SIXTEENTH-CENTURY Spaniards found in central Mexico a society remarkably like their own. Both the Spanish and the indigenous system divided the entire population between the two basic hereditary categories of noble and commoner. Furthermore, in both cases gradations and various types of special status made for a social continuum rather than two sharply separated blocks. Not only did both societies recognize different ranks of nobility and accord special titles to the heads of noble houses and lords of domains, but in both great leeway and regional variation existed in the use of noble terminology. In both, some commoners rose to be nobles, through wealth or notable deeds, while some borderline nobles were indistinguishable from commoners. In central Mexico as well as Spain, commoners varied greatly in wealth, and significant groups of merchants, retainers, and craftsmen stood out from the mass of commoner-agriculturalists in one way or another. Both societies associated nobility with high governmental office, leadership in war, and many other higher functions. As a result of this wide-ranging similarity, Spanish writers of the sixteenth century have left us more nearly adequate accounts of the indigenous system of social ranking than they have of political or familial organization.
Nothing in either the Spanish or the Nahuatl records justifies the interpretation, to which some still cling, that indigenous society was or recently had been egalitarian. From both sides of the documentation comes the same picture: that the noble-commoner distinction, modified by numerous subdistinctions, was as basic to social and political life as was altepetl structure, and probably as ancient. The Nahuatl sources also continue to overwhelm us with data on the wide variation in wealth not only among nobles but especially among commoners, demonstrating the relative autonomy and complexity of the forces of social differentiation and the limits on political redistribution. Nahua society and social categorization were neither unusually simple nor unduly rigid, but in both respects fell within the normal range for sedentary