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Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

by Camilla Townsend

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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305786,620 (4.04)7
In November 1519, Hernando Cortes walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story-and the story of what happened afterwards-has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by scholars. For the first time, in Fifth Sun, the history of the Aztecs is offered in all its complexity based solely on the texts written by the indigenous people themselves. Camilla Townsend presents an accessible and humanized depiction of these native Mexicans, rather than seeing them as the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes. The conquest, in this work, is neither an apocalyptic moment, nor an origin story launching Mexicans into existence. The Mexica people had a history of their own long before the Europeans arrived and did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization. Instead, they realigned their political allegiances, accommodated new obligations, adopted new technologies, and endured.… (more)
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A history professor at Rutgers, Townsend has compiled here a new history of the Aztec (or Mexica) people in the region surrounding what is today's Mexico City, using a combination of written indigenous and Spanish histories, archeological studies, linguistic data and local folklore/mythology.

When I was a student, my history classes never focused on Mesoamerica (pre-Columbian or otherwise) that I can recall — it was either strictly United States history or (extremely narrow) world history — so I faced this book with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the region's past. As such, it was a lot to absorb, but Townsend seems to have written it with those considerations in mind and with a deft hand. The first couple of chapters were just shy of overwhelming due to the sheer amount of brand new information, but I eventually hit a stride and really came to appreciate the region's rich cultural history. I especially enjoyed learning pronunciation rules for Nahuatl (I found myself whispering names to myself to get it right) and recognizing the origins of some familiar words. I expected this work to be challenging, and it was, but it will hopefully serve as a solid base upon while I can apply additional learning. ( )
  ryner | Apr 2, 2024 |
i'm in the second chapter where she's retelling the story of the founding of the triple alliance and it's intensely confusing. There's so many different names and people and she's made it more confusing somehow with alternating of names and descriptions of relationships and also telling it out of chronological order.

It's extra confusing because so far everything appears to be a retelling based on a couple of histories written by people of the region in the century after the Spanish arrived? I don't know much about it because she's the historian! But I'm really unsure of what she pulls from where and to what extent she's crossreferencing over sources of information to make the story more accurate. She also likes to mix in colourful statements about what certain people must have been doing and thinking but said in a way like certainty. Which is fine? But adds to my confusion about what's known and how much editing she's doing of the story told by the histories she's pulling from.

There's then a chapter that sort of talks about the Aztec empire at the height of its power but again so much space is taken up by talk of complicated relationships between lots of cities, most of which are little more than names, but that doesn't really cohere to give a full picture. There's lots of little nuggets of interesting detail but as presented as a narrative it just feels confusing.

Then when the picture moves onto the Spanish conquest the narrative becomes a lot clearer but it still suffer from the I guess inevitable problem that it's so based on Spanish narratives and from their perspective. The description of the book suggests it's partly intended to restore some agency to the Aztecs and the people who allied with the Spanish but instead we get insistent descriptions that the conquest was absolutely inevitable from the moment the Spanish landed because "the Spanish had been farmers longer", all they could do was beg for peace, and the Native allies disappear into the background.

A chapter on the immediate aftermath of the fall of Tenochtitlan moves into "following Cortes around" and not much else, with every other character either disappearing or being defined entirely in relation to him. He attempted to set up an administration then disappeared for nearly a year in a disastrous overland expedition through the jungle. Then he comes back and there's open conflict again. What happened while he was gone? What was the story of the administration in those years? We get no clue at all from the text.

There's a mildly annoying writing style where she starts a chapter introducing a particular character who's chronologically ahead of where the last chapter ended, going back to vaguely fill in the gap, then returning to the character where she left off, which is kind of confusing.

