Pictographic catechisms from colonial Nahua Mexico

This project includes a book in progress, co-authored with Elizabeth Hill Boone (Tulane University) and David Tavárez (Vassar College), to be published by Dumbarton Oaks. The book will present a facsimile, reading, and analysis of Bibliothèque Nationale de France manuscrit mexicain 399, a pictorial manuscript made in Mexico City during the second half of the seventeenth century and connected with the Moteuczoma family.

Manuscrit Mexicain 399, page 8v

Often called “Testerian” manuscripts after fray Jacobo de Testera, one of the early Franciscans in Mexico, pictographic catechisms present the texts of the Roman Catholic catechism, which indigenous people were expected to learn from memory, in the format of a series of pictograms, each representing a word or phrase. In a few cases, alphabetic glosses in Nahuatl or, in one case, Otomi accompany the images. This new form of writing, though probably derived from sixteenth-century experiments in catechetical representation, may have emerged only in the later seventeenth century, as one of the textual strategies by which indigenous elites sought to represent themselves as good Christian subjects who adopted Christianity in the immediate wake of Spain’s military conquest. Highly original and experimental, this writing was never fully systematized, nor was it ever divorced from its catechetical context to become a fully independent writing system. It was a mnemonic system supporting memorization and oral recitation of the catechism. As a political strategy, it recuperated the associations of picture writing with the pre-conquest and conquest-era elites, to whom later-colonial leaders hearkened back in order to legitimize their own lineages and their dynastic rights to lands and privileges. This archaizing strategy deliberately reversed the sixteenth-century trajectory that saw indigenous literacy abandon picture-writing for the roman alphabet.

My research questions the long-standing assumption that these manuscripts were developed by, or at least under the supervision of, the early Franciscan friars. The Franciscans and other preachers did use pictures, but there is no good evidence that they used small paper booklets of this kind, as opposed to larger paintings on cloth. Nearly all extant pictographic catechism include a question-and-answer catechetical summary that did not develop until the 1630s, nor reach the form encoded in the pictographic texts until 1644. On this topic, see my article entitled “The ‘Little Doctrine’ and Indigenous Catechesis in New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 94, May issue, 2014.