If you happened to be a teenager in one of the Central Mexico’s prominent altepetls/city-states such as Tenochtitlan, the famous island-capital of the Mexica Aztecs, or their partners of the mainland, Texcoco or Tlacopan, you would be excused from counting on enjoying your life free of schooling.
Unlike most of their contemporary world beyond the oceans, Central Mexico had very strict ideas concerning state education for every youth in each city, if not in smaller towns and villages. Not only various schools, or what we would probably consider today as ‘highschool’, were available and ready to make the youths between the ages 14 and 18 work hard, expanding their knowledge and in the way the state had seen fit, but one’s attendance at such institutions of education was mandatory, not a voluntary decision of a youth or a parent to make.
Tenochtitlan, being one of the largest Mesoamerican cities of the 15th century – one of the largest urban centers for their times worldwide as well – had two types of schools. Divided into twelve large calpulli-districts, the city was reported to provide a school per-district, for local teens to attend upon reaching their 15th year of life. Until then it was the parents’ responsibility to teach the child basic manners and crafts, but from the youth’s mid-teens the state was taking over.
The numerous district schools were called telpochcalli – a house/calli of youth/telpochtli – and, like stated above, they catered for youths between ages of 15 and 18, teaching crafts and martial skills along with instructions in basic manners expected from a future good citizen and certain aspects of ceremonial life. No sources claim that those more ‘common’ youths were taught reading and writing, or mathematics and science, but some references suggests that they might have been educated at basic reading of calendar and do basic math in order to run their future workshops and other small businesses.
The telpochcalli pupils were required to sleep in school, after attending midnight ceremonies, but they were free to visit their homes during afternoons unless punished to stay and work due to various transgressions. As a rule, they were required to contribute to public works by occasionally participating in those on a voluntary basis.
Generally, their lives seemed to be rewarding, offering opportunities to those who were ready to invest in their studies or displayed higher abilities and gifts. Outstandingly talented youths could have hoped to be recommended for transfer to calmecac, the noble school, the only one in the entire city, a very exclusive establishment.
Located in the heart of Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial center, surrounding the city’s most magnificent temples, royal palace, ball court, Great Pyramid and so on, the exclusive calmecac catered to nobility and royal children, preparing the next generation of ruling class – governors, judges, leading warriors, priests, tribute collectors and scribes, artists of higher order, scientists and so on. Gifted commoners sent from various telpochcalli were examined and if found fit admitted into this special institution, then made to work hard acquiring higher education.
The children of the nobility were reported to be admitted to calmecac earlier than their commoner telpochcalli peers. Between the ages of 12 to 14 minor nobility offsprings would be sent to pursue their formal education, with the royal family children starting their school lives as early as seven or eight years old.
Like telpochcalli students, calmecac pupils were sleeping in school, allowed to visit their families through certain afternoon hours, required to return for evening or midnight rites. Here the study was more vigorous and demanding: mathematics, history, astronomy, extensive reading and comprehending of written material, religious and otherwise, calendars, history books, maps, traders’ accounts.
It wasn’t easy to read or write in original Nahuatl that was composed of glyphs rather than letters or characters. It demanded special training which calmecac students were enjoying, or suffering depending on the point of view, on a daily basis. Most students of telpochcalli schools did not train to read beyond basics, even though traders certainly used plenty of reading and writing materials, and so did tribute collectors and probably other commoners.
Yet, the nobility was expected to read properly whatever their occupation was. So it is excusable to assume that the noble children with no special talents might have had it tougher than their fellow telpochcalli contemporaries. On the other hand, the calmecac students were not reported to participate in manual labor of public works, even though, like other school youth, they made their daily trips to the mainland in order to bring firewood and other required necessities.
Also even the calmecac highborn youths were expected to clean their classes and sleeping halls, and even cook for themselves, or so some sources state. According to various codices, Tenochtitlan schools made sure no install measure of humbleness in all students and future full time citizens of the great city.
So Tenochtitlan youth were required to attend public schools, every source agree on that, even if they don’t agree on details. But what about the girls?
Some sources state that most girls learned from their mothers, being their sole responsibility; like boys were the responsibility of their fathers until the age of the mandatory schooling. Yet, there are sources who hint that Tenochtitlan girls were provided with the opportunity to attend their local district schools as well, for at least a period of one year. A priestess of the local temple that would be usually adjacent to the district schools as well as to the exclusive calmecac – this one had several temples surrounding it – would teach the girls skills needed in their future marital lives. Creating cotton and maguey cloths was first and foremost job expected of every woman, commoner and lady alike, their skills at their looms praised and required. More intricate crafts of delicate embroidery might have been taught in both schools, or maybe in noble calmecac alone. Cooking and sewing might have been a prerogative of the commoner telpochcalli female students.
