In this telling, there is no mystery to the conquest, no hidden germ of superiority bolstering the Spanish victories. Whatever advantages the Spanish had, Townsend argues, came to them only as the heirs of a Eurasian civilisation that, thanks to a few extra millennia of agricultural sedentism, had developed more efficient ways to murder. Placed in a broader timeline, and one that centres on indigenous accounts, the conquest was not the end of the Aztecs’ world, but a single chapter in a longer story of adaptation and resistance. Moctezuma’s empire has fallen, but so too has the Spanish. Tenochtitlan is gone, razed and rebuilt as the capital of a country in which indigenous traditions remain vital and more than 1.5 million people still speak Nahuatl, more than Welsh or Basque or Chechen. However much blood Cortés may have spilled, he did not destroy the Aztecs.
While Townsend’s informed use of the annals yields many insights into the Mexica, I must conclude that the best English-language account of their pre-Hispanic life remains Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation, whose ‘exact imagining’ is based on a rigorous analysis of gender, social relations and ritual performance. Future studies will have to take into more serious account the fact that Mexico – both before and after the conquest – was animated by omens, eclipses and gods who returned in physical and symbolic forms as the calendar turned. Chimalpahin is telling us as much when he reports that a deceased child placed before the image of San Diego was brought back to life, and when he states, ‘I saw two miracles. I really saw them.’ In Chimalpahin’s city, native Mesoamerican and Spaniard, African and Asian walked with the divine and were visited by at least two gods of the Fifth Sun – Quetzalcoatl and Jesus Christ on the Cross.