Illustration from the Codex Mendoza of the founding of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan

Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University

The founding of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan; illustration from the Codex Mendoza, circa 1541

Of books on Spain’s conquest of Mexico there is apparently no end. From William H. Prescott in the nineteenth century to Hugh Thomas in the late twentieth, the encounter of Hernán Cortés and the emperor Moctezuma in 1519 and the subsequent overthrow of the Aztec empire have been endlessly recounted. Not surprisingly, the narratives, as the work of Anglo-American and European historians, have been written from a Western perspective and convey, openly or implicitly, a triumphalist message. The European world, after all, was victorious over the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and it is the victors who write the histories. Almost inevitably they tend to explain that success as an expression of the West’s moral, spiritual, and technological superiority over “barbarous” or “undeveloped” civilizations.

There has always been a subcurrent of historical writing, however, that attempts to understand the indigenous societies themselves rather than seek explanations for their downfall. Jacques Soustelle was an early pioneer of this approach in La vie quotidienne des Aztèques (1955), as was the Mexican historian Miguel Léon-Portilla, the title of whose book Visión de los vencidos (The Vision of the Vanquished, 1959) has left an enduring legacy.1 The inherent danger in this approach is that it lends itself too easily to the transformation of the vanquished into victims.

As the process of decolonization swept the globe in the decades after World War II and the long-established triumphalism of the Western powers waned, guilt-ridden historians began to rewrite the history of the vanquished as the history of victims permanently traumatized and scarred by the predatory rapaciousness of their colonial masters. Some historians, however, took umbrage at the notion that colonized and subsequently liberated populations were passive victims and instead portrayed them, in a manner befitting the postcolonial age, as the agents of their own destiny. In their view, only through a close investigation of these downtrodden peoples’ capacity for resistance and long-term survival could their histories be fully appreciated.

The transformation of victims into agents has in many respects proved very fruitful. If such peoples refused to accept the fate prescribed by Westerners and chose instead to resist, their means of resistance called for closer historical scrutiny than they were customarily accorded. Anthropology, ethnohistory, archaeology, and the history of art and literature all needed to be brought into play. Every artifact, such as a religious image or a decorated ceramic bowl, has a story to tell. This new interdisciplinary approach helped to enrich a story that in the past was too frequently depicted in monochrome. But enrichment by its nature creates new levels of complexity, and this in turn gives rise to new historical problems that are not easily solved.

One such problem is the identification and interpretation of different types of resistance, especially challenging when, as so often happens, the resistance is clandestine and subversive. In the case of the Americas the task is made all the harder by the widespread destruction of codices—colorful pictorial images painted on animal hide or on paper made from the maguey plant—by Spaniards determined to wipe out paganism and convert the peoples of the New World to Christianity. Book-burning was at its worst in the Maya region of Mesoamerica, where only four preconquest codices survived, but everywhere in central Mexico preconquest texts were destroyed on an enormous scale.

In spite of the destruction, however, many did survive, although frequently in an altered form. Preconquest Nahua record-keeping was simultaneously visual and oral, with colored pictures accompanied and explained by a memorized oral presentation.2 After the conquest some codices and texts were glossed with revisions and marginal notes in the hands of scribes using the Roman alphabet. Others lie half-buried in postconquest chronicles and codices written by members of a disappearing generation who could still remember what life was like before the arrival of the Spaniards. Still others were written by Hispanized and Christianized members of the first and second postconquest generations keen to discover the world of their ancestors, or produced at the request of friars and clerics who had come to realize that genuine conversion could not be achieved without a more informed understanding of the indigenous beliefs and rituals they hoped to eradicate.

Possibly the most famous of these postconquest codices are the Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex. The first seems likely to have been commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza, from 1535 to 1549 the first viceroy of Mexico, or New Spain, as it was christened by Cortés, and intended as a gift for the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. It was written around 1541 in Nahuatl by scribes and artists working in the Franciscan College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco under the supervision of Spanish friars and clerics, and consisted of pictograms together with explanations in Spanish of the images and the Nahuatl text. Essentially it was a history of the Mexica from 1325 to 1521, chronicling the conquests of each ruler. It included tribute lists and ended with a final section depicting preconquest Mexica society and daily life.


