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Inga Clendinnen
Aztecs: An Interpretation
New York : Cambridge University Press, 1991

Reviewed by Alison Jeppesen, University of Saskatchewan


Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation is a highly innovative monograph looking at the Aztecs; more specifically, she is exploring one group: the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico. The book is innovative in its focus, its use of sources, and its narrative style and structure. Written for the specialist and the non-specialist alike, it gives the reader a new look into the Mexica people by concentrating on their religious rituals, their pantheon of deities, and their beliefs about the sacred. It allows the reader a glimpse into the everyday lives of the Mexica in the late 15th and early 16th centuries prior to their conquest by the Spaniards.

Previous studies of the Mexica people have focused on the conquest by the Spaniards, the rise to power of Tenochtitlan, state formations, economic arrangements, the "official" religious performances and, more recently, social organization and land distribution.[1] Aztecs: An Interpretation focuses on none of these things; rather, it is Inga Clendinnen’s attempt to render the psyche of the Mexica people. She wishes to explain "that unnerving discrepancy between the high decorum and fastidious social and aesthetic sensibility of the Mexica world, and the massive carnality of the killings and dismemberings: between social grace and monstrous ritual."[2] She seeks to solve this discrepancy by discovering "how ordinary people understood ‘human sacrifice’: their inescapable intimacy with the victims’ bodies, living and dead; how that intimacy was rendered tolerable; what meanings were attached to it." [3]She seeks to understand Mexica beliefs, not on an abstract level but rather as "the emotional, moral and aesthetic nexus through which thought comes to be expressed in action, and so made public, visible, and accessible to our observation."[4]

Clendinnen’s use of sources is also innovative. Although she has access to numerous sources on the Mexica, she chooses to concentrate on one. In her "methodological exercise," Clendinnen is attempting "to discover what can be done through the close analysis of a single, if remarkably rich, text."[5] The text under discussion is the twelve volume General History of the Things of New Spain by the Franciscan monk Bernardo de Sahagún. Collected by Indian scribes, this work, commonly called the Florentine Codex, consists of material which discusses life in Tenochtitlan prior to contact. Clendinnen believes that, although this work is definitely a colonial production, it does allow scholars access to Mexica voices and actions. She also notes that, although the Florentine Codex has fallen out of favour with scholars, they still use it "extensively."[6] Some reviewers of Aztecs have found fault with Clendinnen’s insistence on using the Florentine Codex. Susan D. Gillespie believes that Clendinnen’s use of the book results in an inaccurately bleak picture of the Mexica world. She notes that "the Florentine Codex, source of this bleak representation, was written during the traumatic aftermath of the conquest, which devastated the Aztecs."[7] As a result of this bias, she deems it unreliable. Rosemary A. Joyce fears that Clendinnen is not critical enough of the Spanish influence on the Florentine Codex and asks "how much of the dark emotional texture of the interpretation derived from these documents reflects the reality of Tenochtitlan before the Spanish conquest, and to what extent did the retrospective composition of these documents in the situation influence the sensibility?"[8] In opposition to these views is Francis J. Brooks who believes Clendinnen’s methodological exercise is "probably the most sustained exegesis of the Florentine codex that we have."[9]

Clendinnen obviously does not agree that the Florentine Codex has little or no value due to its composition and biases. In addition to archaeological evidence, she supplements the Florentine Codex with the work of the Dominican friar Diego Duran, but she does this only rarely and cautiously as she is attempting to explore only one source and she believes Duran’s work to be much less reliable for "native ways of life."[10] She clearly prefers the views of the Mexica presented by Sahagún’s informants. Also, she does not use this source as indiscriminately as has been suggested. When discussing the use of slaves in one of the ritual sacrifices found in the Mexica calendar, she disagrees with a commonly held belief that the slaves sacrificed were Mexica slaves, though she states as a caution, "All claims here must be tentative, the sources being what they are."[11] In her final chapter "A Question of Sources," Clendinnen again addresses the problem of reliability. On the Florentine Codex she writes:

The Florentine Codex has remained the main source for Mexica life in the decades before the conquest. With all its defects–produced by survivors of the erstwhile ruling group; exclusively male; further distanced from the actuality we seek to glimpse by its idealizing tendency and its Spanish eliciting and editing; abducted into English–it is nonetheless the best source we have for Mexica views, and for accounts of Mexica action as described by Mexica voices. If those voices were constrained on some occasions by inappropriate Spanish demands, on others they were allowed to run free, Sahagún being sufficiently sensitive to the risk of unwitting influence to give his informants a large degree of latitude on the issues which most interested him.[12]

Clearly, Clendinnen is well aware of the problems associated with the Florentine Codex and chooses to use it because she deems it the best source for her particular focus.

The main body of the monograph consists of a series of essays, or "tentative, discursive explorations" using "multiple, oblique, and angled approaches."[13] In Part I, she discusses the city of Tenochtitlan, its rise to power and the social relationships found in it. In Part II, she discusses the various roles of the people in Tenochtitlan: victims, warriors, priests, merchants, wives, mothers, and children. She discusses the different representations of the sacred in Part III, and the fall of the city to the Spanish in Part IV. According to Janine Gasco, this is not a conventional format which uses "themes and arguments" to lead the reader to an understanding of how the Mexica viewed their world; rather, in each essay Clendinnen seeks to discover how the group under discussion (wives, mothers, warriors, priests, merchants or victims) "participated in and perceived the ritual of human sacrifice."[14] This may not be a conventional format, but it has worked well in this case. This format of essays used by Clendinnen allows the reader to obtain an impression of each segment of Mexica society and how it viewed and participated in the rituals of human sacrifice. This format makes Clendinnen’s ideas much more accessible and easier to follow than they would be if she had treated the entire society as a whole. The complex society of the Mexica is much easier to understand when broken up into its component parts.

