This pedagogical article discusses sources and methods for teaching the history of imperial science and medicine in the Nahua world from 1400 to 1600, a period that ranges from the spectacular growth of the Aztec Empire through the conquest to the creation of New Spain. By providing students tools to explore non-European ontologies and world-building, this article presents several exercises in which students act as archival researchers and themselves puzzle out the complexities of information transfer in the archive of sixteenth-century Latin America. Combining European paleography workshops, linguistic tools pioneered by the IDIEZ Nahuatl program, the study of Mesoamerican archeological objects, and an engagement with Mexican medicinal plants to recreate early modern remedies, students gain access to a world of New Spanish knowledge-creation.


Doctor Francisco Hernández (1514–1587) was not accustomed to relying on others’ expertise. His own discernment had guided him through his training in medicine and botany at the University of Alacalá. Drawing on an uncommon combination of practical knowhow and formal education, Hernández interwove humanistic learning with Hippocratic, Galenic, and Avicennan medicine. This underpinned his comfortable sense of competence in the Renaissance European world.1 

All that was before King Philip II of Spain transformed Hernández’s life by dispatching him off to the Americas in 1571. As protomédico, or royal physician, Dr. Hernández was to travel all over the vast new Spanish territories to collect as much information as possible from “doctors, curers, herbalists, indios and other knowledgeable people.”2 In Renaissance terms, the protomédico was to be a New Dioscorides, charged with learning about and recording for Spanish imperial usage the medicinal properties of the Americas’ most precious plants. Since this knowledge was intended eventually to be written in such a fashion that Spaniards reading his work could use it independently, Hernández was to study and record these plants’ environments to know where they grew and how to cultivate them. Anything that seemed useful and was not already grown in Europe, Hernández was to dispatch to Spain. There, the crown hoped that Old World maladies would be swept away before a rising tide of leaves ripped from New World stems.

Alas, those Mesoamerican doctors, curers, herbalists, and other knowledgeable people were often not anywhere near so willing to part with their secrets as Hernández and the Spanish Crown had hoped. Indeed, why would they be eager to participate in a project designed to plunder their best secrets and render them superfluous? Frustrating as their reluctance to share was to the Spanish, all parties recognized Nahua expertise. This medical tradition had developed in what is known today as the Aztec Empire, carefully fostered by tītīcih (Nahua physicians) and expert practitioners who practiced tēpahtiā, using pahtli as medicine or potions to cure others. Europeans sought to extract Nahua techniques and, more specifically, the intrinsic power of locally-grown Mesoamerican materia medica on which they relied. Just as Europeans had cultivated sugar across their islands, perhaps these Mesoamerican plants could be efficiently farmed and used to treat disease. Having consolidated political control in New Spain, the crown mobilized its officials in massive information-gathering projects. These could be top-down, like the Hernández expedition, a multi-year project led by the royal physician in person. They could also be bottom-up, as the Spanish Crown demanded administrative reports from local officials that were to include, among many other items, details of medical praxis for eager readers in Madrid; the questionnaires asked “was the land healthy or sick . . . what sicknesses commonly occur and what remedies are often applied.”3 Regardless of the structure, the goal was consistent. For all their recognized expertise, fame escaped indigenous medical experts. In fact, this was essential to the projects’ basic premise, which sought to eliminate the context, reducing indigenous knowledge to facts provided by unnamed informants to be slotted into European systems of knowledge. Through the sixteenth century, a dynamic tension developed. European bioprospecters, intent on dredging up new medicines from their new territories, grew increasingly fascinated with indigenous remedies. At the same time, Europeans distanced themselves evermore insistently from the systems of medicine that had produced these cures, inflected as they were by newly-prohibited religious practices. Abstracting Nahua medical and botanical knowledge from Nahua sacral traditions was a religious necessity, enforced by a violently suspicious Inquisition.4 

This growing climate of secrecy haunted Francisco Hernández when he arrived in remote altepetls, or city-states, throughout the Valley of Mexico, begging for information about powerful, even sacred, plants, animals, and minerals. To make any headway, he relied on a team of interpreters and artists who helped him collect and describe the New World wonders surrounding him. Despite their mediation and his own growing work to treat the cocoliztli epidemic in 1576, Hernández’s pleas often fell on deaf ears. Years later, when back in Europe, he opined about his informants’, guides’, and interpreters’ failure to provide him with accurate information. Especially outside of urban centers, native experts had been unwilling to share their best cures with him. In a poetic Epistle to renowned humanist Benito Arias Montano (1527-1598), Hernández complained about “the ingenuity of the Indians in the wild, who could not be persuaded to reveal/a single secret of nature and were so insincere.”5 Worse, even the secrets that had been revealed might not be reliable. By the time he returned to Spain, Hernández clearly feared “false information from his interpreters” and trickery concerning the facts about nature he was trying to collect: “I will not talk about the perverse Indian guides, nor will I speak of all their fraudulence, or terrible lies, which caught me off guard more than once; how they played tricks on me; which I took care to avoid with all the tact at my disposal.”6 No doubt what Hernández, like other Europeans, perceived as “insincerity” was in fact a tactic for evading eager European bioprospectors or a genuine confusion in the challenging task of bridging knowledge systems.