Before reaching Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1659 it passed through a series of hair-raising adventures. The fleet in which it was being sent to Spain was attacked by French privateers. Taken to France, it was acquired by the royal cosmographer André Thevet. He sold it to Richard Hakluyt the younger, who was collecting material for his account of European overseas voyages. Around 1615 it came into the possession of Samuel Purchas, the author of Purchas his Pilgrimes. Once it reached the Bodleian it languished in obscurity until it was published by Viscount Kingsborough in 1831.

The Florentine Codex was the result of an encyclopedic project and consisted of twelve books heavily based on pre-Spanish pictorial sources. Designed and supervised in the 1550s by the great Franciscan scholar Bernardino de Sahagún, it was abruptly terminated by royal order some twenty years later in the polarized religious environment created by the European movement for the reform of the Roman Catholic Church that was unleashed by the Council of Trent. With its text in Nahuatl and its many colored images, the codex recounted the history of fifteenth-century Aztec wars of conquest against neighboring city-states and was designed to serve as a permanent record of Mexica-Aztec culture. The final book is famous for its vivid account of the Spanish invasion and conquest. Generations of historians have drawn on this book as a primary source that enables them to gain entry to the preconquest indigenous world and helps to counterbalance the account of it in the notoriously self-serving letters of Cortés to Charles V.

However, the fact that the Florentine Codex was a joint production of indigenous Americans and mixed-race mestizos on the one hand and Spaniards or American-born creoles on the other makes it a questionable source. Scribes and compilers of Native American and European origins came from very different backgrounds and had very different goals. How far, then, do the Florentine Codex and other postconquest codices and chronicles of a similar nature allow us to recover a genuine vision of the vanquished? In recent years historians aware of the gravity of this challenge have come to believe that the solution is essentially linguistic. Knowledge of the Nahuatl language would allow them to tease out the original meaning of mistranslated or misinterpreted texts.

A number of enterprising scholars therefore decided to immerse themselves in the study of Nahuatl, which is still spoken by some two million Mexicans. In Mexico Miguel León-Portilla was a pioneer in the study, interpretation, and teaching of Nahuatl texts. In the United States James Lockhart, who spent most of his academic career at UCLA, was enormously influential in teaching and mentoring several generations of future Nahuatl scholars. After producing two major books on the Spanish conquest of Peru, he dramatically changed direction in the mid-1970s, dissatisfied with the failure of historians of Latin America to see the story of conquest and colonization from the standpoint of its indigenous peoples, and turned to Mexico, with its relative abundance of written sources, to see what could be discovered from a close reading of Nahuatl texts.

Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun and Frances Berdan’s The Aztecs are by scholars closely associated with Lockhart, and Berdan was a coeditor of Lockhart’s Beyond the Codices (1976), a compilation of translated postconquest Nahuatl documents. Both have important books to their credit: Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004) and Annals of Native America (2016), Berdan’s Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory (2014), as well as Everyday Life in the Aztec World (2020), written in collaboration with Michael E. Smith. Both have long experience of Nahua records, both write with style and verve, and both start with the point that, in the words of Berdan, “the [Aztec] empire may have been lost, but it has not disappeared from view. It is still discoverable.”

This conviction is one of several similarities between the two books—similarities that make comparing them especially fascinating. Both are engaged in the enterprise of relating preconquest to postconquest Mexico and Central America for the benefit of readers unaccustomed to seeing this history written from a non-European perspective. Both look to Nahuatl texts to provide this perspective. Berdan’s Aztecs is more of a general survey, but one based on a lifetime of research and study. Townsend’s Fifth Sun, by contrast, is subtitled “A New History,” intended to suggest the novelty of an approach based on the deployment of codices, chronicles, and tax records originating in different parts of the central Mexican basin, many of them written, transcribed, or altered in the late sixteenth or seventeenth century. (The novelty is not in fact as great as she tends to suggest, and both she and Berdan might have been more generous in their acknowledgment of the pioneering work of predecessors like León-Portilla and Soustelle.) In an extensive appendix she lists and describes her primary sources, among which, in addition to the Florentine Codex, the Annals of Tlatelolco and the Annals of Cuauhtitlan are especially important, and she gives additional help to her readers by spelling out Nahuatl names and providing guidance on their pronunciation. Her book, therefore, for all its erudition, is as accessible in its way as that of Berdan, although, because of its close reliance on the sources, rather more demanding.


