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Take a stroll on the marketplace

4 March 2013 Comments Leave a comment

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.

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