America’s Earliest Medical Book
The Badianus Manuscript, (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) an Aztec Herbal of 1552, was discovered at the Vatican Library in 1929 by Professor Charles U. Clark.
The manuscript was bound in 16th century crimson velvet and is the earliest treatise on Mexican medicinal plants and native remedies which has ever come down to us. It is the work of two Aztec Indians, Martinus de la Cruz, a native physician who composed the work in Aztec, and another Indian, Juannes Badianus, who translated the text into Latin.
The manuscript was reprinted in 1940 by the John’s Hopkins Press, and all the quoted material in this article comes from this publication.
“We have always known that the Aztecs had physicians of great experience. The Spanish conquerors were very much impressed by the medical lore of the Indians and they mentioned it with much praise in all their early reports from Cortez’s letter to Charles V.”
What makes this manuscript very unique is that the information that was provided by the Indians and recorded in the book was unaltered by the recorder and translator. Therefore there was no professional bias. “This is not always the case with later writers. Already Hernandez, whose great book is a mine of information on Aztec materia medica, had the tendency to project European views into the subject. The same applies still more to such writers as Juan de Cardenas, who attempted to interpret the New World in terms of Aristotelian philosophy.”
The great value and importance of this manuscript is that it shows no traces of European influence. It was written by an Indian physician in Aztec and translated by another Aztec Indian into Latin.
The Badianus manuscript is an herbal. It therefore deals with the pharmacological treatment of diseases; it is not concerned with surgery.
“The Spanish were astounding colonizers. Soon after the Conquest they built hospitals and schools for the Indians. They taught them the humanities, succeeding so well that less than twenty years after Cortez had conquered the country there were Indian boys who ‘spoke Latin as elegantly as Cicero.’ This is evidence not only of the colonizing ability of the Spaniards but of the adaptability and intelligence of the Aztecs. The Spaniards imposed their religion upon the Aztecs but allowed them to practice their own medicine and even allowed Aztec medicine to be taught in the colleges.”
“Martinus de la Cruz was a teacher of native medicine, and Badianus, who translated it was ‘Reader in Latin,’ both were at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlalatilulco, one of the greatest culture centers in the early period of Spanish colonization.”
The translator had no Latin equivalents for most plant names; he therefore had no other choice than to keep the original Aztec names. Moreover, since the manuscript is illustrated with pictures, which in many cases are very helpful in identifying the plants, the manuscript is a valuable source of Aztec lexicography.
“To the Aztec physician practically all members of the plant kingdom were of use medicinally. The native doctors experimented with the plants in the gardens of the Montezuma and the lords of Texcoco. Later, Francisco Hernandez endeavored experimentally (in 1651) to check the reputed uses of the plants he found in the gardens of the Convent of Huaxtepec and other hospitals. Of the hundreds of plants known to the Aztecs and referred to by Hernandez comparatively few are known botanically and from these a smaller number have found their way into our modern pharmacopoeias.
“Among the most interesting of the native Aztec remedies are the narcotics and analgesics. In bone setting, in operations, in making incisions as well as relieving painful bruises and other injuries, pain relieving remedies were applied externally or combined in potions to be taken internally. The Aztecs referred to various species by specific native names, tlapatl (Datura stramonium); toloatzin (Datura innoxia) and nexehuac (Datura ceratocaula).”
Picietl (tobacco) was used in potions as a depressant and externally in lotions as a counterirritant and disinfectant. The juice of cocoxihuitl (Baccconia arborea S.) was applied externally as an analgesic to relieve pain locally.
“The emollients used by the Aztecs consisted largely of balsams and resins, several of which are still employed today. The oils of these substances serve as antiseptics and since they are also of mildly irritant nature are believed to stimulate repair of wounds and ulcerated areas.”
“The balsam of the tree known as hoitziloxitl (Toluifera pereirae (Klotzsch) Baill.), if obtained from the trunk, is of dark reddish brown color and whitish if extracted from the leaves. Since the balsam are referred to as incense in the Badianus manuscript it is possible that the red and white varieties may have been obtained from this tree. In the Badianus manuscript white incense was applied to the temple in the treatment of the eye and as a salve for water blisters. White incense was also used with the extract of xachiocotzotl (Liquidambar styraciflua L.) to relieve toothache and injured feet. In addition a variety of incense was used externally to relieve roughness of the skin, to anoint the body of one struck by lightning and to reduce swelling.”
“The juices of the nopal (nochtli) as well as the juices of the texiyotl (Sedum dendroideum) were used as emollients to reduce swelling. The juice of the Begonia balmisiana is used with other remedies in the cure for dandruff and in a postoperative treatment for the eye. The use of the Agave and the oil of the fig (Ficus) were also frequently employed in treatment of wounds.”
“Astringent solutions from various plants were of common usage both as lotions for the skin and douches for various ailments. A number of the plants used apparently as astringents have been identified, but the majority are known only by their Aztec names. In the Badianus manuscript there is a reference to a Commelina called Matalxochitl (blue flower) and is used in a lotion for the face, and another species of Commelina (Cacamatlalin) was used as a treatment for constipation.”
“A kind of skin disease was treated by irritating the skin with the juice of certain species of Metopium. Purgative remedies known to the Aztecs, as tlanoquiloni consisted principally of the extracts of roots, and seeds- of which a few have been identified botanically. Some of these have been extensively used and are still in use today. The best known of these roots and one which was quickly introduced to Europe by the early traders of Mexican commodities was the Michoacan root. Monardes has given a detailed account of this root, its use as a purgative, and its extensive importation to Europe. According to his account it was referred to as the ‘Ruibarbe of Mechoacan’ and was brought ‘from a countrie that is beyond the greate Citie of Mexico, more than fortie leages, that is called Mechoacan.'”
“Only one emetic herb extract obtained from the root of tlatlacotic is referred to in the Badianus manuscript. The use of this emetic extract serves several functions: to force open the jaw when a swollen condition of the cheeks and throat made the action voluntarily impossible; to relieve painful oppression of the chest; in the treatment of epilepsy; and for mental stupor. In addition a sort of bitter water was given to produce vomiting in the treatment of certain helminthic afflictions.
“One of the earliest tonics and stimulants to be introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century was the extract of Guaiacum sanctum L. known to the Indians as Hoaxacan. Monardes refers to its use for the ‘poxe,’ ‘dropsy’, for the shortness of breath, for the falling sickness, and for other aliments of widely diverse nature.”
Among the inorganic constituents of the medical remedies of the Aztecs there existed a wide range of stones, crystals, earth pigments, soils of various kinds and minerals. Many of these were believed to have magical as well as therapeutic value, and a number were taken to Europe and became incorporated into the pharmacopoeias of the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
“In the Badianus manuscript the emerald was used in a plaster for a fractured head, in a potion to cure heat of the heart; in a lotion for gout; in a potion for fever; in a potion for the eyes. Crystals were used in the Badianus manuscript in the application for fractures and in various potions. A purple crystal was used in a potion for sore eyes while a purple amethyst by the Aztec name of tlapaltehuitatl was noted that it was used to strengthen the kidney and liver. A red crystal was also used in the treatment of sore eyes and crushed in a potion for the treatment of those afflicted by a ‘whirlwind.’ Another crystalline white stone also used medicinally is the yztacquetzalitztli which was crushed and used for pain in teeth.”
The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) translated by Emily Walcott Emmart, Johns Hopkins Press, 1940.