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The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (21)

Critical Appendix I: Our Sources

Nahua speakers had no efficient way to write Náhuatl before it was rendered in Roman letters by early Spanish settlers. Some written records were kept, in which pictures (sometimes highly abstracted and conventionalized ones) were used to compose place glyphs or name glyphs, but it was not possible to write a love letter or a law code or a university examination using this script. [Note 36] About 1430 the Aztec régime seized and burned all of the picture-books in order to eliminate histories or myths that might contradict their own versions, and from that time on, sacking a town inevitably also meant destroying its documents. [Note 37] A second major book burning occurred shortly after the Spanish conquest not quite a hundred years later. Very few records survived, although Spanish policy shortly thereafter actively encouraged historical research.

However, we have surprisingly rich textual material composed after the Spanish conquest, both by Spaniards interested in the Aztec world (who wrote in both Spanish and Latin), and by Nahua who survived the conquest or were descended from members of the Aztec aristocracy eager to "set the record straight" about the comparative glories of their ancestors. Most of the Nahua wrote in Náhuatl using Roman letters.

In Spanish, the diary of Hernán Cortés, Mexico's conqueror himself, is preserved, as are the writings of several observant members of his entourage (notably Bernal Díaz del Castillo [1492-1584], author of La conquista de México) or Spaniards who came to Mexico shortly after the conquest (such as Bartolomé de las Casas [1484-1556], whose Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias in 1552 was important in bringing the plight of conquered New Spain to the attention of European readers).

The term "codex" refers loosely to an early manuscript, whether or not it is recorded in a true written language. For example, the Boturini Codex (more commonly known as the Tira de la Peregrinación) represents the migration of the Mexica from the north using the picture system that was the best pre-Spanish notation available at the time. Our copy dates from the mid-1500s (and has a few Spanish marginalia), but seems to follow an earlier version.

Náhuatl authors, often with Spanish "Christian" names, included Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc (Crónica Mexicáyotl) and Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, a descendent of the rulers of Tetzcóhco, one of the towns of the central Aztec "Triple Alliance" (Historia Chichimeca). The Codex Chimalpáhin, acquired by Cambridge University in 1827 but only identified in 1983, is a collection of materials in written Náhuatl assembled by Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimpáhin-Quauhtlehuanítzin. It consists mostly of a chronology and of the genealogies of important Aztecs (which obviously mattered to the author because some of them were, after all, his royal ancestors). Among the authors of the texts it contains is the same Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl just mentioned.

The Codex Chimalpopóca is made up of two documents, the "Annals of Cuauhtítlan" (Xiuhpohuálli, literally the "year count") and the "Legend of the Suns" (Tlamachiliz-tlatolzazanílli, literally "wisdom tales").

Not all of the codices are concerned with history and myth, of course. For example, the Codex Badianus, now in the Vatican Library, contains a wealth of information about Aztec herbal healing. We even have poems by several different writers, the most famous being King Nezahual-cóyotl (1402-1472), ruler of Tetzcóhco, and his son and successor Nezahualpílli (1464-1515), written down from memory after the Spanish brought writing. [Note 38]

Not all Mexican writers used Náhuatl or lived before the Conquest, but some remain critical resources. Francisco Javier Clavijero (1731-1787) was a Mexican-born Jesuit of Spanish descent from Veracruz who, like other Jesuits, was expelled from Mexico in 1767 by royal decree. He took refuge in Italy, where, in 1780, he published his Historia Antigua de México some 250 years after the conquest, but based on long and careful study of sources now largely lost to us. Like most "Spanish boys" of his era in Mexico, the young Clavijero had grown up bilingual in Spanish and Náhuatl.

By far the most important of our early sources is the Florentine Codex (Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España), a massive work assembled by the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún, between 1540 and 1585, building on the earlier work of a fellow Franciscan, Andrés de Omos, a brilliant polyglot who had been commissioned in 1533 —a dozen years after the fall of Tenochtitlan— to develop a (now lost) comprehensive history of Mexico from native manuscript sources.

Sahagún interviewed Aztec survivors and recorded their remarks in Náhuatl more or less verbatim. He then had his assistants illustrate them with about 1,800 sketches. (He provided some Spanish translations, but the first full Spanish edition appeared only in 1830.) The fascinating pictures, some monochrome on the model of European engravings of the period and some in color, give as much insight into Aztec life as the text. In a meticulous study, Diana Magaloni Kerpel (2014) has shown that even the selection of alternative coloring matter sometimes seems to reflect the artists’ attitudes toward their subjects (

Sahagún’s massive project must have seemed especially important when a major epidemic swept over central Mexico in 1576, and there seemed a real risk that none would live to see the finished work except future discoverers.

Early colonial wills, censuses, land records, and town council minutes have sometimes been preserved, giving us insights into life immediately after the Conquest, often with information that extends backward into the Aztec period.

Some of our information even comes from early dictionaries. Since Náhuatl was the lingua franca of the most important regions of Mexico, the Spanish early set out to learn it, and the early dictionaries and grammars they compiled are rich in proverbs, idiomatic phrases, and explanations of the semantic fields of terms. (The fullest is by Alonso de Molina, whose extensive dictionary was composed somewhere between 1550 and 1570 and is still in print today.)

Naturally care must be taken to assess the reliability of each source, and specialists differ in the extent to which they find different early authors to be engaged in self-serving assessments of Aztec life and history. For example, a 2008 study of the reputation of the poet-king Nezahual-cóyotl argues that traditional accounts of him may have been biased to favor Spanish colonialism and Judeo-Christian perspectives on Mexican history (Lee 2008).

Because of this wonderfully full historical record, and because of the short period during which the Aztec régime held sway —about a century and a half from about 1370 to the Spanish Conquest of 1519— it is possible to give almost a blow-by-blow account of its history, complete with royal genealogies, names of individual players, and a reasonable description of many of the institutions and events of the Aztec world. This can, of course, become an embarrassment of riches, and the many known names and specialized Náhuatl terms can easily become overwhelming, even if they are the envy of specialists in other ancient societies. In this account, we shall try to simplify the picture insofar as possible by adding English translations and by hyphenating long words. There is also a glossary at the end of the article. Still, it is well to begin with a quick overview of the Náhuatl language. That is the project of Appendix II.

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