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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 480-482

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Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World. Edited by Mary E. Giles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 402. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $53.00 cloth; $20.95 paper.

The histories of fourteen unfortunates, ensnared by the Spanish Inquisition during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, make up this collection. Each essay turns on these women's lives as they are processed through the Inquisition's substantial judicial bureaucracy. What we know about them is colored irrevocably by the institution: the questions asked, information gathered, format of trial records--were all mandated by the Inquisition itself. And we are party to only a slice of their experiences, that particular life activity deemed heretical by the Tribunal. [End Page 480]

In spite of these limitations, Women in the Inquisition does provide a substantive taste of what living meant under the aegis of the Spanish empire. Most of the women we encounter were from diverse regions of the Peninsula: Catalonia, Galicia, Castile, Extremadura; four, residing in the New World, were subject to the Tribunal's Mexico City office. They had a variety of backgrounds: espaƱolas born in the Peninsula or in the Americas; mestiza, mulatta, and negra; Moorish descent and Jewish descent; enslaved and free; moderately comfortable and destitute. (The Inquisition did not have jurisidiction over native peoples.) And the women were alleged to have committed a variety of crimes: from secretly practicing Jewish rites, to blasphemy, false prophecy, harboring demonic visions, and bigamy.

The book's first two sections present the lives of Peninsular women. Part I, "The Inquisition and Jewish Converts," focuses on the early decades of the Inquisition when prosecution of supposed Judaizers was most intense. The section's three essays provide entrees into the horrors suffered by the accused: the physical horrors of torture and the psychological horrors of witnessing family ties and community bonds disintegrate under threats of prosecution, punishment, and ultimately, of execution. The Inquisitors asked pointed questions about kin relations and habits, friends and enemies, travel and work; trial transcripts thus furnish a wealth of details, most capably analyzed here, regarding the tribunal's procedures as well as the flavor and structures of living of sixteenth century Spain.

Women transgressed orthodoxy as covert Judaizers; in the more ample Part 2, "The Inquisition and Christian Orthodoxy," we encounter seven more accounts and several sins. Although we have a fine essay reconstructing the lives of women accused of bigamy, most of the women presented here were suspect because of their spiritual calling. Spain's noted beatas, renowned for their religious devotion, were also threats to the religious establishment. The most infamous were overcome by celestial visions, in which holy figures, like Jesus, communicated with them in erotic unions. Remarkably, it could take years for Inquisitors to amass sufficient material to warrant an arrest, evidence of the beatas' broad based popularity and the substantial support proffered by Spain's religious and political elite. Coming from a variety of backgrounds themselves, beatas and other visionaries were testimony, as the authors make clear, to the creative ways women challenged limitations imposed on their gender, as well as on their racial and social status.

The last four suspect lives were from Mexico. Here, too, we find women visionaries whose unorthodox practices, profound mysticism, and considerable following dismayed Mexico's inquisitors. We also uncover examples of popular religiosity when young women, hosting parties, would chant prayers to ensure the marriage of their dreams--entreaties nearly of a piece with sorcerers' charms. And in a dramatic retelling of the lives of Mexico's slaves, we learn of women who, much like their male counterparts, invoked and inverted their masters' sentiments to express their disgust with slavery and its brutality: they would commit heresy, shouting "I deny God." We also find out, however, that these women were savvy to the ways of their master's institutions, trying to use their shouts to both make public their master's [End Page 481] abuse and, as a hopeful consequence, merit a reduced, softer...


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