A rough and dated portrayal of the Spanish conquest would tend to emphasize all that changed in Central Mexico with the arrival of the early conquistaA rough and dated portrayal of the Spanish conquest would tend to emphasize all that changed in Central Mexico with the arrival of the early conquistadors, perhaps extending so far as to cite a rag-tag band of European adventurers with sole credit for the fall of Tenochtitlán. Indeed, the fact that more recent historical interpretations of the Spanish conquest and subsequent postconquest period stress forms of continuity with the preconquest period relies heavily on the work of James Lockhart and fellow practicants of the so-called New Philology. Lockhart’s The Nahuas After the Conquest provides a panoptic overview of the social and cultural life of Mesoamerica from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Drawing from a corpus of Nahuatl language source materials as varied as legal documents and ephemeral forms of artistic expression, Lockhart pieces together the world of New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants based on the internal consistency of both Nahua accounts and those produced by Spaniards. His findings uncover a wealth of understanding concerning not only the extent of New Spain’s similarity with the preceding Mexica regime, but also the means by which the Nahuas managed to maintain their traditional ways of life.
Lockhart’s examination uncovers a society for which only a few modern referents remain. Nahua society exhibited a sort of cellular-modular organization visible in the makeup of territorial entities known as altepetl units. This tendency, however, extended to practices as varied as religion and architecture, and appeared in such intellectual capacities as the inability to discern simple polarities. In contrast to such long-term trends, Lockhart does provide a general three stage schematic so as to identify a process of postconquest evolution. Though theorized from written sources, this process adheres in impressive fashion to a number of economic and demographic fluctuations supported by other scholarship.
For all of its many advantages, Lockhart’s approach does raise concern. His work relies heavily on the extent of surviving documents from the postconquest period, most of which have been separated by generations of collectors or lost entirely. Authorship also proves problematic, many Nahua notaries having interacted extensively with the Spanish. In addition, there remains a postmodern concern with the quality of modern attempts to interpret the words of persons that lived and wrote in a time now long since gone. To be fair, these appear to be a risks of which Lockhart is largely aware; the apparent gain and obvious restrictions imposed by available evidence seeming to displace the greatest worries. In all truth, given the option of equally flawed methodological alternatives, the New Philology offers an incisive analysis of a people and a period for which very little concrete information remains. ...more