The Aztec Herbal

Plants grow almost everywhere, many have therapeutic properties, and people of every culture treat their ailments with the herbal remedies they find around them. The peoples of the Americas are no exception, and when Europeans first arrived in Central America they found that the Aztec people were highly skilled practitioners of herbal medicine. The Spanish authorities established schools in their new territories, and in 1552 Martinus de la Cruz and Juannes Badiano (sometimes called Badianus, which is the Latin translation of his name) were Native American students at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlaltilulco. Between them they compiled a list of traditional Aztec herbal remedies. De la Cruz was a Nahua physician and wrote down the remedies he used in the Nahuatl language and drew illustrations.

Badiano, an Aztec aristocrat, later translated the Nahua into Latin, with the title Libellus de medicinalibus indorum herbis (Little book of Indian medicinal herbs). The result, known as the Badianus Manuscript, is the earliest written American herbal. In the 17th century the manuscript was in the possession of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, so it is also known as the Codex Barberini. The work is now held in the Vatican Library. In 1939 William Gates translated it into English. The original Nahuatl version is lost.

De la Cruz arranged his descriptions according to parts of the body rather than the ingredients used in the remedies. He began with complaints affecting the head, proceeded to those affecting the respiratory and digestive systems, and ended with signs of approaching death.

There is also a work of 12 books known collectively as the Florentine Codex—because it is kept at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy. The books are written in Nahuatl, and they were prepared between about 1540 and 1585 under the supervision of Bernardino de Sahagun (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who became fluent in the Nahuatl language. Sahagun taught in Tlaltelolco, and he began collecting information about the Aztec way of life and systems of belief. In 1558 the head of his order, Francisco de Toral (1502–71), asked him to write down what he had discovered, believing it would prove useful to those who were instructing and seeking to convert the local people. Accordingly, with the assistance of four of his former students from the Colegio de Santa Cruz who were trilingual in Nahuatl, Spanish, and Latin, Sahagun spent two years interviewing village elders and others and recording the interviews in the Nahuatl language. Between 1575 and 1577 Sahagun translated the Nahuatl text into Spanish and prepared a richly illustrated version with the Spanish and Nahuatl texts side by side. This work is entitled Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana (General history of the things of New Spain). Book 11 was devoted to plants, animals, and minerals, and the second chapter describes herbs and their medicinal uses. This is the second longest chapter (more space is given to snakes and other venomous animals), indicating the importance the Aztecs attached to herbal medicine and the extent of their knowledge. Not all of the plants had medicinal uses, but Sahagun's informants told him of 142 that did, and he recorded detailed descriptions of the plants, their habitat, and their therapeutic uses.

The Badianus Manuscript records the methods and prescriptions of one physician, and the work survives only in its Latin translation. The Florentine Codex, based on interviews with a wide number of individuals by an educated Spaniard who was fluent in their language, is considered to be a more authentic account of Aztec medicine and horticulture, although it is not a pharmacopoeia or herbal.

Many of the herbal preparations that it describes used fragrant flowers, the Aztecs evidently believing that a perfumed bath was highly beneficial. They had remedies for a range of digestive disorders as well as treatments for gout, fatigue, and arrow wounds.

The Aztecs were keen gardeners. The Nahuatl language has several names for different types of garden and the emperor Montezuma shared the passion. He maintained separate gardens for flowers and medicinal herbs and would not permit fruit or vegetables to be grown in them, saying it was “unkingly” to grow plants for utility or profit in gardens intended for a higher purpose.