguey thorn; the boy is pierced more severely in the neck, flank, and hip, and he is bound at the wrists and ankles. In the third image, the punishment of striking the child with a stick or rod is being carried out. In each case the image shows the children weeping profusely as the threat or the punishment is administered. This source is a part of the Codex Mendoza (16th c.) teaching module.

Gender Roles among the Nahua in the Codex Mendoza

image of gender roles being portrayed
From the time of birth, children in Aztec, or Nahua, society were socialized into gender roles. In the birth ritual introducing the infant to society, symbolic objects clearly differentiated. Boys were to be warriors and craftsmen, and girls were to tend to domestic chores. Articles of clothing—loincloth and cape for the boy, shift and skirt for the girl—were given to the child. The umbilical cord of the boy was buried in a field to associate him with the battlefield; the girl’s cord was buried in a corner of the house, each space signifying the sites of social productivity. The image from the Codex Mendoza depicts ways in which childhood socialization patterns differed for boys and girls, systematically divided into panels on the left and right sides of the page, each vignette separated from the other by a line. In each scene, male and female adults preside over raising boys and girls, respectively. From infant to adult, children were classed into age-cohorts, each with its expectations. A ritual called izcalli took place every four years and involved a purification ceremony for children of that cohort in a fire with the acrid smoke from chili peppers. The image shows a small boy being held over the fire, the girl in front of it. Children were also held up by the head or neck to make them grow tall; their ears were pierced with maguey thorns for later ornaments. Other scarification rituals took place at various stages of maturity. After the age of four, children became responsible for gender-specific chores, and began to wear adult-like garments. They were socialized into patterns of speaking, showing respect, and sitting in gender-specific postures. Boys learned endurance, sleeping bound on the cold, wet ground; girls perfected sweeping rituals for purification of the house. The boy is taught to carry firewood, while the girl learns to grind maize and make tortillas. The image on the bottom shows an older boy learning to fish, and the girl weaving spun thread on a back-strap loom—both tasks that would require a child to reach a certain size and strength. These measures in early childhood may reflect brief life expectancies in which every member of the family had to contribute to the prosperity of the society. This source is a part of the Codex Mendoza (16th c.) teaching module and the Primer: Gender in World History methods module.

Teaching Strategies

Why I Taught the Source

In Mexico City, towards the middle of the 16th century, Nahuatl-speaking painters created the Codex Mendoza, one of the most lavish indigenous accounts of history and moral behavior known today. Across pages of expensive, imported paper, the painters of the C. Mendoza describe the conquests of Mexica (Aztec) rulers and note the tribute they collected from their subordinates: precious feathered warrior shields and strings of turquoise, bundles of cotton blankets and bins of beans.

Perhaps the most famous image from the C. Mendoza depicts the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Mexican capital. Yet other scenes show boys and girls being raised by elders. In these scenes, the C. Mendoza articulates ideals of personhood in the Aztec empire as they were imagined, and remembered, in the first decades after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. And it is these scenes that capture my students' interest most insistently, that spark the most intense discussion.

I teach the C. Mendoza in classes on visual representation and colonialism in Latin America. We study the document both as a singular work and through comparative lenses. This involves reading the C. Mendoza as a physical object, a genre of history making, and an ideological project, not strictly a documentary report on the pre-Hispanic past. For instance, the manuscript, which was likely commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy seated in New Spain, was completed and sent to Europe before 1553, just a generation after the introduction of Christianity and Spanish rule.

These historical conditions open onto questions about the construction and transmission of indigenous memories under conditions of extraordinary political and cultural stress. The material and physical forms of the C. Mendoza prompt discussions of painting style, glyphic and alphabetic writing, the production of books (printed, hand-painted, bound, folded), and, in advanced classes, comparative thinking about the meanings attached to objects made of paper, text and image in 16th–century Europe, America, and east Asia.

The painted scenes of children offer an opportunity to examine personhood, especially how to represent the gendering of identities in 16th–century central Mexico. To borrow a phrase from Annette Wiener, I frame discussion of the Codex Mendoza as a culturally dense object: it is a book, of idealized history, thrown into sharp relief by colonial circumstances. 1

How I Introduce the Source

To introduce works such as the C. Mendoza is one of the pleasures (and real challenges) of teaching in my field. For most of my students, manuscript painting is an unfamiliar genre of representation. I therefore begin with the material form of the document and its social life as a historical object. In large classes, this involves lectures with images on screen, assignments outside of class with digital images, and readings both about and from the C. Mendoza. 2 In smaller classes students examine the facsimile, assessing the material properties of the book—its heft and weight, and the ways in which image and text were set down.

One of my objectives lies in asking students to grapple with the patterns of labor that can be traced across the manuscript and the bodily postures its reading required. We also explore the history of the C. Mendoza's travels from New Spain to Europe, how it passed through the hands of multiple collectors—some quite famous, such as André Thevet, whose name has been scrawled on many of the manuscript's pages. The 'contexts' I ask my students to reflect upon thus include not only the site of manuscript production in central Mexico but also histories of early modern collecting, including western European desires to possess indigenous histories, bodies, and objects.

