Notes from the Other Side—Censored for Three Centuries

Illustrated Codices on Pre-Cortesian Mexico and the Conquest
from the Aztec Perspective

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123. DURÁN, Diego (compiler) & José F[ernando] Ramírez (editor). Historia de las Indias de Nueva España y islas de tierra firme, por el padre Fray Diego Duran religioso de la Orden de Predicadores (Escritor del siglo XVI). La publica con un atlas de estampas, notas e ilustraciones, José F. Ramirez Individuo de varias sociedades literarias nacionales y extranjeros. Mexico: Imprenta de J.M. Andrade y F. Escalante, Bajo de San Agustin num. 1, 1867-1880. Vol. I: [i-iii] iv-xvi, [1] 2-535 [1, blank] pp.; Vol. II: [1-2], [2], [3] 4-304, [2], [1-3] 4-177 [1, blank] pp.; Atlas: [2] pp., 66 uncolored lithographic plates by Jules Desportes (figures from pre-Cortesian illustrations gathered by Durán and Codex Ixtlilxochitl). 3 vols., folio (31.7 x 34.5 cm), contemporary dark brown roan over dark grey and brown marbled boards, spines gilt lettered and gilt decorated, raised bands. Vol. I hinge open but strong, spine chipped at extremities, atlas upper joint weak and rubbed. Uniform light browning due to the quality of paper used; text volume title pages moderately browned and foxed. Very good set, unopened, as issued.

     First edition, written by Durán 1578-1581, but ironically not printed until the present edition, though Durán's manuscript was extensively used by Juan de Tovar in his 1579 manuscript submitted to the Archdiocese of Mexico documenting Aztec history from the Natives' own oral and pictorial accounts (partial private publication by Sir Thomas Phillipps in 1860). Subsequently José de Acosta relied on both Durán and Tovar in his Historica natural y moral de las Indias (first printed at Seville in 1590), the earliest detailed account of the history of Tenochtitlan to be printed, and considered a mine of pre-Cortesian ethnographic information on Mexico and the New World in general. Every subsequent serious writer on the Aztecs before Cortez came on the scene has relied on Durán, either by consulting the various versions of his manuscript, or relying on those who used Durán's work, such as Acosta.

     Bancroft, Mexico I, pp. 460-461: “A [copy of the manuscript from the Madrid manuscript] obtained by José Fernando Ramírez, one of Maximilian's ministers, was prepared by him for publication, but, owing to the death of the imperial patron, only the first 68 chapters were issued at Mexico, 1867, in one volume, with notes and considerable changes of style. This mutilation, as some term it, may have been a reason for the seizure of the whole edition, together with the separate plates, by the republican government. Only a few copies escaped this fate.” Glass (Bibliography), p. 596. Griffin 1406: “Deals principally with preconquest Indian history but also contains important data on Indians and Spanish of the early sixteenth century, based on now lost Native materials.” Mathes, Mexico on Stone, p. 35. Palau 77422. “Los ejemplares en perfecto estado escasean. La mayoria de los corrientes en comercio tienen las láminas manchadas de agua.” Pilling 1118 & 1118a. Sabin 21405 (noting only the 1867 text and commenting in 1873): "The continuation of this work has never been published, in consequence of the departure of M. Ramírez from Mexico. The entire edition of the first volume, with the exception of a small number of copies, distributed privately by the author, as well as the atlas, has been confiscated by the Mexican government." J. Benedict Warren, “An Introductory Survey of Secular Writings in the European Tradition on Colonial Middle America, 1503-1818, #73 & #76, pp. 79-81 in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 13, Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources, Part 2 (University of Texas Press, 1973).

     The Madrid manuscript on European paper (344 leaves) on which this publication is based relates to ritual-calendrical, historical, and ethnographic subjects in the Valley of Mexico 1579-1581. Glass (Census #114) documents the present edition as the first complete printed edition:

[The] manuscript in Spanish with three sections, each illustrated by drawings having diverse origins.... Tratado 1, with 63 illustrations, is a history of the Tenochca-Mexica from their departure from Aztlan-Chicomoztoc through the Spanish conquest, with emphasis on the dynastic history of Tenochtitlan. Part of the text of Tratado 1 derives from a lost manuscript also believed to have been utilized by Alvarado Tezozomoc.

Tratado 2 treats gods, ceremonies, and various customs and has 34 illustrations. Tratado 3, with 21 illustrations, is a calendrical treatise with drawings of a calendar wheel, day signs, and the ceremonies of the 18 months of the 365-day year.

The text and many of the drawings of Tratados 1 and 2 are parallel to those in Tovar's Historia del Origen, most of the text and drawings of which are believed to derive from the Durán manuscript. The festival calendar of Tratado 3 is not copied in the Tovar manuscripts.