One difference that immediately stands out is the amount of space each devotes to the Spanish conquest. Berdan’s book opens with a relatively short chapter on the reactions of the Spaniards to their first sight of the island city of Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco. Built by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica at the end of many years of wandering and fighting as they slowly moved down from the far north of Mesoamerica, it became in the fifteenth century the capital of what has come since the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be known as the Aztec Empire, although in reality it was for most of its existence less an empire than a confederation of allied or subjugated city-states.

It was in Tenochtitlan that Cortés, informed and advised by his indigenous translator and concubine Malinche, or Doña Marina as she was known to the Spaniards, came face to face with the “emperor” Moctezuma. Known by his own people as the tlatoani (“the one who speaks”), Moctezuma was a nominally elected dynastic ruler. Governing his expanding dominions with an iron hand, he struck fear among his subjects and other ethnic groups and peoples who were not technically his subjects but of whom he made incessant demands for tribute in the form of exotic foodstuffs from the coast and outlying regions to the south, along with blankets, featherwork, and other luxury items highly prized in his capital. After this brief opening chapter Berdan goes on to describe who the Aztecs were and how they came to build an empire. She then surveys their customs, beliefs, and lifestyles and assesses the degree to which they survived the centuries of colonial rule.3

Whereas Berdan begins her book with the arrival of the Spaniards, Townsend builds to a much fuller account of the Spanish conquest and the adaptation of the Mexica to the imposition of alien rule. As both authors demonstrate, the reasons for the rapidity of the collapse of Moctezuma’s empire cannot be properly understood unless they are placed in the historical setting of the Aztec-Mexica past and the events of 1519. The “Fifth Sun” of Townsend’s title marked the end of the fifth age in the fifty-two-year Mesoamerican calendar. It demanded special ceremonies and rituals, including human sacrifices, in honor of the gods. Unless they were propitiated, catastrophe would follow and the world would end.

The year of the Fifth Sun in the Julian calendar was 1519, the year when Cortés and his band made their entry into Tenochtitlan. They were accompanied and guarded by large numbers of indigenous allies, among them warriors from the unconquered city-state of Tlaxcala, for whom this was an opportunity to throw off the hated Aztec-Mexica yoke. The coincidence of the advent of the year of the Fifth Sun and the advent of the Spaniards has dominated Western accounts of the conquest, which portray a society condemned to defeat by its calendar-dominated fatalism and assert that Moctezuma capitulated so readily because he was terrified by a succession of strange omens in the years before the first appearance of the Spaniards.

Specialists have long dismissed the story of the omens, just as they have dismissed the belief that the Aztecs welcomed the Spaniards as gods returning from the east in accordance with prophecy. On the contrary, Moctezuma emerges from the pages of these scholarly works, notably Townsend’s, as a profoundly confident man consumed by curiosity. The Mexica had fashioned a narrative of their own history as a history of battles lost and won against aggressive neighbors. The Spaniards were simply another band of opponents who, although armed with unusual weapons and riding deerlike quadrupeds, could easily be seen off. Failing this they could, if necessary, be bought off once their demands—in this instance, gold—were satisfied. Moctezuma could not have known that they would be followed by wave after wave of their compatriots.

The Aztec emperor Moctezuma; detail from the Codex Mendoza

Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University

The Aztec emperor Moctezuma; detail from the Codex Mendoza

Berdan and Townsend are at pains to emphasize the flexibility and adaptability of the Aztecs both before and after the Spanish conquest, which they point to as crucial to the long-term survival of so many features of the preconquest society. The history of the Mexica was a history of conquest, but it was also a history of their assimilation of the beliefs of other peoples whom they encountered on their southward journey. They deliberately sought, too, to connect themselves with the past. Veneration of previous civilizations, and especially that of the metropolis of Teotihuacan, which was in ruins when they reached it in the thirteenth century, helped to legitimize their rule of other peoples. This capacity to adapt and assimilate served them well in the postconquest centuries. They took what they felt they needed from the Spaniards, including their superior technology and above all the Spanish version of Christianity, from which they selected or modified those aspects that filled a spiritual vacuum.

