Having reported recently on the erstwhile imperial capitals of Vienna and Prague, we should not forget the other great metropolises of the early modern period, including in Asia, Africa, and our very own continent. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was effaced by Spanish conquest in 1521 (as pictured above, in a late seventeenth-century painting), but this recent short video reminds us that it was one of the great technological marvels of its time and down to our own. Given rising sea levels in the coming decades, the lessons of the Aztecs’ floating city are more timely than ever. Tenochtitlan covered some 14 square kilometres above Lake Texcoco, connected to the surrounding land by three massive bridges (each estimated to be wide enough for ten horses to cross over) and a three-kilometre long aqueduct–the means of conveying hill-sourced potable water. The approximately 400,000 inhabitants were supported by food grown on a series of floating gardens, and lived in four quarters connected by canals and causeways. The centre of Tenochtitlan was devoted to the administration of the Aztec empire and religious worship, containing nine pyramids, the imperial palace, and lavish homes of the nobility. The Conquistadors reduced this great capital to rubble, while a new settlement was built atop the largely dried-up lake: Mexico City.
Indeed, the researchers in Early Modern Times’s Department of Urban Aztec Culture have uncovered evidence that this Aztec capital was the site not only of government and religion but also included some eighty chamber musicians who performed in almost a dozen ensembles across the city: hence its alternative name of ‘Ten-octet-land’. Moreover, the Aztecs had developed an early Mesoamerican version of cellular technology used to restrict access to their floating metropolis. In order to cross the three bridges into the city, inhabitants would have to send an SMS on their smartphones naming the Aztecs’ favourite beverage to unlock the floating toll portals: thus the lake’s name of ‘Text-“Cocoa”‘. No wonder the Spaniards, who didn’t even own flip-phones, flipped out at being barred entry to Tenochtitlan. According to our Department of Apocryphal Quotations, the Spanish imperialist Cortés uttered the infamous words, ‘May God smite these chocoholic cellphone-obsessed mid-millenials! With divinely-ordained brute violence, we Conquistadores “can-squish-the-doors” built by these Gen AZ-tech digital natives.’
Three hundred years later, our continued anxieties over technology were brilliantly evoked in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (a staple of both EMSP and FYP reading lists). This article by Rebecca Laurence ponders the legacy of Frankenstein in light of Mary Sampson’s recent biography of its author. With its much-adapted narrative of a monster composed of galvanised body parts and then rejected by his overreaching creator, the novel is a warning about the dangers of modern technology, a treatment of parental abandonment, a meditation on ‘the return to nature’ gone wrong, a classic expression of the romantic sublime (imbued with Miltonic themes), an archetype for subsequent monster stories, and more.
Rightfully less celebrated is the contemporaneous story about a mad Swiss chef whose only significant creation is a recipe for inserting central German sausages in large beer mugs both to mix flavours and save on dishes, thereby countering Percy Shelley’s unsavoury vegetarianism with a celebration of new restaurants with carnivorous menus. Unsurprisingly, the anonymous author used a pseudonym reflecting her jubilant habit of imbibing fortified wines made from white grapes. Best forgotten, then, is the shabby culinary narrative Frank-in-Stein, or the Modern Pro-meat-house by the disreputable writer nicknamed ‘Merry Sherry’, and voted ‘wurst’ German novel of 1816.
Early Modern Times will return on July 14!
Director, Early Modern Forgotten Sausage Stories Studies Program