Eating, Drinking, and Being Married: Epidemic Cholera and the Celebration of Marriage in Montreal and Mexico City, 1832-1833
Stevens, Donald F., The Catholic Historical Review
For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
Matthew 24: 38-39
In the course of the nineteenth century, cholera came to be defined as a disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus that often spreads through fecal contamination of drinking water. Symptoms of the disease include copious vomiting and diarrhea which frequently lead to death from severe dehydration. The history of cholera epidemics in Europe and the Americas has been shaped by this understanding of how the disease spread and the story of how it came to be controlled. As R. J. Morris noted in his history of the 1832 cholera epidemic in Britain,"Historians of disease and public health tend to concentrate on the prehistory of our own modes of thought and action, the miasma-contagion disputes, the problems of administration and finance and the campaign to gain political support for reform."1 It makes sense that the provision of urban sanitation, the development of scientific understanding, and the triumph of the germ theory have been among the most important themes in the historical literature on nineteenth-century epidemics, but it is also true that many historians have recognized that for those who faced those deadly epidemics of cholera, hygiene meant more than cleanliness and the absence of microscopic pathogens. Germs, after all, would not be discovered for decades after the first cholera epidemics arrived in the West. In the nineteenth century, hygiene connected good health and cleanliness with virtue and morality. Cholera was not just an epidemic; it was a moral plague.2
Cholera epidemics stimulated debate not only about public issues but about proper behavior in private life as well. Whether the disease was caused by an environmental condition or by a microscopic organism, a crucial question awaited an answer: why did some die while others were spared? Why did not all those exposed to the miasma or to the germs succumb to the disease? Each potential explanation left open the question of predisposition to disease, the notion of contributing causes that might be subject to personal control. Most people were not concerned with grand theories of etiology: with effluvia, miasmas, or microscopic animals. They wanted to know what they could do to avoid a disgusting disease and a rapid and painful death. Morality and mundane activities were common concerns for those awaiting the first cholera epidemics. For many people, the time of cholera was a time to face death, to ponder their lives, and to examine their mundane activities; or, at least, to have these questioned for them by the literate class. Early publications on cholera prophylaxis are rife with social prejudice and condemnations of the lifestyles of the poor and infamous. After a brief review of how the worldly pleasures of eating, drinking, and sexual activity were thought to be related to the possibility of death from cholera in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, we can turn our attention from these recommendations to the behavioral patterns connecting marriage and religion to cholera epidemics in Catholic populations in Mexico City and Montreal in the early 1830's.
As the epidemic approached, food and drink were carefully scrutinized and categorized; some of each were thought to increase the risk of sudden death from cholera. Advice on eating and drinking was consistent in each of the three countries, as were the political efforts to limit sale of disreputable foods and to prohibit or limit drinking. Given the consensus that common foods might provoke attacks of cholera, officials of the Catholic Church frequently were willing to set aside the traditional rules of ritual abstinence in the time of cholera. Special dispensations to consume meat on what otherwise would have been meatless holy days were granted in several cities. In the early days of the epidemic in Mexico City, the Dean and Cabildo of the Cathedral, acting in the absence of an archbishop, decreed a special dispensation from the usual abstinence from meat on August 14, the day of fasting in commemoration of the Assumption of the Virgin.3 The Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia eliminated the Friday abstinence during the epidemic in that city, since "prudent physicians" had indicated that fish was one of the foods that increased the risk of cholera.4
Secular politicians and religious authorities could agree on what foods were safe to eat, and the Catholic hierarchy was often flexible in adjusting dietary requirements, but the timing of eating and not eating generated political controversies in the United States.5 In Canada, there were evidently no public squabbles over whether the government was sufficiently God-fearing or whether the secular authorities ought to endorse official fast days. Various churches and government bodies declared their own days of prayer and fasting without evident conflict between the Church and State.6 In Lower Canada, cholera exacerbated conflicts that followed the fissures of language more than religion. French Canadians felt threatened by the arrival of increasing numbers of impoverished immigrants whose emigration from Britain was sponsored by landlords and parish authorities as a way to solve social problems there. Politics in Lower Canada became more contentious as anglophone arrivals (many of them Irish Catholics) were blamed for the epidemic by French Canadians. As one correspondent wrote to the Montreal Gazette,
when I see my country in mourning and my native land nothing but a vast cemetery, I ask what has been the cause of all these disasters? and the voice of my father, my brother and my beloved mother, the voice of thousands of my fellow citizens responds from their tombs. It is emigration.7
A common Roman Catholic religion did not prevent considerable friction in Canada between francophone residents and anglophone immigrants.
