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An Interpretation Written by Inga Clendinnen and the Changing Approaches of Historiography of the 1990’s

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An Interpretation is Inga Clendinnen’s second book and in its most basic form is an exploration into the culture of the people of Tenochtitlan. Clendinnen lays out intentions to explore Aztec culture through a bottom up approach in order to appreciate the wider ideas of gender roles, ritual and interactions within the structures of society. Before Clendinnen and the changing approaches of historiography of the 1990’s, most historiography and archaeological excavations focussed on a top down approach through looking at the height of society in lords and gods. Clendinnen’s approach to writing can partly be attributed to the historical significance of 1992 being four hundred years since the landing of Columbus in the Americas which caused popular historiography to turn towards representing native people’s experiences, especially within the Americas. Clendinnen’s book is undeniably pivotal in terms of historiographical style of the time, however this does not leave it immune to criticism in terms of her methods and content. Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation is a very important piece of historiography which helped inspire a shift in writing towards one which represented native experiences from all levels of society. However it is important to appreciate the extent to which much of Clendinnen’s writing is based off of minimal first hand evidence and therefore represents a hyperbole or assumption of the whole truth.

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Clendinnen’s approach in Aztecs: An Interpretation revolves largely around the use of the Florentine Codex, the contemporary accounts put together by Bernardino de Sahagún as Clendinnen celebrates it highly as a useful piece despite recognising its criticisms amongst other scholars. This is potentially problematic as it is important to recognise that despite being a comprehensive account of the lifestyle of the Mexica, the Florentine Codex still remains a colonial account and therefore should not be considered a wholly accurate account of lifestyle and culture in Tenochtitlan. This could be a testament to Clendinnen’s personal bias as whilst she celebrates the Florentine Codex she is quick to put forwards her skepticism surrounding the work of Durán for not reflecting native voices enough despite scholars criticising the Florentine Codex for the same reasons. For this reason Aztecs: An Interpretation appears weak as it gives the impression that Clendinnen is not applying consistent standards to her work. Clendinnen does counter this however by arguing the usefulness of the Florentine Codex as the best insight into the life of the Mexica due to it being the only case where the natives themselves were part of the accounts made. Whilst there are strengths to the Florentine Codex Clendinnen’s heavy reliance on it does create a weakness within her methods.

The accessibility of the book gives it a great strength when considering the historiographical significance of Aztecs: An Interpretation. Inga Clendinnen has written in a way which makes the information very clear and easy to understand. She has achieved this partly by forming the book of four essays which stand independently but still follow a cohesive argument and partly through the use of emotive language which captures readers interest greater. Words such as ‘enjoyed’, ‘dreaming’, ‘emotional stress’ and ‘glamour’ create an emotive narrative throughout the book which encapsulates readers of all levels of scholarship more successfully by creating a more relatable portrayal of Mexica life. This literary elaboration which Clendinnen has used in the writing process is potentially problematic as it requires a large number of assumptions from her part which reduces the legitimacy of her content. Although, when considering the role of a historian, there is greater credence in producing content which can be accessed by all aspects of the public compared to a wholly accurate reflection of events. Many argue a greater importance in bringing the past to the sphere of public knowledge and therefore suggest that as long as the content is using factual and empirical evidence responsibly to do this it is considered to be useful. Additionally, it is important to note that in the very title of the book Inga Clendinnen is admitting to the aspects of interpretation within the book and so to assume her word is the absolute truth would be in itself problematic.

Inga Clendinnen communicates the aim of Aztecs: An Interpretation as a demonstration of the lives of ordinary Mexica men and women and how they interact with life, eating, trading, fighting and production and how these aspects made up ‘culture’. It can be largely agreed that Clendinnen achieves this aim through her thorough use of the Florentine Codex as well as an appreciation for other historiography and primary sources. Her structure is effective in helping her achieve her aims also as it allowed her to break down the aspects she was considering into the roles, perspectives of the city, the sacred rituals and the conquest. These four subheadings allow her to cohesively explore all aspects of what she laid out as ‘culture’. It is also argued however that through her own, modern, European bias she could never have achieved her aim fully as she is rooted with personal bias and a lack of full understanding of some of the more unrelatable aspects of the Mexica lifestyle such as human sacrifice. On the other hand a large amount of Clendinnen’s success has come from her reevaluation of human sacrifice as historiography prior to Aztecs: An Interpretation often wrote the behaviour of ritual killing as barbaric and uncivilised. Clendinnen wrote about it in a more empathetic way which considered it an integral part of religion, social roles and culture which even common people had an emotional role in. This interpretation has inspired a greater shift in the historiography of ritual killing as seen in more recent works such as by Caroline Pennock where she further explores the motivations behind ritual killing with empathy. Aztecs: An Interpretation’s wider influence on historiography is an undoubted success which cannot be overlooked when considering the book on its own.

Certain style choices do create limitations for Clendinnen’s work including her focus being too broad. Clendinnen’s ambitious aim to cover all roles in society as well as perspectives and rituals is very broad and perhaps makes the book more ineffective. Particularly notable in her section on roles, the depth of explanation in each role is counter productive in attempting to engage the reader as much of the content is repetitive where explanations of roles are intertwined. This is seen amongst the male roles especially. Therefore there might have been greater success if she had chosen a more focussed approach and delved into greater analytical comparisons within topics. Additionally, the way she devised her structure in each essay sometimes leaves the text feeling a bit disjointed and arduous to read. This returns to the ideas of what makes a successful historian and the ease and compelling nature of the read is critical to this. Therefore the fall down of the style is a limitation of the book due to being counter productive in engaging readers.

Overall, Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation can be considered not only a successful book but an integral piece of historiography due to the legacy it has left in Aztec and native writings. There are significant limitations to Clendinnen’s work which leave it open to criticism. Most notably perhaps is her over reliance on the Florentine Codex despite its criticisms as a source which suggests a unreliable basis for much of the book. This is especially prevalent as she recognises the limitations in the native accounts within the Codex and still persists to base many of her assumptions off of its work, whilst for her aim this was largely unavoidable it suggests a level of bias in her writing. Other criticisms and limitations of her work include her overly broad spectrum of topics leading to a less engaging, more repetitive book and her tendency to be overly emotive and elaborate which reduces the credibility of her writing. However it is important to emphasis the strengths of the writing including the part she played in the shift of historiography towards one representing the voices of the natives with empathy which has inspired further work by the likes of Stephanie Wood, Camilla Townsend and Caroline Pennock. Additionally the accessibility of Clendinnen’s work to the wider public is highly significant as fulfils a duty she has as a historian successfully and therefore makes her deserving of praise. Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation has both merits and limitations, however it can be concluded that the merits outweigh the criticisms for the role the book plays in Aztec historiography even today is monumental and the success which it has in terms of Clendinnen’s role as a historian is notable.

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