Historians know a great deal about the Spanish colony established in Mexico after the “discovery” and overthrow of the Aztec Empire in the sixteenth century. Much less is known, however, about the Aztecs (a.k.a. Mexica) themselves and the populations who fell under their control prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. This is the product of several factors, two of which are particularly important. First, after the Aztecs came to power they ordered the destruction of codices (pictographic books) containing the histories of the people they conquered. This, they thought, would enable them to determine how their own history would be remembered, since differing accounts of their past would be eliminated. Second, the Spanish ordered the mass burning of Aztec codices, believing that they reflected pagan thought and the work of the Devil. This decision led to the almost complete elimination of pre-colonial, first-hand accounts of Aztec history compiled by the Aztecs themselves. Faced with these constraints, historians have turned to a variety of other sources to reconstruct the Aztec past. These include archaeological findings, visual media, and texts compiled in the early Spanish colonial period, often by indigenous peoples through the mediation of Spanish priests. The materials on which we depend for reconstructing Aztec history thus raise important questions about the reliability of historical knowledge and memory.
In this course, we will use this question of “how to write the history of the Aztecs” as the main problem guiding our work. We will focus, in particular, on how modern-day historians have interpreted primary source materials of various kinds to expand and rethink our understanding of the Aztec past. Our discussions, however, will also engage a related set of issues concerning the first century after the Spanish invasion and settlement of Mexico. We will question and problematize the nature of Spanish colonial rule, asking how the Spanish and surviving indigenous peoples reshaped memories of the Aztecs. In doing so, we will examine how historical actors engaged in historical thinking while discovering what colonial society can (and cannot) tell us about the region’s pre-colonial past.
We will pursue these questions as a means to gain a better understanding of the methodology and practice of history. Many of our discussions will focus on what questions historians ask when they write about this period, how these questions have changed in more recent works, and how historians use various types of evidence to answer these questions. As we shall see, this last point proves particularly fascinating in the case of pre-colonial and early colonial Latin American history because document sources are fewer in number for this period than for others, forcing scholars to approach sources in innovative ways.