Imperial and Philological Encounters in the Early Modern Era

European Readings of the Codex Mendoza

In: Philological Encounters
Adrien Delmas Institut français d’Afrique du Sud / École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Paris

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Although the history of philology is merely an addition to the rediscovery of textual traditions which have been neglected for too long by academic philology, it is nonetheless an important one for its ability alone to provide an explanation of the existing asymmetric situation. When the world opened up after the 16th century following transoceanic navigations, European encounters with written traditions in America, Africa and Asia led to a variety of attitudes—from denial to fascination, from destruction to collection. These “philological encounters”, both material and conceptual, largely contributed to shape the views of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment regarding language and writing. To understand the semiological and epistemological consequences of these views, this paper focuses on a single text produced at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Codex Mendoza, and on the different interpretations to which the latter was subjected in Europe after crossing the Atlantic. The history of the Codex Mendoza would have us believe that it was during the 18th century, and not before, that writing became exclusively synonymous with alphabet, resulting in the marginalisation of non-alphabetic written systems—and this mainly for historiographical reasons.

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