In Mexico, the relationship between Church and State was already strained before cholera became an issue. The radical press, a militant Congress, and the anticlericalism of Acting President Valentín Gómez Farías had provoked and irritated the Church in the months prior to the arrival of cholera.8 Yet, as the epidemic approached, the ecclesiastical hierarchy often seemed less concerned with the liberal government's threat to eliminate agricultural tithes, clerical control of education, and clerical exemption from civil jurisdiction than it was preoccupied with the quotidian sins and sexual misconduct of ordinary Mexicans. Contesting secular explanations of cholera as a natural phenomenon that need not provoke panic, Francisco Pablo Vázquez, Bishop of Puebla, published a pastoral letter that argued explicitly that God's wrath was the principal cause of cholera. Sinners ought to fear the just anger of a judgmental God. The disrespect parishioners showed for divinely-inspired clerical celibacy and ideals of chastity, their failure to observe holy days, their spectacular displays of public drunkenness, and consequent demoralization featured prominently in his explanation of God's anger.
Also resulting from inebriation, and these are precisely why the arm of divine justice is raised against us, are the dances accompanied with lewd movements, the obscene songs that banish modesty and inflame passions, and the shameless language totally unworthy of Christians that is heard in the busiest streets and places.9
Immoral and excessive sexuality was explicitly condemned as contributing to cholera from Paris to New York and Mexico. Prostitutes, who combined the defects of sexual libertinism with lower-class status, poor diet, and excessive consumption of alcohol, were thought to be especially susceptible to die from the disease. Paris was regarded as a particularly appropriate setting for many of the morality tales tying commercial intercourse to death from cholera. Rosenberg has quoted newspaper reports in the United States that such women were likely to be struck down by the disease. "Of 'fourteen hundred lewd' women in one street in Paris, . . . thirteen hundred had died of cholera."10 The College of Physicians of Philadelphia declared, "Women of dissolute habits have been common victims of the Cholera."11 Health reformer Sylvester Graham was most specific in delineating the role of sexual excess as a principal cause of cholera. Although he recognized that nearly all prostitutes also drank to excess, Graham concluded, "The debility induced by excessive lewdness, is always far more the result of excessive excitement and irritation than of any other cause; . . . and not infrequently, the very worst of gastritis and enteritis are induced by excesses of this kind."12
The prominent French physician, François Joseph Victor Broussais seems to have been among the first to articulate clearly the idea that sexual transgressions alone were sufficient to provoke fatal attacks of cholera, and to threaten the male clients as well as the female prostitutes. During the 1832 epidemic in Paris, Broussais recorded an anecdote based on the purported observation of a colleague who claimed that a large group of students were all attacked by cholera immediately on leaving a house of prostitution. Broussais emphasized that those who had studied earlier epidemics in Poland, Russia, and other places had recounted similar facts.13 Indeed they had, but their accounts appear to have depended on the multiple causes of drunkenness, filth, and vague accounts of "Bacchanalian festivities," "drunken orgies," and "other irregularities" where accusations of alcohol abuse were directly stated and sexual indiscretions merely implied.
