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Aztec Manners

This intriguing article has been specially written for us by Nicholas James, an independent scholar, consultant in the presentation of history and archaeology, writer and lecturer. He delivered a fine paper entitled ‘Urban Crisis: Manners in Tenochtitlan’ at the Symposium on Moctezuma II held in London, March 2009.

The good Aztec noblewoman - ‘a pillar of calm’, even when trouble looms... Florentine Codex Book 10
The good Aztec noblewoman - ‘a pillar of calm’, even when trouble looms... Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Listening to the Aztecs at home would have surprised anyone expecting talk of blood. A lot of it was about manners. Aristocrats urged their daughters not to spend too much time preening themselves and dressing up. The girls were told to talk calmly and to walk calmly, looking at everyone happily, neither casting their eyes down nor gazing over people’s heads. ‘The good noblewoman is like a pillar’, said the Aztecs, ‘slender, of medium build’; ‘the bad noble talks too much, argues, spreads trouble, and boasts’. ‘A good father’, they said, ‘is thrifty and creates order; a bad mother encourages rule-breaking’. ‘Walk with dignity’, a nobleman would tell his son, ‘so that people do not criticize you: show your upbringing’.

X and Y chromosomes, Aztec style? A romanticised portrait of Aztec nobles by the Mexican artist Dr. Antonio Peñafiel, painted in 1900
X and Y chromosomes, Aztec style? A romanticised portrait of Aztec nobles by the Mexican artist Dr. Antonio Peñafiel, painted in 1900 (Click on image to enlarge)

These remarks and many more of the kind were recorded by Bernardino de Sahagún, interviewing older Aztecs and their children selected, a generation after the Spanish Conquest, as knowledgeable authorities about Aztec life. The idea of moderation is typical of Aztec thinking; and Aztec leaders had perhaps encouraged styles and codes of behaviour appropriate to the different grades of social standing that they tried to distinguish. A quick look through Sahagún’s immense study can give the impression that Aztec manners were very good.

The great market at Tlatelolco - part of a mural by Diego Rivera
The great market at Tlatelolco - part of a mural by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)

We get the same sense from the best known section of paintings in the book known as the Codex Mendoza, which describes how boys and girls were brought up – and how imaginative some of the punishments were for naughtiness! Equally, Bernal Díaz’s report of the teeming market in the northern part of the Aztec capital gives a sense of admirable order.

‘Listening to the admonition of elders’, Florentine Codex Book 9
‘Listening to the admonition of elders’, Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

What, then, are we to make of so many other comments, also recorded by Sahagún, about bad manners? ‘Speak calmly and quietly’, continued the nobleman, ‘or people will call you an imbecile, shameless, a yokel. Don’t stare at people; and don’t gossip – just listen. Don’t be like those boys who go around jeering, being rude and clumsy, with their sandals flopping about the feet and the straps trailing along the ground’.

Drunken youths, Codex Mendoza, folio 71
Drunken youths, Codex Mendoza, folio 71 (Click on image to enlarge)

Girls sent off to the posh ‘calmecac’ school were told to be pious and warned not to listen to silly friends. Another investigator, Diego Durán, was told that youths were punished for rudeness. To judge from Sahagún, bad behaviour was not rare: drunken youths, for example, imitating the drums during a ceremony otherwise silent; or the kind of woman who did wash too much and went out painted up, clicking chewing gum, taking drugs - ‘restless’, blatantly sexy, ‘a filthy old dog’!

An Aztec father delivers his son to a Calmécac élite school in Tenochtitlan, Florentine Codex Book 3
An Aztec father delivers his son to a Calmécac élite school in Tenochtitlan, Florentine Codex Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

How common were these problems? On reading the reports more carefully, we find that most of what they say about daily life, especially Sahagún’s indispensable information, is not, in fact, about the Aztecs in general but only about Tenochtitlan, their capital. It was for good reason that the city intrigued the Spaniards; but, as the citizens themselves knew, most Aztecs lived in the countryside. The capital was exceptional; and all the emphasis on manners, both good and bad, may tell us mostly about that one place.

The great city of Tenochtitlan
The great city of Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

There, the preoccupation stood to reason. With at least 200,000 residents, and perhaps 300,000, it was ten times larger than any other place in Mexico. And that was new: just 200 years before, its population was probably barely 10,000. (Aztec legend tells us that Tenochtitlan did not even exist yet in 1300; but that is an exaggeration.) So, unlike anywhere else in Mexico at the time, public life there was like the experience of a modern city, in which we have to cope with crowds of people whom we do not know and cannot place.

The specialised art of feather device making, Florentine Codex Book 9
The specialised art of feather device making, Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

That is one of the main reasons for having standards of manners: they help to ensure that we do not insult those whom it would be best to respect or from whom we may need help. For, quite unlike village life, one of the conditions for intense urban growth is the development of specialized jobs. Sahagún describes many skilled trades for Tenochtitlan; and Durán even implies that the city had encouraged them as a matter of policy a hundred years before.

Model of the great market, Tenochtitlan, in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Model of the great market, Tenochtitlan, in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

There is no reason to think that others in Mexico were as worried about politeness as the people of Tenochtitlan. Sahagún suggests that himself where he records warnings against behaving like a bumpkin – a typical urban image. All the emphasis on visual appearances and talking ‘properly’ is typical of a large city where people have to manage themselves amidst pedestrians they do not know, as along Tenochtitlan’s great streets, at the thronging market or among the crowds craning to glimpse the parades and the dances and sacrifices atop the pyramids.