The last couple of chapters talking about the 100 years post conquest have the advantage that there's more detail about the cast of characters, including at the end the story of an annalist who's responsible for preserving much of the history of the Mexica, but it still feels frustratingly narrow focused and missing much explanation of everyday life and how the Spanish were able to so quickly establish total domination. The indigenous population are defined only by their experience of the brutalities of the Spanish. This is obviously a very understandable thing to focus on, given how truly and utterly evil the Spanish were and the absolute horror of their actions, but how the broad mass of indigenous people adapted is invisible except in brief snatches. In these chapters the narrative feels completely focused on what happened in what had then become Mexico City, with minimal talk about even the rest of the central valley outside of incredibly difficult to follow talk of detailed kin relations. The Tlaxcala are mentioned a few times as close allies of the Spanish but the details are barely talked about - apart from a short section in the middle as part of the Hernan Cortes Show showing how his troops were "invincible".

This isn't to say that it was a bad book exactly. There's lots of interesting detail. She does do a good job of sketching out characters even when we can't really know that many details. There's some amazing and some horrific stories. But overall I felt like I was missing both tons of important detail I was looking for to link events AND a good "big picture" look at how things actually were at each point in time. There's only a minimal sketching out of things like Aztec religion and culture. For a short text too much time is spent listing names and relationships between them in a way that doesn't give depth to the players involved and just goes over your head. The Spanish just take up too much space yet without giving a good picture of the conquest and how it happened.

Overall there's stuff to appreciate here and I certainly understand it's hard to cover the whole topic in a shorter book but it just didn't fulfill the promise of the blurb for me ( )
  tombomp | Oct 31, 2023 |
A readable account of the Mexica people (or as they're often referred to, the Aztecs) before and after the arrival of the Spanish in what is now Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Camilla Townsend places a great deal of emphasis on the surviving sources written by Indigenous people, primarily in Nahuatl, since they have often not been given their due in the existing scholarship, and certainly not in standard educational/pop culture accounts of the colonisation of Mexico.

As someone without any real grounding in Mexican geography or Central American history, I did at times find this a dense read and the large cast of characters difficult to keep track of. I was also not keen on Townsend's strategy of providing speculative thoughts/emotions and sometimes even experiences for people. I'm sympathetic to why Townsend felt the need to do that, given the fragmentary nature of the source base, and it's not unreasonable to imagine that someone who lived through traumatic events might have reacted to them with sorrow or grief. But to invent a whole passage—about the experiences of one Cristóbal at the Franciscan-run boarding school of Tlatelolco (149-150)—and to only make clear in the end notes that this is fictional is, to me, not fair play. These issues, and a couple of other more minor quibbles, meant that I did not truly enjoy reading The Fifth Sun, but with some caveats I think it could provide a useful introduction to this aspect of Mexican history for the interested reader. ( )
1 vote siriaeve | Nov 16, 2022 |
A history of the people now commonly known as the Aztec Empire, with the arrival of Cortez treated as a big shock but not as the end or beginning of the story, using whenever possible the records they left of themselves—which are relatively extensive given that they had written pictograph records before Cortez and quickly adopted an alphabetical system. ( )
  rivkat | Jul 19, 2021 |
This book was desperately needed. It was a treasure to read about my ancestors from their perspective. It was also good to finally read about the Mexica experience prior to the conquering European settlers. I am grateful that Townsend is the kind of scholar that felt the necessity to force her perspective towards the unknown and the oft silenced and invisibilized voices by the white-european researcher. ( )
  amberluscious | Feb 11, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Townsend, CamillaAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Leube, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leube, Wolf HeinrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rothfos & Gabler (Hamburg)Cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As the Aztecs well knew, no one ever accomplishes anything alone.
Climbing down from the dizzying heights of one of the pyramids of Mexico, a visitor almost expects to feel the presence of the spirit of an Aztec princess. (introduction)
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In November 1519, Hernando Cortes walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story-and the story of what happened afterwards-has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by scholars. For the first time, in Fifth Sun, the history of the Aztecs is offered in all its complexity based solely on the texts written by the indigenous people themselves. Camilla Townsend presents an accessible and humanized depiction of these native Mexicans, rather than seeing them as the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes. The conquest, in this work, is neither an apocalyptic moment, nor an origin story launching Mexicans into existence. The Mexica people had a history of their own long before the Europeans arrived and did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization. Instead, they realigned their political allegiances, accommodated new obligations, adopted new technologies, and endured.

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