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Aztec Physicians in Greco-Roman Garb

John Izzo

Columbia University

This paper analyzes the ways in which the authors of the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis used intertextuality and allusions to Greco-Roman culture as tools to defend indigenous medical practices against European prejudices. In the year 1536, a group of Franciscan friars established the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (Mexico City) in order to educate Aztec (henceforth Nahua) young men in the liberal arts (Silvermoon 2007, Emmart 1940). In 1552, two men associated with this school, a Nahua physician named Martinus de la Cruz and a Nahua Latinist named Joannes Badianus, wrote the Libellus (a medicinal herbal guide) as a gift to Spanish colonial officials and the royal court in Spain. This paper argues that the authors of the Libellus employ allusions to classical literature and culture throughout their work for several reasons: to increase their authority and demonstrate their humanitas (as defined by their European oppressors), to elide some distinctions between New and Old World medical practices, and to preempt and defend their knowledge and culture against racially motivated colonial prejudices.
Scholars who analyze the Libellus have been primarily interested in discerning and separating its Nahua medical theories from its European ones (Gimmel 2008, Triviño 1995, Del Pozo 1991, Hassig 1989). Andrew Laird, however, briefly discusses some of the stylistic features of its preface and suggests that its rhetorical style may have been influenced by the elaborate and sophisticated speech patterns of Nahua oratory (Laird 2010). Other texts written by Nahua Latinists of the Colegio de Santa Cruz have received more thorough attention for their mobilization of classical allusions (Laird 2016a, 2016b, 2010, Romero 1990); however, the Libellus itself remains largely understudied in this regard.
In the first section of this paper, I analyze the language of the opening sentence of the Libellus. There, the Nahua physician describes himself as medicus...nullis rationibus doctus, sed solis experimentis edoctus. Read out of its historical context, these words would appear to signal that the authors viewed indigenous medical knowledge as in some way inferior to formal, European-style medical training. However, for those educated in the classical canon, this phrase possesses a very different valence. It bears an allusion to ancient medical practices in Greece and Rome – the rivalry between Rationalists and Empiricists. Picking up on language used by Pliny and Celsus, Martinus de la Cruz lays claim to being an Empiricus and asserts the merits of his experiential, rather than theoretical, medical training. Like so many other elements of the Libellus, this language also makes reference to the early modern cultural context, as the preference for experimenta aligns with contemporary medical developments in Europe (Ragland 2017, Ogilvie 2006), including the practices of Andreas Vesalius, who was at that time the physician in the royal court to which the Libellus was to be sent.
As another instance of this reappropriation of the Classics against colonial knowledge structures, I investigate the significance of a direct citation of Pliny’s Natural History in the Libellus. In the discussion of medicine used to remove dried saliva, the authors directly quote and name Pliny. This citation, along with the use of Plinian language throughout the text, defines the authors as Plinian researchers, perhaps even new Plinys themselves. In addition to a discussion of the parallels with Pliny’s own text, I elaborate upon the cultural significance of this reference in the Spanish colonies, where Pliny as researcher, writer, and imperialist had become a model for Spanish intellectuals and explorers including Mártir de Anglería, Fernández de Oviedo, Bartolomé de las Casas, José de Acosta, and Francisco Hernández (Moreno 1986). In making allusions like this, Martinus de la Cruz and Joannes Badianus thus stake powerful claims for indigenous knowledge and autonomy. I conclude my paper with a brief delineation of other possible references to classical texts in the Libellus and directions for further research.

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Neo-Latin in the Old and New World: Current Scholarship

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