On the Spot: Camilla Townsend

‘As we grow older, we often learn that we have misunderstood our parents and grandparents.’ 

Picture from Lienzo Tlaxcala, a painting from the XV century, showing Malintzin and Hernán Cortés. Diego Muñoz Camargo, c. 1585. Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of Native America?

When I began to read the histories that the 16th-century Nahuas (or Aztecs) wrote, I felt I had been admitted to a great chamber of knowledge which had been buried for far too long.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

As we grow older, we often learn that we have misunderstood our parents and grandparents. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

The Nahuas After the Conquest, by James Lockhart.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Louise Burkhart’s The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

As a woman, not descended from a powerful family, who has some health problems, I think I had better not go back at all!

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

James Lockhart. Those of us who study the Nahua world are forever in his debt.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?

Malintzin, aka Doña Marina.

How many languages do you have?

English, Spanish, French and Nahuatl. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

Native American history, of course!

Which genre of history do you like least?

Diplomatic history when written as though the interactions of high-level conduits are the only relevant factor at important junctures.  

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

There was a time when I thought the Aztecs would turn out to be so alien from me that I would be bored by them. 

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

Many thousands!

What’s your favourite archive? 

The Archivo Histórico del Estado de Tlaxcala in Mexico. 

What’s the best museum? 

The Met in New York.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 

Anglo-Saxons. I like underdogs.  

Rome or Athens? 


Braudel or Gibbon? 

Chimalpahin, the greatest of the Nahua historians.

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?

That’s easy: Frida. In her mental world, she was part Aztec.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That the Aztecs were in love with death.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Writers, academics, artists have underestimated the extent to which many ordinary people were feeling alienated from the life of the mind.


Camilla Townsend is the author of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, shortlisted for the 2020 Cundill History Prize.