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What happened to the nobility after the Conquest?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Rodolfo Carreon: What became of the Nobility after the conquest? Were they allowed to continue in their status in Aztec society or were they reduced to the level of the general population? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A ‘cacique’ from Tepetlaoztoc complains to ‘encomendero’ Miguel Díaz de Aux in the late 1520s about the latter’s brutal treatment of the local community; Kingsborough Codex, fol. 11b (detail)
A ‘cacique’ from Tepetlaoztoc complains to ‘encomendero’ Miguel Díaz de Aux in the late 1520s about the latter’s brutal treatment of the local community; Kingsborough Codex, fol. 11b (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In a nutshell, by the middle of the 17th century we know that all old Mexica nobles had become commoners. Serge Gruzinski gives a detailed outline of this ‘decline of the aristrocracy’ in his book The Conquest of Mexico (1993: 64-67), where he writes:-
The ranks of the Indian nobility had been decimated by the wars of the conquest, distant expeditions, massacres and executions. When it survived and was able to negotiate changing sides after the humiliation of defeat, it had to learn to perpetuate itself in a hostile and unforeseen colonial milieu, which subjected indigenous customs to the law of the king and of God. First to be affected and to be condemned to obliteration were the children of mothers repudiated by the spouses whom the Church abjured to renounce polygamy. Women and bastards were brutally shorn of their rank that was their due... It is true that the Crown demonstrated concern to protect the status of the nobles, to grant them privileges, favours and goods. It did so as much through respect for the established order - whatever its origin - as because it could not do without these all too precious intermediaries on whom depended the collection of the tribute and the obedience of populations.

Casta oil on canvas painting containing complete set of 16 casta combinations (racial classifications in Spanish colonies in the Americas). Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico
Casta oil on canvas painting containing complete set of 16 casta combinations (racial classifications in Spanish colonies in the Americas). Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

The Crown gave the descendants of the prehispanic lords and those who had infiltrated their ranks the title of cacique and admitted them to the functions of governor... The favour of the Spanish, of an encomendero or clergyman, was a precious asset and the accusation of idolatry a sure means of neutralizing or brushing aside a rival that custom would have supported. He goes on to explain that ambitious and able commoners seized the chance to take possession of former nobles’ lands, undermining the aristocracy’s sense of security. The nobles lost numerous commoners who were attached to them. In turn the Crown tried ‘to reduce to the rank of tributaries as many Indians as possible, even those of noble blood’.
The cumulative effect of marriages with the Spanish, cross-breeding, the sale of hereditary goods, the constant strengthening of the European presence, and above all the ravages of epidemics, hastened the decline of a nobility that the authorities had no longer, from then on, to handle carefully. To which should be added the disintegration of networks of dependence dominated by the indigenous nobility: at the same time as it lost control of the division of tribute, it ceased to constitute hierarchical groups where each had to keep his place.

With time the Church ‘tended to neglect all social disctinctions, partly because the stratification of indigenous society became blurred and the populations less numerous...’
With time the Church ‘tended to neglect all social disctinctions, partly because the stratification of indigenous society became blurred and the populations less numerous...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

In the first decades of the colony the Church was particularly concerned with educating the nobility. However, in the second half of the sixteenth century it tended to neglect all social disctinctions, partly because the stratification of indigenous society became blurred and the populations less numerous. At that time, nobles and plebeians often learned together to read and write, and the latter progressively gained access to important functions in the community, becoming alcaldes, regidores, escribanos [scribes] and even governors. Unqualified servants increasingly sought employment around convents, becoming sacristans, monastic cooks, singers and musicians. Cantors and musicians, organists, flautists, players of trumpet, pipe, sackbut and hurdy-gurdy even became so numerous that the Council of 1555 was alarmed... For the ranks of cantors and fiscales of the nobility were swelled relentlessly by newcomers happy to avoid paying tribute and to acquire a status that they would never have dared to claim before the conquest...

Images
• Image from the Codex Kinsborough (Códice de Tepetlaoztoc) scanned from our own copy of the Colegio Mexiquense a.c. facsimile edition, Mexico City, 1994
• Image from Wikimedia Commons (Mesitzo)
• Source unknown; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

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