In Broussais's story from Paris, it was significant that students had died. That cholera would kill weak, drunken, sexually promiscuous, lower-class women was not as shocking to elite males as the thought that even privileged, middle-class young men could succumb to cholera from venereal indiscretions. This fear was commonly hidden behind vague warnings to avoid "excess "Euphemism was particularly common in Mexican publications which extended the idea that sex was dangerous to include recommendations against "abuses of Venus "and "sensual pleasures" even when couples were legitimately married.14 Rumors were undoubtedly more precise and detailed than most publications dared to be. The prominent Mexican politician Carlos Maria Bustamante recorded in his private diary the news that an army colonel had died of cholera while fornicating with his concubine.15
Modern historians of cholera epidemics have rarely touched on the relationship between cholera epidemics and increased anxiety about sexual behavior. Only a very few, for example, have noted a propensity of couples to marry while threatened by cholera. Morris, in his study of the epidemic of 1832 in Britain, noted in passing the solitary observation of a certain parish where marriages increased during the cholera quarter of the year. "Cupid did not arrive with the miasma [he wrote] but the sickness and fear aroused by cholera roused the conscience of many who had long lived together unmarried and induced them to conform to the moral standards of the church."16 Morris mentions this example in the context of a reported upsurge in religious behavior that included greater respect for the Sabbath, a decline in bull-baiting, larger attendance at chapel, and Methodist revivalism, especially among the rural poor. Alternative explanations are clearly possible as well. In her demographic analysis of the 1833 cholera epidemic in Guadalajara (Mexico), Lilia Oliver noticed an increase in marriages beginning during the months of the cholera epidemic and lasting for several years afterward. Rather than concluding that this rise in marriages was motivated by moral or religious considerations, Oliver suggested that remarriages account for the difference, as widowers and widows replaced wives and husbands who died during the epidemic.17
Each explanation posits powerful motivations for an increase in nuptials, but neither the spiritual considerations of introspective morality nor the rational calculations of domestic economy ensure that marriage will always increase during cholera epidemics. In fact, weddings were not more frequent everywhere during the time of cholera. In the United States, the relationship between epidemic death and marriage (or remarriage) appears not to have attracted either contemporary comment or the attention of modern scholars.18 In Canada, not only did the number of marriages not increase; cholera may have been accompanied by a precipitous decline in weddings. In the city of Quebec, the Anglican Archdeacon, George Jehoshaphat Mountain, noted a general suspension of marriage while cholera raged in that city. He considered the dearth of marriages as evidence that people were suspending their normal activities to ponder the condition of their immortal souls.19 In the Catholic parish of Montreal, marriages were also postponed. During the first four weeks of the cholera epidemic in Montreal, the frequency of weddings declined by half,20 and, as among the Anglicans at Quebec, as soon as the worst of the epidemic had passed, near normal patterns of marriage resumed.21 In contrast, a notably distinct pattern prevailed in Mexico City's central parish, home to many of that nation's wealthiest and most socially prominent citizens. There no one married in the last week before the epidemic began as parishioners awaited the impending arrival of the dreaded disease. Once cholera began to ravage the families of Mexico City's central district, weddings increased dramatically. During the next four weeks, the worst period of the epidemic in that parish, the frequency of marriage increased by 300 percent.22
This torrent of marriages in Mexico City did include a substantial number of remarriages. Weddings of widows or widowers comprised about one-quarter of all marriages before cholera and the proportion of remarriages did rise to about one-third during the epidemic,23 but the simple desire to replace a deceased partner does not explain much of the rush. The difference between men and women in their tendency to remarry during the epidemic appears to be more meaningful. Widows were more likely to remarry during the epidemic than they had been before and their pace of remarriage increased far more than that of widowers. Men whose wives had died remarried at the same rate as the overall increase in marriage, but remarriages by widows rose by an unprecedented 700 percent.
This surprising profusion of widows returning to wedlock stands in contrast to the comparatively low probability of second marriages among Mexican widows prior to the epidemic. Traditionally, Mexican men who survived the deaths of their spouses remarried more frequently than did widows. For a long time, the number of widows had far surpassed the total of widowers for two reasons; men tended to die younger than women, and even older, widowed grooms tended to choose younger (ideally virginal) women as brides. As a result, widows outnumbered widowers in Mexican cities by about three or four to one. The large numbers of widows who seldom remarried has suggested to a few historians that at least some of these were "fictitious widows." Women who had borne children out of wedlock might have preferred to be considered widows than to be thought immoral. A successful transformation from unmarried mother to "widow" removed the suspicion of illegitimacy from their children and the appearance of promiscuity from themselves. Whether or not widows were more likely to engage in sexual liaisons outside the bonds of marriage, most were simply older women with few resources. As a result, they were not as successful in the "subjective, individual, and fluid bargaining between man and woman" that Robert McCaa has called the "marriage fair."24
If widows were less likely to remarry during normal times, the cholera epidemic somehow improved their bargaining position. Here the evidence is quite direct, if initially somewhat peculiar. Most of the widows who remarried during the epidemic were already ill with cholera and many apparently married on their deathbeds. It is clear that succumbing to this dreadful disease did not increase the desirability of women as marriage partners in the usual sense. It was not the calm consideration of domestic advantage that induced couples to marry during the epidemic, but a profound fear of a vengeful God's wrath. Imminent death from cholera was a powerful motivation that impelled both men and women to seek immediate ecclesiastical approval of their existing but previously unsanctioned sexual relationships.
