Visual History of the World
The Early Modern Period
16th - 18th century
The smooth transition from
the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such
events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World,"
which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his
world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential
contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of
Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the
all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the
concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the
nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up
political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas,
Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.
Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca.
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.
The Ancient American Empires and the Conquest by Spain and
The regionally splintered late Mayan cultures, as well as the
Aztec and Inca peoples, built up— even as late as the 15th century—large
and effectively administered empires in Central and South America. Their
rapid collapse in the face of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century
may be connected to the conquistadors' ability to exploit the enormous
concentration of religious power in the hands of the native rulers.
Under Spanish and Portuguese rule, it was primarily the missionaries who
converted the Indians, though some of these clergymen also fought for
the Indians' rights. Africans were also brought as slaves to the New
World and exploited. Under the direction of the Jesuits, semi-autonomous
Indian reservations were set up.
The Late Maya Empire
The late Maya culture was divided into a number of separate
states. These were weakened by political strife in the 15th century and
were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.
The Old Maya Empire and its temple cities were established by 300
In the fifth and sixth centuries, the 1
Maya culture spread widely.
An efficient agricultural system permitted a substantial increase in the
population. In 987. the New Empire of the Maya emerged in the Yucatan
under the leadership of the Toltec, who had emigrated from Campeche and
mixed with the ancient Maya. Other city-states joined the new entity. By
1204, the Cocom of Mayapan, who may have originated in Mexico, had
assumed leadership of the empire.
Some Maya tribes, led by Xiu of 2
Uxmal, rebelled against their harsh rule in 1441.
Political unification eluded the Yucatan, as 18 tiny city-states fought
among themselves. Epidemics and natural catastrophes also served to
weaken the states prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
In the highlands of present-day Guatemala were the Toltec-influenced
states of the 3 Quiche, the
Cachiquel, and the Tzutuhil, with their capitals at Utatlan, Iximche and
Toltec tribes also settled areas of present-day Nicaragua, northwest
Honduras, and El Salvador.
1 Maya incense
holder in the form
of the rain god Chac, painted clay
2 Farmers in Uxmal
3 Traditional Quiche cloth decorated
with anima! motifs
Despite its political decline, 4
Maya culture was highly developed in the pre-Columbian period.
4 Mayan temple in Yucatan, built ca. twelfth
The Maya used a 5 hieroglyphic
script, a numerical system, and a calendar that was more precise than
the Gregorian calendar used in 16th century Europe.
The people lived in large cities with stone houses and surfaced roads.
Surpluses in the cultivation of maize supported artistic activities and
skilled trades. The society was hierarchically structured, with the
nobility and priests forming the ruling caste. Slaves were acquired
through taking prisoners in war or debt servitude. The Maya traded over
long distances, but metals and wagons were unknown to them.
Favored by this political fragmentation, the Spanish were able to
conquer the highlands of 6 Guatemala
by 152s and Yucatan by 1541. but the Guatemalan lowlands eluded Spanish
control until 1697.
5 Maya fortune-telling calendar,
known as the Tro-Cortes codex,
which was probably made in Yucatan using the hieroglyphic
script, 14th century
6 Necklace with jaguar-shaped beads,
The Aztec Empire
In alliance with other cities, the Aztec ruled a mighty empire
from their capital, Tenochtitlan, but in the 16th century they were
rapidly subjugated by the Spanish conquerors.
The Aztec first migrated into Mexico around 1100. At first they were
vassals of the Tepanec but steadily gained in strength.
In 1375 the Aztec founded their capital, 11
Tenochtitlan, and then in 1428 they rebelled against the domination of
the Tepanec, whose empire they destroyed in 1430 in alliance with the
city-states of Tetzoco and Tlatelolco.
11 The Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan
and the Incan capital city Cuzco (right)
The Aztec rulers Moctezuma I, Axayacatl, and Ahuitzotl expanded the
7 empire to the northeast in the
second half of the 15th century, and peoples as far south as Guatemala
paid tribute to them.
