Posts Tagged: marketplace

Dragged into a court? Bring a friend to witness for you

22 October 2013 Comments (0)

While living in Tenochtitlan or any other important altepetl of the 15th century Mesoamerica, you should be careful to break no law. Whether selling your goods on the marketplace, pursuing your career as an engineer or an artisan, working the land or aspiring to a higher position of a military career, you would have to be aware of the rules, treating the law-enforcing institution with respect.

The Mexican Valley of the 15th century was run by a very strict legal system that made sure everyone knew the laws and was able to follow them with not too much trouble. The maintenance of social order and a respect for the government institutions, being those of jurisdiction or educational nature, was of paramount importance, jealously guarded.

As a simple citizen having a dispute with you neighbor, you would first apply to the local court, which was set in every town, usually on the marketplace or the plaza, or in each calpulli, a district, of a large city.

Such court would deal with minor civil and criminal offenses, with its judge being elected from among the ranks of the district’s respected citizens. Veteran warriors of course were a preferable choice, trusted to be people of “sound mind and proper upbringing”. Such elected judge would have a group of assistants at his disposal, acting as a local police force, summoning or arresting the suspected criminals. His verdict would be presented to the higher authorities, having no executive power to deliver the sentence.

If the offence was too serious to be dealt with by the local court, the case would be forwarded to the higher level of jurisdiction called tecalli. Those courts were held permanently in session in each capital, such as Tenochtitlan, Texcoco or Tlacopan. Stuffed by a president and two or three professionally trained judges, those courts would deliver a final sentence in the cases of civil disputes.

Yet, if a convicted criminal felt he had been judged wrongly, he could still appeal to the Supreme Justice Court convened in the capital and conducted by Cihuacoatl, the equivalent of the position of a prime minister, or even, sometimes, by tlatoani, the ruler, himself.

So, whether commoner or noble, if your case was still unresolved and if you had the necessary clout and means, you would travel to Tenochtitlan, to wait for the Supreme Court to be convened, something that was supposed to happen every 12 days, stuffed with 12 judges and presided by the Cihuacoatl or the Emperor himself. Its verdict was final and could not be tampered with. Sentenced by the highest authority, your fate was sealed.

There were quite a few courts acting outside the system, legally so. Commercial courts were run by the traders’ guild, dealing with every offense related to marketplace and the commerce in general, having every authority to judge and execute the criminals or offenders.

Tlacxitlan, military courts, stuffed by three or four professional judges, dealt with military problems. Those were mobile and could be conducted right after a battle no matter how far from the capital the warriors’ forces were.

Religious courts dealt with priests and temples, and sometimes a special tribunal was held in the palace of the emperor to deal with the crimes committed by high dignitaries.

The judges would usually be selected from among the nobility, approved by the emperor himself. An extensive training in calmecac – school for nobles, warriors, judges and priests – would be required, followed by a long apprenticeship of sitting beside the actual judge and learning the trade. The exception were the lower local courts, who were not appointed by the highest authorities, but, as stated above, selected from among the neighborhoods’ respectable citizens.

The judges’ salary came from the state, from the proceeds of the lands set aside especially for this purpose. Judges were expected to deliver impartial verdicts and sentences, regardless of the parties’ social status. A judge was not allowed to accept gifts in any form and was bound by strong rules of ethics, a violation of which could result in a number of penalties. But the Mesoamerican judiciary was a self-policing institution.

So if you were dragged to the court by your enraged neighbor claiming that you encroached on his property, or had stolen his goods, the charges would be filled, and you would stand before the judge’s dais, allowed to confront your accuser. The lawyers were not allowed, but you could bring a friend to help you to plead your case. The witnesses would then be questioned, along with the suing parties. Both would be required to swear to tell the truth in the name of Huitzilopochtli and they would do so “by touching the ground and then their lips”, after which the judges would proceed with cross-examination, putting their skill and accumulated experience to extract the truth. Testimony, evidence, confessions and all sort of documentation was admitted, and the laying witness would be punished with the same severity as the sued party if found guilty.

