- Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752–1863
This account of a convent rebellion places nuns squarely in the center of the economic, political, and social history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico. The rebellion unfolded in two stages between 1759 and 1772 in the Conceptionist convent of La Purísima Concepcion in San Miguel el Grande. In explaining these events, Chowning traces the convent's history from its 1752 foundation to its 1863 dissolution, contextualizing it within regional and colonywide developments. She does not see the convent as merely reflecting colonial trends; rather she sees the nuns as participants in these trends. Chowning's narrative deals with relationships among nuns, vicars, and bishops; the urban roles of convents; and the influence of Enlightenment ideas and Liberal policies on convent life, church affairs, and women's activities. This book tells us about women and the church, and about Mexican history more generally.
The rebellion revolved around the issue of reform. La Purísima was established as a reformed convent, where nuns strictly observed their vows of poverty and enclosure and lived the vida común (common life), sharing meals and sleeping in communal dormitories. Donadas (lay sisters) and nuns did convent work, in place of personal servants. The first abbess interpreted the convent's mission narrowly, insisting on a taxing devotional schedule even though nuns had multiple responsibilities beyond spiritual duties. A rebellious faction emerged, led by Phelipa de San Antonio. Like the abbess, Phelipa had come from an unreformed Conceptionist convent in Mexico City to help found La Purísima. She was the first to suffer an illness that later moved among her followers. Described as the salto (jumping sickness) or the mal, it was characterized by sufferers' trancelike state and jerky movements. Afflicted nuns stayed in their cells, received extra food, and were released from many obligations. Contemporaries suspected fakery, although Chowning considers the possibility of somatic causes, at least in Phelipa's case. Yet Phelipa and others may also have manipulated the symptoms in order to resist the vida común and undermine the authority of the abbess and bishop. The abbess and her like-minded successor were forced out after the first period of rebellion and, after six peaceful years, Phelipa became abbess. Reform-minded nuns complained to the bishop about Phelipa's administration. Under her tenure nuns wore secular clothes, received male visitors, and mounted plays. [End Page 505]
It was during this period that the salto spread. Although an episcopal investigation failed to remove Phelipa, she was not reelected, probably due to factors including rigged elections and the untimely death of the esteemed pro-reform foundress, possibly seen as a martyr. In 1792, however, Phelipa's wishes came true (although posthumously); the bishop imposed the vida particular (individual life) on La Purísima, with nuns receiving stipends for their individual needs. This was touted as a solution to ongoing financial problems, partially caused by the remarkable, and endowment-depleting, practice of letting dowryless donadas profess as white veil nuns after a decade of service. However, the adoption of the vida particular was as much an ideological as a financial decision; Chowning argues that it was inspired by the belief of the bishop and his advisers in free market ideals such as rationalism and individualism. The convent, like the region, suffered economically during the war of independence, but recovered afterwards, although recruitment, a longstanding problem, decreased precipitously. This was due partially to anticlerical characterizations of nuns as prisoners and non-service convents as useless, and to laws making church property taxable, which affected finances. Both factors made convents less attractive to potential novices and their families. In addition, the bishop forced La Purísima to radically limit admissions—because it was not attracting elite, dowried women, new entrants added nothing to the endowment. Finally, with the Liberal government's closure of convents in 1863, the nuns were turned out. Unlike other groups, La Purísima's nuns did not remain together after...