Loyola University Chicago

Language Learning Resource Center

Parallel Plagues: Learning about Colonial Mexico in the Age of Coronavirus

Claudia Brittenham (University of Chicago)

Date and Time: November 17, 2020, 3 – 4pm CST on Zoom

Almost exactly 500 years ago, the Spanish invasion of Mexico brought it with it many devastating diseases against which the inhabitants of the American continents had no immunological protection. Studying these epidemics during the coronavirus pandemic reveals many parallels, from the exponential rise in cases to the role of racism and economic inequality in the spread of epidemic. One key source is the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic general history of the things of New Spain, which was written during an outbreak of epidemic disease in 1576. In this work, which was produced in a collaboration between Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún and a group of Nahua scholars, we can see the makers’ determination to tell their stories even in the midst of disaster.


Claudia Brittenham is Associate Professor of Art History and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the art of Mesoamerica, especially in Central Mexico and the Maya area. Her current book project, Unseen Art: Making, Vision, and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica, explores problems of visibility and the status of images in Mesoamerica, examining the distance between ancient experiences of works of art and the modern practice of museum display. 

Additional sources:

The Florentine Codex is available online at: wdl.org/en/item/10096/

Diana Magaloni Kerpel, "The Colors of Creation: Materials and Techniques in the Florentine Codex," in Manuscript Cultures of Colonial Mexico and Peru: New Questions and Approaches, edited by Tom Cummins, Emily Engel, Barbara Anderson and Juan Ossio (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2014), 175-89.

Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, 1575-1577. Book 11, Chapter 12, interpolation after the 8th paragraph; in Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1950-1982), Introductory Volume, 93-94.