Many of the marriages that were sanctified during the worst of the cholera epidemic in Mexico City united partners who were on their death beds suffering from cholera. Nearly half of all the marriages during the epidemic (and almost three-quarters of those involving widows) took place while at least one of the partners was sick or near death.25 In a few cases, both the bride and the groom were so indisposed they could not leave their sickbeds. When Don Eustaquio Noval, a widower, married Doña Juana Terveta, a widow, both were "gravely ill in bed."26 Many of these marriages were performed in private homes rather than in chapels and churches but for both the bride and groom to be in bed at the same time was rather unusual. It was more typical for only one or the other to be bedridden during the ceremony. Usually it was the woman. Sick brides outnumbered ailing grooms by almost three to one; eighteen of twenty-five individuals in this parish who can be identified as marrying while sick and near death were brides.
Church registers provide further evidence that moral considerations were on the minds of brides and grooms in Mexico City. Parish priests were accustomed to identifying previously unmarried brides and categorizing them depending on their respectability.27 The most desirable classification was doncella, a term used to refer to a young woman who was thought to be a virgin at the time of her marriage. If the priest who recorded the ceremony had reason to question her virtue, he might classify a previously unmarried woman as soltera (single), as libre (unattached), or simply by stating that she was a daughter of certain parents rather than the widow of a particular deceased husband, indicate that she had not married previously, and thus avoid a potentially harsh classification.
For example, Doña Ignacia Blancarte, who married Don Manuel LeRoy on August 31 was described only as the "legitimate daughter of Don Francisco Blancarte and Doña Gertrudis Linares." By omitting any explicit mention of her premarital status and referring only to the legitimacy of her birth to honorable parents, the nuptial register implies (but does not explicitly record) her status as single rather than widowed. Doña Francisca Pelaez was explicitly categorized as soltera although she was of legitimate birth and elevated social status when she married Don Manuel González on August 28. In contrast, both Juliana de la Torre (who married Agustín Camacho on August 14) and Dona María Dolores Prieto (who married Don Luis Guzmán on August 22) were recorded as of legitimate birth and each was designated as doncella, implying that each was both unmarried and virtuous. Honor was related to, but not solely determined by, social status. Throughout the year in question three-quarters of the unmarried upper-class women (those who were accorded the traditional honorific "doña") were also described as doncella, but so too were almost two-thirds of the unmarried women, like Juliana de la Torre, who were clearly not of the social elite which liked to call itself the gente decente.
As cholera began killing large numbers of people in the central parish of Mexico City, more non-virgins married. The proportion of brides who were described as doncellas declined precipitately from more than 70 percent before the epidemic, to less than one-third during the epidemic, and recovering to about two-thirds in the following weeks when the worst of the epidemic had passed. Previously unmarried women of more dubious virtue made up a substantially larger portion of those who married during the epidemic, more than doubling from 20 percent prior to the epidemic to more than 44 percent during the weeks of greatest devastation, before declining to about 25 percent after the death rate from cholera declined.
There is a direct and substantial tie between these classifications of bridal virtue and illness, and the increased propensity to marry. Boiteras and other women of questionable virtue were ten times more likely to be ill when they married than were doncellas. Marriages of solteras increased by more than 500 percent during the epidemic. Doncellas were seldom married while ill and their rate of nuptiality increased by only 50 percent.
Marriage records give us no direct information about the reputed sexual experience of men at the time of their marriage. Since men were expected to be virile rather than chaste, the officiating priests recorded only whether the grooms had married previously or not. In contrast to the prevailing pattern among brides, the cholera epidemic had little discernible impact on the most obvious indication of sexual experience for grooms who married during the time of cholera; single men and widowers married in the same proportions before and during the epidemic.28 The only hint of male anxiety about sexual transgressions is a substantial increase in older men marrying or remarrying in the time of cholera. Before the epidemic began, men who married for the first time had a median age of 24 years. During the epidemic, the median age for first-time grooms jumped to 29.5 years. Those who wed for the first time during the epidemic had evidently chosen to delay marriage (but not necessarily sexual activity) until later in life. A similar trend is evident for widowers. Those who remarried during the epidemic had a median age more than 10 years higher than those remarrying before cholera began killing large numbers of people in central Mexico City.29
Women who married during the epidemic tended to be older as well. The median age for doncellas marrying in this parish was 19 years old before and 23 years old during the epidemic. Solteras and others of more questionable reputations increased in median age from 24 years old before to 27 years old during the epidemic. The median age for widows increased from 31.5 years before to 38.5 years during the epidemic. Parish records indicate that those who married in the time of cholera were not only less likely to be considered virgins; they were more likely to be significantly older than usual; they seem to have delayed marriage until their sexual indiscretions appeared to provoke the fury of a lethal deity.
