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Book Review


Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xii + 320. Bibliography and Index. $29.95 (cloth).


     Camilla Townsend’s incredibly compact and helpful Fifth Sun will serve equally well professional historians, upper-division undergraduate and graduate students, and the general public. The Fifth Sun has an introduction, eight chronological chapters, and an epilogue. The glossary, notes, royal family tree, and map of central Mexico that precede the introduction help to guide the reader through the future chapters while explaining the choices that Townsend made to balance accuracy and readability.

      Townsend is a talented story-teller and an even better historian. Perhaps what makes her so good is that she is able to write expertly to multiple audiences at once. She is able to seamlessly tell a compelling narrative while weaving in appropriate nuggets of metahistory (i.e., how is it we historians know what we know?). For those of us trained as Latin Americanists (and I imagine other “non-Western historians”) who teach at regional comprehensive universities, the vast majority of students who arrive in our upper-division undergraduate history classes having had little or no exposure to the material that we are going to cover. In courses that I have taught on the pre-contact and contact period, for example, my students may know who Hernando Cortés and Moctezuma were. They may also incorrectly “know” that the so-called Aztecs (actually the Mexica, more on this later) thought that the Spaniards were gods returning from across the water to rule them. But they often know little else. Townsend doesn’t assume that her readers know anything about the Mexica, the other Nahuatl speaking residents of central Mexico, or the Spaniards with whom they came into contact. Instead, she tells us what we do know about their history, how we have come to know it, and how much certainty we can have in what we know.

     Townsend is part of the latest wave of historians who are conversant in reading the Nahuatl (and other indigenous) language documents written by the indigenous trainees of Spanish priests. These indigenous boys learned to use the Latin script to write in their own language both so that they could learn Christianity and so that they could share it with others. They did this, but many of them also wrote the histories of their local parishes pre-dating the arrival of the Spanish. Until recently, historians often wrote pre-contact history almost exclusively through the findings of archaeological digs coupled with information gleaned from the writings of early Spanish chroniclers. When historians did make use of indigenous language documents, they often assumed that what their authors wrote about their pasts belonged more in the realm of myth than history. Townsend convincingly shows how through careful cross-referencing, we have been able to discern with more clarity which pre-contact events dating back to the 13th century happened and how.

      Townsend reminds us that the Aztecs never called themselves by this name. It was a name first created and adopted by historians in the 18th century. The people who dominated central Mexico called themselves Mexica. They were part of a broader ethnic group of the peoples: the Nahuas, that a shared a common language, culture, and religion.

      The book focuses on the contact and defeat of the Mexica by the invading Spaniards and their indigenous allies. Townsend reminds us that the arrival of the Spaniards and their defeat of the Mexica need to be both of central importance but not the be-all-and-end-all of the book. The Mexica both predated the arrival of the Spaniards and, importantly, they still exist today. Nonetheless, the conflict with Spaniards served to irrevocably change both peoples’ historical trajectory. Or as Townsend tells us: “This book is about the trauma of conquest, but it is also about survival and continuity” (9). I will avoid going into detail on the actual chronology of the Mexica that Townsend covers but suffice it to say that she covers their pre-13th century migration from the north, why they lacked the technology of Europeans and Asians (it has to do with the later adoption of farming by peoples in the Americas); and the ways in which, as a means of survival, the lowly Mexica tied themselves to other ethnic groups in central Mexico before rising to power, only to be defeated by the Spaniards some time later. It is important to note that the Mexica, as they expanded their rule across much of current-day Mexico, did not demand that the people that they conquered conform to Mexica cultural norms (though it is true that they tried to tighten their grip on the lands that they conquered at the beginning of the 16th century). Instead, conquered people were expected to pay annual tribute both in service and in kind and to fight alongside the Mexica and their allies when called to do so. The Spaniards later used these tribute systems to as a means of taxing their new subjects.

      In addition to correcting the self-serving Spanish myth that the Mexica thought that the Spaniards were gods, Townsend also reminds us that the idea that the Mexica sacrificed hundreds, if not thousands of their enemies, ripping their hearts out and tossing their bodies down the stairs, is a gross exaggeration. It is not that they did not engage in human sacrifice. They, like other ancient peoples in Eurasia, did so, and the numbers of people that they sacrificed did increase over time as their power rose. That said, these were important and solemn religious and civic events that often served as the end of quite intricate ceremonies of which sacrifice was only a part.

      Townsend also addresses the role of homosexual men in Mexica society. First, the use of sources produced by post-contact friars, who condemned homosexuality, leave us with little sense of how indigenous peoples felt about it. Second, there was no specific category for men who had sex with other men. Indigenous-language sources tell us that it was simply one of a “range of sexual possibilities during one’s time on earth, understood to be part of the joy of living” (63).

     Fifth Sun sums up accurately the story of Malintzin (later doña Marina or, pejoratively, La Malinche): “Only modern people who lacked knowledge of her situation would later say that she was some sort of traitor” (94). Malintzin was a Nahuatl-speaking indigenous woman who, in her youth, was sold to the Maya and thus, when captured by Cortés and his men, was able to serve (especially after learning Spanish) as a trilingual interpreter for the Spaniards and their indigenous allies. The idea that she was a traitor assumes at least two things that were not true. First, that she agreed to serve as a translator to get rich. In fact, she had no choice. Second, that the conquest was a clash of civilizations between the Spaniards and a unified indigenous enemy. Most famously, it was the Tlaxcalans, enemies of the Mexica, that allied themselves the Spaniards in their conquest of Tenochtitlan-Mexico City. The Tlaxcalans would continue, after the conquest of central Mexico, to go on entradas (invasions of other indigenous areas) with the Spaniards into current day Guatemala and Honduras as well as western and northwestern Mexico and New Mexico.

     Townsend also puts to rest the idea that Moctezuma failed to put up a fight against the Spaniards because he was resigned to defeat.  Actually, Moctezuma was quite practical in his responses. He first tried to convince the Spaniards not to come to Tenochtitlan. When he knew that that was no longer an option, he tried to buy them (and their Tlaxcalan allies) off through the payment of gifts and tribute and through intermarriage, all sensible solutions within the indigenous political system that he knew so well. And when the time came, the Mexica did fight, but by that time they had been devastated by small pox. Meanwhile, as the Spaniard’s “technological advantages won over the surrounding peoples,” the Mexica became further and further isolated until they could no longer resist (124).

      Cortés handed out the local cities and villages to the conquistadors as encomiendas (prior to getting permission to do so from the Spanish crown). The conquistadors, like the Mexica before them, taxed the locals and demanded services and did so through local indigenous leaders, overlaying European concepts on pre-existing indigenous ones. The Crown also sent Franciscan missionaries to proselytize indigenous peoples. And, similar to how they adapted to Spanish governance, the Nahuatl-speaking locals also wove Jesus and the Virgin Mary into their pantheon of existing gods. Above all, it would take generational change, the dying off of the elderly and their replacement with new and younger leaders, for all of this change to solidify and take full effect. But change, as is always the case, was not unidirectional. Indigenous peoples learned how to harness the skills of those members of their communities who learned to write. They did it to sue the Spaniards in Spanish courts. They also did it to sue each other. And they did it to write about the histories of their own peoples prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. It is these sources that Townsend uses to help us to better understand them, and for this we should be thankful.

Andrae Marak is a professor of history and political science and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences & Graduate Studies at Governors State University in the Chicago area. He received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and is the co-PI of two National Endowment for the Humanities Dialogues on the Experience of War grants that trained military veterans how to read poetry, literature, and primary sources and engage the public on the meanings and importance of the humanities. He can be reached at


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