In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conquest of Mexico

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • The Debate on Causes
  • The Conquistadors
  • Indigenous Experiences
  • Women’s Experiences
  • Malinche / Doña Marina
  • Africans in the Era of Conquest
  • Pictorials and Visual Culture

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Latin American Studies Conquest of Mexico
Camilla Townsend
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0046


The conquest of Mexico has fascinated the world for many generations. Most works have focused on the Spaniards’ defeat of the so-called Aztecs (or more properly, the Nahuas, and those who spoke the Nahuatl language, in particular those who inhabited the city of Tenochtitlan and dominated the Central Basin and surrounding areas). However, Spanish wars against the Maya and other groups have also received their share of attention. Until quite recently, classic works underscored European superiority, but in the second half of the 20th century, scholars’ approaches shifted dramatically. Presently, many scholars work on what they call the “New Conquest History,” meaning that they take indigenous agency seriously and recognize that although Cortés’s most famous deeds all occurred between 1519 and 1521, the conquest of Mexico actually took much longer than those dates imply. The conquest was an uneven process, with victory much more difficult for the Spaniards to achieve in isolated or remote areas. Everywhere cultural hegemony remained an elusive goal. In short, the “conquest of Mexico” no longer refers merely to the toppling of Moctezuma but to a much broader and more complex process. In this bibliography, for the sake of organization only, we categorize studies pertaining to the initial military invasion by the Spaniards in any one area as “the conquest” and the negotiations that continued in ensuing generations as “the aftermath of conquest.”

General Overviews

The story of the fall of the Aztec empire to a group of Spaniards led by Hernando Cortés has been the subject of many grand syntheses. On the eve of the Mexican-American War, William H. Prescott published his three-volume work (Prescott 1843), the central narrative of which has in many ways dominated the popular literature ever since. Reincarnations of that story of Western glory and native shame have appeared as recently as Thomas 1993 and Levy 2008. It subtly influences even brilliant scholarship that privileges the Western imagination (Gruzinski 1993). Hassig 1994 broke with the narrative, and Elliott 2006 moved away from traditional assumptions in important ways in a widely read work. Thus far only Townsend 2006 attempts to tell the whole story of the conquest from an indigenous perspective. Brienen and Jackson 2008 puts together a wide-ranging collection of short pieces, giving readers efficient access to the much more complex work on the subject by specialists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries—work that allows for more agency on the part of indigenous people. For an overview of the many types of native-language sources, see Lockhart, et al. 2007.

  • Brienen, Rebecca P., and Margaret A. Jackson, eds. Invasion and Transformation: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2008.

    Provides a suggestive sampling of the high-quality work being done by scholars in the field.

  • Elliott, John. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Only the first few chapters pertain directly to the conquest of Mexico, but they are well worth reading in that they contextualize all the events and thus demystify them.

  • Gruzinski, Serge. The Conquest of Mexico: The Incorporation of Indian Societies into the Western World, 16th–18th Centuries. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1993.

    Probably the leading work in a subfield of literary theorists who have focused on the subtle cultural domination exerted by the West over indigenous peoples. Translated from the original French.

  • Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. London and New York: Longman, 1994.

    In a crowded subfield, this remains the best study of the military history of the invasion.

  • Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Bantam, 2008.

    A highly readable modernized version of what is essentially Prescott’s story.

  • Lockhart, James, Lisa Sousa, and Stephanie Wood, eds. Sources and Methods for the Study of Postconquest Mesoamerican Ethnohistory. 2007.

    An invaluable guide for those seeking an overview of the types of native-language sources known to exist and the ways they have been studied thus far.

  • Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843.

    A classic work republished dozens of times, most recently in a 2009 edition edited by J. H. Elliott.

  • Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

    The author attempts to move beyond Prescott by taking greater account of the native perspective, but his own limited knowledge of that area causes that aspect of the work to fail.

  • Townsend, Camilla. Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

    Though the book specifically treats the figure of Malinche, it also provides a narrative of the classic drama that diverges from prior accounts in that the indigenous peoples are consistently a point of reference.

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