Try as we might to escape the comparison, modern scholarship is infused by the priorities inculcated by the European intellectual apparatus of which Hernández was a part. As scholars of the premodern world aim to connect histories and literatures beyond the European canon, we too seek to unveil secret knowledge cultivated by experts distant from us in time, place, and ontology. Anglophone students who wade into the study of medieval worlds find themselves in a position not unlike that of Hernández. Their basic training in language, philosophy, and history, however sophisticated, generally harkens from Europe and the Mediterranean. Curious, committed to a democratic vision of the whole world’s history, and captivated by the project of universal knowledge, they too try to integrate distant wisdom into a structurally European system. The Americas’ isolation from Old World traditions and the spectacular quality of Tenochtitlan—surrounded by floating chinampa gardens and a vast empire—have made its intellectuals’ formidable knowledge doubly fascinating.

As more scholars aim to develop premodern curricula that span the globe and foster a growing interest in trans-national history of science, the experience of Spanish-Nahua intellectual cross-pollination constitutes a fundamental episode at the outset of the Scientific Revolution. Through sometimes complex twists and turns, the texts produced in this period proved foundational. Publishing a small extract of Hernández’s notes as the massive Mexican Treasury, for instance, became a central project for Europe’s first scientific society, the Accademia dei Lincei, whose members included Galileo Galilei.7 Even the traditional core story of the European history of science, then, includes a large dose of Nahua expertise (Figure 1).


Coapatli in the Mexican Treasury. Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus seu Plantarum Animalium Mineralium Mexicanorum (Rome: Typographeio Vitalis Mascardi, 1651), 28-29. Reproduced with permissions from Stanford University Special Collections.


Coapatli in the Mexican Treasury. Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus seu Plantarum Animalium Mineralium Mexicanorum (Rome: Typographeio Vitalis Mascardi, 1651), 28-29. Reproduced with permissions from Stanford University Special Collections.

While philological, archeological, and ethnographic methods aim to reimagine a lost Nahua world akin to that which Hernán Cortés would have encountered in 1519, this pedagogy article does not focus on such restorative techniques. Rather than search for some priscae scientiae, it focuses on how in-class language study, experiential learning, and historical source analysis offer techniques for teaching students how to grapple with the synthetic nature of knowledge creation. It takes the particularly hard puzzle presented by the heavily-mediated and fragmentary quality of the surviving sources not as a burden, but instead as an opportunity to inculcate practices of historical problem-solving.

This article provides techniques for engaging with Nahua medicine, and its pages provide fodder for exercises more than lectures. The content aims to meet students where they are—interested in Amerindian culture in a broad sense, familiar with modern science, and equipped with European intellectual tools. From the most readily accessible documents (contemporary English translations), we move into murkier waters of exchange first in the form of Spanish sources, then Nahua sources, and then finally pre-Columbian Nahua codices and the archeological record. Over the course of this foray into the Nahua world of medicine, students find themselves acting as historians, and growing comfortable with the frailty of our own knowledge, whether of history or of medicine.


Today, natural products libraries cultivated by pharmaceutical companies aim to accomplish many of the same goals as the Hernández expedition. From plants, fungi, molds, insects, marine organisms, reptiles, and more, chemists aim to identify, test, and synthesize compounds that occur naturally in organisms throughout the world. These often-private collections preserve information about the organism that produces the substance and collect target molecules identical to the naturally occurring compound.8 

With this modern medical climate in mind, students might imagine themselves into the role of a renowned scholar of premodern history asked to consult for a pharmaceutical company, like one of the optimistic biotech startups of the San Francisco Bay Area. Globe-trotting executives and scientists, captured by nature’s fabulous biodiversity, imagine how new medicines might be found not just in distant lands, but also in the annals of the past. After all, a classic conservationist argument rests on the untapped potential of the genetic information stored in diverse ecosystems. In the search for truly new molecules that have thus far escaped Western medicine, what better place to look then the Americas before European contact tainted indigenous nature and knowledge? The promise and the perils of bioprospecting await.

Recognizing the extractive nature of this assignment and its willingness to appropriate knowledge from others is the first step for students as they decide how to complete the task. How should they weigh the claims to intellectual property and cultural tradition against those of medical benefit to those in need? Once this is established, students confront the questions of medical and ritual efficacy. Perhaps some will accept the premise enough to suspend their doubt about sixteenth-century medicine. Students might then explain how more extended experiments with Mesoamerican plants, like the ezquahuitl (literally “blood wood” in Nahuatl, “dragon’s blood” in English, sanguis draconis in Latin), identified in early modern reports as possessing marvelous qualities, might indeed yield products like natural toothpastes that tighten gums.9 Alternatively, students might refuse the premise altogether. In this case, students might explore the ways that modern medicine is incongruous with that of the Nahua by considering how Nahua ceremonies infused the herbs they employed with meaning on which herbalists relied. Finally, this vision of modern medicine as devoid of meaning-making rituals of consumption might in turn be interrogated; confoundingly, placebos work, after all. Students might consider the arguments for and against a return to the ritualized consumption of materia medica, ruled by the narrow confines of modern medicine to be devoid of utility. Regardless, the natural product library assignment requires one to grapple not only with bioethics and medicine, but also the physical reality of the plants described in sixteenth-century sources. Students come to understand the excitement of the scramble for useful nature akin to the fervor that funded Hernández’s expedition, the ambivalence of local experts reduced to informants, the skeptical reaction of the Spanish court to the sprawling collections Hernández returned to Spain, and the fascination with New World nature on its own terms that the Hernández corpus eventually sparked in European natural philosophers far from Mesoamerica.