A ‘keeper of the gods’, head of a Calmécac school, addresses students, Florentine Codex Book 2
A ‘keeper of the gods’, head of a Calmécac school, addresses students, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Yet, although the interest in manners makes general sense, we must remember that, seeking reliably knowledgeable informants, Sahagún had assumed that he needed people with a perspective from near the ‘top’ of Aztec society; for that helps to explain the emphasis on aristocratic values.

The ruler gives gifts to his people, Florentine Codex Book 8
The ruler gives gifts to his people, Florentine Codex Book 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Who’s who and who’s what?’ must have been a continual worry. The same condition, of course, made for the fun that louts enjoyed by risking rudeness in public. Both Moctezuma I and Moctezuma II tried to set rules about who could be seen to wear what. Durán explains that the first rules were declared because, ‘the city ... bursting with people’, including many strangers, ‘some offended’; ‘they did not observe the expected courtesies’. These regulations extended to showing off with house building. Like some of the teachings recorded by Sahagún, the second set of rules was designed especially to reinforce the distinctions between aristocrats and ordinary people.

Aztec life - detail from mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Aztec life - detail from mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Why, though, did awareness of manners affect even the home? In his study of European history, Norbert Elias confirmed that that degree of concern is typical of periods of change, especially when the variety of specialized jobs increases or when relations between nobles and ordinary people are at stake; and he argued that, in order to make people absorb the standards demanded in everyday life, the emphasis tends to fall on bodily behaviour.

Feasting - Florentine Codex Book 2
Feasting - Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Certain passages of Sahagún’s read just like Elias’s discoveries about teaching in Europe at the very time that the Aztecs were admonishing their young: ‘Do not eat and drink in a hurry ... nor take too much, nor break your tortillas up’; ‘Don’t stir the pieces up, nor dig into the sauce bowl, the basket’; ‘Do not put a lot into your mouth ... do not swallow your food before chewing it’; ‘Do not gulp like a dog ... or let yourself choke’; ‘Don’t make a spectacle of yourself’; ‘eat and drink slowly, calmly, quietly’.

Cleaning teeth, Florentine Codex Book 10
Cleaning teeth, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec children were told to wash after eating; and to clear up any messy scraps left over. Again, it was all about not sounding gross or looking untidy. ‘Don’t let snot hang from your nose’ - advice repeated several times!

‘Founding of Tenochtitlan’ statue, Zócalo, Mexico City (detail)
‘Founding of Tenochtitlan’ statue, Zócalo, Mexico City (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The insistence of the lessons in manners matches that most notorious feature of Aztec public life, the killings on the pyramids for everyone around to watch. Something of the same tense alertness to appearances, to what Mary Douglas later called the ‘grid’ of social distinctions, was noticed when Mexico City began its present massive growth in the late 1800s. For, as Prof. Douglas pointed out about modern London, the body often becomes ‘an object of anxiety’ in times of rapid social and cultural change.

Festival of One-Flower: invitation to ritual dance, Florentine Codex Book 4
Festival of One-Flower: invitation to ritual dance, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

Historical evidence of Durán’s for growing tension between the nobles and the rest of the population makes sense of many of the remarks recorded by Sahagún – good manners contrasted with the behaviour of ‘a field worker – brutish’. Tenochtitlan had grown so rapidly that, for want of other means to instil order, it depended on ‘civic rituals’ both public and personal. The contradiction between ‘brutishness’ in the former and the moderation expected of the latter reveals the difficulty of holding the capital together.

The woe of an Aztec slave, Florentine Codex Book 4
The woe of an Aztec slave, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

Recognizing that helps to explain so much about the city’s intensity. The effects were felt all across Mexico and probably too – here, both effect and cause - in the nerves of men, women and children every day in Tenochtitlan itself.

Aztec noblewomen, Florentine Codex Book 10
Aztec noblewomen, Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Further reading:-
(Some of the quotes from Sahagún have been adapted from the source cited below.)
• Díaz, B 1963 The conquest of New Spain Harmondsworth: Penguin
• Douglas, M 1973 Natural symbols: explorations in cosmology (2nd ed.) London: Barrie & Jenkins
• Durán, D 1971 Book of the gods and rites and the ancient calendar Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
• Durán, D 1994 The history of the Indies of New Spain Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
• Elias, N 2000 The civilizing process: sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations Oxford: Blackwell
• Sahagún, B de 1952, 1961, 1969 Florentine Codex: general history of the things of New Spain (Books 3, 6, 10) Santa Fe: School of American Research & University of Utah

An Aztec ‘calpulli’ (neighbourhood/community), Florentine Book 2
An Aztec ‘calpulli’ (neighbourhood/community), Florentine Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• All images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• ‘X’ and ‘Y’ portraits scanned from our copy of Alfabetos Aztecas by Dr. Antonio Peñafiel, Mexico City, 1900
• Mural by Diego Rivera: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Illustration of the city of Tenochtitlan courtesy of and © Diniz Conefrey (www.quartodejade.com).
• Model of market in National Museum of Anthropology: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Painting of Aztec life, National Museum of Anthropology: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Founding of Tenochtitlan statue: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 22nd 2009

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