Badianus Codex

Date: 1552
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


The Badianus Codex (or The Badianus Manuscript) is an Aztec book of herbal medicine that was presented to the viceroy of New Spain's son in 1552 as a gift from the Colegio de Sanata Cruz in Tlaleteloco. The college taught indigenous Mexicans such things as philosophy, Latin, logic, and math, but it also specialized in New World medicine because, like many Europeans, the Spanish thought American ailments were best cured by American plants. Martinus de la Cruz, an Indian scholar who took courses in medicine and writing at the college, created this book, which he wrote in phonetic Nahuatl and was later translated by another Indian student, Juannes Badianus, into Latin. The book, the earliest Aztec herbal known to Europeans, was eventually given to Carlos V of Spain in an effort to secure funding for the college--the idea was that the book of herbal remedies would be proof of the institution's usefulness. Carlos, however, did not renew the funding originally provided by his father.

For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans studied and cultivated plants that they considered useful as medicine or a natural resource and, like contemporary Europeans, simply for their beauty. Indeed, the conquistadors noted that many Aztecs created irrigated gardens for cultivating plants from all over Mesoamerica. Indigenous groups in rural Mexico still grow medicinal plants in their home gardens, sites where women experiment with different herbs and cultivate those that best help them take care of their families.

The Codex also includes written instructions for how to create specific medicines from each of the 184 plants and trees it describes. All four herbs pictured here are meant to be used for chest pain, but each has a specific application. The herbs on the left-hand page are meant to be turned into a liquid that is rubbed externally onto the pained area. Extracts from Nonochton (a kind of nopal seen on the right) was combined with gold, amber, and burnt stag heart and made into a drink that relieved heart pain. Although Aztec medicine was a mix of magic, religion, and science, it is evident that significant empirical testing must have been required to come up with such a seemingly random combination of ingredients that met specific ends.

Reference: de la Cruz, Martin. The Badianus Codex (Codex Barberini, Latin 241), an Aztec Herbal of 1552. Translation and introduction by Emily Walcott Emmart. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1940.

CITATION: Fols. 27v and 28r. In: de la Cruz, Martinus. Badianus Codex, 1552.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0021272.