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Dr. Joanne Harwood

Question for June 2005

What did Aztec children learn in school? Asked by Turnfurlong Junior School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Joanne Harwood.

Pic 1: The original Codex Mendoza is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford
Pic 1: The original Codex Mendoza is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Click on image to enlarge)

This struck me as a very good question because it is based on the correct assumption that Aztec children, just like those in the UK, had access to formal education in the shape of schools. Before considering what Aztec children learned in such schools it is necessary to clarify that the sources we have available to us today relate to the Mexica or Tenochca, the central Mexican Nahuatl-speaking group, whose city, Tenochtitlan, dominated the Aztec empire and is now largely buried beneath Mexico City. The sources date to the sixteenth-century and were produced both by the Mexica, such as the Codex Mendoza, and by the Spanish, often in conjunction with indigenous informants, such as the Florentine Codex, compiled by the Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún.

Pic 2: The Codex Mendoza shows two types of Aztec school: ‘calmecac’ (top) and ‘cuicacalili’ - usually called ‘telpochcalli’) (bottom)
Pic 2: The Codex Mendoza shows two types of Aztec school: ‘calmecac’ (top) and ‘cuicacalili’ - usually called ‘telpochcalli’) (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Codex Mendoza, which is kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is one of the most comprehensive sources on Mexica society on the eve of the Spanish conquest of 1521. It is also one of the most reliable, since the content is largely in the form of pictorial writing, of the kind used in central Mexico before the arrival of the Europeans. The last fifteen pages of this document are devoted to the life cycle of the Mexica, including education in schools. The Codex Mendoza shows two types of school: the calmecac and the telpochcalli (in this document called the cuicacalli). The first of these is accepted as a school where children learned the most elevated aspects of Nahuatl culture including sciences, writing and religion (León-Portilla in Díaz Infante 1992: 57). The telpochcalli, on the other hand, is thought to have been a school largely for military training, although its students did receive religious education too.

Pic 3: A Mexica father takes his son to the ‘calmecac’
Pic 3: A Mexica father takes his son to the ‘calmecac’ (Click on image to enlarge)

As to who attended these schools, at what age, for how long and, more importantly here, what they learned, there are some differences of opinion, based on variations in the source material. Some argue that only boys attended school while others suggest that there was an annex to the calmecac which girls attended, where they learned to spin, weave, prepare food and serve in the temples. Mexica society was highly stratified and some people propose that the calmecac was reserved for sons of nobles. Others however, state that exceptionally bright and talented students from lower classes were able to attend this type of school. Many sources suggest that the telpochcalli was the school that the majority of boys attended and that there would have been between 10 to 15 in the equivalent of each of our parishes (Díaz Infante 1992: 61). Students in both schools would probably have had to sleep there as well as study, although it is likely that girls returned to their houses.

Pic 4: Codex Mendoza, folio 57r (detail) shows: two choices of school for Aztec parents
Pic 4: Codex Mendoza, folio 57r (detail) shows: two choices of school for Aztec parents (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Soustelle, then, among the Mexica there was education for all, irrespective of class (in Díaz Infante 1992: 56). The kind of education a child received was, however, in part decided by the calendrical sign and number of the day on which he or she was born and after which he or she was named. The Mexica believed that, depending on the nature of the qualities of this sign and number, a child was likely to show a particular talent for a certain type of activity, such as weaving or warfare. To an extent, this fate influenced the parents’ choice to offer the child shortly after birth to the master of the calmecac or telpochcalli, as shown on page 57r of the Codex Mendoza (pic 4). This ceremony took place in the local temple because it was believed that all humans were put on the earth to serve the gods by acquiring knowledge and by working hard.

Pic 5: Folio 62r of the Codex Mendoza shows some of the rigours and duties of Aztec youths as part of their training/education
Pic 5: Folio 62r of the Codex Mendoza shows some of the rigours and duties of Aztec youths as part of their training/education (Click on image to enlarge)

Children probably only went to school when they were 15 or 16 but until then their education in the religion of the Mexica and the correct way to behave and to live was provided by their parents, by example and by punishment. This moral and religious instruction continued at school and involved physical work such as sweeping temples, collecting and carrying firewood for temples, preparing food and weaving garments for the gods, performing penitence by sticking maguey spikes in the leg, all of which are shown in the third part of the Codex Mendoza (pic 5).

Pic 6: Folio 70r of the Codex Mendoza, showing a father explaining to his son some of the craft skills and occupations he could follow, by working hard
Pic 6: Folio 70r of the Codex Mendoza, showing a father explaining to his son some of the craft skills and occupations he could follow, by working hard (Click on image to enlarge)

Which brings us, finally, to the question of what Mexica children learned at school. The calmecac, as we have already mentioned, was where the most capable Mexica youths were equipped with the skills necessary for occupying the highest positions of authority. Students were taught a broad range of subjects by different specialists. These included religion, history, painting, music, law, astrology, astronomy and refined language used exclusively by nobles and wise people. Some of the students in the calmecac specialised in high quality craftsmanship, reaching the status of master craftsman or tolteca. Such crafts included lapidary arts, woodcarving, writing and painting, featherworking and precious metal working, all of these shown on page 70r of the Codex Mendoza (pic 6). In the telpochcalli students learned martial arts and physical endurance in preparation for life as warriors, also shown in the Codex Mendoza. Singing and dancing prepared children for participation in the frequent and highly structured round of festivals central to the Mexica religious calendar.

Pic 7: Hard work honesty and discipline were taught to children by Aztec parents from a very young age
Pic 7: Hard work honesty and discipline were taught to children by Aztec parents from a very young age (Click on image to enlarge)

Mexica youths left school in their mid-teens when males began their careers as warriors or administrators and females stayed in the temple or married, continuing to work in a more domestic environment. Whatever a child went on to do, the most valuable lesson they learned and one which they were encouraged to adhere to always, was to work hard and avoid laziness. The Mexica held that laziness led to all kinds of bad behaviour, such as drunkenness and theft, which were severely punished by Mexica law, with children of nobles receiving the harshest sentences. An industrious and productive life, on the other hand, lead to a long, healthy and prosperous existence and was rewarded with status, responsibility and respect.

Sources
The Codex Mendoza. Rieff Anawalt, Patricia and Berdan, Frances F., eds. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1992.
• Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de. The Florentine Codex. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1953-82
• Díaz Infante, Fernando. La educación de los aztecas. México: Panorama. 1992.

Picture sources:-
• Photo of the Codex Mendoza (facsimile) by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, Waterlow & Sons, London, 1938
• Line drawings by Alberto Beltrán, scanned from The Sun Kingdom of the Aztecs by Victor von Hagen

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