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Aztec ‘calpulli’ neighbourhood organisation, Florentine Codex

What exactly was a ‘calpulli’?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Stanly from Taiwan: Hi, I’m Stanly. Although I’ve read so many papers about the “calpulli” I still don’t understand its definition. It seems that there were so many [units of] organization of the Aztecs. Could you explain it and define it? (Please I’m writing a novel and part of it has already won an award, help me please!!) (Answered/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Illustration by Professor Michael E Smith of a rural noble’s compound (A) compared to a commoner’s house (B)
Pic 1: Illustration by Professor Michael E Smith of a rural noble’s compound (A) compared to a commoner’s house (B) (Click on image to enlarge)

Good question, Stanly!
Calpulli in Náhuatl means ‘great house’ or ‘group of houses’. An important - yet mysterious - unit of Mexica social organisation, it has been variously defined as neighbourhood (barrio in Spanish), district, clan, tribe, town, community, parish, village ward, agriculture-based cooperative, ‘group of familiies who lived near one another’, ‘group of households forming a small barrio and having common tributary obligations’... Considerable argument and uncertainty surround its true meaning and internal workings. About the only thing we CAN be sure of is that EVERY Aztec/Mexica citizen identified with their local calpulli (sometimes written calpolli). As a building-block of Aztec society, it survived well into the colonial period.

Pic 2: Depiction of the 6 calpullis residing in the mythical Aztec homeland of Aztlan (left); detail from hand drawn edition of the Codex Boturini, pl. 1
Pic 2: Depiction of the 6 calpullis residing in the mythical Aztec homeland of Aztlan (left); detail from hand drawn edition of the Codex Boturini, pl. 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

Part of the problem comes from the changing role and size of the calpulli in the evolution of the Aztec world. Mexica migration narratives speak of and show (see Pic 2) the original 6 (sometimes more) tribes of Aztlan as ‘calpulli’s, and scholars have traditionally painted a picture of these as as being egalitarian, kinship- and territory-based ‘clans’ led by powerful male chiefs at the head of councils of elders. By the time Tenochtitlan was founded the number of calpullis had risen to 20, divided between the 4 sacred campan or quarters of the city. By the time of the Spanish Conquest, however, differences existed between rural and urban calpullis, and the role of the council of elders had sunk to a largely ceremonial one, ending up, in Warwick Bray’s words, as little more than ‘a minor cog in an administrative machine’, as power had now become strongly centralised in the hands of the imperial government.

Pic 3: The ‘constant round of activities’ of the calpulli councils of elders may have proved ‘crucial for the orchestration of the glamour of local identity’
Pic 3: The ‘constant round of activities’ of the calpulli councils of elders may have proved ‘crucial for the orchestration of the glamour of local identity’ (Click on image to enlarge)

More recently, scholars have expressed doubt over just how strong the kinship/descent principle was among the Mexica - in some calpultin (plural of calpulli) land was found not to be automatically passed down to the next generation - leading some to abandon the idea of these groupings as ‘clans’. In rural areas calpultin became generally less powerful than their urban counterparts, often being spread out over wide geographical areas and subjected to the semi-feudal power of noble lords (see pic 1): they ranged hugely from small clusters of just 10-20 households (together with the land assigned to them) to far larger units; Michael Smith found one calpulli at Molotlan consisting of ‘128 households, divided into 9 wards ranging from 1-32 households in each’.
Urban calpultin, by contrast, were more tightly knit, often grouping together and based around common occupations (such as merchants) or craft specialities such as featherworkers, organised, like those of Amantlan mentioned in the Florentine Codex (see pic 4) into guilds.

Pic 4: Feather artisans of Amantlan; Florentine Codex Book IX
Pic 4: Feather artisans of Amantlan; Florentine Codex Book IX (Click on image to enlarge)

In general, though, there are certain common features of (particularly urban) calpultin that remained fairly constant:-
• each was responsible for its own maintenance (sweeping streets, dredging canals, cleaning the temple...)
• each possessed its own local temple (and associated set of rituals) and commoner/warrior school of youth
• each had its own set of obligations to the city, constituted a centre for local tax collection and provided the basis for a single army unit of locally trained warriors
• each was ruled by a council of elders, usually with an elected head who arbitrated disputes, offered hospitality and kept maps showing each family’s landholdings
• each was subject to a single local tecuhtli (lord), in charge of providing and administering the distribution of land to the neighbourhood.
• within each calpulli, families were grouped into units of 20, combining to form major units of 100 households.

Pic 5: Each calpulli gave families and individuals a unique source of pride; figurine, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City
Pic 5: Each calpulli gave families and individuals a unique source of pride; figurine, Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the importance of the calpulli may have diminished somewhat as the imperial power of Tenochtitlan grew, there’s no doubt that it continued to provide a key focus for pride and identity among Mexica citizenry. This is reflected in the changing role of the calpulli council of elders: however symbolic this may have become - particularly under Moctezuma II - in the words of Inga Clendinnen ‘I suspect that their constant round of activities - welcoming the new crop of infants into the calpulli at the local temple, “blessing” feasts, sanctioning marriages, honouring returning warriors and singing their triumphs - was crucial for the orchestration of the glamour of local identity.’

Good luck with your novel, Stanly!

Recommended sources:-
The Aztecs (2nd. edn.) by Michael E. Smith, Blackwell Publishing, 2003
Aztecs by Inga Clendinnen, Cambridge University Press, 1991
The Aztec Arrangement by Rudolph van Zantwijk, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, 2006
Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1968
Ancient Mexico & Central America by Susan Toby Evans, Thames & Hudson, 2004

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 1: illustration courtesy of Michael E. Smith
• Pic 2: Hand drawn facsimile edition of the Codex Boturini, private collection
• Photos of figurines in the Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City, by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Read about the calpulli in Professor Camilla Townsend’s article on Aztec Women

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