They declared themselves the heirs of the Toltec and identified their
9 war god Huitzilopochtli with the
sun god, thus 8 religiously
legitimizing their policy of conquest.
warriors, Indian drawing taken
from the Historia de las cosas de Nueva
9 The Aztec god of war,
8 Headdress of an Aztec priest,
early 16th century
Huitzilopochtli in human form
in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Codex
An imaginative European depiction of an Aztec shrine.
The idol of Huitzilopochtli is seated in the background. (1602)
Nahuatl-speaking people who in the 15th and early 16th centuries ruled a
large empire in what is now central and southern Mexico. The Aztec are
so called from Aztlán (“White Land”), an allusion to their origins,
probably in northern Mexico. They were also called the Tenochca, from an
eponymous ancestor, Tenoch, and the Mexica, probably from Metzliapán
(“Moon Lake”), the mystical name for Lake Texcoco. From “Tenochca” was
derived the name of their great city, Tenochtitlán; and from “Mexica”
came the name for the city that superseded the Aztec capital and for the
surrounding valley, which was applied later to the whole Mexican nation.
The Aztec referred to themselves as Culhua-Mexica, to link themselves
with Colhuacán, the centre of the most civilized people of the Valley of
Mexico. See also pre-Columbian civilizations: Aztec culture to the time
of the Spanish conquest.
The origin of the Aztec people is uncertain, but elements of their
own tradition suggest that they were a tribe of hunters and gatherers on
the northern Mexican plateau before their appearance in Mesoamerica in
perhaps the 12th century; Aztlán, however, may be legendary. It is
possible that their migration southward was part of a general movement
of peoples that followed, or perhaps helped trigger, the collapse of the
Toltec civilization. They settled on islands in Lake Texcoco and in ad
1325 founded Tenochtitlán, which remained their chief centre. The basis
of the Aztec’s success in creating a great state and ultimately an
empire was their remarkable system of agriculture, which featured
intensive cultivation of all available land, as well as elaborate
systems of irrigation and reclamation of swampland. The high
productivity gained by these methods made for a rich and populous state.
Under the ruler Itzcóatl (1428–40), Tenochtitlán formed alliances
with the neighbouring states of Texcoco and Tlacopan and became the
dominant power in central Mexico. Later, by commerce and conquest,
Tenochtitlán came to rule an empire of 400 to 500 small states,
comprising by 1519 some 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 people spread over 80,000
square miles (207,200 square km). At its height, Tenochtitlán itself
covered more than 5 square miles (13 square km) and had upwards of
140,000 inhabitants, making it the most densely populated settlement
ever achieved by a Mesoamerican civilization. The Aztec state was a
despotism in which the military arm played a dominant role. Valour in
war was, in fact, the surest path to advancement in Aztec society, which
was caste- and class-divided but nonetheless vertically fluid. The
priestly and bureaucratic classes were involved in the administration of
the empire, while at the bottom of society were classes of serfs,
indentured servants, and outright slaves.
Aztec religion was syncretistic, absorbing elements from many other
Mesoamerican cultures. At base, it shared many of the cosmological
beliefs of earlier peoples, notably the Maya, such as that the present
Earth was the last in a series of creations and that it occupied a
position between systems of 13 heavens and 9 underworlds. Prominent in
the Aztec pantheon were Huitzilopochtli, god of war; Tonatiuh, god of
the sun; Tlaloc, god of rain; and Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent,
who was part deity and part culture hero. Human sacrifice, particularly
by offering a victim’s heart to the sun god, was commonly practiced, as
was bloodletting. Closely entwined with Aztec religion was the calendar,
on which the elaborate round of rituals and ceremonies that occupied the
priests was based. The Aztec calendar was the one common to much of
Mesoamerica, and it comprised a solar year of 365 days and a sacred year
of 260 days; the two yearly cycles running in parallel produced a larger
cycle of 52 years.