Again unlike their telpochcalli peers, the calmecac girls might also have been taught reading and writing, and basics of mathematics. Expected to run households of their rich husbands they had to deal with complex economics of management plentitude of slaves and supplies. A girl that did well in the ceremonial studies might have counted on staying in school in order to become a priestess, responsible for certain deities and their ceremonies – a highly respectable position that would not require a life commitment. Priestesses often got married, leaving their offices to their younger fellow women to take, their status assured for their entire lives as a respectable woman, a minor nobility maybe, liable for a good marriage, even with noblemen.
An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three
Embarrassed, Chantli turned back toward the wooden platter. “Are there any other commoners in calmecac?”
“Of course. There are always a few of them in this school.” Squinting, the girl turned to study the newcomers, who in the meanwhile began progressing in their direction, clearly heading for one of the curtained niches, about to make an offering. “Gifted commoners, you know. Enough of those flooding the calmecac halls, at all times. My brother says they should open a school for all this gifted scum, because it’s—” Abruptly, the girl turned back, her eyes brushing past Chantli, gauging. “Well, I didn’t mean it that way. That is, he didn’t mean it, I think. It’s just that there are plenty of students in this school and, you know, not enough room, you see?”
Chantli hid her resentment as best as she could. “I haven’t seen much of the school yet.”
“Oh, you won’t see much of it anyway. We are not allowed outside our hall. Too many boys out there, you know.” Her companion’s wink held a clear measure of relief and for some reason, it touched her. That girl, while silly and terribly snobbish, didn’t wish to offend her and wave her humble origins before her face.
“My cousin was examined by calmecac authorities,” she related, arranging the cups with thorns while noticing one of the visiting men disappearing behind the curtain of the niche, his bearing forceful, warrior-like, his cloak flowing self-assuredly down his shoulders, sporting rich patterns and unfamiliar insignia.
“Was he accepted? Is he gifted, your cousin?”
She put her attention back to the tools of offering. “My cousin, yes, he is very gifted. He can read at a glance, without taking time to think before interpreting what is written. And he is always correct, always!”
“Oh, then he’ll be put to study the priestly duties, or maybe the trade of the imperial scribes.” The girl was glancing toward the niche that concealed the newcomer as well. “Not like that new boy whom the Emperor himself put in our calmecac.” Her gaze returned to Chantli, flickering with excitement. “Imagine that! A real commoner. Not like you, pillis from traders’ families, but truly a commoner. They say he is put to train with weaponry and such, but not in any other classes. I saw him a few dawns ago, bringing fir branches to the main temple. He does look like a commoner, so very broad in his limbs and face. Good looking too. But really, you can see that he is a commoner. Acoatl says he can’t even read or write or do any ceremonial stuff. Only to fight, they say. But the Emperor put him in our calmecac, so they can’t kick him out. Imagine!”
“Who is Acoatl?” asked Chantli, not truly curious but wishing to conceal her thoughts. It was clear that the chatty thing was talking about Miztli, who indeed, even with his pretty school cloak and his newly gained spells of confidence, did carry himself like the villager he was, someone out of the fields, fit to carry heavy loads, lacking that forceful elegance of a warrior that Necalli displayed in abundance. A pity the snotty nobles could see it as well, and much too easily. Poor Miztli!
“Oh, Acoatl is a cousin of mine. A nice boy and the best ball player in the entire school. So handsome too. You should look at him. I’ll show him to you tomorrow when they train out there. There is this place where one can peek into the courtyard when they are training.” The girl giggled. “He can barely read either. So he can’t really complain about the illiterate commoner, can he?” A conspiratorial wink. “But his bloodline is impeccable. His father is related to the royal family through his aunt, who has been given to the fifth emperor as his second wife. Not so very shabby, to be a second wife of the emperor, eh? Not a poor concubine or some minor unimportant wife.”
Absently, Chantli nodded, stretching her back in relief. It had been a long day. “We can go back now, I suppose.”
“About time!” The girl beamed. “Come, let us hurry. If they aren’t waiting for me with their litter out there, we may linger at the temple until the boys come out. Then I’ll show you my cousin. Or maybe we’ll run into our good looking YoloNecalli, eh?” The long-lashed eye winked again. “You talked to him yesterday. We saw you, Cuicatl and I. Beneath the temple’s stairs.”