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This article is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

Pictures from a Library Stella Halkyard

This fragment of a Techialoyan codex or ‘land book’ from the village of Tepotzotián is written in unlinked letters from the European alphabet in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and records the boundaries of the town and demarcates the land owned by its people. Dated to the tenth day of May 1534, it cites Mexico’s first Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, as a witness. The history relating to this shard of manuscript, and the journey it made from Mexico to the Rylands, is a tale of chicanery exemplifying many of the meanings of that word.

Scholars have probed the manuscript’s content, composition and palaeography and retraced the twists and turns of its custodial history by examining clues left upon its binding in the form of shelf marks and classification schemas. They have documented the armorial book plate of the Earls of Crawford which rubs shoulders with that of Eugène André Boban (1834–1908), archaeologist and purveyor of Mexican antiquities and counterfeit ‘Aztec’ crystal skulls. They have followed the manuscript’s movements back in time from Manchester to Mexico via Paris and they have identified a genealogy of collectors, dealers and fortune-hunters through whose hands it has passed. In doing so they have detected the chicanery of the ‘dishonest tricks, slyness and wiliness of character’ (OED) displayed by some of these individuals whose sticky fingerprints have left their residue on the manuscript’s pages. However, it is in answering the question why an object that had been created as a single manuscript text ‘came to be divided in three parts’ (Donald Robertson) that scholars have exposed the subterfuge of a particular individual in the form of Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin (1802–91).

A historian and palaeographer, Aubin lived in Mexico for ten years, where he advised the Commission scientifique du Mexique and amassed a ‘wholly unrivalled’ (D.G. Brinton) collection of manuscripts. On his return to France in 1840, and with arrogant disregard for the Mexican law of 1829 forbidding the exportation of silver and antiquities, he determined to take his collection with him. To achieve his purpose he deliberately erased any evidence that could identify each manuscript and then wilfully destroyed their integrity as objects and texts by ‘disassembling and mixing them up pêle-mêle’ (Robertson) before shipping them off to Paris. There, Aubin lived in paranoid isolation, surrounded by the wreckage of his manuscripts, ‘making little use of them himself, and never permitting a single student so much as a look at them’ (Brinton).

Despite being dealt a chicane, or a hand with no trumps, in the card game of the fates, Mexican Manuscript 1 resists the ‘aura of the clandestine, of confinement, secrecy and dissimulation’ (Jean Baudrillard) Aubin sought to impose upon it. For as an evocative object with the irresistible power to engender an ‘impulse to read’ it captures our attention. And like a ‘poet of its own acts… obeying its own logic’ (Michel de Certeau) it radiates a potency that provokes thought ‘rich in creative possibility’ (Sherry Turkle).

Techialoyan Codex of Tepotzotián, Rylands Mexican Manuscript 1 (© University of Manchester 2023)

This article is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

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