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  • The Codex Mexicanus: A Guide to Life in Late Sixteenth-Century New Spain by Lori Boornazian Diel
  • Barbara E. Mundy
Lori Boornazian Diel. The Codex Mexicanus: A Guide to Life in Late Sixteenth-Century New Spain. U of Texas P, 2018. 228 pp.

What is time? Is time the possibility of all events? If so, what is the fate of human beings, a species both cursed and blessed with memory and imagination? Dividing time into past, present, and future is how many human societies have anchored themselves, as they manage and organize the temporal flow, tether memory to the past and assign imagination to the future. But what about the relationship between the past, present, and future? A corporeal existence ensures that we carry with us always and everywhere a very particular past, that of the origin and development of our individual body. Living inside of this personal time capsule offers almost nothing to help us with both the human collective in time nor to develop an understanding that time existed before our bodies and will extend beyond them. When Norbert Elias published Über die Zeit in 1984 (translated as An Essay on Time in 2007), he pointed to the importance of the calendar and the clock as the great organizing mechanisms of social time, means through which any human group could coordinate its activities, like planting and harvesting, to ensure its survival. The calendar does more: in extending a count back through time, it offers a means to connect the past to the present, and holds out, in its reliable repetition, a promise of the future. The calendar allows a structure for commemoration, so that the past is even more strongly anchored to the present. Moreover, solar and lunar calendars, perhaps the most common ones known today, are marked by naturalism. Like a photo-realist painting, whose authority derives from closely mimicking human visual experience, calendars take their power from their alignment to the perceived movement of the celestial bodies. They thus offer a way of naturalizing what could be the arbitrary nature of human event. Set into solar time, a birthday becomes anchored in time, consistently available for annual commemoration, offering the first point of a span of life dates, ready for historical reflection.

In Mesoamerican societies, two calendars were used to record time, the solar-year calendar (xiuhpohualli) and the 260-day tonalpohualli. These were recorded pictographically in manuscripts, with the years of the xiuhpohualli forming the backbone of annals-style histories. The tonalpohualli was a sacred calendar, used to understand how the cycles of past time colored the present-day moment and what they augured for the future. Once ubiquitous, only eleven pre-Hispanic tonalpohualli survive today. But calendric manuscripts continued to be produced during the sixteenth century, and Lori Boornazian Diel's new book is a close study of one of these. Produced by indigenous scribes in Mexico City who still employed traditional pictography, the 102–page Codex Mexicanus is devoted mainly to a xiuhpohualli (18–87), recording events from the departure of the Mexica from the mythic homeland of Aztlan, through the events of the Conquest, [End Page 124] up to 1581, about the time that the manuscript was largely finished. It also includes two tonalpohualli (13–14; 89–102).

Reflecting its post-Conquest moment, the Mexicanus contains not only these indigenous calendars but also includes a Christian perpetual (also called dominical) calendar, used to calculate when Sundays fell in any given year, as well as European-style charts, one lunar and two zodiac, one of the latter connecting the zodiac to parts and organs of a human body to create a "zodiac man." Unique to this manuscript is a double calendar wheel representing an attempt to synch the Christian perpetual calendar with the xiuhpohualli. A single alphabetic annotation noting the arrival of Augustinians to San Pablo, one of Mexico City's indigenous neighborhoods, suggests that this might have been the ambit of its creation. Given the plurality of the Mexicanus's content, which brings together various calendars but provides no overarching rationale for their union, scholars have tended to treat only its parts, like the xiuhpohualli that dominates...


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pp. 124-126
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