Women in the Calpulli

The exact nature of the Aztec family is not totally known, but the high amount of autonomy given to calpulli and the more meritocratic nature of Aztec society probably meant that family units were fairly small; with a husband, wife, and children.

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Depiction of a calpulli meeting from the Florentine Codex.

Archaeological evidence shows that houses were relatively small as well, which lends further credence to this theory. As such, the Aztec family structure is sometimes referred to as “nuclear”. However, some families likely remained with their relatives for economic reasons.

The Aztec calpulli is a somewhat elusive beast for anthropologists, but in basic terms, it is a neighborhood of individual households connected through lineage, trade, or circumstance. Aztec society can therefore be described as somewhat communitarian, at least in large cities. Because of this, connections between households through personal relationships or direct relation were extremely important to maintain.

These kinds of relationships could result in more economically lucrative cooperation, greater comradery between men when the calpulli is called to war, and most importantly, intermarriage. All of these things were likely managed and handled by women, simply because the men were away at war or working while the women stayed in the calpulli. Women likely knew their households and neighborhoods quite well, and could have kept a close eye on the people that lived within them.

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From the Florentine Codex.

Oftentimes, the importance of women in local society is understated. This occurs cross culturally, and is a symptom of how we choose to examine past cultures.

The simple act of social engagement can have powerful and long-lasting repercussions for a family. The term “gossip” carries a somewhat negative tone, but interactions with other individuals would have been extremely important if one was to maintain a standard of living. In order for a woman to succeed in this highly community oriented environment, she would have to know the right people and engage in or retreat from social situations based upon the cost or benefit from it.

For example, a family that throws well planned parties with a generous amount of food would be far more likely to attract the attention of important individuals, which may ultimately benefit that family. Noble women would probably have a much more difficult time with this, as navigating the dangerous terrain of relationships with other nobles would require a great amount of care, else they could gain a negative reputation.

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