Introduction

FIGURE 1. Colegio de San Ildefonso (constructed 1537-53 by architect Rodrigo Gil de Hontan),  University of Alcal, Spain. Photo courtesy of Wikisource.

FIGURE 1. Colegio de San Ildefonso (constructed 1537-53 by architect Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón), University of Alcalá, Spain. Photo courtesy of Wikisource.

FIGURE 2. The screenfold format of the Codex Nuttall. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 2. The screenfold format of the Codex Nuttall. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 3. The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 3. The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photo by Byron Hamann.

A student entering the library at the Spanish University of Alcalá in 1519 found its shelves stocked with two types of books (Figure 1). Some of the volumes-including sixty-five Arabic manuscripts-were written and illuminated by hand. Most of the tomes had been mechanically inscribed using the printing press, invented some eighty years before. Structurally, however, both kinds of books were the same. They were constructed from single leaves of paper or skin bound together on one side.1

At the same time that our hypothetical scholar was reading books written and printed on paper and parchment, the Europeans involved in the exploration/exploitation of what is now Mexico and Central America were discovering that the indigenous people there also kept written records. In their accounts of the conquest and of the colonization that followed, the Spaniards referred to these indigenous records as books, “libros.”2 However, these New World “books” were constructed quite differently from their Western counterparts. Instead of a compilation of single pages bound at the center, the “books” of Mesoamerica were made from a single, very long sheet of skin or paper which was folded back and forth like an accordion. They could thus be compressed for storage, or completely unfolded to display all of their contents at once (Figure 2).

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, these hand-painted volumes-like most of the aesthetic objects created by New World peoples-were subjected to both destruction and collection. Many were destroyed in the fires of Christian missionaries, certain that these were works of the Devil. At the same time, however, some of these books were taken by the Spaniards and sent to Europe as curious trophies of conquest. Most of the prehispanic books that still exist owe their survival to centuries of storage in European libraries (Figure 3).

Once they had crossed the Atlantic, these folded objects were usually classified in museum and library catalogs as books (liber, libro). Occasionally the term codex (Latin for book) was used as well, [3] but it was not until early nineteenth century the terms “codex” and “codices”(the plural form of codex) became firmly established for describing Mesoamerican texts.4 Mesolore continues to use these two terms, but we prefer “screenfold”—a word that better captures the unique physical properties of these fascinating documents.

Traditions of Writing >
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1 On the history and holdings of the library of the University of Alcalá in the sixteenth century, see Garcia Oro 1992 and Méndez Aparicio 2007: 22-27. The University of Alcalá was officially founded in 1499.

2 Coe (1989) collects a number of sixteenth-century discussions of Mesoamerican screenfolds as “books” (libros).

3 A 1537 Latin inscription on the Ñudzavui Codex Vienna describes it as a “Codex” (Anders et al. 1992, 22). A 1605 catalog reference to the Ñudzavui Codex Bodley describes it as a “Liber lingua mexicana” (book in the Mexican language; Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2004, 29).The entry for the Borgia group Codex Cospi in a 1677 museum catalog describes it as a “LIBRO MESSICANO” (Anders et al. 2004: 14).

4 William Robertson refers to a Mesoamerican screenfold as a codex in his 1787 The History of America, Volume 3 (page 412). The term codex is also used to describe Mesoamerican manuscripts by Alexander von Humboldt, both in the original French edition of his 1810 Vues des Cordillères (page 89) as well as in an 1814 English translation (Humboldt 1814: 17, 3-37, 80-84, 145, 159, 167-168). Examples from later in the nineteenth century are too numerous to mention.