Types of Sources

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate between primary and secondary sources

Multiple Perspectives

One of the questions you could ask to learn more about the Aztecs and the Spanish might be, “How did the Aztec (and how did the Spanish) describe their first encounter?” Fortunately, there are some accounts from their initial encounters. Granted, many of these records are lost, but there are some surviving first- and second-hand accounts, including those written by Cortés himself in letters to King Charles V, the King of Spain (and the Holy Roman Empire) at the time. Other accounts were recorded by conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote about his experiences during the Aztec conquest of 1521 several decades later in a book, The True History of the Conquest of Spain. Even more records come from the Florentine Codex, a record about the Aztec and life in central America after the Spanish encounter, written by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún between 1545 and 1590. The codex is in a library in Florence (hence the name), but it was mostly written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and documents the culture, practices, and history of the Aztec people.[1]

Other accounts come from yet another codex, the Anales de Tlatelolco, which were written in Nahuatl by anonymous Aztec authors sometime after the conquest by the Spanish (likely between 1528 and the 1540s). Miguel León-Portilla translated many of these accounts and published them in a book called The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico in 1959. Below is an example from that text. It describes Cortés’s meeting with Moctezuma as well as the Massacre in the Great Temple, an event in May 1520 when the Spanish brutally attacked unarmed Aztecs while they were celebrating the Feast of Toxcatl (this Wikipedia article shares two perspectives of the account). This event began a full-scale war, with continued fighting through August 1521. We will use the text below to practice techniques for analyzing historical documents.

Aztec Accounts of the Conquest

In 1519 Hernan Cortés sailed from Cuba, landed in Mexico, and made his way to the Aztec capital. This source aggregates a number of early written reports by Aztec authors describing the destruction of Tenochtitlán at the hands of a coalition of Spanish and Indigenous armies. This collection of sources was assembled by Miguel Leon Portilla, a Mexican anthropologist. You can also view this account here.

Speeches of Motecuhzoma and Cortés

When Motecuhzoma [Moctezuma] had given necklaces to each one, Cortés asked him: “Are you Motecuhzoma? Are you the king? Is it true that you are the king Motecuhzoma?”

And the king said: “Yes, I am Motecuhzoma.” Then he stood up to welcome Cortés; he came forward, bowed his head low and addressed him in these words: “Our lord, you are weary. The journey has tired you, but now you have arrived on the earth. You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy.

“The kings who have gone before, your representatives, guarded it and preserved it for your coming. The kings Itzcoatl, Motecuhzoma the Elder, Axayacatl, Tizoc and Ahuitzol ruled for you in the City of Mexico. The people were protected by their swords and sheltered by their shields.

“Do the kings know the destiny of those they left behind, their posterity? If only they are watching! If only they can see what I see! No, it is not a dream. I am not walking in my sleep. I am not seeing you in my dreams…. I have seen you at last! I have met you face to face! I was in agony for five days, for ten days, with my eyes fixed on the Region of the Mystery. And now you have come out of the clouds and mists to sit on your throne again. This was foretold by the kings who governed your city, and now it has taken place. You have come back to us; you have come down from the sky. Rest now, and take possession of your royal houses. Welcome to your land, my lords!”

When Motecuhzoma had finished, La Malinche translated his address into Spanish so that the Captain could understand it. Cortés replied in his strange and savage tongue, speaking first to La Malinche: “Tell Motecuhzoma that we are his friends. There is nothing to fear. We have wanted to see him for a long time, and now we have seen his face and heard his words. Tell him that we love him well and that our hearts are contented.”

Then he said to Motecuhzoma: “We have come to your house in Mexico as friends. There is nothing to fear.”

La Malinche translated this speech and the Spaniards grasped Motecuhzoma’s hands and patted his back to show their affection for him….

Massacre in the Main Temple

The Massacre in the Great Temple, also called the Alvarado Massacre, was an event on May 22, 1520, in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, in which the celebration of the Feast of Toxcatl ended in a massacre of Aztec elites. While Hernán Cortés was in Tenochtitlán, he heard about other Spaniards arriving on the coast – Pánfilo de Narváez had come from Cuba with orders to arrest him – and Cortés was forced to leave the city to fight them. During his absence, Motecuhzoma asked deputy governor Pedro de Alvarado for permission to celebrate Toxcatl (an Aztec festivity in honor of Tezcatlipoca, one of their main gods). But after the festivities had started, Alvarado interrupted the celebration, killing all the warriors and noblemen who were celebrating inside the Great Temple. The few who managed to escape the massacre by climbing over the walls informed the community of the Spaniards’ atrocity.