As they navigate their preferred approach, students ought to compare sources discussing their chosen materia medica. First, they should begin to familiarize themselves with unfamiliar names like Jesuit’s bark, mumia, bezoar, and maguey, along with more familiar terms like chia, sassafras, and ginger. Jesuit’s bark, or cinchona bark, was heralded as an anti-malarial crucial to Europeans eager to settle in far-flung tropics.10 Mumia is ancient human remains thought to possess curative powers in addition to savoring of antiquity’s wisdom. Bezoar stones, calcified deposits found in the gastro-intestinal tracts of ruminants and other animals, represented European’s ultimate antipoison. Maguey, or agave, was used as building material, in alcohol such as tequila, as well as a host of medical applications. With just a little research, students unveil surprising global threads crossing oceans, continents,and empires alike, as each medicine offers a unique colonial geography. Destabilizing the cultural centrality of well-studied commodities like tomatoes, potatoes, and maize shakes loose rampant simplifications of medieval trade and Spaniards’ allegedly monomaniacal focus on gold, glory, and God.

Once the more typical commodities fall away, a history of empire riddled with sex, drugs, and hopes for corporeal transcendence emerges. Medicines slip into drugs, which in turn slip into medicines. Magic mushrooms (teonanácatl) and peyote always prove to be crowd favorites, once it becomes clear that one can viably study such taboo substances in an academic setting. As for the latter, students find its mention in Anderson and Dibble’s translation of the Florentine Codex uncannily similar to modern descriptions of a trip: “On him who eats it or drinks it, it takes effect like mushrooms. Also, he sees many things which frighten one, or make one laugh . . . It harms one, troubles one, makes one besotted, takes effect on one. I take peyote, I am troubled.”11 Once students parse the Nahua words alongside the facing Spanish text (using techniques to be discussed below), they find themselves wondering about shared physicality: when it comes to peyote’s effects, sixteenth-century bodies do not seem to react so differently from modern American ones. If the attributes of peyote are so accurate by modern standards, then what ought one to make of the descriptions of medicinal efficacy emerging throughout the rest of the text?12 Accustomed as we are to sniggering at the inefficacy of leeches, humors, and other premodern cures and medical theories, it is these moments of synergy between corporeal experience past and present that force us to question our presumptions about the inadequacy of premodern thought.

The histories of these medicines open paths unstudied for students versed in Alfred Crosby’s idea of the Columbian Exchange, the spice trade, and triangular trade. Instead of a narrative of raw materials trickling into Europe, they reveal Amerindian medical investigations and ingenuity in treating diseases from dysentery to syphilis. Without necessarily knowing the implications, student find themselves displacing the well-studied, carefully-cultivated Renaissance physic garden in favor of geographically dispersed New World wonders untended and wild.13 Through a combination of inverting the classroom and experiential learning as historians, students participate in writing object-oriented chapters in the global history of science. In place of lectures focused on the arrival of the conquistadors and the worlds they replaced, knowledge flows take the shape of migration history: unequal, subject to illicit love affairs, traveling to places law dictates they ought not to be. While Renaissance scholars reached ad fontes to revive knowledge of antiquity, sorting through texts replete with Nahua knowledge, however mediated, restores voice and agency to those intellectuals who discovered plants’ medicinal properties. Through relatively familiar close reading methods borne of Renaissance pedagogy, students wield these tools to locate those whose intellectual work was obliterated under the guise of deracinated facts (Figure 2).


Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, collected on the flatlands NE of the juntion of federal highways 57 and 80 near El Huizache, San Luis Potosi. New York Botanical Gardens Steer Herbarium. Collected by E. F. Anderson 1079, 03 Jul 1958. Image courtesy of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden (


Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, collected on the flatlands NE of the juntion of federal highways 57 and 80 near El Huizache, San Luis Potosi. New York Botanical Gardens Steer Herbarium. Collected by E. F. Anderson 1079, 03 Jul 1958. Image courtesy of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden (

Finally, ask that they look up their plants in a modern herbarium archive. Turn, for instance, to the New York Botanical Garden’s C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium. Herbaria are collections of preserved plant specimens housed for scientific analysis. Dried and mounted on sheets of papers, plants in full and plants in part are often labeled with reference to their taxa. Such collections house what are called “types:” specimens or illustrations that literally typify a particular plant. These libraries aim to fix the uncertainty problem associated with early modern discursive natural histories, which by their genre featured many words alienated from the natural thing they described however luridly illustrated in the text. In this attempted solution to the problem of isolation between signifier and signified, students might expect to find respite in the modern edifice of taxonomy. Alas, while the student interested in peyote might find the cactus collected under its Linnaean name of Lophophora williamsii, those interested in coapatli or ezcuahuitl will find less conclusive results. While their names might have been transferred into European editions of Hernández’s Mexican Treasury, the modern scientific names are challenging to correlate with their older precedents.14 Signifier and signified disassociate in the modern scientific apparatus.

From this mess of partial information torn from branches and Nahua experts, students might return to their present. In our world, in which the Southeastern pygmy rattlesnake’s venom, medically synthesized as eptifibatide, stops heart attacks, do the complexities of early modern knowledge transfer even matter?15 Students must decide how to square ethnobotany and medical practice for themselves, noting their findings to the pharmaceutical company that wished to consult with them. They share their assessment about whether the company ought to devote substantial research and development funds into the creation of a modern drug using this substance. Whether or not they think the substance is suitable for such an investment, students might articulate how a closer analysis of this substance contributes to modern historiography on medicine in colonial Latin American history.


Next come the texts. Rather than just learning about Mesoamerican materia medica as mediated by Linnaean taxonomy and Wikipedia, students should head to the first mentions of the substance in the medical canon. Hernández’s oeuvre and other natural histories provided the informational fodder for other medical books and natural histories, which cited their descriptions as factual bricks within the growing edifice of European science. To start to chip away at that structure with an eye to indigenous knowledge-making, students might read the original sources for themselves and compare across their descriptions. Texts with accessible English editions, including the writings of Hernández and Nicolás Monardes, prove a good place to start.

Desperate to transform New World nature into pharmacological stores, Renaissance scholars set about recording all the useful details about these plants, animals, and minerals to label their specimens and reproduce Mesoamerican cures in Europe. Thanks to Simon Varey’s translation efforts, sections of Dr. Francisco Hernández’s work are available in English as The Mexican Treasury.16 The translated text represents a low barrier of entry from which students can readily build. In Varey’s Hernández, students can find the huitztomatzin, or the spiny tomato, and coapatli, a root that rids the body of “chills of calentures, expels wind, eases and joins together broken bones, provokes urine, purifies the gross and viscous humors, and calms any pain whatsoever born from a cold cause.”17 As they read, students can ask: who reported the attributes of coapatli to Hernández? Had he witnessed these effects himself, or were they described by Nahua collaborators? In many cases, it remains hard to know whence the information originated. Beyond this ambiguous path of information transfer, this passage, like many others in Hernández, reveals how thoroughly European bodily theories mediate explanations for why Nahua plants achieve a certain physical result. The many applications of this medicine can be explained by its humoral attributes—it dries gross and viscous humors.

Colonial aparata mediated access to Nahua botanical and medical knowledge. While knowledge about specific plants transferred readily, ritual surrounding those plants’ use often did not. As Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World discusses, while tobacco and chocolate eventually gained favor in European courts and markets, the ritual meaning of these substances often failed to transfer across the ocean.18 While travelers encountered Mexica habits of chocolate consumption tied to blood sacrifice when on the ground in Mesoamerica, this referent rapidly shifted to render the substance more legible to European consumers. One might pair Norton’s well-researched and clearly argued monograph with a more sustained discussion of what features of Mesoamerican knowledge and practice successfully transferred to Madrid and beyond.

Asking students to compare contemporary authors to Hernández helps decenter the Spanish protomédico’s exceptionalism, placing him instead in a larger Atlantic complex engaged in collecting medicines of the West Indies, just as a previous generation had sought spices from the East Indies. Early English translations of sixteenth-century texts, such as Nicolás Monardes’ 1565 Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, offer access to the so-called Joyfull Newes out of the New-found Worlde.19 With the relatively easy early modern English prose and the slight eccentricities of medial “s,” decoding folios relating to their substance brings students into the historian’s world of print history. To dive deeper, one might turn to José de Acosta, Bernardino de Sahagún, the Codex Badianus by Martín de la Cruz, or Garcia da Orta.20 By doing close readings of examples from each account, students enter the early modern textual muddle. Did these scholars rely on the same reports for their accounts, in an infinite loop of one armchair philosopher citing another? If they heard about the medicine from a local healer generous enough to share their secrets, did these accounts fit common knowledge held by the rest of the community? Can reading closely and thinking carefully about the content of the colonial texts reveal how Mesoamerican practice shaped the use of this plant or medicine? Playing a game of trans-historical telephone, students sometimes tease out details corroborated by other features of the historical record: where the materia medica had been found, its appearance, its use, Europeans’ belief in its efficacy. These tensions are deeply productive—if uncomfortable—for science-minded students accustomed to certainty (Figure 3).


Coapatli in “Book One of the Medical Materials of New Spain.” Biblioteca Histórica MSS 64, Francisco Hernández, Materia medicinal de la Nueua España, ca. 1590, 75. Reproduced with permissions from the Biblioteca Complutense de Madrid.


Coapatli in “Book One of the Medical Materials of New Spain.” Biblioteca Histórica MSS 64, Francisco Hernández, Materia medicinal de la Nueua España, ca. 1590, 75. Reproduced with permissions from the Biblioteca Complutense de Madrid.

Having studied an English translation of the text, students might work through their own page of Hernández’s writing in its original form. Copied and recopied, many different redactions and translations of the text found their way into libraries and archives across Mexico and Europe. The Biblioteca Complutense of Madrid’s rich digitized collection of medical manuscripts provides students first-hand access to the circulation of knowledge in the early modern world. Direct them to the digitized edition of the Biblioteca Histórica MSS 642, a manuscript edition of Francisco Hernández’s Materia medicinal de la Nueva España [Materia medica ofNew Spain] thought to be produced around 1590.21 Here, they might study its structure as an herbal, modeled after work of the author of the text for whom it was named, the Greek physician and pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 A. D.). Because Spanish is the most studied foreign language in the United States, many students at the university level need only minimal training to read colonial documents for themselves. With the help of readily accessible tools for paleography of hands used in the colonial period, lists of common abbreviations, the increasingly reliable wonders of Google translate, and a critical eye toward the limits of their primary sources, students can easily decode short passages of primary sources in the course of their own research (Figure 4).22 


“Table of the Qualities of Medicines” with humoral attributes. Biblioteca Histórica MSS 64, 376. Reproduced with permissions from the Biblioteca Complutense de Madrid.


“Table of the Qualities of Medicines” with humoral attributes. Biblioteca Histórica MSS 64, 376. Reproduced with permissions from the Biblioteca Complutense de Madrid.

