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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 152-154

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Book Review

Los nobles ante la muerte en México:
Actitudes, ceremonias y memoria (1750-1850)

Los nobles ante la muerte en México: Actitudes, ceremonias y memoria (1750-1850). By VERONICA ZARATE TOSCANO. Mexico City: El Colegio de México; Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora; Centro de Estudios Históricos, 2000 . Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendixes. Bibliography. 484 pp. Paper.

Verónica Zárate Toscano has composed a social and cultural history of major importance. She examines the attitudes and ceremonies related to death described in the testaments of the Mexican nobility between 1750 and 1850 . The book is divided into three distinct, unequal, but related parts. The first, and shortest, section describes the history of the testament in European culture. The second provides a systematic consideration of the Mexican nobility until the mid-nineteenth century, with stress on the final hundred years. The final addresses social relations, religious beliefs, and rituals and ceremonies connected to death as expressed in the wills of this exalted social group. Zárate Toscano discovered 303 such testaments, 169 of which date from 1780 to 1820 .

The author views these documents as deriving directly from Western tradition. She makes careful use of the writings of European, especially French, historians on wills and attitudes towards death. She does not discern any particular attributes distinctive to the Americas, the colonial condition, or Native American heritage in the Mexican testaments. However, the native peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes adapted the testament to their needs and cultures, as the essays recently compiled by Susan Kellogg and Matthew Restall in Dead Giveaways (1998 ) attest.

The substantial section on the nobility is not as wide-ranging and synthetic as is Doris M. Ladd's portrait of this social group in the same historical epoch. But [End Page 152] Zárate Toscano's treatment is far more detailed in its approach, considering certain topics and internal distinctions that Ladd omitted. The author notes how few family members, both male and female, joined the church but how many belonged to civil corporations. She sees the late colonial nobility as creole dominated and makes little of any creole-peninsular rivalry. Her section on family relations within titled families offers a valuable, fresh perspective. That on the nobility following independence is equally notable, including new findings about the activities and fates of numerous individuals and families.

Zárate Toscano insists that the nobility shared crucial virtues and attributes that differentiated them from the other members of the substantial wealthy elite of late colonial Mexico. This seems a difficult position to sustain, since applicants for titles in the eighteenth century--the period of the greatest expansion of their numbers--shared nothing in common other than their considerable wealth and their desire for the honor itself. But many distinguished families of equal wealth and accomplishment declined to apply. Nor did the noble families benefit disproportionately in either material terms or status from their designation.

Ultimately, however, the author's learned discussions of testaments in the history of Western culture and the character and comportment of the Mexican nobility are prefatory to her thorough treatment of ceremonies and perceptions of death and the afterlife that comprises the second half of the book. She enumerates the testaments' religious invocations, discovering rather few to the Virgin in any of her incarnations, including only three to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Many more persons invoked Saint Joseph, and a significant minority cited Michael the Archangel. Only a single testament made reference to original sin. A number, though, sought intercession from one or more saints, but the total number mentioned reaches only fifteen.

Donations to cofradías were frequent. The testaments record 42 nobles who belonged to 17 different confraternities, seven of them having been rectors. Many nobles donated funds for the construction of religious buildings, altars, or at least plaques, most often in Mexico but also in Spain. Thirty men and 13 women (24 percent of the testators) stated...


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pp. 152-154
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