Sunday, March 11, 2018

Matthew Restall's "When Montezuma Met Cortés"

Matthew Restall is Sparks Professor of History and Director of Latin American Studies at Penn State. He is the author of Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

Restall applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History, and reported the following:
By way of a terse (and flattering) summary of my book, I can do no better than the February 26 edition of The New Yorker:
In 1519, the emperor Montezuma received the conquistador Hernán Cortés and some of his men as guests in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. Within two years, Montezuma was dead, the Aztecs routed, and the city destroyed. This revisionist history contests received views of Cortés as either swashbuckling hero or bloviating villain, of the Aztecs as cannibals, and of Montezuma as a meek, mystical king who voluntarily capitulated. Restall skillfully describes a subtler story of relationships both loving and coercive. He offers a particularly bold interpretation of Montezuma’s devotion to his palace zoo, arguing that he saw Cortés and his men as exotic creatures and hoped to learn by studying them.
Of the book’s four “Parts,” Part II focuses on the Aztecs and Montezuma, describing how they have been depicted for the last five centuries, and persuading the reader (hopefully) to see them differently. Page 99 lands deep in Part II’s chapter on the Aztecs, just as I conclude my discussion of one Aztec deity (with the hard-to-say name of Huitzilopochtli) and begin that of another (Quetzalcoatl, not much easier). In order to be persuasive throughout the book—that is, to convince readers to rethink a narrative taken as true for so long—I delve in detail into multiple related topics. This is one of those moments. Thus the larger story of the Spanish war against the Aztecs is not directly mentioned. But it is indirectly referenced in my concluding point on Huitzilopochtli, that the way the Aztecs saw him “was a far cry from the pagan devil-monster of post-invasion renderings.” Similarly, my larger argument that the Spanish-Aztec story has been grossly distorted is reflected in my take-away introductory point about Quetzalcoatl: “so much was invented by Europeans, mostly for specific political, religious, and cultural purposes, that the surviving aspects and meanings of the original Aztec deity are diluted, eclipsed, difficult to discern.”
Learn more about When Montezuma Met Cortés at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue