SPEAKERS OF THE so-called Uto-Aztecan languages can be found scattered across a vast area stretching from the western United States through the entire northwest of Mexico and on into the heart of the country, with a few enclaves located as far south as Nicaragua. The southernmost major branch of the Uto-Aztecan family is Nahuatl, which by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the language of the majority of the people living in the core regions of central Mexico. Divided into a large number of separate, often warring regional states, each with a sense of unique ethnic origin, sometimes living under the partial dominance of imperial confederations and sometimes not, the central Mexicans at the time of European contact were united, to the extent that they were, not by politics or even by an assertive consciousness of unity, but by a shared culture carried in the vocabulary of their common language.
These people I call the Nahuas, a name they sometimes used themselves and the one that has become current today in Mexico, in preference to Aztecs. The latter term has several decisive disadvantages: it implies a kind of quasi-national unity that did not exist, it directs attention to an ephemeral imperial agglomeration, it is attached specifically to the preconquest period, and by the standards of the time, its use for anyone other than the Mexica (the inhabitants of the imperial capital, Tenochtitlan) would have been improper even if it had been the Mexica's primary designation, which it was not.
Simply put, the purpose of the present book is to throw light on the history of Nahua society and culture through the use of records in Nahuatl, concentrating on the time when the bulk of the extant documents were written, between about 1540-50 and the late eighteenth century. At the same time, the earliest records are full of implications for the very first years after contact, and ultimately for the preconquest epoch as well, both of which are touched on here in ways that are more than introductory or ancillary.