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America’s First Herbal: The Badianus Manuscript

By Steven Foster
October/November 1994
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All photographs by Ramoón Viñas for CNCA-INAH-MEX.
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When Pope John Paul II visited Mexico in May 1990, he took with him an obscure little book that had been absent from its Mexican homeland for more than 400 years. The book, now preserved in the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, was the first herbal—in fact, the first medical book—produced in the Americas. It is known as the Códice Badiano, or Badianus Manuscript, after the Aztec scholar Juannes Badianus, who translated the original manuscript into Latin.

The herbal was written in the local Aztec language (Nahuatl) by Martinus de la Cruz, a prominent physician at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlaltelolco. It was produced in 1552, thirty-one years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, which is present-day Mexico City. Franciscan scholars at the college believed that to treat the ­natives’ diseases, the traditional medicines of the New World were better than those of the European conquerors, and over the objections of some church officials, they had brought in the best-known Indian physicians—de la Cruz among them—to teach about the native herbs.

The manuscript was written at the behest of Don Francisco de Mendoza, son of the first viceroy of New Spain. Don Francisco had a keen personal interest in herbs and spices of the New World and the medical knowledge of the Aztecs, as did Charles V of Spain and most of Europe in general. The king’s interest had been aroused by Cortez’s reports of “all manner of roots and medicinal plants that are found in the land”. None of the famous Old World spices were to be found here, and Don Francisco was ­intent on documenting the region’s native plants and their uses as well as introducing new ones. (Nicholas Mo­nardes, the sixteenth-century Span­­ish botanist and physician for whom the genus Monarda is named, credited Don Francisco with introducing cloves, pepper, ginger, and other spices to the New World.) De la Cruz’s herbal conveyed Aztec knowledge of medicinal plants and their pharmacological actions without the taint of Spanish traditions and interpretations.

The manuscript opens with this description: “A little book of Indian medicinal herbs composed by a certain Indian, physician of the College of Santa Cruz, who has no theoretical learning, but is well taught by experience alone. In the year of our Lord Saviour 1552.” What de la Cruz had learned of traditional Aztec medicine from his elders was substantial, and Dr. Carlos Viesca, a leading Mexican authority on the manuscript, says that 90 percent of the plants depicted in the Badianus Manuscript are still used by curanderos in Mexico today.

Nahuatl was only a spoken language among the Aztecs, but the Franciscans taught de la Cruz to write it phonetically. Badianus’s Latin translation survived the ocean voyage to Spain, more than four centuries in several European libraries, and the recent return trip to Mexico. Although the manuscript now bears Badianus’s name, evidence suggests that the colorful illustrations of 184 plants, labeled with phonetic Aztec names, were also the work of Martinus de la Cruz.

Centuries of Obscurity

The Badianus Manuscript was sent to the Spanish court and placed in the royal library, and it began its journey into obscurity. Some years later, it found its way to the royal apothecary, Diego de Cortavila y Sanabria, whose name is inscribed on the first page of the original manuscript. More than a century after it was written, the manuscript came into the possession of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VII. In 1679, the cardinal founded the Barberini Library, and the Badianus herbal, bound in red velvet and printed on sixty leaves of 6-by-81/2-inch Italian paper, was housed there. In 1902, the Barberini Library was acquired by the Vatican Apostolic Library, and the Aztec herbal was cataloged as “Codex Barberini, Latin 241”. Few scholars were even aware of its existence.

That this small book languished undisturbed for centuries on Catholic library shelves is probably the reason it was in such good condition when it was discovered there in 1929 by Charles Upson Clark, a professor doing research for the Smithsonian Institution. Insect damage was limited to a few holes that did not penetrate the binding. The colors of the plant ­illustrations had retained much of their original brilliance, which must be credited to the quality and endurance of the native pigments, which Cortez had documented centuries earlier in his letters to Charles V.

Clark recognized the significance of the volume and in 1931 notified William Welch, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University. Welch was eager to have the manuscript published in facsimile with a full translation, which was undertaken by two colleagues.

