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Article suitable for older students

Dr. Leonardo López Luján

Question for November 2015

Were children allowed to go to the market by themselves? Asked by St. Neot’s Prep School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Leonardo López Luján.

Pic 1: Detail from folio 57v of the Codex Mendoza
Pic 1: Detail from folio 57v of the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

The answer, both in words and pictures, to this superb question can be found in folio 57v of the famous Mexica (Aztec) Codex Mendoza, a treasure now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
In the lower corner of this page [a detail from which is shown in Picture 1] appears a father with his two sons. He sits behind them in the traditional male position, and from his mouth comes a speech mark to show that he’s talking to them. We know both boys are six years old, as the same number of blue coloured circles (the sign for years) is shown above their heads. The boys are crouching down, gathering objects from the ground: the boy above holds in his right hand a delicious prickly pear (cactus fruit) known as nopal. The other boy is picking up, one by one, grains of maize which he gathers in a pottery dish held in his left hand. Opposite the first boy is a strange wheel with small circles inside it - the symbol for a market. Opposite the other boy are one-and-a-half tortillas, the daily ration for a child of that age.

Pic 2: Tlohtli arrives by canoe with his dad at Tlatelolco market
Pic 2: Tlohtli arrives by canoe with his dad at Tlatelolco market (Click on image to enlarge)

Now let’s see what the scribe wrote, in Spanish, on the previous folio (page): we benefit here from the translation of the Codex into English made by two brilliant specialists, Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt:-
’The fourth part shows the parents of six-year-old children. They instructed and engaged them in personal services, from which the parents benefited, like, for the boys, [collecting] maize that has been spilled in the market place, and beans and other miserable things that the traders left scattered... The ration they gave the childen at each meal was one and a half tortillas.’
Historical sources don’t give us any more information on the role or presence of children in markets, but we can easily imagine them running hither and thither through the passageways. Many years ago I wrote a book for children telling the story of little Tlohtli (‘Sparrowhawk’) and the trip he embarks on to visit the island of Tenochtitlan. He is amazed by what he finds in the market there. This is the relevant passage from the book:-

Pic 3: One of the market stalls selling grains
Pic 3: One of the market stalls selling grains (Click on image to enlarge)

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the market, Tlohtli and his dad tied up their canoe and carried their basket loads of maize to the houses where market sellers slept. They went to bed early to rest: in the morning they would have to be up long before dawn.
Hours later, still sleepy and in darkness, they set off for the market. Tlohtli had never imagined such huge buildings. Like every day at this time, the market traders could be found setting up their stalls. The first step was for Tlohtli’s dad to find the right place to set up his own. He couldn’t do this at random, as everything was organised according to the type of goods being sold. For example, gold and silver traders were all in one section. When at last they found the area marked out for the sale of maize, beans, chía and other grains, Tlohtli and his dad laid out a huge ‘petate’ (reed mat) on which they laid out their wares. Moments later an official arrived to charge them the due fee for the stall.

Pic 4: Tlohtli is amazed at the range of products on sale in the market...
Pic 4: Tlohtli is amazed at the range of products on sale in the market... (Click on image to enlarge)

Gradually customers began to arrive at the stall, paying for the maize grown by Tlohtli’s family on the ‘chinampas’ [so-called ‘floating gardens’ where the Aztecs farmed] with cocoa beans. With these Tlohtli could later buy the salt, honey, rope and other products requested by his mum. Tlohtli was curious to explore the market and asked his dad’s permission to go off on a ramble.
’Go, but be careful not to get lost nor to be a nuisance to anyone.’
Off he went to wander amongst the market stalls.
The market was a vast multicoloured square, where you could buy an incredible range of products: from flowers with subtle aromas to human poo [used as fertilizer], and from a bundle of coarse yarn to the finest cotton cape. First Tlohtli spotted beautiful birds’ feathers; thread and cotton clothes; paper, rugs and sandals. Further on he found stalls selling vegetables and herbs; honey and sweet titbits; firewood, planks and furniture; blades and obsidian knives; fish and meat and many other things besides...