Aztecs: An Interpretation is an excellent example of a narrative approach which blurs the lines of history by crossing into other disciplines containing historical topics which have not been traditionally associated with history. This is one example of how "the gap has narrowed between anthropological and historical research on prehistoric and historic peoples of the Americas."[15] It also is an example of the narrowing gap between historical narrative and fictive narrative. Clendinnen’s narrative approach allows the reader to be fully convinced of her conception of the Mexica people and their views. The imagination of the reader is engaged in picturing the processions of the victims and the sweep of the obsidian blade. Rituals which last occurred five hundred years ago are brought startlingly to life, although one notes that certain rituals would have been easier to picture had a city plan of Tenochtitlan been provided. To bring these rituals closer to home and to make the reader see that they were not as unique or barbarous as some might think, Clendinnen draws comparisons to other American Indian tribes, such as the Blackfoot and the Huron. Again, her narrative style is brutally realistic. Her descriptions of the varying rituals are often pages in length. An example of her compelling narrative style and her use of comparisons to more identifiable tribes can be found in her discussion of the use of skins, both human and animal, in rituals.

Despite the importance of behaviour, for the Mexica–as for Amerindians more generally–it was the skin, that most external and enveloping ‘appearance’, which constituted a creature’s essence, and so stored the most formidable symbolic power. When a vision-creature appeared to a Plains Indian as a messenger from the sacred powers, the dreamer secured the skin of the ‘same’ animal as an essential part of his sacred medicine bundle (North-American medicine bundles, with their withered skins and claws and beaks, look like the detritus of a failed taxidermist). Catlin recorded the costume of a Blackfoot curer as a medley of animal and vegetable, but he noted especially ‘the skin of the yellow bear . . . skins of snakes, and frogs, and bats’. This power of the skin extended through the secondary ‘skin’ of the sacred garment, to face and body paint, masks, and adornments.[16]

Aztecs often seems to be more of an anthropological investigation than an historical investigation–an investigation much closer to that of Herodotus than Thucydides. Clendinnen’s exploration into the psyche of the Mexica is certainly innovative, and one is left with a seemingly realistic picture of the Mexica people. But one must wonder to what extent Clendinnen’s representation of the Mexica people is accurate. She herself stresses that this is an interpretation. Joyce firmly believes that the Mexica presented in this monograph are decidedly the "creation of the author."[17] This work cannot, in any way, be judged as a search for the historical truth. Clendinnen is not looking for the "true" Mexica people; rather she is offering a possible hypothesis. She is attempting to further the study of the Mexica beyond the previous scholarly preoccupation with economics and empire. In this, she has succeeded. Aztecs: An Interpretation is extremely thought provoking. She sums up her self-admitted "quixotic" quest in her one paragraph epilogue–a term more suited to fiction than history.

Historians of remote places and peoples are the romantics of the human sciences, Ahabs pursuing our great white whale, dimly aware that the whole business is, if coolly considered, rather less than reasonable. We will never catch him and don’t much want to: it is our own limitations of thought, of understandings, of imagination we test as we quarter those strange waters.[18]

If one substitutes the psyche of the Mexica for Ahab’s great white whale, one has a perfect description of Aztecs: An Interpretation.





1. Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation.(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 3, 7.
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2. Clendinnen, 2.
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3. Clendinnen, 4-5.
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4. Clendinnen, 5.
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5. Clendinnen, 9.
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6. Clendinnen, 8- 9.
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7. Susan D. Gillespie, "Review Article: Aztecs: An Interpretation. By Inga Clendinnen," Hispanic American Historical Review 72 (1992): 419.
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8.Rosemary A. Joyce, "Review Article: Aztecs: An Interpretation. By Inga Clendinnen," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (1992): 434.
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9. Francis J. Brooks, "Text and Truth: Reading Latin American History," The Historical Journal 37. 1 (1994): 239.
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10. Clendinnen, 9. For a complete analysis see Clendinnen. She discusses the unreliability of his translations, interviewing techniques, and interpretations.
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11. Clendinnen, 100.
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12. Clendinnen, 279.
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13. Clendinnen, 11.
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14. Janine Gasco, "Recent Trends in Ethnohistoric Research on Postclassical and Colonial Central Mexico," Latin American Research Review 29 (1994): 137.
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15. Gasco, 132-133.
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16. Clendinnen, 228-229.
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17. Joyce, 433.
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18. Clendinnen, 275.
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Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


Brooks, Francis J. "Text and Truth: Reading Latin American History." The Historical Journal 37. 1 (1994). 233 - 244.

Gasco, Janine . "Recent Trends in Ethnohistoric Research on Postclassical and Colonial Central Mexico." Latin American Research Review 29 (1994): 132 - 142.

Gillespie, Susan D. "Review Article: Aztecs: An Interpretation. By Inga Clendinnen." Hispanic American Historical Review 72 (1992): 418 - 419.

Joyce, Rosemary A. "Review Article: Aztecs: An Interpretation. By Inga Clendinnen." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (1992): 433 - 435.

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