The Aztec empire was still expanding, and its society still evolving,
when its progress was halted in 1519 by the appearance of Spanish
explorers. The ninth emperor, Montezuma II (reigned 1502–20), was taken
prisoner by Hernán Cortés and died in custody. His successors,
Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc, were unable to stave off Cortés and his
forces, and, with the Spanish capture of Tenochtitlán in 1521, the Aztec
empire came to an end.
The Aztec Empire maintained alliances with its partner city-states, and
all three profited from the enormous tributes and slaves that the
subjugated peoples were forced to provide. At the time of the Spanish
conquest, the empire was composed of 38 city-provinces.
In 1502, 10 Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin,
who would lead the empire to its zenith and then its rapid demise, came
to the throne.
He subdued the Mixtec in the highlands of Oaxaca and annexed the
allies of Tetzoco in 1516. Moctezuma built up Tenochtitlan into the
largest and most magnificent city in the Americas, with a population of
about 300,000 people. The society was strictly hierarchical, and
religiously charged court customs allowed the ruler to stand far above
his people. The nobility was hereditary, but warriors with outstanding
service could also aspire to enter the noble caste.
In 1519 Moctezuma cordially welcomed the 12
Spanish under Hernan Cortes, because a prophecy had announced the return
of the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortes, however, treacherously took the ruler
captive and used him to subdue the people.
The Spanish put down a rebellion against the 13
destruction of Inca religious sites in 1520, and in the course of this
Moctezuma was killed by a thrown stone.
The Spanish went on to occupy the whole Aztec Empire by 1521.
10 Moctezuma II
12 Hernan Cortes leading his soldiers
to the Aztec leader Moctezuma
13 Hernan Cortes destroys the religious
sites of the Aztecs, 1520
also spelled Moctezuma
died , c. June 30, 1520, Tenochtitlán, within modern Mexico City
Ninth Aztec emperor of Mexico, famous for his dramatic
confrontation with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
In 1502 Montezuma succeeded his uncle Ahuitzotl as the leader
of an empire that had reached its greatest extent, stretching to
what is now Honduras and Nicaragua, but that was weakened by the
resentment of the subject tribes to the increasing demands for
tribute and victims for the religious sacrifices. Montezuma was
commander of the army and organized extensive expeditions of
conquest in deference to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of
the sun. Through astrologers, the god instilled in the emperor a
kind of fatalism in the face of an uncertain future.
The Aztecs feared and expected the return of another
important diety, Quetzalcóatl, the white, bearded god who would
rule over the empire. Instead, the white, bearded Cortés
arrived; he was aware of this fear and used it to his advantage
in his expedition across Mexico. Montezuma tried to buy off
Cortés, but the Spaniard made alliances with those subject
tribes who hated Aztec rule. Welcomed into the capital city of
Tenochtitlán by Montezuma, Cortés realized it was a trap and,
instead, made the emperor his prisoner, believing that the
Aztecs would not attack as long as he held Montezuma captive.
Montezuma’s submission to the Spaniards, however, had eroded the
respect of his people. According to Spanish accounts, he
attempted to speak to his subjects and was assailed with stones
and arrows, suffering wounds from which he died three days
later. The Aztecs, however, believed the Spaniards had murdered
their emperor, and Cortés’ force was nearly destroyed as it
tried to sneak out of Tenochtitlán at night.
Moctezuma II, 1715 by Antonio de Solis
Malinche interprets for Cortés and Moctezuma II,
detail, folding-screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río
Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca
Cortés also spelled Cortéz
born 1485, Medellín, near Mérida, Extremadura, Castile [Spain]
died December 2, 1547, Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla
Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire (1519–21) and won
Mexico for the crown of Spain.