Fear of God's anger might motivate the sinful to marry, but the timing of marriage depends not only on the aspirations of prospective brides and grooms but upon the acquiescence of the appropriate ecclesiastical officials as well.30 Local parish culture, the related convictions of parochial officials, and their relative flexibility or rigidity are likely to be important considerations. Overburdened as they were with administering last rites to the dying, burying the dead, and hearing the confessions of the faithful, the suffering, and the fearful, parish priests might have considered marriage an unnecessary indulgence in the time of cholera. More marriages, after all, meant more work for already overburdened priests.
The cadence of marriage in normal periods can illustrate variations in local parish culture that help to explain the divergent reactions to the cholera epidemics. In both the central parish of Mexico City and in the Catholic parish of Montreal, the timing of marriage was governed by the same temporal restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, there was considerable variation between the two even before the arrival of cholera. If we compare the timing of marriage in the two parishes during 1831, the last year before cholera disrupted either city, there is a striking difference between the two, both in seasons of the year and in days of the week that were regarded as appropriate to marriage.
The daily pattern of marriages was dramatically different in Mexico City and Montreal (Figure 1). In Mexico City's central parish, marriages might be performed on any day of the week. If marriages had been distributed equally on the days of the week, each would have had oneseventh, or about 14.3 percent. Sunday was the most popular day for marriages with 26 percent followed by Monday with 19 percent. Together these two days accounted for a little more than three times the number that would be expected if the marriages were distributed equally among the days of the week. Friday was the slowest day for marriages in this Mexican parish, with 7 percent of all marriages or about half of an equal share. The other four days of the week clustered just below the average per day of 14.3 percent and varied from 11 percent to 13 percent.
In central Mexico City, one day was nearly as good as another to marry, while in Montreal, the weekly pattern of marriages was dramatically different. Most Catholic weddings in Montreal were celebrated on a certain few days and on others nuptials were entirely avoided. Monday was the most appropriate day for Catholic weddings in Montreal with nearly 70 percent of all marriages performed on that one day of the week alone. Tuesdays followed with most of the rest, almost 21 percent of the total, while Wednesday and Thursday together accounted for only 10 percent. Weddings were never conducted on Fridays or Sundays and only in the rarest of circumstances on a Saturday. The single Saturday marriage in this parish during 1831 took place on November 26, the last day before a traditional seasonal prohibition on marriages began with the first Sunday of Advent.
Seasonal prohibition of marriage in the Roman Catholic Church was regularized by the Decree of Reform of Marriage issued by the Council of Trent in 1563. The Tridentine Decree restated and emphasized a traditional prohibition of marriage between Advent and Epiphany and from Ash Wednesday through the Sunday after Easter." These restrictions were subject to quite different degrees of compliance in the two parishes considered here (Table 1 and Figure 2).
Table 1 displays the number and proportion of marriages in each of these parishes along with the length of each season in days and its proportion of the year. Nearly all the marriages in Montreal occurred during the periods designated "normal time," 21 percent in the winter and 70 percent from spring to late fall. Only a single marriage in Montreal was held during a season of formal prohibition and that was celebrated during the last week of Lent (on March 24).
In Mexico City, marriages were relatively common even during the prohibited seasons of the liturgical year. In Mexico City's central parish, one in five marriages was celebrated during seasons when marriages had been forbidden by the Council of Trent: 8.6 percent during Lent, 2.0 percent during the week after Easter, 6.6 percent during Advent, and 2.3 percent from Christmas Day to the feast of Epiphany.
Figure 2 illustrates the pace of marriage in both parishes for each season of the year by comparing the percentage of marriages in 1831 to the proportion of the year in each period. Marriages took place most frequently during normal time (A) from after Epiphany to the beginning of Lent. In Montreal, the pace of marriage was nearly twice as fast, and in Mexico City more than one and a half times as fast in that period as would be expected if marriages were evenly distributed during the seasons of the year. Normal time (B) from after Easter to Advent saw the most marriages in absolute terms in each parish (78.6 percent of those in Montreal and 63-6 percent in Mexico City), but this was also by far the longest season (containing 63 percent of the days of the year). The pace of marriage in this period was nearly what would be expected if marriages were held randomly in Mexico City (101 percent of what would be expected) and 25 percent faster than the annual average pace in Montreal.
