While living in Tenochtitlan or any other important altepetl of the 15th century Mesoamerica, you should be careful to break no law. Whether selling your goods on the marketplace, pursuing your career as an engineer or an artisan, working the land or aspiring to a higher position of a military career, you would have to be aware of the rules, treating the law-enforcing institution with respect.

The Mexican Valley of the 15th century was run by a very strict legal system that made sure everyone knew the laws and was able to follow them with not too much trouble. The maintenance of social order and a respect for the government institutions, being those of jurisdiction or educational nature, was of paramount importance, jealously guarded.

As a simple citizen having a dispute with you neighbor, you would first apply to the local court, which was set in every town, usually on the marketplace or the plaza, or in each calpulli, a district, of a large city.

Such court would deal with minor civil and criminal offenses, with its judge being elected from among the ranks of the district’s respected citizens. Veteran warriors of course were a preferable choice, trusted to be people of “sound mind and proper upbringing”. Such elected judge would have a group of assistants at his disposal, acting as a local police force, summoning or arresting the suspected criminals. His verdict would be presented to the higher authorities, having no executive power to deliver the sentence.

If the offence was too serious to be dealt with by the local court, the case would be forwarded to the higher level of jurisdiction called tecalli. Those courts were held permanently in session in each capital, such as Tenochtitlan, Texcoco or Tlacopan. Stuffed by a president and two or three professionally trained judges, those courts would deliver a final sentence in the cases of civil disputes.

Yet, if a convicted criminal felt he had been judged wrongly, he could still appeal to the Supreme Justice Court convened in the capital and conducted by Cihuacoatl, the equivalent of the position of a prime minister, or even, sometimes, by tlatoani, the ruler, himself.

So, whether commoner or noble, if your case was still unresolved and if you had the necessary clout and means, you would travel to Tenochtitlan, to wait for the Supreme Court to be convened, something that was supposed to happen every 12 days, stuffed with 12 judges and presided by the Cihuacoatl or the Emperor himself. Its verdict was final and could not be tampered with. Sentenced by the highest authority, your fate was sealed.

There were quite a few courts acting outside the system, legally so. Commercial courts were run by the traders’ guild, dealing with every offense related to marketplace and the commerce in general, having every authority to judge and execute the criminals or offenders.

Tlacxitlan, military courts, stuffed by three or four professional judges, dealt with military problems. Those were mobile and could be conducted right after a battle no matter how far from the capital the warriors’ forces were.

Religious courts dealt with priests and temples, and sometimes a special tribunal was held in the palace of the emperor to deal with the crimes committed by high dignitaries.

The judges would usually be selected from among the nobility, approved by the emperor himself. An extensive training in calmecac – school for nobles, warriors, judges and priests – would be required, followed by a long apprenticeship of sitting beside the actual judge and learning the trade. The exception were the lower local courts, who were not appointed by the highest authorities, but, as stated above, selected from among the neighborhoods’ respectable citizens.

The judges’ salary came from the state, from the proceeds of the lands set aside especially for this purpose. Judges were expected to deliver impartial verdicts and sentences, regardless of the parties’ social status. A judge was not allowed to accept gifts in any form and was bound by strong rules of ethics, a violation of which could result in a number of penalties. But the Mesoamerican judiciary was a self-policing institution.

So if you were dragged to the court by your enraged neighbor claiming that you encroached on his property, or had stolen his goods, the charges would be filled, and you would stand before the judge’s dais, allowed to confront your accuser. The lawyers were not allowed, but you could bring a friend to help you to plead your case. The witnesses would then be questioned, along with the suing parties. Both would be required to swear to tell the truth in the name of Huitzilopochtli and they would do so “by touching the ground and then their lips”, after which the judges would proceed with cross-examination, putting their skill and accumulated experience to extract the truth. Testimony, evidence, confessions and all sort of documentation was admitted, and the laying witness would be punished with the same severity as the sued party if found guilty.

So if your neighbor, indeed, dragged you into a court, I sincerely hope you and your friends had managed to plead your case well, avoiding the conviction.

An excerpt from “Currents of War

The large eyes rested on Iztac, their expression light.

“So the Emperor just needs to encourage the people some more.” A shrug. “And yet, he spends his time judging in Imperial Court. Why would he try people during war time? Let alone warriors.”

“Well, there are matters the judges of the districts cannot deal with,” began Iztac, finding it difficult to follow the constantly changing conversation. From her involvement in the imperial matters, to Tlacaelel, to Tenochtitlan’s readiness for war, to the imperial courts, what was this woman trying to say? “The imperial court has to be convened from time to time.”

“But in war time?” The woman shook her head. “Why try warriors, let alone leaders of warriors, when Tenochtitlan is about to be invaded?”

“Well, I suppose, if the warriors committed some offense against the royal house…” And then it dawned on her, and she caught her breath, staring at the woman, unable to think. “Is there… a trial? This morning?”

“Yes, there is a trial this morning.” Something lurked in the depths of the woman’s eyes, and the gaze resting on Iztac grew piercing before turning back into its typical, derisively amused lightness. “A minor leader of the warriors, mind you. Not anyone of importance.

The man must be guilty of a serious crime against the royal house, to justify the convention of the Imperial Court at such difficult times.”

She tried to get a grip of her senses, then felt the cup slipping from her fingers. It fell with a bang, rolling over the floor, splashing the last of the chocolate. They both watched it come to a stop, fascinated.

“When? When is the trial?” She was hardly able to recognize her own voice, so strangled, unnaturally high it sounded.

The woman watched her, frowning, her smile gone. “This morning,” she said finally, her face softening, filling with compassion. “Maybe now.”

Now? In these very moments?

“I… I don’t understand. How? Why was I not told?”

But, of course. Of course, she hadn’t been told!

“I’m sorry,” she heard the woman saying, and it helped her a little, forced her to concentrate on something tangible. She needed to get rid of this woman first.

“I… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” She stared at the beautiful face, seeing none of the previous arrogance but only a genuine concern.

“We can ride in my palanquin if you want to. It’s spacious, and my bearers know their trade. We won’t be tossed more than necessary.”

Iztac blinked, painfully aware that she still had not been able to understand this woman, not fully. “To ride in your palanquin? Where?”

“To see the trial, of course. Where else?”

“But I need to see Chimal first. I need to talk to him. I have to…” She bit her lips until it hurt. Why was she saying this aloud? “Please, I need to do things. I’m sorry. I will be honored if you visit me again…” Her voice trailed off under the mirthless smile of her visitor.

“The Emperor must already be on the Plaza. It’s nearing midmorning. But you will be able to talk to him after that. Maybe you could join him on his tour around the city. The people of Tenochtitlan will be delighted to see their beautiful Empress as cheerful and as unafraid as their ruler. While riding with him, you may have a chance to talk to him about this warrior, to make him postpone any degree of punishment he may have decided upon.” The woman hesitated. “I’m sorry I came so late. I wish I had been able to warn you in time.”

Iztac just stared. Somehow she was on her feet now, but she didn’t remember herself getting up. “Why do you do this? How does any of this concern you?”