Emergence Into Light

In 1935, Emily Walcott Emmart, a professor and charter member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America, wrote a booklet, published by the Smithsonian Institution, that included three photographs of the original manuscript and commentary. In 1939, William Gates did a study of the manuscript with black-and-white reproductions that was published by the Maya Society of Baltimore in two editions, one in Latin and one in English.

In 1940, with support from Herb Society members, Emily Emmart published the most extensive English-­language work on the manuscript to date, The Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal of 1552. It includes eighty pages of commentary on the history of the herbal, the pigments and dyes used in rendering the original plant illustrations, and many aspects of Aztec ­culture and medicine; a full-color ­facsimile of the entire handwritten manuscript, based on Smithsonian photographs of the original; and a page-by-page translation of the Latin text and Aztec plant names, including identification of many of the plants and comments on their use. Emmart’s book has long been out of print, and copies sell today for $400 or more.

Herbs and Afflictions

Each chapter of the herbal deals with the afflictions of an area of the body. Chapters 1 through 8 proceed in an orderly fashion from the top of the head (“On the curation of the head, boils, scales of mange, coming out of the hair, lesion or broken skull”) through the eyes, ears, nose, teeth, throat, face, hands, chest, abdomen, bowel, groin, knees, and feet. The subjects in Chapters 9 and 10 are more general, including fevers, wounds, hem­orrhoids, “black blood”, and even “light­ning stroke”. Chapter 11 focuses on female ailments, Chapter 12 on those of children, and the thirteenth and final chapter deals with death (“Of certain signs of one who is going to die”).

Most pages include at least one illustration of a plant mentioned in the text; a few pages are completely filled with drawings. These were rendered with various opaque paints mixed with oil. Above each illustration, in crimson ink, is the phonetic spelling of the Aztec name of the plant. Beneath the illustrations, also in crimson, is the Latin name of the disease or condition that the plant was used to treat. The Latin description of the plant’s use appears in brown ink below this colorful heading.

The illustrations are symbolic and abstract, sometimes so much so that identification of the plants was difficult or impossible. In several cases, quite different illustrations are labeled with the same name. Emmart drew on the writings of Spanish explorers and contemporary ethno­botanists in her attempt to identify the plants in the herbal.

Many of the plants are familiar to modern gardeners as well as herbalists. Tlalquequetzal, or common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), was used as an astringent, as it has been for centuries in Europe and Asia. The juice of the agave and the fig were both used for treating wounds. Tlilxochitl, identified as a species of vanilla, was used not only for flavoring chocolate, but also to safeguard travelers when carried in a fragrant flower hung from the neck. Tlapalcacauatl, or colored cacao (Theobroma cacao, shown on page 29), was the source of chocolate, and its seeds were used as money.

Tlatocnochtli, the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) known today in Mexico as nopal, served many purposes. Its juice was mixed with two species of sedum, the juice of a thistle, and an unidentified ingredient, and the whole combined with honey and egg yolk as an ointment to treat burns. Interestingly, prickly pear has recently been the subject of extensive diabetes research in Mexico.

Yauhtli, identified as Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), was thrown in the faces of sacrifice victims before they were burned alive, used in a plaster for those struck by lightning, and added to a chocolatelike beverage made from the cacao plant. T. lucida is often found now in herb gardens and is known for its tarragonlike flavor and fragrance.

The Badianus Manuscript presents an orderly description of Aztec medical remedies, including pharmaceutical procedures for preparing the medicaments and illustrations to aid in plant identi­fication. Most of the formulas are relatively simple and intended for common ailments, but some are elaborate and intended for ceremonial purposes. The Badianus Manuscript is more than a curiosity or a priceless antique: it documents an unbroken tradition of herb use that has persisted for centuries, continues to the present, and undoubtedly will be carried on into the future.