So if your neighbor, indeed, dragged you into a court, I sincerely hope you and your friends had managed to plead your case well, avoiding the conviction.

An excerpt from “Currents of War

The large eyes rested on Iztac, their expression light.

“So the Emperor just needs to encourage the people some more.” A shrug. “And yet, he spends his time judging in Imperial Court. Why would he try people during war time? Let alone warriors.”

“Well, there are matters the judges of the districts cannot deal with,” began Iztac, finding it difficult to follow the constantly changing conversation. From her involvement in the imperial matters, to Tlacaelel, to Tenochtitlan’s readiness for war, to the imperial courts, what was this woman trying to say? “The imperial court has to be convened from time to time.”

“But in war time?” The woman shook her head. “Why try warriors, let alone leaders of warriors, when Tenochtitlan is about to be invaded?”

“Well, I suppose, if the warriors committed some offense against the royal house…” And then it dawned on her, and she caught her breath, staring at the woman, unable to think. “Is there… a trial? This morning?”

“Yes, there is a trial this morning.” Something lurked in the depths of the woman’s eyes, and the gaze resting on Iztac grew piercing before turning back into its typical, derisively amused lightness. “A minor leader of the warriors, mind you. Not anyone of importance.

The man must be guilty of a serious crime against the royal house, to justify the convention of the Imperial Court at such difficult times.”

She tried to get a grip of her senses, then felt the cup slipping from her fingers. It fell with a bang, rolling over the floor, splashing the last of the chocolate. They both watched it come to a stop, fascinated.

“When? When is the trial?” She was hardly able to recognize her own voice, so strangled, unnaturally high it sounded.

The woman watched her, frowning, her smile gone. “This morning,” she said finally, her face softening, filling with compassion. “Maybe now.”

Now? In these very moments?

“I… I don’t understand. How? Why was I not told?”

But, of course. Of course, she hadn’t been told!

“I’m sorry,” she heard the woman saying, and it helped her a little, forced her to concentrate on something tangible. She needed to get rid of this woman first.

“I… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” She stared at the beautiful face, seeing none of the previous arrogance but only a genuine concern.

“We can ride in my palanquin if you want to. It’s spacious, and my bearers know their trade. We won’t be tossed more than necessary.”

Iztac blinked, painfully aware that she still had not been able to understand this woman, not fully. “To ride in your palanquin? Where?”

“To see the trial, of course. Where else?”

“But I need to see Chimal first. I need to talk to him. I have to…” She bit her lips until it hurt. Why was she saying this aloud? “Please, I need to do things. I’m sorry. I will be honored if you visit me again…” Her voice trailed off under the mirthless smile of her visitor.

“The Emperor must already be on the Plaza. It’s nearing midmorning. But you will be able to talk to him after that. Maybe you could join him on his tour around the city. The people of Tenochtitlan will be delighted to see their beautiful Empress as cheerful and as unafraid as their ruler. While riding with him, you may have a chance to talk to him about this warrior, to make him postpone any degree of punishment he may have decided upon.” The woman hesitated. “I’m sorry I came so late. I wish I had been able to warn you in time.”

Iztac just stared. Somehow she was on her feet now, but she didn’t remember herself getting up. “Why do you do this? How does any of this concern you?”

Take a stroll on the marketplace

4 March 2013 Comments (2)

If you happened to miss a large scale ceremony while touring prominent cities of the 14th-15th centuries Central Mexico, don’t think your trip was ruined. Stay for some time and wait for the arrival of the market day.

Such day would be well spent and, anyway, you won’t be forced to wait too long as the market interval, the equivalent to our way of counting the weeks, would usually last for no longer that 5 days, unless you got stuck in a small town or village, which, as a tourist, you would be careful to avoid, anyway. So, just tour the beautiful pyramids and plazas until the dawn of the market day arrived, then stay for a treat.

The marketplace in the large altepetl, city-state, was a colorful affair of bubbling activity and clamor, a swirl of sights and smells. Before the dawn-break the traders would already be there, spreading their mats, erecting their stalls, ready for a busy profitable day.