As they flip through the pages of the Hernández manuscript, encourage students to notice the structure of the text. It begins with hundreds of pages devoted to specific plants, from coapatli at the start to tequesquite at the end. Each of these dutifully provide a textual description of the substance, where it can be found, and against what maladies it might be used. Visual representations fall by the wayside in favor of winding, Renaissance sentences. Taking on the role of archivists cataloging the book’s structure, they would find that indices provided a reader with a means of making meaning out of the aforementioned text. By folio 376, the structure of the text changes into such an index. A table emerges that quantifies the humoral qualities of the book’s medicaments: grades of heat, cold, moistness, and dryness. Each chapter of Mesoamerican substances is sorted dutifully into its treatment for maladies according to the theory of Galenic humoralism. These tables are, then, quite clearly completing the original mission of recording deracinated New World materia medica by turning them into facts sorted according to a European structure of knowledge. From those proclivities of the substances, students will notice another shift by folio 380: into an alphabetical table for the application of medicines contained in Hernández’s research to a wide array of illnesses. Next, the contents are organized by medicines’ ability to treat various body parts (folio 390). One might ask one’s students to compare this structure with a modern clinical pharmacology manual. How did Europeans expect medical information to be organized? What facets of that organization give medicine meaning? Where would Europeans expect to find this wide array of Mesoamerican cures were they residing in a city like Seville?


Once they have worked through Hernández and Monardes for themselves, students might extend their source base. The World Digital Library’s marvels beckon. In particular, students can navigate the tensions and overlaps between different forms of writing in sixteenth century Mesoamerica. Scholarship on the Florentine Codex is blooming like a xochitl flower, perhaps in part because both students and scholars can turn through pages of the Biblioteca Laurenziana’s manuscript online.23 This canonical source in the study of Latin America is a collaborative codex modeled in part on the ancient Roman author Pliny’s Natural History. To make the immense manuscript, Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) collaborated with Nahua scholars who were his former students at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco from 1545 to 1590.24 Hernández had heard about Sahagún’s team’s continued work on the Codex, which circulated across Mesoamerica. Although medicine and herbal remedies constitute only one small facet of the Codex, it includes a wide arrays of cures. At the end of the section on health, the seven “Mexican doctors” signed off on the efficacy of the cures listed above.

The linguistic array of the Florentine Codex paints a picture of intellectual traditions in Mexico City-Tenochtitlan. Three writing systems appear side-by-side. The first is pictorial, featuring images of plants, animals, people, and places, which often-combined toponyms and glyphs with European-style renderings.25 This preserves an older tradition of information transfer akin to that practiced before Europeans’ arrival. Alongside this visual text, students find a Nahuatl column written in Latin characters. Next to that, there is a Spanish text that ostensibly translates the Nahuatl, although often it diverges from the latter’s structure and meaning, censoring information for various linguistic audiences. In some passages, the Castilian abates or obviously differs from the Nahuatl. In others, the images are no longer colored, likely as a result of pigment shortages in the Colegio; as color is crucial to Nahua information transfer, these sections in some ways Europeanize the text. Paging through the book of “Earthly Things” in search of medical herbs, students will themselves engage with a very different text from Varey’s translation of Hernández or Monardes’s early modern printed book. By contrast, the Codex requires attention to all of the features familiar to medieval scholars trained to examine manuscript texts, marginalia, and illustrations. Having noted these tensions, students highlight for themselves the reasons for producing this vast tome of natural knowledge. For whose eyes were its contents intended?

To gain a better sense of this encyclopedic work, students can virtually attend conferences that both try to answer these questions and set the tenor of the field in recent years. In addition to reading top scholars’ publications on Sahagún’s canonical collaboration, students might listen to lectures delivered at the Getty Research Institute’s 2015 Conference “Visual and Textual Dialogues in Colonial Mexico and Europe: the Florentine Codex.” Although many of the talks are exemplary, Molly H. Bassett’s discussion of “Bundles of Earthly Things” provides a particularly cogent reading of how Aztec tlaquimilolli (sacred bundles) transported objects embodying deities, which were infused with medical power and wrapped in cloth and skins.26 These papers provide a now dominant discourse on Mesoamerican art and history. Previously, scholarship on Nahua medicine had converged around the work of Alfredo López Austin, a Mexican historian specializing in Mesoamerican religion. His book on the Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas remains central to the field.27 Austin focused on means of relating to the human body mediated through ideology and, in particular, how the human body served certain elite interests. In the mythohistorical documents on which he focuses, the body is not a medical body per se but a functional one tied to worldview, animism, myth, and fated to death.28 

The study of Nahua has never been more accessible to students in the Anglophone world. The crescendo in indigenous language studies is steadily transforming scholarship on colonial Latin America, facilitated by new questions made possible through a more thorough knowledge of Uto-Aztecan. Grammars and language tutorials by the late James Lockhart offer a relatively systematic entry to the study of Nahuatl for classical documents. To give students the experience of working through an indigenous language document, one might assign students a documentary analysis from Lockhart’s Nahuatl as Written: Lessons in Older Written Nahuatl, with Copious Examples and Texts.29 The instructor might incentivize students to decode the text successfully by transforming the translation workshop into a competition to encourage students to take seriously the level of detailed analysis necessary to render an indigenous American text legible to European readers.30 In this exercise, students take on the historians’ actual methods by doing paleography of manuscripts in original languages. Flat globalism that relies on English translations in the classroom often loses this textual flavor and renders the work of linguists, archeologists, and historians as more absolute, completed, and certain than it often is. What is more, by requiring engagement with original language from both sides of the encounter, students take on the challenge of studying something they do not know. That challenge of unfamiliarity itself requires them to take seriously the lives and culture of Mesoamerican knowledge-producers.

