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  • The Cloister as Therapeutic Space:Breast Cancer Narratives in the Early Modern World
  • Sarah E. Owens (bio)

Madre Estefanía's suffering began in silence. While she lay in her bunk battling seasickness, suffocating heat, and bed sores, she also brooded over the lump in her breast. She probably knew from the beginning that this was not a good sign. She might have already witnessed other nuns from her home convent in Madrid succumb to this terminal illness. So she waited and hesitated to tell her traveling companions, four other Capuchin nuns, who like Madre Estefanía, had agreed to crisscross continents and oceans so that they could establish a new convent in Lima, Peru. Unfortunately Madre Estefanía would never make it past the port of Buenos Aires.

Their long journey had begun two years earlier when they left Madrid, Spain on January 3, 1710. Madre María Rosa, the future mother abbess of the new Peruvian convent, documented their remarkable journey by writing an official historical account of their travels and the building of their new convent. There were no Capuchin convents in South America at the time, and for this reason Madre María Rosa and her four spiritual sisters received permission to set up a new community. They had opted for a long, circuitous route that required a sea voyage from Spain to Buenos Aires, a trek over the Andes by mule, and finally another ship journey up the Pacific coast to Lima. That route, combined with the hardships of the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714)—at one point the nuns were taken prisoner by Dutch corsairs—delayed their arrival in Peru until 1713. Although Madre María Rosa's work was not published until the middle of the twentieth century, her manuscript, later edited by one of her travel companions, was copied at least two times by scribes. To this day, one [End Page 319] of those versions still remains in the convent library of Jesus, María and José in Lima, Peru. The other copy was probably originally sent back to the Madrid sisters, but is now retained by the National Library in Madrid, Spain.1 Through this convent chronicle, the nuns both in Spain and Peru learned about the horrible circumstances that led to Madre Estefanía's death. Yet, at the same time, the carefully crafted document also would have consoled the Capuchin sisters, since the narrative foregrounds the compassionate care and network of support afforded to Madre Estefanía in her final hours.

For many women, breast cancer is a very personal disease, something that has affected friends and close relatives. It is not an ailment normally associated with the early modern world or the Middle Ages. Yet, breast cancer did not just appear in the twentieth century; instead, in the words of one historian, this illness ". . . may very well be history's oldest known malaise, known as well to the ancients as it is to us."2 Although this disease has been in existence since recorded history, very little has been written about the women who endured breast cancer. The main objective of this essay is to start to fill this gap by analyzing the first-hand accounts authored by breast cancer patients, or the people who knew these patients. The first part of this study will cover the history of breast disease and treatments, especially those having to do with European women of the early modern period. Drawing on historical documents, I will then investigate some specific cases of breast cancer in seventeenth century Europe, most notably breast cancer suffered by two queens. The latter part of the study will analyze the circumstances of Madre Estefanía's breast cancer during her transatlantic journey. The cloister as space of spiritual and medical therapeutic practices opens a window to study Spanish nuns in the early modern period—a topic that has received very little scholarly attention. My findings suggest that nuns like Madre Estefanía had better mechanisms, both spiritual and physical, for dealing with breast cancer than their secular counterparts faced with the same implacable foe.

We know about these Spanish nuns because literacy and access to books...


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pp. 319-338
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