Coming from all over the valley and having started their journey with the nightfall of the previous day, some traders might had been quite tired, but this was the custom, to embark upon the journey at dusk, whether for a purpose of a short trip to the neighboring town or for a moon-long trading expedition to the other side of the valley or the continent.

Yet, no matter how much time a trader would spend on the road, he would never dream to start selling his goods before reaching his destination. To do so was to show disrespect to the gods who were watching over the market business. It was also in violation of the pochteca, the trader guild’s laws, and no merchant in his right mind would risk angering the powerful guild, who were extremely influential and whose watchful eyes and the punishing arm would reach everywhere.

In the all encompassing legal system of courts and laws (and the Aztecs were very law-abiding society) the trading guild was one of the few independent bodies, functioning outside the intricate legal system.

It all happened in 1473, according to quite a few accounts, when Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister-city, revolted against the growing dominance of their pushy neighbors, the leaders of the Triple Alliance, who only half a century earlier had conquered the Tepanec Empire, and had grown too powerful ever since. The revolt was crushed easily, some say with the active help of the leading merchants from the rebellious city, who struck a deal with Tenochtitlan’s emperor, Axayacatl, accepting his patronage and offering to act as his spies and the independent merchants of his ever-growing empire.

Thus the symbolic relationship of the Aztec royal house and the Pochteca traders was defined. It helped to strengthen the economy of the developing empire and added the much needed spying services of the long-distance traders gathering information as they traveled far and wide. With the passing of time Tlatelolco was turned into a huge marketplace, functioning on almost a daily basis, able to accommodate up to 60,000 people on the major market days.

The Pochteca were responsible for the foreign and local trade and had twelve powerful guilds located in major cities-states. They had their own rituals, ceremonies and patron deities and, more importantly, their own legal system.

Very rich and powerful, the leading merchants were nevertheless careful to conceal their riches. Being the typical middle class, they did wise by not flaunting their fortunes before the arrogant, fierce, dangerous nobles. In exchange for taxation, the traders’ guilds were granted the power to regulate the economy, represent themselves before the emperor, judge all law suits relating to the merchant class and ensue their sentences to those who were found guilty of violating the commercial laws.

Each village or town had at least one marketplace, with larger cities having multiple markets. Large markets would meet every 5 days, while the smaller ones would meet less frequently. People would travel far and wide to reach a market where they could buy and sell, hear the local news and socialize with friends.

Much of the selling-buying activity was based on barter, but there was an agreed upon currency too, with the main one being cocoa beans or a certain length of cotton cloths called quachtli. The exchange rates varied at times, from 100 cocoa beans to 300 being worth of a full length cotton cloak. Copper ax blades and quills filled with gold dust were used to determine the pricing for various items too.

All this and more was regulated most scrupulously by inspectors, who were always there, mixing with the crowds, making sure the items were sold at appropriate exchange rates, checking the quality of the products as well. Certain goods could be sold in certain areas, designated by the market judge who required every vendor to a pay a tax in cloaks or cocoa beans.

Everything was sold by number and measure instead of by weight, and the inspectors made sure to check the measures, destroying the false ones if such were discovered. The offender then would be dragged to a market court, to be judged and sentenced by a panel of judges.

Such courts governed all disputes between the traders, required to deal with any issues related to the marketing. In a case of false measures the offender would be fined, with his goods confiscated, sent to bring the rest of the fine from his family to pay up. Other crimes, dealing with stolen goods or with counterfeiting, was sentenced more harshly, with the most serious of the offenders being beaten to death in the center of the marketplace, for everyone to see and learn the lesson.