In recent years, the Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas (IDIEZ) has made training in Nahuatl language accessible to students of all levels. From language classes in rural Mexico to a research institute at the University of Warsaw in Poland, to the intensive classes in the Utah Nahuatl Language and Culture Program, students interested in Classical Nahuatl can study documents in a community of scholars. With native-speaking instructors who self-identify as macehualtin (Nahuatl-speaking commoners), such programs ground language-learning in cross-cultural communication and advocate study in present-day communities. Commitment to language revitalization has already fueled scholarship. Scholars like Kelly McDonough encourage a redefinition of intellectual history to make space for Nahua learning.31 A wider geography of global knowledge-making requires a broader definition for what constitutes intellectual history. This impulse to broaden the purview of the philosopher has gained traction from the center of intellectual history as well.32 

For a more challenging venture but with higher historical stakes, one might facilitate a two-day activity surrounding a Nahuatl language source. An instructor might develop a vocabulary list and ask students to decode the Tlaxcalan 1543 “Nahua Order Against Idolatry” analyzed by Justyna Olko and Agnieszka Brylak in their recent article “Defending Local Autonomy and Facing Cultural Trauma.”33 Offer the students the Nahuatl document and a handout, and ask them to decode the text before coming to class. During the class, stitch together the structure of the document. In the classroom, pair the students in groups with at least one Spanish speaker in each group. Ask them to compare their translations of the ordinance and write given sections on the board. What kind of document is this, and what is the basic structure of the ordinance? Early modern bureaucracies, like those of our present, are intrinsically formulaic. What formulae order this document’s contents? Students ought to highlight those words they think are Castilian and posit an explanation for why names, proper nouns, days of the week, and Catholic holidays were articulated in the colonial language rather than Nahuatl.

One might compare this document with the canonical table summarizing James Lockhart’s interpretation of Nahua linguistic and cultural erosion under Spanish power.34 As the students work through the Tlaxcalan text, they will note that the governor advises his Nahua-speaking alguacil to extirpate idolatry by arresting those indigenous people who are guilty of sins such as “old idolatry,” or non-European religious practices. “Arrest whoever may be sinning,” the governor ordered, “those who bathe themselves together with women, those who bathe themselves in public, and perhaps those who have been practicing the old idolatry, the eating of the earth, the laying down of straw, rain divination, and those who divine with water, cast lots, or induce abortions.”35 Once they get to this point of their analysis, offer students Olko and Brylak’s article to situate the historical implications of this document. Having allied with Cortés during the conquest, Tlaxcala had enjoyed a privileged position as an autonomous province of New Spain. This, however, required the elites to take on the masthead of Christianity and themselves punish those who failed to comply. The Tlaxcalans thought it would be better if they took the governance of indigenous people into their own hands.36 Olko and Brylak’s analysis of the document emphasizes cultural trauma and the severity of rupture in Tlaxcala in the 1520s and 1530s and inquisitorial violence to extirpate older beliefs. That a member of the Tlaxcalan elite authored this document represents an indigenous attempt to extend native power under the new terms of Christianization.

Thus far, this article has encouraged a pedagogy based on meeting students where they are comfortable—with modern science, English documents, and European history—and pushing them to question the premise of global history of science by developing their own skills as historians. By privileging familiarity, we started with the youngest documents. Thus, we end with a discussion of the pre-Columbian Codex tradition and its use to answer questions of knowledge-making. Scholars interested in pre-Columbian codices turn to the Borgia Group produced in central Mexico. These include the Codex Borgia, or Codex Yoalli Ehēcatl, for which the group is named.37 For codices, the interactive website “Mesolore” is best. A bilingual source for scholars and students of Mesoamerica developed by Liza Bakewell and Byron Hamann, the site features interactive indigenous documents from Central Mexico and Oaxaca, including the Codex Nuttal from ca. 1500, complete with glosses. Rather than isolating these sources, the site situates them alongside colonial period documents, including the 1555 Spanish-Nahuatl Vocabulario of Alonso de Molina and a 1593 Spanish-Mixtec vocabulary by Francisco de Alvarado. An interactive atlas of Mesoamerica, archives of alphabetic documents from the sixteenth century, and tutorials on indigenous writing and culture from Mesoamerica provide context for a nuanced foray into the world of codices that appears so alien to readers trained in a European system.38 

Forthcoming scholarly work will require the field to think more seriously about questions about what constitutes science and evidence for empirical study before 1492. While many—like this article—rely on post-contact sources to tell this story, upcoming scholars read indigenous scientific practice from archeological and visual remains. In particular, Helen Ellis’s dissertation and forthcoming monograph on Aztec Science: Plant Sexuality, Pollination, and the Origin of Maize in the pre-Columbian Codex Borgia explores how maize found itself actively transformed by Mesoamericans through careful, intentional selection. Using visual material from the Codex Borgia, she considers the role that intentional selection played in Nahua use of their natural world.39 

This expansion of the definition of science opens great possibilities in and outside of the classroom. While documentary records prove hard to find, one can use archeological collections and object-analysis to trace pre-Columbian knowledge cultures. Many colleges and universities have their own collections of objects—sometimes dubiously acquired—which would be fruitful to study. Searchable collections also include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Smithsonian Institute. One can use archeological collections and object-analysis to trace what must have been known in order to make tools such as metates, used to grind up corn for a process of nixtamalization, adding alkaline solution to maize in order to increase its caloric value and remove microtoxins from the corn. Such techniques developed through empirical trial-and-error and required substantial understanding, although such knowledge never passed to Europe in the early modern period. Likewise, botanical gardens such as the Jardin Botanico Dr. Faustino Miranda in Chinapas and the Jardín Botánico Francisco Javier Clavijero in Veracruz present venues to experience ongoing ethnobotanical projects.40 


Nahua society drew on precedents from Teotihuacan and Tula, and customs developed around tensions and fusions among other groups including the Maya, Otomí, and Zacatec. Similarly, European knowledge brought to Mesoamerica had been subject to sometimes violent transfer, from Greek to Roman, from Roman to Arab, from Arab to Latin, with infusions of yet more distant technologies—whether Arabic numerals from India or paper, gunpowder, and the compass from China. Thus, the Spanish who arrived in Mesoamerican brought with them not only Old World diseases, but also systems of knowledge that drew on geographically dispersed histories. The Spanish, the product of this Old World synthesis, themselves participated in a new synthesis as they moved from Afro-Eurasia to true global connections.

