The Americas 58.3 (2002) 490-491
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In 1994 I had the privilege of reading the manuscript of what would be published a couple of years later as Yucatán's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War, 1800-1847. In that manuscript there was a fascinating chapter on religion that Terry Rugeley told me--if my memory serves me correctly--he was considering pulling and publishing as a separate article. The wisdom of holding back that manuscript chapter is now confirmed by the expansion of that material not just into an article, but into this book-length study; for the resulting book is a wonder indeed.
Of Wonders and Wise Men is a cultural history of nineteeth-century Yucatan (a toponym that rather oddly does not appear in the book's sub-title). Religious matters are Rugeley's principal focus, but the book is about much more than that. Through its "dilemmas and contradictions," Rugeley uses religion as "a symbolic framework for life" (p. xiv). Religion was both a unifying factor and "an arena for contentions and differences," and it is through these "ambiguities of unity and difference" that Rugeley seeks to access Yucatan's "popular cultures" (p. xv).
To this end, the book is built around four topics--folk knowledge, urban piety, icons, and anti-clericalism--each of which get one of the seven chapters. While case studies, sometimes referred to by Rugeley as "stories," are peppered throughout the book, three receive the particular attention of a chapter each. The second chapter tells the tale of Raymundo Pérez, presented as "the paragon priest" (p. xxv) of the time and region, who "dominated the religious and economic affairs" (p. 63) of the Hoctún region for half a century. Chapter 5 illuminates the "persistent past" (p. 164) expressed in the history of the cofradía on the hacienda of San Antonio Xocneceh. The final chapter narrates Yucatán's loss of the Petén region to Guatemala through the interwoven life-stories of two local officials, the priest Barreiro and the corregidor Méndez. Adding to the book's fine presentation [End Page 490] are fifteen photographs and four simple but annotated maps, which I found helpful and rather delightful.
Rugeley's underlying thesis is that religion (in nineteenth-century Yucatan, but surely elsewhere too) "set out a history of time and a cultural geography in which everything and everyone had a place" (p. 234). The book is thus more social history than religious studies: when Rugeley explores religious culture he ends up illuminating business relations and the nature of popular entertainment; when he turns to religious brotherhoods he ends up tackling issues of gender and the status of women in Hispanic Yucatec society; in seeking to paint portraits of priests he succeeds in unraveling the complex relations between the Hispanic clergy and the Maya peasantry.
Although the Caste War is often hovering in the background, Rugeley resists the temptation to assume that the conflict defined or changed everything in the peninsula. As he remarks at the book's end, "cultural tendencies can have an enormous permanence" (p. 239). Nor does he adopt an overly simplistic or static position on continuity; he goes beyond establishing its relevance to exploring the nature of continuity and its relationship to change. Just as we are now beginning to understand the role played by continuity in sixteenth-century Yucatan, Rugeley has emerged as our expert guide for the journey into a similar process in the nineteenth century.
To say that this book is well written would be to damn it unjustly with faint praise. Rugeley is a meticulous archival researcher whose eye for detail does not prevent him from either seeing the larger picture or brushing it onto the page for us to observe with equal clarity. But...