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the aztecs

13 august 2021

Quick, whaddya know about Aztecs? Human sacrifice. Ball games. Pyramids. Montezuma. Although they were the great civilization whose homeland was closest to where I live now, I didn't know much more than that till I read Frances Berdan's recent book The Aztecs.

I almost wrote "ancient" civilization, but the Aztecs didn't rise to dominance till medieval times by Western reckoning, and hit the apex of their power in the early-modern period, when they had the misfortune to run into early-modern Europeans. Aztecs were relative latecomers to the civilization game in Mesoamerica, inheriting much of their culture from forerunners; and their original homeland may be a lot closer to me than the region of central Mexico where they ended up. The Aztecs told of how they'd migrated from Aztlan, a fabulously uninviting, drought-struck territory to the north that sounds a bit like Texas. As with so many legends, this one may not correspond to verifiable reality. But the Aztec language (which survives as modern Nahuatl) seems unrelated to others in the south of Mexico, so a migratory origin is quite possible.

Berdan does not talk much about human sacrifice or ball games, maybe figuring those are well-covered on YouTube. Nor is she terribly interested in grand architecture. Montezuma does make quite a few appearances, though, as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, whose reign coincided with First Contact and thus became inscribed as much in the legends of Europe as those of America.

Berdan's Aztecs relies more on the exposition of texts than most of the Reaktion Lost Civilizations series. The Aztecs were literate and, despite Spanish depradations, their historical traditions survived in the form of a number of hybrid texts that amply document the life of their empire. Berdan blends this textual material with inferences from ethno-archeology. Here too there are rich resources. The Aztecs did not disappear, though like all other Native Americans they were ravaged by smallpox and other European infections. It's barely been 500 years since Motecuhzoma, and descendants of the Aztecs still live all across south-central Mexico and carry on lifeways that are in some cases little changed by modernity. Berdan extrapolates from both historical and ethnographic directions to build a detailed picture of Aztec life.

At times, this thick description runs the counterintuitive risk of seeming like boilerplate. Rather than ooh and aah at monumental Aztec architecture, Berdan prefers to evoke the life that surrounded it: "With hundreds of people milling about daily, and even more on extraordinary days, palaces were beehives of activity," she says (108). Seems like most palaces worldwide, where "the loftiest citizens to the most humble intermingled" (108). And what about that class divide?

Nobles and commoners were readily distinguishable from one another by appearance and general living standards. Nobles dressed elegantly, commoners humbly. Nobles lived in large, beautifully adorned buildings; commoners resided in more modest dwellings. Household goods were on the whole more elegant and abundant in noble households than in commoner ones. (112)
All doubtless true, but you could cut and paste those identical sentences into dozens of books about hierarchical societies.

I also think that Berdan at times takes textual evidence a bit too much at face value. She insists that the Aztecs lived by a severe moral code; we know this because they wrote it down at such length. But the existence of morally prescriptive texts hardly means that people behaved themselves; it just means that no irreverent or naturalist texts have survived to compete with the moral ones.

This disconnect can best be seen in Berdan's discussion of pulque, the fermented Aztec tipple that survives alongside its distilled post-contact derivative tequila. Aztecs made a lot of pulque, Berdan says, but they were too strict to drink much of it.

Cultural restrictions on the consumption of pulque must be kept in mind; because drunkenness was a serious offence, imbibing this fermented beverage was largely restricted to ritual settings and to the elderly. (141)
Or so it says in conduct manuals prepared by puritanical Aztecs. But I think that if Aztec temperance activists managed to keep the general population from breaking into the pulque supplies on a much more regular basis, that would constitute a unique chapter in the history of alcoholic beverages.

Berdan, Frances F. The Aztecs. London: Reaktion, 2021.