By the time of the arrival of the Spanish in central Mexico, many of the diverse ethnic civilizations (with the notable exception of the Tlaxcaltecs and the Purépecha Kingdom of Michoacán) were loosely joined under the Aztec Empire, the last Nahua civilization to flourish in Central Mexico. The capital of the empire, Tenochtitlan, became one of the largest urban centers in the world, with an estimated population of 350,000 inhabitants.
During the conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish conquistadors, vastly outnumbered by indigenous peoples, used the ethnic diversity of the country and exploited the discontentment of the subjugated groups, making important alliances with rivals of the Aztecs. While the alliances were decisive to the Europeans’ victory, the indigenous peoples were soon subjugated by an equally impressive empire. However, as the Spanish consolidated their rule in what became the viceroyalty of New Spain, the crown recognized the indigenous nobility in Mesoamerica as nobles and kept the existing basic structure of indigenous city-states. Indigenous communities were incorporated as communities under Spanish rule and with the indigenous power structure largely intact.
Social class refers to the hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups in societies or cultures. Normally, individuals are grouped into classes based on their economic positions and similar political and economic interests within their culture. The factors that determine class vary from one society to another. Aztec society was rigidly structured within social, political, and religious hierarchies.
Aztec society was composed of eight different social classes which were made up of rulers, warriors, nobility, priests and priestesses, free poor, slaves, servants, and the middle class. The most important of these were the tlatoani (rulers), warriors, nobility, and the high priests and priestesses. The lesser classes were composed of the free poor, slaves, servants, and the middle class.
A succession of less than a dozen rulers carried the Aztec people through from obscurity to empire-builders. The later rulers from 1440-1520 included Montezuma I, Axayacatl, Tizoc, Ahuitzotl, and Montezuma II. These men were all powerful leaders with multitudes of conquests. Each ruler contributed toward cultural works, such as the famous Aztec calendar, an aqueduct, and a ten-mile dike to control the waters of Lake Texcoco. It was the power of the Aztec rulers that contributed, ironically, to the rise and fall of the great Aztec Empire.
Aztec warriors were a select group of exceptionally brave young men, who were well trained in the use of weapons for use in combat, battle, and war. They were the military. Few Aztecs were as privileged as the military men and even young cadets had the respect of royalty and the priesthood. This career was made rewarding by rank, land, and good wages given by the emperor. Warriors of particular valor could enter fraternal orders which practiced various rituals and bestowed privileges. Eagle and Jaguar warriors were the elite and performed secret dances and received additional grants of land.
Rich and wealthy families of noble blood, well-bred and respected by the rest of society composed the nobility class. The nobles were firmly in control of society. They ran the government, owned the land, slaves, and servants. They also commanded the army. Power and wealth of Aztec nobility rested on control of land, labor, and tribute. There were three ranks of nobles. The tlatoani, or ruler; Tetecuhtin, the high lords and the Pipiltin who were the regular lords. Each had a different position in society. The nobles enjoyed great wealth and privileges which were rigidly specified by law. The net that held the Aztec empire together was its noble class – individuals of high birth who governed, administered, and reaped the greatest rewards from imperial expansion.
The life of an Aztec priest was very hard and uncomfortable even though they were treated as nobles and were very important to Aztec society. Aztec priests had many responsibilities including: watching the planets and stars to prophesize and sound the time, keeping track of eclipses and other planetary events, naming certain constellations, computing the movement of stars and planets for predictions of their future positions in the sky, reading the calendar, divining the incantations to the gods and horoscopes, divining horoscopes for newborns to see if their sign was lucky or not, and checking the horoscopes of engaged couples to see if they were compatible, making offerings and sacrifices to the gods, sacrificing victims on the sacrificial stone, and drawing blood.
The priests of Tlazolteotl heard confessions, went to war with the warriors to hear their confessions, and took the boys in training out into the dark on nightly walks to gather dangerous creatures. The life of an Aztec priestess was equally very hard and uncomfortable. Priestesses also performed many ceremonies, prayers, songs, incantations, and divinations in honor of the gods as well. Their responsibilities included reading the calendar and interpreting the Sacred Calendar, divining the incantations to the gods, reading horoscopes, and making sacrifices and offerings to the gods.
Although these people were poor and of a lower class than those who belonged to what we would call the aristocracy, there was one thing, however, that they did have, and that was their freedom. They did have their families and each other. It was not unheard of, though, for someone of the lower class to become a noble through bravery in the military service or even marriage. Their homes and their diets were simple. Two groups within this particular class were the fowlers who hunted waterfowl and the farmers who tilled the land.
Slaves were a class of people who were owned by the nobility and those of the merchant class who had amassed some wealth. Unlike the servants, they were considered property and could be sold repeatedly. A slave was the legal property of their master who could do whatever he wanted with them within certain limits because even slaves had certain rights. If slaves chose to marry, they could with their master’s permission, and any children they had were born free unless their spouse was also a slave. A slave could buy his or her freedom, or his master could write a letter releasing the slave from bondage.
