Bonus Book Review: Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Given that my scholarly expertise, such as it is, is in American religious history, Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs may seem an odd or unlikely choice of book for me to review here at the blog. (I did take one graduate-level course in Latin American history several years ago, but that’s the extent of my training, and I’ve never taught any courses in the subject.) However, I recently joined a book discussion group on Reddit which, beginning this year, is reading one work of scholarly nonfiction each month. The January selection was, as you may have guessed by now, Fifth Sun, and since I needed to read and take some notes for the online conversation anyway, I thought I’d type up a brief (and decidedly non-expert) review of the book to put on the blog. I plan to do this in future months as well, since the democratically-selected titles are probably going to take me to subfields and fields well outside of my normal comfort zone.

Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

A bit of background on the author before we begin the review proper: Camilla Townsend is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. She holds the PhD, also from Rutgers, and is the author of several other books of Native American and Latin American history, including Tales of Two Cities: Race and Economic Culture in Early Republican North and South America and Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. She writes on her faculty webpage that “I am deeply immersed in the study of Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and my most intense focus is now on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writings left to us by Native American historians. Through the historical annals they produced, we catch a glimpse of indigenous conceptualizations of history as they existed at first contact.” (1) Each of these interests played a major role in the formation of Fifth Sun, as we will soon see.

Diving right in, Fifth Sun is an incredibly ambitious book in the best kind of way, as Townsend attempts nothing less than a sweeping (though not comprehensive) overview of Aztec history, ranging from the pre-Columbian era through the century following Cortes’s conquest. Rather than making that conquest either the starting or stopping point for the book, Townsend cleverly situates it in the middle, allowing the reader to see both the continuities and changes in Aztec life on either side of the divide. She draws on a wide variety of under-utilized sources written in Nahuatl, including the Aztec xiuhpohualli, or annals, which have often been ignored because of scholars’ language barriers or discounted because of the peculiarities of Aztec historical writing. (I have seen other reviewers suggest that some of these sources are not quite as obscure as Townsend implies, though again, as a non-expert, I am not informed enough to offer an opinion.)

Although the book is not organized around them, Townsend makes five primary arguments in Fifth Sun. First, she argues that, popular notions to the contrary, the Aztecs’ “religiously motivated belief in the necessity of human sacrifice to keep the gods happy… was never paramount” in their politics. (2) Second, she writes that while many past treatments of the Aztecs have displayed “a problematic tendency to deem some people… evil and others good” (3) in truth, the artistic/literary and violent/military aspects of their culture went hand in hand, just as they have in the histories and experiences of other civilizations.

Third, Townsend challenges several faulty assumptions about what led to the Aztecs’ downfall, such as the drastically oversimplified notion that most or all of the surrounding peoples despised the Aztecs and willingly allied with the Spaniards to overthrow them without giving it a second thought. (“Some people hated them,” she observes, “but others aspired to be them.” (4)) Fourth, she argues that, like other conquered peoples, the Aztecs who survived the arrival of the Spaniards continued to adapt and make do as best as they could, just as they had during the previous centuries of political turmoil prior to the Aztec rise to power. And fifth, Townsend reminds us that it is the written work of those who survived which now allows us to rediscover “what the people once thought about. In short, the Aztecs were conquered, but they also saved themselves.” (5)

Rather than going chapter by chapter through Townsend’s narrative, I’ll briefly overview the overall structure of the book here and leave it to you, the (potential) reader, to read and enjoy the actual content. As Townsend notes in the introduction, Fifth Sun‘s eight chapters are divided into three unnumbered “sections” of 2-3 chapters apiece based on the amount of time the included chapters span. The first three chapters each cover vast swaths of time (pre-1299, 1350s-1450s, and 1470-1518, respectively), tracing the rise to power of the Mexica in the years leading up to the arrival of the Spaniards. The next two chapters slow the narrative way down, covering a single year (1519) in chapter four and two years (1520-1521) in chapter five. Townsend acknowledges that “Perhaps in some ways this gives too much power to the swaggering conquistadors, but it was indeed a critical time for the Mexica and merits careful consideration.” (6)

The final three chapters return to the broader chronological sweep of the first three, tracing the long-term impacts of the Spanish conquest across subsequent decades (the 1520s-1550s, the 1560s, and the 1570s-1620s). While the pacing sounds unusual when described in this way, the logic of Townsend’s decision is sound, and she skillfully moves back and forth between incredibly detailed depictions of individual events from specific eras and wider descriptions of major changes in Aztec society across the generations. Each chapter begins with an artfully-written vignette focusing on a single individual, allowing Townsend to drill down to an even more granular level of detail.

Given my aforementioned lack of expertise in the subject matter, I’ll limit my critiques to two main areas, the former more substantial than the latter. First, although this criticism is rooted primarily in a philosophical/theoretical disagreement, not in meaningful knowledge of the source materials, I was somewhat put off in a couple of places where Townsend seemed to overly downplay the role of religious belief in and of itself in shaping the actions of the Aztecs (essentially, the first of the five arguments outlined above). I understand that Townsend is having to write against many generations of popular characterizations of the Aztecs as fanatical religious devotees, prepared to sacrifice anyone and everyone to appease the gods; yet at the same time, it is possible to disagree with religious beliefs or to find them harmful without seeking to reduce them to purely materialistic concerns. Undoubtedly, the incredibly intricate power politics of pre-conquest Mexica society involved the same sort of ruthless realpolitiking seen in other advanced civilizations, but to assert that “they understood clearly that political life revolved not around the gods or claims about the gods but around the realities of shifting power imbalances” (7) seems a bit oversimplified to this reader, given what we know about the intermingling of religious and political beliefs in other societies, including our own. The same events can be interpreted through both religious and political lenses simultaneously, after all, as we as humans rarely view or understand our world from simply one vantage point or aspect of our personalities.

Second, and much less substantially, while I greatly appreciated the inclusion of a glossary near the beginning of the book, I sometimes found myself wishing that that material had been more thoroughly worked into the text. This complaint stems at least in part from me reading a (legally sourced!) PDF of the book rather than a physical copy. All the same, I found it difficult to repeatedly move back and forth from the text of the book to the glossary, to say nothing of also needing to periodically turn to the endnotes and to the pronunciation guide as well. A physical copy of the book would have been easier to manage in this regard, but again, I think some of the explanatory materials could have been woven more thoroughly into the text of the book–or, and this might sound crazy, into discursive footnotes!–especially since Fifth Sun was intended for a broader readership than just experts in Aztec history.

As evidenced by the fact that one of my criticisms is largely about the linear nature of non-hyperlinked PDFs, my overall evaluation of Fifth Sun is quite positive. Townsend’s writing is clear and accessible to non-specialists such as yours truly (though I would suggest acquiring a physical copy of the book and keeping 2-3 bookmarks handy!) and will do much to clear the cobwebs of outdated tropes and misinformed characterizations of Aztec life from the brain.

NOTES

(1) “Townsend, Camilla,” Rutgers Department of History, accessed January 31, 2021, https://history.rutgers.edu/faculty-directory/188-townsend-camilla.

(2) p. 6

(3) p. 7

(4) p. 7

(5) p. 8

(6) p. 10

(7) p. 7

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