Performing and Writing History

Codex Aubin_Fol.20v-21r.jpg

Historical told almost exclusively through text, with images seeming only for ornamentation, and no glyphic year count, following a European-style narrative. Aubin fols. 20v- 21r.

Several sections of the Aubin include few to no images, giving way entirely to text to describe events. This occurs leading up to the founding of Tenochtitlan, several times in the dynastic year count, and again before and after the arrival and conquest of the Spanish. This is seen in folios 20v and 21r, which are text-heavy, telling the war story that causes the Mexica to end up in Tenochtitlan as they are pushed back by enemies, and their capture of the Xochimilca people. The only images on these pages are the small sheild and macana, symbolizing acts of war.

This dense section of texts starts on folio 19v, where there are few to no year glyphs and the Nahuatl gloss dominates the pages. The illustrations still describe movement and migration, but the text is used to describe a series of important battles. The Aubin uses images of war and conquest sparsely, and does not give much space to depicting war. Instead, a complex event is described by the scribe rather than the illuminator, perhaps due to the heightened importance of alphabetic language in post-conquest Tenochtitlan.

These sections of dense text would  change the reading experience of pre-colonial Mexica people, because Nahuatl was a spoken but not an alphabetic language, turning it from a social and outward experience to a more intimate one.  While there was pictographic writing that one could look at and understand, reading was a more subjective experience, and so an orator would be able to translate the pictographs into spoken language in a performative act, while the written Nahuatl created by the Spaniards also increases the necessity of a more solitary relationship with storytelling in general and with the text itself. Folios describing the conquest of the Xochimilca are less performative— there are no images to show a group of listeners, and the presence of text which uses specific words almost renders the orator, who would interpret the pictographic telling and use his own words, an unnecessary figure in the telling and continuation of Mexica history. During the creation of the Aubin, it is possible that performance of histories was dying out, with either no qualified orators or no open platform for orator and audience to gather.

Although this written storytelling is clearly an important transformation in the post-conquest Aztec society, the founding of Tenochtitlan, a pivotal and defining moment in their empire’s history, is still described pictorially more importantly than by text. This image is given a whole page, and while the scribe writing in Nahuatl could have left the gloss to its designated space on the next page, it seems that they instead tried to squeeze text into the image itself, explaining on top of the illustration as if to try to devalue the picture and give more value to the text. This image, however, cannot be overshadowed by text, in the Aubin or in other manuscripts, as it is a foundational image for the Mexica conception of heritage and empire.