Cortés was the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and of Doña Catalina
Pizarro Altamarino—names of ancient lineage. “They had little wealth,
but much honour,” according to Cortés’s secretary, Francisco López de
Gómara, who tells how, at age 14, the young Hernán was sent to study at
Salamanca, in west-central Spain, “because he was very intelligent and
clever in everything he did.” Gómara went on to describe him as
ruthless, haughty, mischievous, and quarrelsome, “a source of trouble to
his parents.” Certainly he was “much given to women,” frustrated by
provincial life, and excited by stories of the Indies Columbus had just
discovered. He set out for the east coast port of Valencia with the idea
of serving in the Italian wars, but instead he “wandered idly about for
nearly a year.” Clearly Spain’s southern ports, with ships coming in
full of the wealth and colour of the Indies, proved a greater
attraction. He finally sailed for the island of Hispaniola (now Santo
Domingo) in 1506. He was then 19.
Years in Hispaniola and Cuba
In Hispaniola he became a farmer and notary to a town council; for the
first six years or so, he seems to have been content to establish his
position. He contracted syphilis and, as a result, missed the ill-fated
expeditions of Diego de Nicuesa and Alonso de Ojeda, which sailed for
the South American mainland in 1509. By 1511 he had recovered, and he
sailed with Diego Velázquez to conquer Cuba. There Velázquez was
appointed governor, and Cortés clerk to the treasurer. Cortés received a
repartimiento (gift of land and Indian slaves) and the first house in
the new capital of Santiago. He was now in a position of some power and
the man to whom dissident elements in the colony began to turn for
Cortés was twice elected alcalde (“mayor”) of the town of Santiago
and was a man who “in all he did, in his presence, bearing,
conversation, manner of eating and of dressing, gave signs of being a
great lord.” It was therefore to Cortés that Velázquez turned when,
after news had come of the progress of Juan de Grijalba’s efforts to
establish a colony on the mainland, it was decided to send him help. An
agreement appointing Cortés captain general of a new expedition was
signed in October 1518. Experience of the rough-and-tumble of New World
politics advised Cortés to move fast, before Velázquez changed his mind.
His sense of the dramatic, his long experience as an administrator, the
knowledge gained from so many failed expeditions, above all his ability
as a speaker gathered to him six ships and 300 men, all in less than a
month. The reaction of Velázquez was predictable; his jealousy aroused,
he resolved to place leadership of the expedition in other hands.
Cortés, however, put hastily to sea to raise more men and ships in other
Hernán Cortés with Montezuma II
The expedition to Mexico
When Cortés finally sailed for the coast of Yucatán on February 18,
1519, he had 11 ships, 508 soldiers, about 100 sailors, and—most
important—16 horses. In March 1519 he landed at Tabasco, where he stayed
for a time in order to gain intelligence from the local Indians. He won
them over and received presents from them, including 20 women, one of
whom, Marina (“Malinche”), became his mistress and interpreter and bore
him a son, Martín. Cortés sailed to another spot on the southeastern
Mexican coast and founded Veracruz, mainly to have himself elected
captain general and chief justice by his soldiers as citizens, thus
shaking off the authority of Velázquez. On the mainland Cortés did what
no other expedition leader had done: he exercised and disciplined his
army, welding it into a cohesive force. But the ultimate expression of
his determination to deal with disaffection occurred when he sank his
ships. By that single action he committed himself and his entire force
to survival by conquest.
Cortés then set out for the Mexican interior, relying sometimes on
force, sometimes on amity toward the local Indian peoples, but always
careful to keep conflict with them to a strict minimum. The key to
Cortés’s subsequent conquests lay in the political crisis within the
Aztec empire; the Aztecs were bitterly resented by many of the subject
peoples who had to pay tribute to them. The ability of Cortés as a
leader is nowhere more apparent than in his quick grasp of the
situation—a grasp that was ultimately to give him more than 200,000
Indian allies. The nation of Tlaxcala, for instance, which was in a
state of chronic war with Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztec empire of
Mexico, resisted Cortés at first but became his most faithful ally.
Rejecting all of Montezuma’s threats and blandishments to keep him away
from Tenochtitlán or Mexico, the capital (rebuilt as Mexico City after
1521), Cortés entered the city on November 8, 1519, with his small
Spanish force and only 1,000 Tlaxcaltecs (see primary source document:
Cortés’s Account of the City of Mexico). In accordance with the
diplomatic customs of Mexico, Montezuma received him with great honour.
