- Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain by Zeb Tortorici
Zeb Tortorici's latest work skillfully examines the archiving of bodies and desires through the prosecution of sexual sins against nature in viceregal New Spain. Following the impressive compilation of a vast corpus of documents throughout Mexico, Central America, and the United States, Tortorici divides the examination of these archival processes in to four primary themes: the visceral, the human, the animal, and the divine.
Tortorici examines discrepancies between the archival catalog and the documents within. Tracing the archival process from the event itself to the cataloging of its documentation, Tortorici identifies points at which visceral reactions alter the classification and interpretation of archival documents. Tortorici expertly introduces the appropriate historical context used to frame his analysis. Of particular value is Tortorici's discussion of the distinction between prosecution of actions by secular courts and the prosecution of unorthodox beliefs in inquisitional discourse. The Holy Office concerned itself with any vocalized beliefs that questioned ecclesiastical rhetoric. Tortorici identifies language in particular as a point of discrepancy in the archival process. First in regard to language barriers and the use of translators between indigenous-language-speaking defendants and Spanish-speaking scribes; and second, in regard to the scribal use of bureaucratic language in his record of the case.
Sins Against Nature offers a number of theoretical contributions valuable to both the ethnohistorian and the archivist. Employing the late James Lockhart's theory of Double Mistaken Identity, Tortorici attributes this archival misinscription to European misinterpretation of indigenous bodies and desires in cases of idolatry, sacrifice, and sodomy. Tortorici identifies a number of factors influencing archival misinscription in his research, including: language (grammar and translation), obscuring of popular terminology by use of bureaucratic jargon, torture, colonialism, representation, conceptualization, and misinscriptions of gender and power dynamics. Tortorici also implicates historians in archival misinscription. As we work to "mold archival narratives about historical others into 'history', we inherently misinscribe" (79). Tortorici's archival theory contribution takes the form of absent archival referents. That is, documents that no longer exist or cannot be located, but continue to influence our interpretation of historical record, because of the historiographical traces they've left. [End Page 824]
In his focus on bestiality cases, Tortorici argues cogently that the Holy Office did not harm or kill animals involved in such cases as punishment. Rather, the tribunal sought to eliminate the memory of the act itself and to prevent the consumption of any animal part (meat, milk, eggs, etc.) potentially tainted by the human's sin against nature. Tortorici also debunks the colonial falsehood that indigenous men inherently harbored unnatural desires. Instead, Tortorici attributes the high percentage of indigenous defendants in bestiality cases to the rural nature of the crime and the fact that indigenous peoples predominately inhabited these rural areas.
Tortorici dedicates his final two chapters to the divine. Of particular note, his chapter on solicitation within the confessional shines a light on the Church's long-established history of systematically obscuring acts of both solicitation and sodomy on the part of its clergy. In an important contention, Tortorici cites the archive and its processes as mechanisms used to bury these truths and eradicate their memory. This chapter, in particular, could have benefitted from the contribution of Nicole von Germeten in "Archival Narratives on Clerical Sodomy and Suicide," a chapter within Tortorici's own edited volume, Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America.
Overall, Tortorici presents a carefully researched, soundly supported, erudite work of scholarship. In a commendable act of transparency, Tortorici also contributes to what he terms a "historiographical archive," in the form of an index of all archival documents referenced within this work. Tortorici's theoretical and methodological contributions stand to benefit students, scholars, researchers, and archivists alike. [End Page 825]