Short Post: Aztec Marketplace Scams

I’ve been dying to share this for several weeks now: excerpts from a confession manual, written in the Aztec language of Nahuatl by Friar Alonso de Molina in 1569, that was meant to help other clerics guide the people of the New World towards the light of Christianity.

A little context first. There was great variety in terms of the types of markets the Aztec and their subjects set up. At the top end, there was the massive one at Tepepolco, where anything and everything could be bought and sold, including deer, hares, rabbits, turkeys, quail, fish- and game-stuffed pies, eggs, maize, avocados, chilis, prickly pears, chopped firewood, sharp obsidian blades for one’s private acts of bloodletting to the gods, pots, clay figurines to be used in household ritual, and so on. You could even get a haircut. Then there were super-specialised places where you only got one thing–for example, the Acolman market, where they only sold small- and medium-sized dogs bred especially for eating. Also, while Tepepolco was open every day of the week (I have checked this, the Aztecs had 5-day weeks), the smaller the market was, the less regularly it met. Cacao beans and cotton textiles functioned as currencies, but they were also things to buy and sell in their own right.

Scams were not uncommon. We know this from the observations of Spanish chroniclers, who write that some traders would, for example, peel the skin off cacao beans, stuff it with dirt or sawdust, and then mix the “fake” beans with a batch of real ones.

And so it was that Friar Alonso de Molina, in his 1569 confession manual, felt the need to add his formula to his book:

And when you sold cacao beans, perhaps you mixed your bad cacao beans with the good ones to merchandise them all together, whereby you deceive your people? . . . And perhaps you toast the small, shrunken cacao beans, whereby you enlarge them so they will appear plump? (Molina 1972:f.37r, translated by Dibble 1988: 72, as quoted in Smith 1996: 125)

I also quite like this one:

And when you bought good capes, perhaps you inserted them among the poor ones? And when you filled the holes of the holey capes, perhaps you did not show your customer that the capes were holey, damaged, whereby you made sport of him? (Molina 1972:f.39v, 36v, translated by Dibble 1988: 71, as quoted in Smith 1996: 132)

I’m not entirely sure why I like these quotes so much. I guess it’s the fact that they describe somewhat comical acts of deceit (which were nonetheless punished very harshly by marketplace authorities) in such a pompous way that they make them even more comical. But, at the same time, they capture, in just a few words, a vivid sense of what the Aztec marketplace must have been like–a disorienting, chaotic place, where not everything was what it seemed, and many of the wonders on display were nothing but scams invented by wily traders to fool backwater yokels and naive foreigners.

For those interested in reading more about this, I recommend Michael Smith’s The Aztecs (1996, Oxford: Blackwell), my main source for this post.


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