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  • Sin and Confession in Colonial Peru: Spanish-Quechua Penitential Texts, 1560–1650 by Regina Harrison
  • Sabine Hyland
Sin and Confession in Colonial Peru: Spanish-Quechua Penitential Texts, 1560-1650. By Regina Harrison. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014. Pp. xiii, 310. Preface. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 cloth.

Regina Harrison’s long-anticipated study of Quechua language confessionals in colonial Peru lives up to its high expectations. This ambitious work presents a finely detailed and learned exploration of how Roman Catholic missionaries in Peru translated European concepts of sin and redemption in Quechua language confessional manuals. These confessional manuals and other catechetical materials, such as the sermons, litanies, and prayers published in Quechua, were meant to serve as a primary means through which the Christian faith was introduced to the native peoples of the Andes. Therefore, a careful analysis of these texts illuminates the Spanish and Andean transculturation process throughout much of the colonial period.

Harrison focuses on the semantic changes over time of many key Quechua words, such as “hucha”, “ychu,” “aycha,” “pampacha,” and “pencay” (glossed respectively as sin, confession, flesh, absolution, and shameful parts), in the confessionals, catechisms, sermons, manuals, and grammars published between 1560 and 1650. Prior to the European invasion, native Andeans possessed ideas of sin, confession, and penance, although the meanings that they gave to these concepts differed greatly from how these religious ideals were understood by Christian missionaries. With considerable erudition, Harrison demonstrates the precolonial semantic domains of the Quechua religious terms, and then shows how the meanings of these terms were altered in successive translations. Her work also reveals how the translated texts could reflect Andean modes of thought and cultural practices well into the seventeenth century.

The book’s initial chapter explores late medieval and sixteenth-century Roman Catholic theologies of confession. Harrison then examines how the great Dominican defender [End Page 518] of indigenous rights, Bartolomé de Las Casas, viewed confession as a primary means for encouraging conquistadors and other Spaniards to provide restitution to native peoples. Succeeding chapters treat the ways in which Quechua confessionals defined sin, codified sanctioned sexuality, and defined notions of just commerce, loans and trade. They also expressed changing forms of labor and appropriate compensation. The concluding chapter analyzes the contemporary notarial guides for wills as a form of “quasi-confessional” in which the dying were encouraged to make restitution for sins committed during life.

One strength of this book is that Harrison never loses sight of the possible cultural significance of her lexical analysis. Her chapter on sexuality, for example, considers how the role of Andean women was circumscribed within these texts to fit European patterns. Harrison’s examination of the confessional questions about trade and labor provides new insights into the day-to-day activities of Andean workers, from female market sellers (catera) to skilled silver miners (indios mingas).

Although Harrison’s focus is on the content and translations of the published confessionals and other catechetical materials, she does not consider the related question of whether these religious texts were actually disseminated and employed throughout the Andean countryside. I suspect that subsequent research into the colonial circulation of books in the rural highlands, and into the production of wills and other notarial documents by Andean elites, will bear out the significance of her findings. This tour-de-force study documents the semantic shifts of hundreds of indigenous terms as Quechua was pressed into the service of the colonial evangelical enterprise. It is a must-read for scholars interested in Latin American history and anthropology, postcolonial studies, the anthropology of Christianity, missiology, and Quechua linguistics. Sin and Confession in Colonial Peru is a landmark study that will set the standard for semantic approaches to understanding transculturation for decades to come.

Sabine Hyland
University of St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Scotland


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