America’s First Herbal: The Badianus Manuscript

| October/November 1994

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.

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