But it is reasonable to ask whether texts dating from the era of Spanish colonization give a true picture of that earlier society. It is not only a question of the extent to which they were rewritten by Spaniards, mestizos, and new generations of indigenous Americans who transcribed and exploited them for their own purposes. Both Berdan and Townsend are well aware of this hazard, but their immersion in Nahuatl sources may have taken them too far in the opposite direction. In their laudable attempt to redress the balance of centuries of Western-dominated historiography, Berdan and Townsend, who have worked so hard to gain entry into the mental, ritual, and environmental worlds of the Aztecs, may at times exaggerate those characteristics of their civilization that make it so attractive to modern eyes, like their social self-discipline and respect for women, and underplay some of its more horrific features. Prominent among these are human sacrifice and the bloody rituals that accompanied it.

It is ironic that while Townsend subtitles her book “A New History” because of its sustained attempt to narrate Mesoamerican history from an indigenous viewpoint, Fernando Cervantes chose the same phrase for the subtitle of his most recent book, Conquistadores. But whereas she is fighting the dominance of Western narratives, he is fighting what he sees as the currently fashionable historiography represented by scholars like Townsend, whose approach is suffused with sympathy for the victims of Spanish oppression and their struggle for survival.

Conquistadores is a book that will elicit admiration and indignation in equal measure. Mexican by origin, Cervantes is a historian and literary specialist who has spent most of his academic and teaching career at the University of Bristol. His primary interest is in the religious and cultural history of the Hispanic world, and the best known of his previous books is his impressive The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain (1994), which extends well beyond its title to embrace theological arguments on both sides of the Spanish Atlantic and the responses of Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of America to the unprecedented challenges created by their encounter.

Conquistadores is a considerably more ambitious book. It aims to tell the story of the Spanish conquest not only of Mexico but of the entire southern half of the American hemisphere from the time of the fifteenth-century Atlantic discoveries to the overthrow of the Inca Empire in the 1530s and the expeditions that took Spanish would-be conquistadors into northern regions that now form part of the United States. It does this with enviable clarity and succinctness, and displays a remarkable command of a vast literature that includes primary as well as secondary sources. Despite its more controversial features and in part because of them, this is the book that readers interested in the Hispanic conquest of America will turn to for a long time to come.

It is not just a frequently spellbinding narrative history, but one with a powerful underlying theme that suggests similarities between it and the books of Berdan and Townsend, even if none of the three might care to recognize them. The fundamental preoccupation of all three is the problem of survival: To what extent did preconquest Aztec society survive the rupture of conquest? For Cervantes the nature of the survival is rather different but has similar implications. In the first instance there is the matter of the survival of the conquistadors themselves. Within two or three generations many conquistador families were extinct, but others, intermarried with new settlers from Spain, became part of the property-owning elite that dominated Hispanic-American society well into the twentieth century. But there was another survival that interests him more: that of the pluralist and highly religious polity from which the conquistadors came and which, with local variations, successfully established itself on American soil.

Spain was a late-fifteenth-century creation brought about by the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. New territorial acquisitions in the sixteenth century were added under arrangements similar to those devised for the original union. Each territory, although henceforth to be governed by the Spanish monarch, would keep its own laws, customs, and language. This system of government, which required continual negotiation between kingdoms and provinces and the central government in Madrid, survived, with some battering, until the extinction of the male line of the Spanish Habsburgs in 1700. The new Bourbon dynasty brought to Spain French notions of centralization that its monarchs largely succeeded in implanting in the peninsula, but in the American viceroyalties the traditional system still functioned, at least in practice, until the coming of independence in the early nineteenth century.

This continuity in the functioning of the pre-Bourbon style of government is important to Cervantes, who is combating the conviction, still widely held in the Anglo-American world, that Spanish government, both at home and overseas, was dictatorial and obscurantist, and that the independence movements finally put an end to centuries of tyranny and economic stagnation. This belief fails, in his view, to recognize the fundamentally transactional character of the Spanish system of government for much of its existence, and it is infused with anachronistic nineteenth-century concepts of the predestined triumph of the nation-state. He shows, correctly in my view, that the concept of empire was far more important than any notion of national sovereignty in the early sixteenth century, and that empire was itself no more than a stepping-stone on the road to universal monarchy. Charles V and then Philip II and his Spanish Habsburg successors saw themselves as chosen by Providence to sustain the privilege and the burden of this sacred global mission, which would eventually culminate in the conversion of the entire human race to Christianity.