Servants were people who, although the nobility owned them, were not considered to be property the way a slave was, for they were free to marry, and their children were born free. They could also own property, slaves, and even their own servants. However, they could be sold just as easily as slaves unless the owner had a document written freeing them from their bondage. They were also allowed to have businesses or trades of their own to support their families and themselves.
The middle class was one of the largest groups in Aztec society and mainly consisted of the accountants, lawmakers, merchants, quarriers, feather workers, potters, weavers, sculptors, painters, goldsmiths, and silversmiths.
The merchants or pochteca had their own guild and were very choosy and about who could join their ranks. They led a different lifestyle to those of other Aztecs for they lived in a separate area of the city, belonged to a merchant guild, had their own laws and judges, and worshipped their own god called Yacatecuhtli. His name means “the lord who guides” to whom they made offerings so that he would protect them on their dangerous journeys for trade. Through the merchants, the Aztecs could acquire goods needed through trade. Their children were only allowed to marry the children of other merchants in the guild. The pochteca went on very long, dangerous trading expeditions to all corners of the Aztec Empire. Some pochteca acted as spies reporting to Aztec generals about the wealth of other cities and the size of their armies.
Metal workers worked with gold, copper, and silver for they had no iron. These metals were used to make jewelry and religious objects. They came from the far reaches of the empire either as trade goods acquired by the pochteca or tribute. Goldsmiths and silversmiths first made a clay model of what they wanted to make, which they covered with beeswax and then coated with more clay. A small furnace which was heated by charcoal into which air was blown into through a metal tube was used to melt the metal. The molten metal was then poured into a hole in the top of the mold of the desired object, and the heat melted the wax which was replaced by the metal. After the mold was left to cool, the clay was then smashed leaving the finished metal object.
Feather workers had their own guild and they made many very beautiful objects, which have unfortunately almost all been destroyed. The most highly prized feathers came from the brilliant plumage of the Quetzal bird. There was a huge aviary in Tenochtitlan where three hundred workers cared for many thousands of brightly colored birds. As these birds molted, their feathers were collected, graded, and then taken to the feather workers.
The potters could make beautiful pottery to sell in the market place without using the potter’s wheel, which was at that time unknown in Mexico. They made very beautiful cups, statues, vases, and delicate bowls and plates that were sometimes inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones. These objects were very beautifully decorated with brilliant colored paints that were made from nature itself.
Originally, women wove and worked only for their families, but as chiefdoms and small kingdoms developed, the local rulers began to demand tribute (taxes), largely demanded in the form of cloth, which was manufactured almost exclusively by women. Then, as the Aztec culture and empire spread, people were forced to pay more and more in tribute to the Aztec leaders, which could be paid in labor or military service by men and in cloth and other goods by women. The women’s cloth was made from agave fibers and was in high demand as commoners were allowed nothing else to wear. As the politics of Aztec culture became more complex, the demand for tribute increased, and men began taking additional wives so that more cloth could be produced by more hands. Documentation suggests that this led to strained and poor relationships within the family compound. Female slavery also increases as the Aztec culture grows.
The Aztecs were always waging war, as they needed sacrificial victims, tribute, and slaves. Women slaves performed household tasks, especially weaving, freeing the Aztec women for other tasks. Female slaves were also used as concubines and mothered children who became slaves, too. Eventually the demand for cloth tribute became so high that men began to spin–the most female-identified task in ancient Mexico–as well. Women and men continued to make cloth until the colonial period when the Spanish built textile mills, forcing the men and not the women, because of their gender expectations, to work in cloth production.
Elizabeth Brumfield has studied the artifacts of weaving and cooking in and near the Aztec capital and has come to the conclusion that women adapted their weaving as the demand for more and more tribute increased; they changed spindle size and shapes and changed what and how they cooked in order to feed their families, who were in need of increasingly portable food, as they might labor away from home.
Apart from religious jobs, women in the Aztec empire could be merchants, who might organize and administer expeditions for trade–profiting from them–although it is not known if the women themselves could go on the trips. Women might also be venders in the market, as many artifacts show them selling food, cloth, and other items in the market. Women even held positions as official referees to resolve and trade disputes that arose in the marketplace.
Women also had positions as prostitutes and courtesans, but they do not seem to have been social outcasts. Margaret Arvey has shown that the Florentine Codex, a treatise on the ancient Aztecs, depicts the prostitutes negatively, from the perspective of the European mindset. In fact, the Aztec courtesans served young noble warriors and danced with them at ritual celebrations, suggesting that they had an elevated status in their own society. The Europeans criticized these women for bathing, painting their faces, and wearing brightly colored clothing, signs of a fallen European woman, rather than as behavior executed by all the Aztec women, whether prostitute or not.