In the sixteenth century, the most global space was perhaps Mexico City, as people who traveled around the world reported. From New Spain, ships annually traversed the Pacific, to Peru and Manila, and east to Spain and the emerging Atlantic economy. In the words of global Florentine traveler Francesco Carletti (1573/4-1636) concerning his voyage to New Spain in 1595-1596: “The City of Mexico is an earthly paradise, full of every good thing and of all sorts of delights. It enjoys everything that comes from Spain, from China, and from other provinces of those lands, and it is populated by many more Spaniards than live in Lima, the city in Peru.”41 Not only was New Spain transformed more radically by sixteenth-century cross-cultural contact, but it suffered the costs and received the benefits in an unusual degree. Mesoamerica experienced the full measure of the shock of the global in the sixteenth century, arguably as much as any place; it was irreversibly transformed not into the New Spain that the Spanish sought, but into a new syncretic, mestizo society that would become Mexico. Discoveries of natural diversity encountered there pushed the limits of European humanistic knowledge, requiring biology to undergo a scientific revolution parallel to that of the physical sciences. That Mesoamerican nature could be so different from that of Afro-Eurasia meant that ancient texts horded by monks and scholars did not contain the ultimate truth about the natural world. European knowledge was intrinsically flawed. In some ways, Dioscorides and Pliny withered in the face of Nahua medicine and nature experts. In our present, perhaps the discoveries of global studies will require a similarly devastating critique of European intellectual history’s exceptionalism.

