Primary Source: Adapted from the Codex Florentino (1500s)

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

The Florentine Codex is a compilation of accounts of the people of Mexico by Fray Bernardino de SahagĂșn, a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after the Spanish conquest by Hernan CortĂ©s. His study of the people and his accounts of them were conducted with the goal of learning how to best covert the people to Christianity, but he made extensive use of Aztec descriptions of their history and culture and their perception of the Spanish invaders.

. . . the messengers reported to the king. They told him how they had made the journey, and what they had seen, and what food the strangers ate. Motecuhzoma . . . was also terrified to learn how the cannon roared, how its noise resounded, how it caused one to faint and grow deaf. The messengers told him: “A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. . . . The messengers also said: “Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques on their heads. Their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house. “The strangers’ bodies are completely covered, so that only their faces can be seen. Their skin is white, as if it were made of lime. They have yellow hair, though some of them have black. Their beards are long and yellow . . .

“As for their food, it is like human food. It is large and white, and not heavy. It is something like straw, but with the taste of a cornstalk, of the pith of a cornstalk. It is a little sweet, as if it were flavored with honey; it tastes of honey, it is sweet-tasting food. “Their dogs are enormous, with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. . . When Motecuhzoma heard this report, he was filled with terror. It was as if his heart had fainted, as if it had shriveled. . . . as if he were conquered by despair. . . . They also took whatever the strangers might request, or whatever might please them. Motecuhzoma also sent captives to be sacrificed, because the strangers might wish to drink their blood. The envoys sacrificed these captives in the presence of the strangers, but when the white men saw this done, they were filled with disgust and loathing. . . . Motecuhzoma ordered the sacrifice because he took the Spaniards to be gods; he believed in them and worshiped them as deities. That is why they were called “Gods who have come from heaven.” As for the Negroes [who attended the Spaniards], they were called “soiled gods.”

Quiz Content

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. According to the Codex, how did Aztecs perceive the weapons and food of the Spanish?

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. How does Motecuhzoma react to these descriptions of the Europeans?

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. What does he think they might appreciate as a gift and how do the Europeans respond?

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. How did the Aztecs perceive the Spanish themselves?

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