Aztec women might also be curers or midwives. Although the Spanish tried to quell the religious parts of the midwives’ practices, believing it at best distracted from the one true Christian God and at worst that it was witchcraft, they were still impressed by the midwives’ skill. Documents from the Spanish accounts indicate that the women healers were more highly skilled than European doctors; however, as most accounts are written by elite Spanish men, they gloss over or do not describe at all the techniques that the women used. Thus, much of the cultural knowledge of these women was lost, especially as the Spanish began to repress the religion of the Aztecs and prosecute and persecute women healers as witches. Aztec medicines, made from native plants, are documented to have been able to bring on menstruation or to hasten labor. Aztec women may also have pioneered in prenatal care, as records indicate they began ministering to pregnant women in their seven months.
There is even evidence that at least one Aztec woman, likely a daughter of a noble family, was a scribe for an emperor. It is likely, too, that the noble Aztec women would have needed scribes and would have thus used females to act as their secretaries and bookkeepers.
Accounts of the conquest of Mexico have been based mainly upon the movements and actions of the Spanish and indigenous armies that fought each other from 1519 to 1521. From these narratives have sprouted testimonies of Spanish negotiations with tribal lords, battles, the securing of food and water, descriptions of Aztec towns and villages, sacrifice, and the treasure gained through either plundering or diplomacy. These tense times resulted in many women becoming bargaining tools or bearers and makers of the Spanish army’s food. They often appeared in lists. Hernán Cortés described a typical occurrence as a native lord presented him with “chicken, plums, tortillas, water and women”.
Women were also presented to captains and officers as wives – a means of securing faithful relationships between the Spanish and native realms. Naturally, the Spanish followed these Mesoamerican customs, allowing women to prepare their food, receiving them as slaves, or accepting them as spouses, whilst they were not able to do otherwise. Nevertheless, we know that power has also been secured all over the world through marriage alliances.
The terrible social chaos caused by the conquest showed great aggression towards Aztec women. Although rape and plunder seem to have always been the companions of war, it is important to note that the central highlands had not seen such wide-scale and all-inclusive conflict at one time.
A Spanish soldier, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recounted how, when attacking villages or cities, women were ‘taken’ by him or his Spanish companions. He recalled how sorry he felt when particularly brutal men mistreated some of them. It is also important to remember that the Spanish army, at its peak, numbered thousands of men. Native warriors such as the Tlaxcalans were also guilty of attacking Aztec women.
Nahua society lived by a myriad of social and ethical rules just like the sixteenth century Spanish did. One of their most important cultural customs was the worship of their ancestors. A Nahua must be honorable and good so that he or she could give their future generations a strong reputation and standing in society, as well as to uphold the dignity and past good estimation of their ancestors. Many codices, such as the Florentine Codex, speak on the theme of honoring one’s ancestors.
Many women who had been taken away from their families during the wars of the conquest felt that they had shamed their ancestors and loved ones and chose not to return to them, sometimes preferring suicide to acquainting their families with their shame.
One might say that the conquest had a great impact on those Nahua women who were unfortunate enough to be separated from their families by the Spanish and their allies.br Other women lost their husbands and sons in battle and were therefore unable to maintain the equilibrium of household and farming duties needed to keep food on the table. The loss of this simple infrastructure cast many of them into abject poverty. They may have even lost their homes or fallen ill. A Spanish soldier, member of a later fleet sent to Mexico under the control of Captain Narváez, brought the smallpox virus to Mexico when he landed in Veracruz. Smallpox epidemics soon started to kill a large portion of the Mexican population and even preceded the conquistadors into South America. The emperor Cuitláhuac, for example, died from smallpox just a few months after he rose to power in 1520.
Law governed every aspect of the person’s life from birth to death. It covered criminal behavior, divorce, and land ownership. Although the laws covered the whole empire, they varied from place to place. The laws were designed to protect the class system that prevailed throughout the empire.
The Aztecs had three types of Law Courts: local courts, the Teccalco court in Tenochtitlan, and the High Courts at the Emperor’s palace. In the local courts, only minor cases were dealt with, and senior warriors acted as judges while the Teccalco court dealt with the more serious crimes and were led by experienced judges. The most serious cases and those involving nobles were heard by the High Courts at the Emperor’s palace.
The Court of Appeal was held in the city of Texcoco and was made up of twelve judges and was held every twelve days under the presidency of the king of Texcoco to decide the most difficult cases. No case could last for more than eighty days, and these judges sat from dawn to sunset and were liable to death if a bribe was taken or accepted.
A trial was brought when a crime had taken place and the criminal had been charged with a date being set for the trial. The criminal was held in the cuauhcalli without food or drink until the trial started. Achcacauhtin or officers of the law were charged with carrying out the sentence of the court.
(To be developed)