Asunciόn Lavrin, Brides of Christ. Conventual Life in Colonial Mexico,Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2008. £55.00, ISBN 978-0-8047-5283-1 (hardback), pp. 1-496.
Reviewed by: Andrea E. Knox, Northumbria University, November 2009.
By the end of the colonial period there were fifty-seven convents established in the viceroyalty of New Spain. Brides of Christcovers this period, and the development of conventual life for nuns in Mexico throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Women’s convents were central to Spanish and European colonisation and cultural transfer to the New World. Women’s role in this was essential. From Mexico outward to the provinces convents were established. However, before the twentieth century there were no general histories of these convents. Recent scholarship has sought to address this, and Brides of Christis very thorough and well researched addition. Nuns’ writings and the history of convents are woven together very effectively.
Chapter one analyses why girls and women became nuns, and makes the clear point that they were not pressured into religious life, but that vocation lay at the heart of their decisions. In addition convents in the new world offered the opportunity to construct a new society. This new society was patterned on similar cultural foundations of the old one, but the distance from Spain, and from Papal authority afforded a degree of independence for these enterprising women. Chapters two and three address the period of novitiate, and are very effective in discussing how the novice’s vocation and ability to live with the vows of celibacy, obedience and poverty was undertaken, as well as how these women dealt with the claustration reiterated by the Council of Trent. In a fascinating section within chapter three Lavrin problematises the exact specificities of poverty as the renunciation of individual use of property, and reveals that before profession the novice was legally entitled to dispose of her property as she wished. In addition, after profession Spanish nuns in Mexican convents were entitled to own slaves. Communities of religious women were surrounded by servants and slaves who were mostly Indians, or of mixed African descent. Lavrin maintains that this ‘colour line’ (p. 122) existed in all of the convents, and separated women of Indian or African descent from those of Spanish descent. These distinctions continued throughout the period.
Chapters four, five, six and seven deal with various aspects of daily life within the convent. Chapter four analyses the government of convents. The election of an Abbess required two-thirds of a secret vote, and although this had to be ratified by a male superior, it appears that convents largely administered their own hierarchies. Tensions and rivalries did exist, and on occasion outspoken nuns showed no inhibitions in expressing their likes and dislikes. What they appear to have resented most of all was the archbishop appointing his favourite if an election had failed to provide an outright successor. Male interference was clearly deeply disliked, and reveals a layer of conflict between the genders. Chapter five deals with the prohibitions over engaging with the world, and the reality of the ineffectiveness of these stipulations. Trade and business were carried out from the convents, and a number of loans were made, revealing the business acumen of the nuns. Death and the afterlife are dealt with in chapter six. Nuns’ illnesses were monitored by archbishops and bishops who drew up a list of physicians who were allowed into convents. The funeral rights of nuns were often accompanied by much more pomp than regional archbishops approved of.
The latter chapters deal with areas of subversion and race. Chapter eight highlights the foundation of convents for indigenous women after 1724. There was a change in social perceptions. Lavrin highlights a positive change towards Indian and African women, up to a point, though their convents were separate from those of nuns of Spanish origin. Surviving biographies of Indian nuns and their letters show a strong sense of self esteem and dignity. Chapter ten introduces the huge variety of nuns’ writings. As well as biographies and hagiographies, surviving sources include plays, poetry and history. Nuns were adept recorders of their own history, and these sources were not filtered through their male contemporaries. Nuns in Mexican convents were self-conscious keepers of their own history and memories.
Brides of Christ offers a thorough understanding of the important role women had to play in the evangelization process of New Spain. They put their own stamp on the new cult of the Saints central to seventeenth century Catholicism, and they broadened female institutions to include indigenous women. Mexico was the only part of the Spanish Empire to create convents for Indian and African women, and as such gave Roman Catholicism a New World identity. An excellent collection of maps and architectural illustrations, as well as portraits of some of the nuns themselves is very useful, as is the comprehensive bibliography.