Huejotzingo Codex of 1531
Springbrook High School
Montgomery Country, Maryland
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Students in most history classes expect to see images in their textbooks, at least as illustrations to liven up pages of text. They do not always look at those images, much less analyze them, historically. Our students think of themselves as visual experts because of the many film, television, and digital images they see each day. In my classroom, I use images to build bridges between their visual literacy and methods of historical analysis. In my high-school world history classes, including AP, my students enjoy learning how to better analyze images from the past.
Because I want students to develop complex skills, I select images with multiple layers of historical meaning. For example, when we analyze the effects of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, I use several images created by the conquered peoples. The Huejotzingo Codex of 15311 contains eight sheets of drawings included in a legal brief to the high court of New Spain. My students respond well to these drawings because they have seen the Codex Mendoza and are therefore familiar with the style of art used by the native peoples in the territories in and around the Aztec empire.
Whenever possible, I project the image on a screen so it is large enough for the whole class to see, and we follow four steps. First, students report what they see in the images: what sorts of objects, people, plants and animals, words, shapes, colors, shading, and perspective they find. Second, I provide brief background on the historical context of the image and the materials used to make it. Third, I ask them to suggest possible meanings for any symbols they see in the image. Fourth, we discuss how the historical context of the image—and what we have learned about its purpose—affects the way they can use it as historians.
When I showed my students the Huejotzingo Codex, they made the following initial observations: they saw people with different types of (or no) clothing, an image of the Madonna and child, weavings, and what appeared to be crops. They also noticed that several of the images are repeated in groups, and they pointed out that the Madonna image is more colorful than the rest of the image. Several students noticed that the people arranged in lines have a collar and stick around their necks, and that some have interesting designs in their clothing and hats.
If they have a hard time seeing small details, I enlarge part of the image. For example, some of my students had a hard time seeing the slave collars, so I enlarged that part of the image. If students are looking at images on individual computer screens, they can use the magnifying function to make details larger.
After students share their initial observations, I provide more historical background on the image. In this case, I talk about how the Spanish king gave the title of governor of New Spain to the conqueror of the Aztec empire, Hernando Cortes. I explain how the images in the Huejotzingo Codex were created by people of the town Huejotzingo, who expected help from Cortes in a tax dispute with their local authorities. The villagers of Huejotzingo had been allies of Cortes in his war against the Aztecs, and so they had reasonable hopes that he would help them. The images in the Codex were attached to the documents in the lawsuit submitted by Cortes to the high court of New Spain against Nuno de Guzman, president of the first audiencia (court) in Mexico, and two other Spanish officials in New Spain. The villagers accused these officials of collecting unreasonable tribute from the people of Huejotzingo. The villagers did not object to the tribute—similar taxes were required by their Aztec rulers—but resented the extreme amount. The images in the Codex were painted on amatl, a type of local paper made of fig tree bark or maguey, and the image of the Madonna and Child included gold and feathers. The other figures in the image represent the eight male and twelve female slaves sold in order to pay for the tribute.
With this background, we return to the image and focus on the symbolic meanings. The students quickly understand that the grouped images might symbolize the amount and types of tribute required by the Spanish administrators named in the lawsuit. They also often speculate that the Madonna image was included to show how “Spanish” the people of the town of Huejotzingo had become, and how they should be treated fairly according to the law of the king of Spain.
With a clearer understanding of the context and content of the image, students begin to draw some historical conclusions. Among the conclusions they often draw are: some native peoples in New Spain expected the protection of the conquistadors from the new Spanish administrators, and they expected to have their case heard in court and to be taken seriously; some native peoples owned slaves, meaning slavery was not introduced to New Spain by Europeans; agricultural practices and methods of textile production prevalent before the Spanish conquest continued after the conquest; and taxation was not resisted, but exploitation was.
In the AP World History course, students write a thesis statement based on our analysis of one or more images. For example, some students used the Huejotzingo Codex to theorize that there were more continuities than changes as a result of the Spanish conquest. One way I sometimes help the class construct a thesis together is by asking two volunteers to stand on either side of the image and imagine they are an extension of the painting. In this case, I ask students to put themselves in the place of the slaves. We then quiz the extra slaves about their status in the society, designs on women’s clothing, and any opinions they have about being sold to pay for the extra paint and decorations used for the Madonna image. Students always raise more questions then we have time for or the expertise to answer, so I remind them that historians constantly review their interpretations based on the questions raised by their colleagues and by new evidence. In addition, unanswered questions offer a ripe opportunity for conducting additional research to learn more about the topic.
Through exercises such as these, I find that students’ ability to analyze the content of complex images such as the Huejotzingo Codex improved markedly as the school year progressed.
1 See the following two web sites:
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/1492/eurocla.html - scroll down for the links to the other seven images.
http://aic.stanford.edu/jaic/articles/jaic29-02-001.html - shows the whole legal brief and how the paintings were inserted into the folio