Pic 5: Tlohtli plays with a puppy for sale
Pic 5: Tlohtli plays with a puppy for sale (Click on image to enlarge)

On his wanderings Tlohtli came across people bartering in languages he had never heard before, that sounded to him like tongue-twisters. He was fascinated by the turkeys, rabbits and puppies for sale. Just as he was playing with one of the puppies, two policemen passed by leading a thief they had just caught to be tried at the market court. Tlothli stood up, scared by all the insults the market sellers shouted out at the thief. Before he realised it, he had taken a few steps backwards and fallen onto a stall selling pots, breaking one into dozens of pieces.
Now Tlohtli was the one running with fright, fearing he’d committed a crime and that he would end up being hauled away like the thief. Luckily he managed to hide by one of the many gates round the outside of the market. He hid in a dark storehouse, behind sacks of beans, where he stayed till he thought the danger had passed.

Pic 6: A youth is held and put up for sale in a wooden collar
Pic 6: A youth is held and put up for sale in a wooden collar (Click on image to enlarge)

Still scared, Tlohtli began again to explore the market. He walked and walked, passing, among other things, by a hairdresser’s stand, where long-distance traders had their hair cut. Further on he came across a most unusual stand, at which he saw men with wooden collars being offered for sale. These apparently were youths who had committed crimes being sold as slaves to the highest bidder.
Soon Tlohtli began to feel hungry and he turned to buy a ‘tamal’ [ground corn and meat wrapped in a maize leaf] from a lady walking round the market calling out her wares. He sat down to eat at the main entrance to the market, and as he wolfed down the food he began to think seriously of exploring further afield around the centre of Tenochtitlan...

Pic 7: Tlohtli runs off to find somewhere to hide...
Pic 7: Tlohtli runs off to find somewhere to hide... (Click on image to enlarge)

En el folio 57v del famoso Codex Mendoza, una antigua pictografía mexica que hoy se atesora en The Bodleian Library de la ciudad de Oxford, podemos encontrar en texto y en imagen la respuesta a esta magnífica pregunta.
En la esquina inferior de este folio, aparece un padre con sus dos hijos. El padre está sentado atrás de ellos en la típica posición masculina y de su boca sale una pequeña vírgula que señala que les está hablando. Sabemos que los dos niños tienen una edad seis años, puesto que hay un número igual de círculos azules (el color del año) sobre sus cabezas. Los niños están agachados, recogiendo extraños objetos: el de arriba tiene una tuna en la mano derecha, es decir, la deliciosa fruta del cactus conocido como nopal. El otro niño levanta uno a uno varios granos de maíz y los deposita en un plato de cerámica que sujeta con la mano izquierda. Frente al primer niño hay una extraña rueda con pequeños círculos en el interior, la cual era el símbolo de los mercados. Frente al segundo niño vemos la imagen de una y media tortillas de maíz, que significa la ración indicada de alimento para los niños de esa edad.
Veamos ahora qué redactó el tlacuilo o escribano en español en el folio anterior, esto en español, pero valiéndonos de la traducción al inglés que han hecho dos brillantes especialistas llamadas Frances Berdan y Patricia Anawalt:
”The fourth part shows the parents of six-year-old children. They instructed and engaged them in personal servies, fro which the parents benefited, like, for the boys, [collecting] maize that has been spilled in themarket place, and beans and other miserable things that the traders eft scattered.... The ration they gave the childen at each meal was one and a half tortillas.”
Las fuentes históricas no nos dicen más sobre la presencia de niños en los mercados, pero podemos imaginar perfectamente a muchos de ellos corriendo por sus pasillos. Hace muchos años escribí un libro para niños que trataba sobre el pequeño Tlohtli (“Gavilán”) y la visita que hizo a la isla de Tenochtitlan. Ahí fue a visitar el mercado, donde quedó maravillado. Aquí transcribo ese pasaje de mi cuento:-

