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Part 14 Part 16

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (15)

Tlacahélel's Sumptuary Laws

Dramatis Personae


Würtembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart
Two examples of decorative featherwork. The feathers of colorful birds were an important part of the tribute required by Aztec lords from tributary towns, and the use of various kinds of feathers or objects made of feathers was subject to sumptuary regulation.

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

From early times among the Mexica, prestige was accorded to successful warriors. As time passed, some amount of fighting was still done by raw recruits, especially in situations where a small settlement was under attack and its men-folk sought to defend it. However Aztec warfare in general was a semi-professional business. Most boys were trained in warfare, but it was professional warriors who were especially honored, and only by killing at least a few enemies was a man able to attain any significant level of prestige. (Even the selection of each emperor was based in part on the number of men he had killed in battle.)

As time went on, the professionalization of the army was increased by a deliberate policy, believed to have been devised by Tlacahélel, of restricting some luxury goods to men who had won the right to have them through their success in battle (or through their membership in the governing inner circle). During the reign of Emperor 5, for example, access to cotton clothing was restricted to the nobility. The same went for nose ornaments and ear spools made of gold or of precious stones. The emperor himself and the Woman Snake were the only people permitted to wear fine sandals within the palace. Only the nobility and the decorated warriors were permitted to have two-story houses. And so on.

Different grades of warriors were entitled to different costuming, covered with rare bird feathers or other distinctive markings. A man who had killed no one was himself no one, and he was permanently marked as a nobody by the absence of prestige costuming. In contrast, a man who had captured and sacrificed four enemy warriors was a person of substantial prestige, with the title tequíhua ("tribute taker"), and he dressed to show it.

pict
Aztec Sumptuary Rewards: Top row from left: killer of two warriors (red feather uniform), killer of three warriors (butterfly-shaped back ornament), killer of four warriors (jaguar uniform); second row from left: costuming for killers of five and six warriors. Lower right-hand figure is a very high-ranking warrior dressed for civilian administration, with hair in a style reserved for successful warriors.
Codex Mendoza (including Spanish annotations)

Towards the end of his life, Tlacahélel seems to have become more and more convinced of the importance of such sumptuary laws, and ever more restrictions were enacted concerning who could have access to what goods, and especially who could wear what kinds of decorations.

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