Cortés soon decided to seize Montezuma in order to hold the country
through its monarch and achieve not only its political conquest but its
Spanish politics and envy were to bedevil Cortés throughout his
meteoric career. Cortés soon heard of the arrival of a Spanish force
from Cuba, led by Pánfilo Narváez, to deprive Cortés of his command at a
time (mid-1520) when he was holding the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán by
little more than the force of his personality. Leaving a garrison in
Tenochtitlán of 80 Spaniards and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs commanded by
his most reckless captain, Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés marched against
Narváez, defeated him, and enlisted his army in his own forces. On his
return, he found the Spanish garrison in Tenochtitlán besieged by the
Aztecs after Alvarado had massacred many leading Aztec chiefs during a
festival. Hard pressed and lacking food, Cortés decided to leave the
city by night. The Spaniards’ retreat from the capital was performed,
but with a heavy loss in lives and most of the treasure they had
accumulated. After six days of retreat Cortés won the battle of Otumba
over the Aztecs sent in pursuit (July 7, 1520).
Cortés eventually rejoined his Tlaxcalan allies and reorganized his
forces before again marching on Tenochtitlán in December 1520. After
subduing the neighbouring territories he laid siege to the city itself,
conquering it street by street until its capture was completed on August
13, 1521. This victory marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Cortés had
become the absolute ruler of a huge territory extending from the
Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
In the meantime, Velázquez was mounting an insidious political attack
on Cortés in Spain through Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca and the
Council of the Indies. Fully conscious of the vulnerability of a
successful conqueror whose field of operations was 5,000 miles (8,000
km) from the centre of political power, Cortés countered with lengthy
and detailed dispatches—five remarkable letters to the Spanish king
Charles V. His acceptance by the Indians and even his popularity as a
relatively benign ruler was such that he could have established Mexico
as an independent kingdom. Indeed, this is what the Council of the
Indies feared. But his upbringing in a feudal world in which the king
commanded absolute allegiance was against it.
In 1524 his restless urge to explore and conquer took him south to the
jungles of Honduras. The two arduous years he spent on this disastrous
expedition damaged his health and his position. His property was seized
by the officials he had left in charge, and reports of the cruelty of
their administration and the chaos it created aroused concern in Spain.
Cortés’s fifth letter to the Spanish king attempts to justify his
reckless behaviour and concludes with a bitter attack on “various and
powerful rivals and enemies” who have “obscured the eyes of your
Majesty.” But it was his misfortune that he was not dealing simply with
a king of Spain but with an emperor who ruled most of Europe and who had
little time for distant colonies, except insofar as they contributed to
his treasury. The Spanish bureaucrats sent out a commission of inquiry
under Luis Ponce de León, and, when he died almost immediately, Cortés
was accused of poisoning him and was forced to retire to his estate.
In 1528 Cortés sailed for Spain to plead his cause in person with the
king. He brought with him a great wealth of treasure and a magnificent
entourage. He was received by Charles at his court at Toledo, confirmed
as captain general (but not as governor), and created marqués del Valle.
He also remarried, into a ducal family. He returned to New Spain in 1530
to find the country in a state of anarchy and so many accusations made
against him—even that he had murdered his first wife, Catalina, who had
died that year—that, after reasserting his position and reestablishing
some sort of order, he retired to his estates at Cuernavaca, about 30
miles (48 km) south of Mexico City. There he concentrated on the
building of his palace and on Pacific exploration.
Finally a viceroy was appointed, after which, in 1540, Cortés
returned to Spain. By then he had become thoroughly disillusioned, his
life made miserable by litigation. All the rest is anticlimax. “I am
old, poor and in debt . . . again and again I have begged your Majesty.
. . .” In the end he was permitted to return to Mexico, but he died
before he had even reached Sevilla (Seville).
Ralph Hammond Innes