This, then, was to be a “Catholic Monarchy,” an alternative name for Spain and its imperial possessions, which were known as the Spanish Monarchy, the Monarquía Española, by contemporary adherents and well-wishers. The Monarchy’s claim to universality was contested from the beginning by its European rivals, and although the claim remained the same through the centuries, in practice there were inevitably variations as circumstances changed. By emphasizing the leitmotif of the defense of a set of transcendental spiritual values running through the course of Spain’s history, Cervantes runs the risk of being branded as a reactionary historian whose Conquistadores is a throwback to a simplistic image of Hispanic civilization with religion at its heart. But this ignores the richness and subtlety of his approach. He leaves his readers in no doubt about the brutality and ruthlessness of the conquistadors and the hypocrisy of many of them in using the vocabulary of religion as a cover for greed and personal gain. At the same time the sheer length of his list of primary printed sources reveals the extent of his determination to recapture the vision of the vanquished.

Yet what has been called the “continuity thesis” is a challenge for Cervantes, as it is for Berdan and Townsend. How far is there real continuity between the age of the conquistadors and the seventeenth century, with its civilization of the Baroque, or between the age of the Baroque and the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment? Or are the breaks and ruptures more important in the long perspective of time than any assumed continuity? The same question remains valid for the history of Aztec civilization, where the rupture brought about by the Spanish conquest looks to be far more significant than any rupture in Hispanic civilization before the Napoleonic invasion. Berdan and Townsend are anxious to see continuity where others are more inclined to see extinction, or at least profoundly transformative change. Their immersion in Aztec sources has given them the confidence to challenge the hegemony of a narrative dominated by Western historiography. But are those sources, and their reading of them, as reliable as they would have us believe? The origins of the sources, and the purposes for which so many of them were conceived, may well sow the seeds of doubt.

Is there any way out of the resulting impasse? Although Berdan and Townsend both reproduce images from the codices in their books, the evidence they adduce is overwhelmingly based on written texts. Nahuatl record-keeping was both visual and oral—colorful iconic signs or glyphs whose meaning was explained and communicated to audiences by scribes reciting from memory. But this form of presentation has been largely set aside by historians unable to recover the messages that the pictures transmitted. Now, for the first time, the Australian historian Gordon Whittaker, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Göttingen, has shown in Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs that mastering them is not an impossible undertaking after all.

It is an undertaking that became a lifelong obsession for him from the age of sixteen, when he first saw a hand-painted reproduction of the Codex Mendoza in a copy of Viscount Kingsborough’s nine-volume Antiquities of Mexico. The result is what he describes as “the first book ever written on the writing system of the Aztec Empire, and indeed of Nahuatl writing as a whole.” Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs is an exceptionally handsome volume, illustrated with a myriad of Nahuatl signs and symbols reproduced in brilliant colors and judiciously distributed across its pages.

Whittaker writes with precision and wit, and through the cunning deployment of dry humor he does all he can to convey his enthusiasm for the subject. He even gives his readers exercises at the end of each chapter to teach them how to understand and interpret the glyphs. Looking, for instance, at the famous painted leaf of the Codex Mendoza depicting at its center the patron god of the Mexica coming to rest on a cactus in the middle of Lake Texcoco, the site of their future capital of Tenochtitlan, he tells us that an eagle has replaced the hummingbird of the myth. The human figures that surround it turn out to be a dual-function glyphic compound recording both the predynastic and dynastic names of the future city (see illustration at beginning of article). But readers should be warned that this is not a book for the fainthearted, and that they will need all the patience and persistence at their command if they are to progress beyond the first rudimentary stages. I failed at the first hurdle and decided that I lacked the kind of puzzle-solving mentality required. Perhaps, like Whittaker, I should have started at the age of sixteen.

None of this detracts from the importance of Whittaker’s work. He has provided what appears to be a new and largely untried method of entry into the world of the codices, and with it into Aztec history both before and after the conquest. His work, like that of all good historians—and Cervantes, Berdan, and Townsend are of their number—raises many more important questions than it answers. But no history, whether of the Aztec, the Spanish, or any other empire, can be definitive. The sheer complexity of the past defies neat categorization, and each new generation will discover for itself those aspects of earlier ages that respond most closely to their own preoccupations and concerns, and those of the times in which they live.