Hodder History Expert Blog

Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest, 1519-1535
By Kate Jarvis and Richard Woff
15 Oct

The scene

a pub near King’s Cross shortly after publication of Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest.


Kate Jarvis, Richard Woff (authors) and two celebratory beers!

Richard, we first met just after you had been approached to write the GCSE Aztecs book for SHP. What attracted you to this subject?

It was definitely the opportunity to explore, in more depth, a historical culture which I knew only a little about.

My background is ancient Greece and Rome, but over the course of eighteen years at the British Museum, I’d had the chance to apply what I had learned about understanding those cultures to trying to understand others. While members of my team had worked on the Aztecs, I hadn’t, so I relished the chance to try to get inside one of the most famous of world cultures.

I also really fancied the idea of writing with a co-author so was very pleased that you wanted to come aboard.

Can I turn the question back to you? Unlike me, you’ve been studying the Aztecs as an undergraduate and graduate and still do so as a curator at the Museum, so something must have drawn you to them in the first place!

When I studied history for GCSE, we covered a fairly broad range of topics, from the Liberal Reforms to the Russian Revolution, but we never touched the Aztecs. I visited a friend in Mexico City after my A-levels in a bid to improve my Spanish before studying it at university. When I was there, I came face to face with the Aztecs – I contemplated their demise in the archaeological ruins of their civilisation, but I also became aware of their survival in the people themselves through the traditions and beliefs that are still practised in Central Mexico today. And then I reapplied to university, to study archaeology instead of Spanish!

Now I have a question for you Richard. You were an Aztec-newbie. So is there anything that you thought you knew about them, before you started researching, that you now know to be wrong?

Well, I’d like to think that I’m not the only person who still had this picture of a small band of Spanish adventurers overthrowing the might of the Aztec empire through a combination of bravery, bold leadership and technological superiority. I now have a far better idea of how complicated the actual situation was, not least in the contribution made to the defeat of the Aztecs by other indigenous peoples of the region. That’s not to say that there’s not some truth in those idealised qualities of the Spanish, but this was far from a victory of the noble, sophisticated underdog over the corrupt and primitive superpower.

We did a lot of research for this book and we discussed all sorts of topics and issues. We could not put everything in! What was the most fascinating thing you learnt that you had to leave out of the book?

Hmmm, I need to hedge this answer a bit as we really have packed in a lot about the Aztecs and their encounters with the Spanish, so it’s more a matter of what we didn’t have the chance to develop in greater depth rather than what we left out. Two things strike me in particular:
  • one, which is outside the syllabus, is the interactions between the Mexica and other Aztec peoples through which they gradually built up their power and then came to dominate the empire of the Triple Alliance;
  • the other is the controversial question of whether the Aztec concept of the world and of time made them vulnerable to the kind of interruption that the arrival of the Spanish represented.
My question for you, Kate, is: what do you think is the most important lesson for students to take away from learning about the Aztecs and the Spanish conquest?

For me the conquest of Mexico is a powerful reminder that history is almost always written by the victors, and it’s up to historians, archaeologists, teachers and school students to try to get to the bottom of what the Aztec world was really like in a balanced and objective way. To mention the Aztecs to most people is to elicit visions of human sacrifice, brutality and superstition, but I hope this book will show students that Aztec culture was so much more than that.

I hope too, that by trying to understand and overcome perceived stereotypes about a culture in the past, students will seek to appreciate and learn about all the many different cultures in the world today, without prejudice or preconception.

It’s a lot to ask of a GCSE textbook, I know, but the book’s out now and let’s hope that lots of teachers will choose our syllabus topic.

How about you Richard? What do you think learning about the Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest offers students that nothing else on the GCSE syllabus does?

Ha, that’s a risky one and I am nervous about insulting our fellow series authors who have written on the twelve different topics, but I feel that the full range of perspectives through which we perceive historical events come together in those years 1519-1521.

The conquest allows students to see the convergence of big economic forces, of technologies, of cultures, of concepts of power, of ideologies, of personalities and of luck. These are focused into a vivid, dramatic sequence of events which would be dismissed as unbelievable if it wasn’t true.

And then, as if that isn’t enough, the whole mix is intensified by the total unfamiliarity each culture had with the other. Such mutual strangeness, such stepping into the unknown is only conceivable today in the realms of science fiction.

OCR GCSE History SHP: Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest, 1519-1535 is part of Hodder Education's comprehensive support for the OCR GCSE History specifications. You can order the book here.

You can find out more about the OCR B History textbooks and digital support here:

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