- Amazons, Wives, Nuns, and Witches: Women and the Catholic Church in Colonial Brazil, 1500–1822 by Carole A. Myscofski
Women constitute more than half of humankind, but that reality has not been apparent in the historical writing that, until very recently, has been composed by males, focused on males, and written for males. Historical records, either manuscript or printed, have similarly privileged men, no more so than in frontier societies such as colonial Brazil, which produced limited records and in which men dominated. Any work that seeks to redress this bias is valuable, so Carole Myscofski’s book is to be welcomed for what it adds to the English-language literature on women in Brazil. The work’s six chapters investigate specific aspects of how Catholicism, the official religion during the colonial period, perceived and treated females.
The opening chapter studies the two competing perceptions of indigenous women by the early missionaries—the first viewing them as “innocent and compliant” (p. 23), and so susceptible to manipulation; and the second viewing them as aggressive and dangerous, and so labeling them “amazons and cannibals” (p. 19). The subsequent chapter, probably the most incisive and insightful, discusses the perception of the ideal woman. She was the personification of “honor,” a virtue that would transmute into “dishonor” if she acted in any way that asserted her autonomy in thought and action. The third chapter, too short in length to be satisfactory, looks at how the purpose of education was perceived to be the inculcation of “virtue,” an approach that gave women sparse, even derisory, opportunities for education, whether academically or practically based.
The fourth chapter, “Before the Church Doors,” considers the role of women played in the life cycle, being first daughters and then wives (if of European descent) but more usually (for those of non-European descent) caught in often enduring consensual unions, concubinage, or prostitution. An uncertain and repetitive organization renders the discussion of this key topic much less effective than it could have been. There follows a chapter that draws on archival sources in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and examines the convents and the recolhimentos—the two institutions in which women passed their adult life in seclusion, guarded from the world. The two existed from the 1580s onward—the first receiving the authorization of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and accepting only the daughters of the elite; the second being unofficial, more autonomous, and more open to females of mixed descent.
The final chapter differs from the rest in looking at women not as objects but as actors, since it treats of forty-two women investigated by the Holy Inquisition for practicing magic. The focus of discussion is, however, much less on the women [End Page 688] and their motivation than on the Catholic Church’s attitudes to magic and on the types of magic practiced in colonial Brazil. Even more seriously, since the author fails to compare the forms of magic used by women with those used by men, an essential element in the analysis is missing.
As will be apparent, the book can be categorized more as a study of religious (and so male) attitudes and treatment of women than of gender relations treated from a feminine viewpoint. Given that the author is an academic specializing in religion, this approach is understandable. However, the approach would have been more effective and the chapters more forceful if the handling of the topics were better organized and more conceptual, and the prose style less heavy. Myscofski’s book will, accordingly, be of most use to scholars desiring to obtain knowledge about attitudes toward and the treatment of women in colonial Brazil.