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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Florentine Codex

K. Sanders

The Florentine Codex is a work made up of twelve volumes which contain descriptions of the pre-Conquest culture of the Aztecs along with an account of life after the Spanish Conquests. Various rituals and ceremonies of the Aztecs are displayed through the use of oratory literature. The recitations give the reader insight into how these Aztec customs were carried out in everyday life. In particular, this volume focuses on childbirth and midwifery. Two selections show the differences in how women are address and viewed in childbirth.

In the recitation “The Midwife Addresses the Woman Who Has Died in Childbirth,” the midwife gives both prayer and praise to the deceased mother. In the first part of the selection, the midwife speaks to the mother as if she were a warrior in battle. She declares, “You received, raised up, and held the shield” (l.7). This line, along with the reference to the woman as “Eagle woman”, sheds light on the idea that expectant mothers seen as warriors who possess the same qualities of honor and valor as the men who fought in battle (l. 2). An even greater honor is given to those women who die in childbirth. The midwife remarks, “You made yourself a victor, a warrior for Our Lord, though not without/ consuming all your strength; you sacrificed yourself” (l. 21-22). The classification of this event as a sacrifice portrays the Aztec’s high regard for women and their labor in childbirth. At the end of the recitation, the tone changes from one of praise to a eulogy from the midwife. She asks for the deceased mother’s intercessions for all those men and women left behind in the community.

The second selection, “The Midwife Addresses the Newly Delivered Woman”, is another traditional Aztec oratory. Like the first selection, the midwife begins by praising the woman for her hard labor and enduring strength through child birth. The second recitation diverges from the first when it addresses the next role that the woman must play now that she has given birth. The midwife proceeds to remind the woman that the supreme spirit, the Ever Present Ever Near, is the ultimate creator and controller of the child. She states, “Do not be boastful of the child/Do not consider yourself worthy of it” (l. 12-13). This speech communicates a major value of Aztec culture. Humility is one of the foremost values that the people, particularly the women, must possess. They must be ever aware of the power of the supreme spirit and never think to place themselves on the same level as the gods. The emphasis of humility in Aztec society parallels with the Judeo-Christian society that is soon to be thrust upon them. Both demand humility and obedience to a higher being and even to other high rank members of society. This recitation also remarks on women’s position in society. Like the first selection, women are portrayed as honorable, but this selection shows that women may slip down in rank below the men after their task in childbirth is complete.

The Florentine Codex as a whole represents the transition of the Aztec empire to the New World after the Spanish Conquest. This oratory work of Native American literature shares the theme of valor, labor, and humility through the event of childbirth in Aztec society. The midwife and expectant mothers are the two main vehicles for the presentation of these values. Pride and self-importance are devalued by this culture. The similarity between these values and Judeo-Christian values may have been beneficial in the transition to a post-Conquest empire. The Spanish did not have to impart these teachings to the natives because the ideals had already been instilled in them from their previous culture.

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