Falling Hair

Falling hair is checked by wash­ing the head, and if the herb called xiu­h­hamolli [possi­bly Ipomoea muru­coides] is applied to it, ground and cooked in the urine of a dog or a stag, with tree frogs and the small ani­mals auate­colotl [tree caterpillars].
—from Plate 11

For Heat (of the Eyes)

Into eyes very hot from sickness let the ground root of this herb be instilled; while the face is to be wiped with the juice pressed from the herbs ocoxochitl [poss­ibly Didymaea mexicana], huacalxochitl [Xantho­soma sp.], matlalxochitl [dayflower, Commelina sp.] and tlacoyzquixo­chitl [“popcorn stem­med flower”]. The leaves of the mizquitl tree [mesquite, Prosopis juliflora] and xoxouhqui matlalxochitl [green dayflower] ground in woman’s milk or dew or limpid water help when instilled into slightly painful eyes.
—from Plate 14

For Purulence of the ears

When instilled into discharging ears the root of maçayelli [“deer liver plant”], the seed of the herb xoxouhquipahtli [“blue medicine”], and some leaves of tlaquilin [four-o’clock, Mirabilis jalapa] with a pinch of salt in hot water are very helpful.
—from Plate 22

For Coryza (catarrh)

He who is troubled with dripping nose or coryza is to sniff the herbs atochietl [possibly Pennyroyal] and tzompilihuizxihuitl [possibly Galium sp.] and help the coryza thus.
—from Plate 24

For Angina

The stalk of xaltomatl [“sand tomato”, a night­shade] ground together with teamoxtli [a mosslike plant], white earth, the many-colored little stones or pebbles, which are col­lected from brooks, and acamallotetl [possibly Pou­teria campechiana], with tips of the indigo roughly ground and the flowers huacalxochitl [evidently Xanthosoma sp.] and tlaco­yzquixochitl, the juice well pressed out, which he should then pour into the throat repeatedly, cures suppuration of the vault and throat.
—from Plate 30

For Hiccups

One who has the hiccups is to grind in water and cook the stalk of the herb co­huatli [proba­bly Eysen­hardtia poly­stachya], the leaves of the herb mexi­xquilitl [“eatable herb”], the bark of a red pine, the fronds of the herb tlat­lanquaye [possibly bloodleaf, Iresine sp.], and grass; white honey is to be mixed into the well-cooked po­tion and it is to be drunk moderately.
—from Plate 34

For Cough

One troubled with a cough is to drink frequently the juice of the root of tlacoxiloxo­chitl [mock mesquite, Calliandra anomala] peeled and ground in water, with part of which, mixed with honey, the throat is to be smeared.
—from Plate 35

For Glands or Spongy Swellings

Glands are to be cut with lancet or razor, and when they are cut all the sanies is to be very carefully re­moved, and a plaster is to be put on the cut place. And it is to consist of the leaves of the small herb tonatiuhyxiuh [“sun-god’s dew-plant”], which springs up in the summer, and tolohua [Datura sp.], ground in yolk of egg.
— from Plate 42

For Water Under the Skin

Water under the skin comes out through cut­ting and all the purulent matter is to be removed; when this has been done, the leaves of brambles and tzonpilihuizpahtli [possibly Galium sp.] are to be ground and cooked in water with white in­cense to which is to be added Indian wine. The medicine thus prepared let it be put repeatedly on the festering part, which also is to be covered.
— from Plate 68

Remedy for Injured Body

The injured and roughly-handled body is to be anointed with a plaster made of tlahçoteoçacatl, centzonxochitl, xiuhtontli, axocotl, tlayapaloni xiuh­tontli, the moss of any tree, cones of the cypress, seed of nettles, and the ayauhquahuitl tree [prob­ably Mexican white pine (Pinus ayacahuite)]. One who has been roughly handled and beaten is to drink juice well prepared from the stalk of cohua­nenepilli [possibly Passi­flora or Dahlia sp.], tlanex­tia­xi­huitl, chicomacatl [pos­si­bly Ficus sp.], flower of axocotl, and yzquixochitl [Bourreria huanita], tetlahuitl, eztetl, teamoxtli, liver of the aquatic bird huexocanauhtli and a few leaves of tlahtlanquaye [possibly Iresine sp.], which are to be ground in acid water.
— from Plate 80

Steven Foster is an herbalist, consultant, and writer who recently moved from Eureka Springs to Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Special thanks to Rocío Váz­quez of Mexico City for her cheerful persistence in helping us ­obtain recent photographs of the Badianus Manuscript. Thanks also to Licenciada ­Consuelo Men­dez Tamargo of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History.


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