During this time, the people asked Motecuhzoma how they should celebrate their god’s fiesta. He said: “Dress him in all his finery, in all his sacred ornaments.”

During this same time, The Sun commanded that Motecuhzoma and Itzcohuatzin, the military chief of Tlatelolco, be made prisoners. The Spaniards hanged a chief from Acolhuacan named Nezahualquentzin. They also murdered the king of Nauhtla, Cohualpopocatzin, by wounding him with arrows and then burning him alive.

For this reason, our warriors were on guard at the Eagle Gate. The sentries from Tenochtitlán stood at one side of the gate, and the sentries from Tlatelolco at the other. But messengers came to tell them to dress the figure of Huitzilopochtli. They left their posts and went to dress him in his sacred finery: his ornaments and his paper clothing.

When this had been done, the celebrants began to sing their songs. That is how they celebrated the first day of the fiesta. On the second day they began to sing again, but without warning they were all put to death. The dancers and singers were completely unarmed. They brought only their embroidered cloaks, their turquoises, their lip plugs, their necklaces, their clusters of heron feathers, their trinkets made of deer hooves. Those who played the drums, the old men, had brought their gourds of snuff and their timbrels.

The Spaniards attacked the musicians first, slashing at their hands and faces until they had killed all of them. The singers-and even the spectators- were also killed. This slaughter in the Sacred Patio went on for three hours. Then the Spaniards burst into the rooms of the temple to kill the others: those who were carrying water, or bringing fodder for the horses, or grinding meal, or sweeping, or standing watch over this work.

The king Motecuhzoma, who was accompanied by Itzcohuatzin and by those who had brought food for the Spaniards, protested: “Our lords, that is enough! What are you doing? These people are not carrying shields or macanas. Our lords, they are completely unarmed!”

The Sun had treacherously murdered our people on the twentieth day after the captain left for the coast. We allowed the Captain to return to the city in peace. But on the following day we attacked him with all our might, and that was the beginning of the war.

Does your impression of the Aztec encounter with the Spanish now change with the new information from these readings? Consider the questions to help you think about the primary source.

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With this new information, you are only beginning to understand the entirety of the encounter between the Spanish and the Aztec. When historians encounter primary source documents, they not only look at the message and main idea of a document, but they also must consider the document in light of its surrounding context and also question who wrote it, why they wrote it, and why it is relevant.

For example, we know that this source is compiled by Miguel Leon Portilla but written by Aztec authors sometime after the conquest by the Spanish (likely between 1528 and the 1540s). It was recorded in the Anales de Tlatelolco in the Nahuatl language by unknown authors (they had adopted the Spanish alphabet into their written language). They were likely not there first-hand, but are repeating second-hand information they heard or remember about the events. The record was intended as an account for the Mexica (Aztec) peoples, and written for an informative purpose. Because these authors represent the Aztec perspective they may be more likely to paint the Spanish in a negative light.

With this information in mind, a historian wanting to better understand this encounter would dig deeper to find other accounts from different perspectives, including what the Spanish said about the meeting. In this way, historians look at dozens, even hundreds of different accounts, attempting to piece together the nuances of any given situation. It can be a fun and challenging type of detective work.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

We can group information sources into three basic categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. When we make distinctions between these three categories of sources, we are relating the information itself to the context in which it was created. Noting this relationship between creation and context helps us understand the big picture in which information operates, and prompts us to consider whose voices we are including in our research, and whose voices may be left out.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand observations or experiences of an event. They can also be the original sources of information before they have been analyzed, such as statistical data sets. Examples of primary sources include:

  • Eyewitness reports (interviews, photographs)
  • Speeches, diaries, memoirs
  • Empirical research
  • Original documents, historical newspaper articles
  • Literary works (novels, plays, poems), artworks
  • Tweets
  • Photographs

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are created after an event occurred and offer a review or an analysis of the event; they provide an interpretation of the primary source or data without offering new data. Examples of secondary sources would be:

  • Biographies, nonfiction books
  • Editorials
  • Literary criticism and reviews
  • Periodicals (such as scholarly journals, magazines, or newspapers)

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are compilations of information coming from secondary and primary sources; these can be lists or collections, and are generally reference material that can help you find, or direct you to, secondary and primary sources. Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • Bibliographies
  • Abstracts of scholarly articles
  • Indexes and directories
  • Encyclopedia entries

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