For an overview of Hernández’s expedition and oeuvre, see José Maria Lopez Piñero, José Pardo-Tomás, La influencia de Francisco Hernández (1515-1587) en la constitución de la botánica y la materia médica modernas (Valencia: Instituto de Estudios Documentales e Históricos sobre la Ciencia, 1996); Jacqueline Durand-Forest, Aperçu de l’histoire naturelle de la Nouvelle-Espagne d’après Hernández, les informateurs indigènes de Sahagun et les auteurs du Codex Badianus, Nouveau monde et renouveau de l’histoire naturelle (París: Publicaciones de la Sorbonne, 1986).
Francisco Hernández’s orders from the King of Spain, 11 January 1570, as transcribed in Jesus Bustamente Garcia, “Un Libro, Tres Modelos, y el Atlántico: Los Datos de una historia: los antecedentes y el proyecto” in Il tesoro messicano: libri e saperi tra Europa e Nuovo mondo, ed. Maria Eugenia Cadeddu and Marco Guardo (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2013), 27. Also in Archivo General de la Nación, México, Reales cedulas (Dup.) 47:262, Arts. 1-12.
For example, the relaciones geográficas questionnaire requested in question 17: “y es en tierra o puest sano o enfermo, y si enfermo, por qué causa (si se entendiere), y las enfermedades que comúnmente suceden, y los remedios que se suelen hacer para ellas.” See responses in René Acuña, Relaciones Geográficas novohispanas del siglo XVI, 10 vols. (México: UNAM - Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, 1982-88).
On the Mexican Inquisition, see Richard E. Greenleaf, The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century (University of New Mexico Press, 1969). For a more recent scholarship on the inquisition, see Zeb Torotici, Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial Mexico (Duke University Press, 2018), 8-15.
Francisco Hernández, Rafael Chabrán and Simon Varey, “‘An Epistle to Arias Montano:’ An English Translation of a Poem by Francisco Hernández,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Autumn, 1992): 620-634, Lines 79-80. The Spanish translation is more true to the original: F. Navarro Antolín and J. Solís de los Santos, “La epístola latina en verso de Francisco Hernández a Benito Arias Montano (Madrid, Biblioteca del Ministerio de Hacienda, ms. FA 931),” Myrtia: revista de filología clásica, 29|2014, 201-245.
Hernández, “Epistle,” Lines 56-59.
For an accessible overview of this history, see David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
Thanks to Laura Brege for pointing me toward this example.
As with many premodern plant names, it proves challenging to definitively attach one botanical name to the underlying plant. Dragon blood trees now categorized by various Linnaean names are scattered throughout the world. These include Dracaena draco, of the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Morocco, and introduced to the Azores, and Daemomorps draco, of Southeast Asia. Jean H Langenheim, Plant Resins: Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, and Ethnobotany (Portland: Timber Press, 2003), 441-444. In the territory of the Mexica and Maya, Crotons (especially Croton sanguifluus) were known as “tree of blood” or “red tree of cochineal.” See Mackenzie Cooley, “Southern Italy and the new World in the Age of Encounters,” in The Discovery of the New World in Early Modern Italy, ed. Elizabeth Horodowich and Lia Markey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Matthew James Crawford, The Andean Wonder Drug: Chinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800 (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2016).
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 12 books, trans. and ed. C. E. Dibble and A. J. O. Anderson (Santa Fe, NM: The School of American Research / University of Utah, 1959-1982), 12:129.
See also Montoya, A., O. Hernández-Totomoch, A. Estrada-Torres, A. Kong, and J. Caballero, “Traditional Knowledge about Mushrooms in a Nahua Community in the State of Tlaxcala, México,” Mycologia 95, no. 5 (2003): 793-806.
The literature on this topic is immense. For a short overview of the early modern herbal garden literature, see Paula Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” in The Cambridge History of Science, ed. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3:272–89.
Nardo Antonio Recchi, Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus seu Plantarum Animalium Mineralium Mexicanorum (Rome: Typographeio Vitalis Mascardi, 1649), 300.
Cho Yeow Koh, R. Manjunatha Kin, “From Snake Venom to Therapeutics – Cardiovascular Examples,” Toxicon 59 (2012): 497-506.
Simon Varey, editor, The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). See also Simon Varey, Rafael Chabrán, and Dora B. Weiner, Searching for the Secrets of Nature: The Life and Works of Dr. Francisco Hernández (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). For Spanish-speakers, consider the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s Las Obras Completas de Francisco Hernández, at
Varey, ed., Mexican Treasury, 117.
Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).
Nicolás Monardes, Joyfull Newes out of the New-found Worlde: wherein are declared the rare and singular vertues of divers and sundrie herbs, trees, oyles, plants & stones, with their applications as well to the use of phisicke, as chirurgery . . . Also the portrature of the sayde herbes, very aptly described, translated by John Frampton (London: E Allde, 1580).
Respectively, see José de Acosta and Clements R. Markham, Natural and Moral History of the Indies (London: Routledge, 2016); Emily Walcott Emmart and Henry E. Sigerist, The Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal of 1552 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1940); Garcia da Orta, Clements Markham, trans., Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India (London: Henry Sotheran and Co, 1913).
Biblioteca Histórica MSS 64, Francisco Hernández, Materia medicinal de la Nueua España, ca. 1590. One can find a hyperlink to the source here:
For colonial paleography in an easy-to-read guide format, see A. Roberta Carlin and Meredith D. Dodge, A Paleographic Guide to Spanish Abbreviations 1500-1700 = Una guía paleográfica de abreviaturas Españolas (Henderson, Nevada: A.R. Carlin, 1999).
General History of the Things of New Spain | Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex, 1577, Bibliotea Medicea Larenziana.
José Pardo Tomás, “Conversion Medicine: Communication and Circulation of Knowledge in the Franciscan Convent and College of Tlatelolco, 1527-1577,” Quaderni storici, Vol. 48, No. 142 (1), Produzione di saperi, costruzione di spazi (APRILE 2013): 21-41.
For the glyph tradition, see Mary Miller and Barbara Mundy, eds., Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City: Land, Writing, and Native Rule (New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 2012).
See talks from the “Visual and Textual Dialogues in Colonial Mexico and Europe: the Florentine Codex” at For the published version of “Bundles of Earthly Things,” see Molly H. Bassett, “Wrapped in Cloth, Clothed in Skins: Aztec Tlaquimilolli (Sacred Bundles) and Deity Embodiment,” History of Religions 53, no. 4 (2014): 369–400.
Alfredo Lopéz Austin, Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas, trans. Thelma Ortiz de Montellano and Bernard Ortize de Montellano (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988). For the original Spanish, Alfredo López Austin, Cuerpo humano e ideología: las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas. 1 1. (México, D.F.: UNAM, Inst. de Investigaciones Antropologicas, 1980).
See also Millie Gimmel, “Reading Medicine in the Codex De La Cruz Badiano,” Journal of the History of Ideas 69, no. 2 (2008): 169-92; Brad R. Huber, “The Recruitment of Nahua Curers: Role Conflict and Gender,” Ethnology 29, no. 2 (1990): 159-76. For a dated take on these questions that is still cited regularly, see Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, “Empirical Aztec Medicine,” Science, 1975:188, 215-220. Students could easily critique this analysis given what they have learned about the sourcebase.
James Lockhardt, Nahuatl as Written: Lessons in Older Written Nahuatl, with Copious Examples and Texts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
Several other workbooks offer students access to the study of Nahuatl. See, for instance J. Richard Andrews, Workbook for Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, Revised Edition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
Kelly McDonough, The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico (Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press, 2014).
Justin Smith, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Justyna Olko and Agnieszka Brylak, “Defending Local Autonomy and Facing Cultural Trauma: A Nahua Order against Idolatry, Tlaxcala, 1543,” Hispanic American Historical Review 98.4 (2018): 573-604.
“Table 10.1 The Three Stages and Some of Their Implications,” in James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 428.
Olko and Brylak, “Defending Local Autonomy,” 575.
Olko and Brylak, “Defending Local Autonomy,”, 581.
For a facsimile of Codex Borgia, see the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.,, accessed May 15, 2019.
See, Brown University, accessed May 15, 2019.
Thank you to Helen Ellis for permission to cite her dissertation and forthcoming monograph. Helen Ellis, Maize, Quetzalcoatl, and Grass Imagery: Science in the Central Mexican Codex Borgia, University of California, Los Angeles, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2015.
For the historiography of the garden, see Patrizia Granziera, “Concept of the Garden in Pre-Hispanic Mexico.” Garden History 29, no. 2 (2001): 185-213. doi:10.2307/1587370.
Francesco Carletti, My Voyage Around the World: The Chronicles of a 16th Century Florentine Merchant, trans. Herbert Weinstock (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), 66-67.