The Durán Codex

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The History of the Indies of New Spain, sometimes referred to as the Durán Codex, contains seventy-eight chapters spanning from the Aztec creation story until after Spanish conquest of Mexico, and includes a chronology of Aztec kings.

The friars of the sixteenth century borrowed one another’s material without citation. Some scholars believe that the Durán Codex formed the basis for the Ramirez Codex although others believe that both Ramirez Codex and the Durán Codex relied on an earlier unknown work referred to as “Chronicle X”. In 1596, Durán was cited as a source by Fray Agustín Dávila Padilla in his Historia de la fundación y discurso de la Provinciade Santiago de Mexico (Heyden xxx).

The Durán Codex was unpublished until the 19th century, when it was found in the Library of Madrid by José Fernando Ramírez. In his Ancient Calendar, Durán explains why his work would go so long without being published by saying “some persons (and they are not a few) say that my work will revive ancient customs and rites among the Indians”, to which he replied that the Indians were quite good at secretly preserving their own customs and needed no outside help.

Durán’s work has become invaluable to archaeologists and others studying Mesoamerica. Although there are few surviving Aztec codices written before the Spanish conquest, the more numerous post-conquest codices and near-contemporary works such as Durán’s are invaluable secondary sources for the interpretation of archaeological theories and evidence.

Diego Durán (c. 1537–1588) was a Dominican friar best known for his authorship of one of the earliest Western books on the history and culture of the Aztecs, The History of the Indies of New Spain, a book that was much criticized in his lifetime for helping the “heathen” maintain their culture.

An excerpt from The History of the Indies of New Spain showing the founding of Tenochtitlan.

Also known as the Durán Codex, The History of the Indies of New Spain was published c. 1581. Durán also wrote Book of the Gods and Rites (1574–1576), and Ancient Calendar, (c. 1579) (Heyden, xxviii). He was fluent in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and was therefore able to consult natives and Aztec codices as well as work done by earlier friars. His empathetic nature allowed him to gain the confidence of many native people who would not share their stories with Europeans, and was able to document many previously unknown folktales and legends that make his work unique.

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