42 Historical Objects, No. 13: the Madrid Codex.

madrid codex

The Madrid Codex is one of the greatest treasures of classical Mesoamerican culture, and possibly the most magnificent pre-Colombian book from the Western Hemisphere to have survived into the modern era. Eurasian civilization has many books, or pieces thereof, dating back thousands of years, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but there is comparatively little that has survived from the Western Hemisphere. The Madrid Codex was created at the height of the classical Mayan empire which fell about 1000 CE, though it’s possible the book dates from the 13th, 14th or early 15th century. Consisting of 112 pages of amate paper folded accordion-style, the Codex contains astronomical tables, horoscopes and similar material. Essentially it’s a farmer’s almanac of Mayan civilization.

The Madrid Codex definitely comes from the Mayan civilization, most likely the Yucatan region, but it did not appear in any way visible to European scholarship until the 1860s when it was suddenly found in Madrid, hence its name. Most likely the book was acquired by a Spaniard sometime after the conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century and brought back to Spain. The Spaniard who acquired at least part of the book may have been none other than Hernan Cortes himself, though this cannot be proven. When the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521 they weren’t very interested in the learning or knowledge of the Mesoamerican cultures they subjugated. They were much more interested in gold. Nevertheless, this book must have been seen by someone as an interesting souvenir, if nothing else, so somehow it crossed the Atlantic and wound up in Spain.

The Maya was a very complex civilization, and astronomy and horoscopes were very important to their spiritual and cultural life. Priests generally had the job of making the heavens and their portents intelligible to both rulers and common people, so this book was likely a guide to interpreting the heavens and marking time. Priests were so important to the Maya that they may in fact have contributed to the decline of the civilization itself. According to one theory, the classical Maya collapsed around 1000 due to the pressures of climate change and possibly war, but such a large proportion of the population was engaged in non-subsistence pursuits–priesthood and other elite occupations–that the society couldn’t handle the changes. The fall of the Maya is less mysterious now than it was made out to be in years past, but there are still many things about it that remain poorly or incompletely understood.

The Madrid Codex is held in the Museo de America in Madrid, Spain. However, it is not on display. Deemed too fragile to expose publicly, what you can see in that museum is a very faithful copy. You can, however, view a scanned (black and white) version of the Codex on the web, in .PDF format, here. Hope you read Mayan!

The photo of the Madrid Codex is by Wikimedia Commons user Simon Burchell and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
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1 Comment on 42 Historical Objects, No. 13: the Madrid Codex.

  1. Bishop Diego de Landa is the one who ordered most everything the Maya ever wrote or recorded destroyed because they weren’t Christian. It’s one of the most complete cultural genocides for a people that themselves were not exterminated and is one of Christianity’s greatest crimes in the New World. He’s also one of the only sources on pre-Colombian Maya through his work and life amongst them.

    The destruction was so complete that little to nothing was thought to have existed, making the Madrid Codex an invaluable find.

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