Enmedio del bullicio de la gente, Tlohtli y su papá amarraron la canoa y cargaron los canastos de maíz hasta las casas donde dormían los vendedores del mercado. Se acostaron temprano para reponer fuerzas: tendrían que levantarse mucho antes de que saliera el Sol.
Horas más tarde, todavía a oscuras y somnolientos, se dirigieron al mercado. Tlohtli nunca imaginó que el edificio fuera tan grande. Como todos los días a esa hora, los vendedores se encontraban montando sus puestos. En un principio, el papá de Tlohtli buscó el lugar para establecer el suyo. No podía hacerlo en cualquier parte ya que todo estaba organizado de acuerdo con el tipo de mercancía. Así por ejemplo, estaban juntos quienes comerciaban con oro y plata. Cuando por fin encontraron el lugar donde se vendía maíz, frijol, chía y otros granos, Tlohtli y su papá extendieron un gran petate y sobre él colocaron su mercancía. Momentos después llegó un funcionario a cobrarles por el lugar que estaban ocupando.
Poco a poco los clientes llegaban al puesto y se llevaban el maíz de sus chinampas a cambio de granos de cacao con los cuales Tlohtli podría comprar más tarde la sal, la miel, las cuerdas y los demás encargos de su mamá.
Tlohtli tuvo curiosidad de conocer el mercado y le preguntó a su papá si podía dar un paseo.
-Ve, pero ten cuidado de no perderte o de causar algún problema.
Entonces se dedicó a caminar entre los puestos.
El mercado era una plaza multicolor en la que se podía comprar una increíble variedad de productos: desde una flor de sutiles aromas hasta heces humanas y desde una madeja de hilo burdo hasta una finísima capa de algodón. Tlohtli observó en un principio plumas de bellas aves; hilo y ropa de algodón; papel, mantas y sandalias. Más adelante encontró puestos de legumbres y hierbas; de sal; de miel y golosinas; de leña, madera y muebles; de navajas y cuchillos de obsidiana; de pescado, de carne y de muchas cosas más.
En su recorrido Tlohtli se topó con personas que regateaban en idiomas que él desconocía y que le sonaban a trabalenguas. Además le llamó mucho la atención la venta de guajolotes, conejos y perritos vivos. En el momento en que Tlohtli jugaba con uno de los perritos, pasaron rumbo al tribunal un par de soldados que habían apresado a un ladrón. Tlohtli se puso de pie, espantado por los insultos que la gente gritaba al ladrón. Sin darse cuenta, dio unos pasos atrás y cayó sobre el puesto de las ollas, rompiendo una de ellas en cuatrocientos pedazos.
Ahora Tlohtli era el que corría asustado, creyendo haber cometido un verdadero delito y temiendo sufrir la misma suerte que el ladrón. Por fortuna logró esconderse en uno de los portales que rodeaban la plaza. Se ocultó en una oscura bodega, atrás de unos sacos de frijol. Permació allí hasta que juzgó que el peligro había desaparecido.
Aún temeroso, Tlohtli reanudó su visita por el mercado. Caminó y caminó, pasando, entre otros lugares, por una peluquería donde afeitaban a algunos comerciantes recién llegados de tierras lejanas. Más adelante encontró un puesto con una mercancía muy particular: hombres con collares de palo. Se trataba de delincuentes que eran vendidos como esclavos al mejor postor.
Tlohtli sintió de repente un hueco en el estómago y fue enseguida a comprar un tamal con una señora que deambulaba anunciando a voces su mercancía. Se sentó a comer en la entrada del mercado y, mientras engullía el tamal a grandes mordidas, se le ocurrió ir más allá de esa puerta para echar un vistazo por la ciudad. Titubeó mucho, pensando sobre todo en la reprimenda que le haría su papá; pero al final se armó de valor y comenzó la marcha sin rumbo fijo...

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• All other pictures drawn by, courtesy of and by arrangement with Felipe Dávalos.

The book referred to by Dr. López Luján is Viaje al mercado de México, written by Dr. Leonardo López Luján, illustrated by Felipe Dávalos, Historias de México, vol. III, book 2, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 2000.

Dr. Leonardo López Luján has answered 4 questions altogether:

Which museum has the most Aztec objects in it?

Did the Aztecs bury things for future generations like us to find?

When you find something buried [in Mexico], how do you know it’s Aztec?

Were children allowed to go to the market by themselves?

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