In the area known as Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize), indigenous writers between the 13th and 16th centuries produced manuscripts using both pictographic and alphabetic-based texts. They worked closely with noble and priestly elites to meticulously design and paint manuscripts. Before the arrival of Europeans, writers worked on a variety of media, from animal hide and textiles to paper. They folded long sheets into accordion-like manuscripts, covered them in a lime plaster, and, using rich natural pigments, recorded complex writing systems. These books contained historical, religious, political, scientific, and cultural knowledge. They not only recorded information, but guided the lives of individuals and communities. Only fourteen of these manuscripts are known to survive, as Spanish conquistadors and friars destroyed the vast majority of them in their effort to eradicate indigenous religions during the conquest of the region in the 16th century. In the years following the Spanish invasion, Mesoamerican artists and scribes had to adapt to new demands from their indigenous patrons, the viceregal government, and the Catholic church. They learned to use the European alphabet and artistic conventions to produce new materials containing ethnographic, religious, and historical information. In addition, they transcribed and wrote speeches, songs, and poems, and produced legal documents to fight for their own rights and those of their communities, rulers, and patrons. Modern-day scholars have made great strides deciphering pre-Columbian writing systems and understanding the make, medium, and function of manuscripts. The vast corpus of colonial-era manuscripts has also been a productive field for understanding Mesoamerican thought, cultural practices, and the social and political forces that shaped colonial life and its literary production.
Angélica J. Afanador-Pujol
Michelle P. Brown
The codex occupies an iconic role in Western culture. Usually narrowly applied to the folded book form of the age of print, it owes its origins and development to pre-print manuscript culture. As early as the 1st century ce, the Roman poet Martial was recommending that his readers buy the new codex form. But then, as now, publishers were slow to retool, and the ancient scroll technology continued until the 4th century, when the codex, initially the preserve of the underclasses (notably the early Christians, who valued it for its portability and cross-referencing suitability), achieved popularity as the focus of Christianity, a religion of the book. Wax tablets—the less formal medium of the day—continued in use for drafting of text and image and for informal purposes into the early 20th century. From the 5th century onward the use of decoration and paratextual features such as punctuation served to help navigate and articulate the text and images, illustrated the narrative, or explored the multivalent meaning of text through image. Both men and women, religious and secular, wealthy or poor, figured in the production of medieval books, as authors, makers, and users. Documentary evidence and that detected within the books themselves gives a picture of the ways in which literary works were composed, captured in writing, published, disseminated, and accessed. Each manuscript is unique, but together they provide a portal into a thousand years of thought.