     From the time Durán assembled his now lost manuscript and into the nineteenth century, his work seemed to have been beset by troubles. His manuscript was censored and altered to dilute the original accounts by Aztec survivors and their descendants. Paradoxically, among the outstanding incidents of extreme censorship of original Native materials, according to the Florentine Codex, was Itzcoatl (fourth emperor of the Aztecs, ca. 1427 to 1440), who supposedly ordered the torching of historical codices because it was "not wise that all the people should know the paintings" (as quoted by León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 155). Among other agendas, this allowed the Aztec state to develop a state-sanctioned history and mythos that venerated Huitzilopochtli. According to some scholars, even the history in its original form given to Durán was political propaganda created by the Aztecs themselves, a process that continued with differing agendas by the Spanish. An example of this censorship is the Aztec's own history of its sacred origins that predicted the Spanish conquest appearing in Chapter 27 in the present work, representing "the most thorough and penetrating Native critique of Aztec life that has been preserved. It was a devastating commentary on the use of a political and religious ideology to depict the Aztec elites as faithful and privileged heirs to a noble way of life and as divinely destined to rule the earth from their capital city, the unshakable foundation of heaven" (Wayne Elzey, "A Hill of a Land Surrounded by Water: An Aztec Story of Origin and Destiny" in History of Religions, Vol. 31, No. 2, November 1991, pp. 105-149). The troubles over Durán's manuscript continued even into nineteenth-century Mexico, when publication ceased after Vol. I of the present work, due to the overthrow of Maximilian, who had supported Ramírez's publication of Durán, forcing Ramirez to leave Mexico (see below for more on this).

     Until recently the oldest known copy of Durán's manuscript was thought to be the one in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, used by Ramírez in this 1867 printing. But it now appears that the Library of Congress possesses a very early transcription, if not the earliest extant copy, made from Durán's manuscript, with variations from the present version (see John L. Hébert & Abby L. Forgang, "Small Particulars: Variant Titles and Dates to the Manuscript of Fray Diego Durán" in The Americas, Vol. 55, No. 2, October, 1998, pp. 299-313). Hébert and Forgang, give a good overview of Durán's life and work (pp. 301-302):

Fray Diego Durán was born in Seville around 1537. He arrived with his family in Texcoco, Mexico, when yet a young child. He was raised near a Mexica community and grew up listening to the Nahuatl language and observing Mexica customs. Durán later attended school in Mexico City and entered the Dominican order in 1556. He was sent to the Dominican convent in Oaxaca in 1561. Because of his background and his familiarity with the native people, the Dominican order requested that Durán produce a study of the history and customs of the Mexica peoples to assist missionaries engaged in the conversion of Indian peoples in New Spain. There is little doubt that Durán's purpose was to help the evangelization process. Although Doris Heyden argues that Durán's writings are pro-Indian, Durán's targeted audience remained the representatives of the Church who sought greater understanding of native religious beliefs and practices in order to evangelize more effectively.

Durán's perspective is evident in the text. It appears from internal dating that Fray Durán completed his work in 1581. Between that date and the 1840s what happened to the original text is unknown, i.e., who used it, discussions about its utility, where it was stored, etc. What is certain is that it was deposited at the Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid) before 1840. This lack of use of the document may not be so unusual since the Inquisition, which had been instituted in New Spain, prohibited anyone from outside of the Church from reading about non-Christian civilization. Durán even took part in the Inquisition as a translator. Yet, the religious orders recognized the need to understand the Indian cultures in order to evangelize, and Durán had been instructed to write about their customs. However, a cedula of April 22, 1577, sent by Philip II to Viceroy Martín Enríquez, prohibited all writings referring to superstitions and the way of life of the Indians in any language. Many chronicles were repressed, hidden, lost, or mutilated, only to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century, following the termination of the Inquisition in America in 1820.

     Hébert and Forgang also elucidate the interesting evolution of José F. Ramírez's present edition and the Library of Congress copy of Durán's manuscript (pp. 302-303):

The Mexican scholar and diplomat José F. Ramírez became aware of the Durán manuscript in the 1850s. With the help of Francisco González de Vera, librarian at the Ministry of War in Madrid, Ramírez arranged for a scribe to copy the text and an artist to copy the illustrations. This was completed on April 1, 1854, and sent to Mexico.

Ramírez reported that he did not find the Durán chronicle in perfect condition when he used it in 1854. It was lacking a title page, Durán's name had been rubbed out, and several lines of text were covered in thick black ink. Furthermore, the original manuscript suffered additional damage when it had been rebound. The process destroyed several lines of text and clipped some illustrations. That, however, was not due to an obvious attempt of malice, but to the carelessness of the bookbinder. Ramírez intended to publish his new transcription, but political unrest in Mexico caused a temporary delay of the project. It was not until 1867 that any of Ramírez's transcription was published and that included only the first 68 chapters of the Historia.

During that time, Mexican Emperor Maximilian I was overthrown and Ramirez, one of his supporters, was forced into exile. In 1880, Gumesindo Mendoza, the director of the National Museum of Mexico, found the unpublished Durán transcript and had the remainder of the document printed. That new printing was the second volume of Durán, published after Ramírez died in Europe in 1871. It contained the completion of the Historia, and the Book of the Gods and Rites, the Ancient Calendar, and the Atlas. The Atlas contained reproductions of the illustrations found in Durán's text. Although the illustrations were placed above the chapter headings in the original Durán manuscript in the Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid), Ramírez and Mendoza chose to compile them at the end of the text as a separate section.

The Ramírez version remained for many years the only published transcription of the Durán text. However, it is now certain that someone else copied the original manuscript in Madrid before Ramírez. The Library of Congress transcript of Durán's Historia is written on watermarked paper dated 1845 and 1848, the latter date for the endpapers. The copyist who prepared the transcript that eventually came into the Library of Congress's possession did not sign his name.


Sold. Hammer: $1,500.00; Price Realized: $1,837.50.

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