Still, there were many ways to cheat the system, and undeterred some traders kept mixing in poor quality products. Cocoa beans were easily susceptible to counterfeiting as vendors could remove the outer shell and fill it with dirt, or heat shriveled beans to make them look larger, or create entirely false beans out of wax or amaranth dough. These beans would then be mixed with real beans for sale in the marketplace. (The Florentine Codex includes a description of a bad cacao seller: "... he counterfeits cacao... by making the fresh cacao beans whitish... stirs them into the ashes... with amaranth seed dough, wax, avocado pits… he counterfeits cacao.... Indeed he casts, he throws in with them wild cacao beans to deceive the people...)

So, as we can see, the pochteca courts were never out of job and the marketplace was anything but a boring place to spend one’s time at, either buying or selling good or just hanging out with friends.

An excerpt from “The Emperor's Second Wife

Her anger rose once again, here in the crowded marketplace as intense as it had back there, in the dimly lit warriors’ hall.

Clenching her teeth tight, she pushed herself away from the safety of the wall, stepping back toward the road. Oh, she was not a burden, not a ‘girl that is making no trouble’. She was a person, and she could take care of herself. And when he found that she was gone, he would be sorry.

Picking her way carefully between the multitude of mats and stalls, jostled every now and then, she went on stubbornly, not bothering to mark her surroundings. In her entire life she had never lost her way, always remembering the places she had passed, being those forest’s paths or town’s alleys.

Her fear began calming down, and, looking around, she noticed that not only people were plentiful in this place. Food, clothes, and jewelry piled all over the alley, crammed upon the mats or arranged prettily, sparkling in the midmorning sun. Eyes wide, she began stealing glances, and then, giving in, she gaped openly, amazed at those unbelievable riches. So much of everything!

Still not sure enough of herself to stop and peer closely, she turned into a smaller alley in an attempt to escape the crowds. Here, the aroma of cooked food enveloped her, making her stomach churn. People squatted or sprawled on mats, in the shade of the high wall, talking idly or throwing beans while eating and drinking. No one paid her any attention. Reassured, she slowed her steps and watched the sweating old man toiling above a steaming pot.

Neatly, the man fished out small bundles of something wrapped in maize husks, placing them on a wooden plate, oblivious to the scorching heat.

Fascinated, Dehe watched him working as the man from the nearby mat got up.

“Let us see what you’ve got here, old man.”

“The best tamales you ever tasted,” grinned the stall owner, interrupting his activity to unwrap one of the bundles. His nimble fingers picked the steaming tamale, dropping it neatly onto a smaller plate.

“I’ll have another one for my companion,” said the other man.

“Next time wait patiently until I’m done,” the cooking man grunted, complying with the request. “I’ll have the rest of my tamales burned because of you.”

“Oh, I bet a cocoa bean you’ll find a way to force those burned tamales on your other customers,” laughed the man, heading back to his mat.

The old man cursed, returning back to his steaming pot. “Those will cost you more,” he called out more loudly.

“It’ll round your whole meal to a whole cocoa bean, so don’t bet any of it before you pay me.”

“What a thief!” The man with the plate dropped beside his companion, grinning broadly. “You can go on dreaming about those cocoa beans, old man. I don’t see any warriors or other nobility around your stall.” He caught Dehe’s gaze. “Here, maybe this little slave came here with a bag full of beans. Didn’t you, girl?”

Frightened, Dehe took a step back, but the man’s attention shifted back to his plate and the bowl of thick sauce upon another tray.

Breathing with relief, she turned to go, glancing again at the steaming pot. The spicy aroma tickled her nostrils. Having been too angry to eat on the previous evening, she had slipped away well before dawn, before any chance of getting her morning meal. She wanted him to wake up and find her gone. He may have not paid her any attention on the previous day, but he did come to cover her with a blanket before going to sleep. She pretended to be fast asleep too, hoping he would recline beside her and try to wake her up, but he just caressed her hair fleetingly and went back to his mat, leaving her with her eyes shut, and her heart thundering in her ears. He did care for her, he did, even if just a little!

Another man neared the stall, picking a tortilla from the side tray. Leaning against the wooden pole, he consumed it unhurriedly, deep in thought. Dehe hesitated. Could she just pick one for herself too, the way this man did? The grumpy old man seemed to take this sampling of his goods kindly.