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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 352-354
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Monjas y beatas: La escritura femenina en la espiritualidad barroca Novohispana, siglos XVII y XVIII. Edited by Asunción Lavrin and Rosalva Loreto L. (Puebla: Universidad de las Américas—Puebla and Archivo General de la Nación. 2002. Pp. 275. Paperback.)
Over the past twenty years, a fascinating field has developed in the areas of women's history, religion, church history, and literary studies. A renewed interest in early modern women, both in Spain and its former colonies, has produced a number of groundbreaking works. A particular interest in the life and writings of pious women (spiritual autobiographies, letters, chronicles, and devotional, [End Page 352] visionary, and confessional writings) who have traditionally been placed outside the literary and religious canons has enriched the study of Spanish and colonial societies.
Asunción Lavrín and Rosalva Loreto L.'s compilation functions as both an anthology of spiritual writings by colonial Mexican women, and a study of the social and religious context that produced a surprising number of autobiographical and biographical works by devout women. Each of the five chapters consists of an introduction to the writer or enunciator of the text and her social, historical, and institutional background, followed by a modernized transcription of selected passages. The introductory essays are composed by well-known scholars in the field including Kathleen Myers, Antonio Rubial, Ellen Gunnarsdottir, and the editors. Although all the texts borrow heavily from several genres of devotional and autobiographical writing, the editors present the texts as forming three basic types. Those of Francisca de la Natividad and Madre María de San José are both autobiographies written by professed nuns (although Sor Francisca's text begins as a biography of one of her Carmelite sisters). These life stories also function as important chronicles of life inside Mexican convents of the colonial period. The second group includes spiritual diaries where the devout penitent's trials and divine rewards are recorded on an ongoing basis. The first, by Sor María de Jesús Felipa, not only includes the conscientious self-examination required by professed nuns, but also describes spiritual exercises and divine visions and locutions. The second example features the visions and divine conversations experienced by the beata, or pious lay woman, Josefa de San Luis Beltrán. These are recorded by a young Spanish cleric whom the visionary has chosen as her secretary. Josefa's precarious relationship with religious authority is highlighted by the fact that this text has survived as part of her case file in the archives of colonial Mexico's Inquisition. The final chapter is a collection of letters by Francisca de los Angeles, a lay woman who gained considerable recognition for exemplary piety and service, and for founding a refuge for pious lay women. The letters are addressed to various confessors and describe autobiographical details, spiritual exercises, and visionary experiences.
Although many anthologies are designed as introductory overviews of a given topic, this book is better suited to scholars of Mexican colonial history, especially in the areas of women, literature, and church history. With the exception of the works of Madre María de San José, these texts are available in modern edition for the first time through this anthology. During the colonial period, women's spiritual writings became an important genre in the Church's efforts to publicize its successes in its ongoing mission of incorporating the New World into the Christian fold. With this in mind the editors took care to include both cloistered and uncloistered women, some who benefited from ecclesiastical approval and others who did not, as well as women from several urban and rural settings. The work also reaches beyond the Baroque (the period most associated with women's spiritual and mystical writing) into the eighteenth century to establish a greater sense of continuity for this popular form of women's [End Page 353] expression and to challenge the notion of a clear border separating the Habsburg empire's Baroque spirituality and...