Reading the Source

As an art historian, I also expect my students to develop the skills to translate and parse exemplary pages and images. I may ask students to familiarize themselves with pages of the C. Mendoza as homework and perhaps write a short analysis for class, yet we also read images together in class.

For instance, folio 60r (see link above), forms part of a series of paintings and texts describing "the manner and customs the Mexicans had in giving birth to a boy or girl […] and later dedicating and offering them to their temples or to the military." 3 This page focuses on adolescence: the top, horizontal register depicts boys and girls at 11 years of age; the next registers, reading down the page, describe years 12-14.

Along with this horizontal structure, this page should be read vertically, male children and their teachers appear along the left side, females along the right. At age 11, elders punish children—both boys and girls—who fail to heed their advice by forcing the naughty ones to inhale chile smoke; at age 14, 'good' boys fish in canoes while 'good' girls learn to weave. This page also describes the proper allotment of food for each child at each stage of life. The ideals of behavior sketched out by these scenes provide a wealth of material for class discussion—be it at the introductory or advanced level, a course in visual culture or Latin American Studies.

I do find it useful and important to teach students how to read images as 'foreign' and unfamiliar as those of the C. Mendoza, and beyond this, to interpret this particular account of colonial memory. For one reason, there exist few indigenous sources so explicit about what it meant to raise children in this period and place. The implications of such an interpretive project, however, are no less compelling. This means thinking about the prescriptive and normative roles suggested by image and text: girls shall learn to weave and sweep, boys to fish and carry firewood.

We study the columnar and horizontal divisions of folios, and interrogate the patterns of distinction and parity they create—between boys and girls, between children of different ages, and between children and adults. We also consider the tone and language of the C. Mendoza, including the hybridity of its conventions, the mix of elements that derive from pre-Hispanic as opposed to European modes of representation. 4

In some classes this opens onto discussions of pre-Hispanic legacies and their preservation and re-fashioning in colonial Mexico. In other classes, it leads to conversation about normative and transgressive patterns of gendered behavior and child-raising—in the pre-Hispanic past, in colonial Latin America, or more broadly under colonial conditions. In nearly every course, we discuss the possibilities for (and limits to) representing the complexities of lived experience. To become an "Aztec" was no simple thing.

These last points are without doubt the most challenging. In part, this is because any comparative lens must be composed of many facets. While there is an increasingly extensive bibliography in English for students to work from, in my experience, the issue is not simply 'having enough information.' 5 Rather when it comes to children, and especially children in colonial contexts, my students—who are almost exclusively undergraduates and primarily women—have strong convictions about the innocence of young people, the malleability of their identities, and how much children 'back then' are like those 'right now.'

I take these concerns seriously, but it often means wrestling with the 'reality factor.' In works like the C. Mendoza, my students are often more interested in how chokingly awful the chile smoke that 11 year-olds had to inhale, than how persuasive the manuscript's strategies of representation.


In my experience, then, to raise the children of the C. Mendoza in the classroom is to raise questions that stretch far beyond the Aztecs and their colonial memories. It means addressing cultural divides that are deep and stereotypes that are complicated. This is not a challenge of this text alone, but of writing and teaching about histories of people who we do not know well, yet we are certain led sophisticated and complicated lives. Even as children.


1Weiner, Annette. "Cultural Difference and the Density of Objects." American Ethnologist.21:2 (May 1994): 391–403.
2See, for instance, The Essential Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt (1997, Berkeley), and the full facsimile, The Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt (4 vols., 1992, Berkeley). For an analysis rooted in post-colonial scholarship, see also José Rabasa, "Confronting Imaginations: Towards an Alternative Reading of the Codex Mendoza." In Colonialism Past and Present: Reading and Writing about Colonial Latin America Today, edited by Alvaro Félix Bolaños and Gustavo Verdesio (2002, Albany).
Weiner, Annette. "Cultural Difference and the Density of Objects." American Ethnologist.21:2 (May 1994): 391–403.


Dana Leibsohn’s current research taps the insights of anthropology and art history, focusing on both indigenous visual culture in colonial Latin America and trans-Pacific trade in the early modern period. She has published on indigenous maps and manuscripts, hybridity in colonial visual culture, the trade between China and Mexico, and the early modern history of Manila. Leibsohn teaches courses on Latin American visual culture and histories of colonialism and early modern exchange. She also has a strong interest in digital technologies and team-teaches the interdisciplinary classes Digital Effects and Making Knowledge. In many of her courses students produce scholarship accessible to the public, including projects on contemporary artists, objects in local museums and historic maps.

This teaching module was originally developed for the Children & Youth in History project.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Codex Mendoza (16th c.)," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-codex-mendoza-16th-c [accessed June 12, 2024]