The striking difference between Montreal and Mexico is evident in the pace of marriages during prohibited seasons. The only marriage in Montreal during a prohibited season is almost unnoticeable. That single marriage in Lent scarcely registers on the scale and, since there were no marriages at all in any of the other prohibited seasons, there are no other bars to be observed for Montreal. In contrast, during the prohibited seasons Mexico City's central parish never registers less than 65 percent of the marriages that might have taken place if marriages were distributed randomly. The pace of marriage during Christmas (65 percent) and Lent (68 percent) was more restricted while during Advent (86 percent) and Easter (91 percent) the frequency of marriages was very nearly what would be expected if there had been no seasonal prohibition at all.
The timing of marriage in Montreal was strictly controlled, while in Mexico almost any day or season was an appropriate time to marry. In Montreal, officials rigorously enforced the Tridentine seasonal prohibition of marriages during Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Advent, and Christmas. In contrast, parochial authorities in Sagrario Parish, Mexico City, were considerably more accommodating; marriages were celebrated there during each of the "prohibited" seasons with almost the same frequency as during the permitted seasons of "normal time ."The pattern of more rigid control in Montreal and relative laxity in Mexico is also consistent when we examine on which days of the week marriages took place. In Montreal, Catholic marriages were largely confined to Monday and Tuesday and totally avoided Friday and Sunday. Marriages in central Mexico City might take place on any day of the week and the daily distribution does not vary as much from a random distribution. These contrasts of rigidity and laxity are rooted in the varying histories of the parishes in Mexico and Montreal.
Mexico had suffered from a prolonged period of deterioration in ecclesiastical discipline. William B. Taylor has noted circumstantial evidence of a decline in respect for the clergy beginning in the late eighteenth-century era of the Bourbon reforms. The disruptive effects of the independence wars (1810-1821) and the continuing post-independence interruption of episcopal appointments (caused by the Spanish monarch Ferdinand VII's steadfast refusal to recognize Mexico's independence) weakened the church hierarchy and left the lower secular clergy largely free of supervision. By 1829, all the bishoprics in Mexico were vacant. Even the most prestigious parish in the country suffered.32
Political changes in Quebec during the same period produced greater cohesion and discipline in the Catholic parish of Montreal. The city's Catholics were included in a single parish subject to a rigorous religious order. The Messieurs de Saint-Sulpice had founded both the city and the parish of Montreal in the seventeenth century. The Sulpicians were an order of secular priests dedicated to the education of young men for the priesthood. Although they seldom assumed responsibility for parishes, Montreal was an exception. The order owned the entire island of Mont-Réal on which the city was located and the Sulpicians continued to exercise their feudal rights to taxes and monopolies until the middle of the nineteenth century. After France lost Quebec in 1759-60, the British government suppressed the Jesuits and Récollets in Quebec, but left the Sulpicians in control of Montreal. Their order was strengthened and invigorated by the arrival of energetic members of the order who emigrated to Montreal from Paris when the French revolutionaries suppressed the Sulpician society there in 1792. The revitalized Catholic parish of Montreal remained a religious monopoly of the Sulpicians until 1866.33
This monopoly of parochial jurisdiction permitted a unity of administration and a consistency of policy that is evident in the Sulpicians' conspicuous adhesion to the seasonal restrictions imposed by the council of Trent and the remarkably strict compression of marriage almost entirely to two days of the week. The relatively high degree of control was combined with little apparent need to fulminate against the immorality of the population. In Mexico, the situation was quite different. There, priests were both willing to accommodate those who could be encouraged to marry at all by complying with their parishioners' desire to marry even during seasons of formal prohibition. At the same time, these flexible but frustrated Mexican clerics railed against what they perceived as the rampant immorality of the population which had brought down the epidemic as God's vengeance on complacent sinners.
This difference between the ecclesiastical and moral climates in Canada and Mexico can be illustrated by examining the distinctive interpretations given during the time of cholera to the biblical story of Noah and the ark. Allusions to this story appear regularly in the religious literature on cholera, but with important differences in emphasis. In the quotation from the New Testament that appears as the epigraph to this work, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that before the great flood, ordinary people continued with their worldly pleasures, "eating, and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage," unaware that God was about to destroy most of sinful humanity. In Mexico, the Dean and Cabildo of the Cathedral, acting in the absence of an archbishop, issued a pastoral letter that explicitly linked the impious libertinism of the Mexican populace with the antediluvian social practices that the Old Testament God had justifiably punished. Their tone is righteous indignation, and they portray themselves as a besieged few surrounded by a multitude -who ridicule traditional conventions and religious convictions. These are their words:
The impious would laugh at us and the libertines mock us and our religious practices, just as in that time they ridiculed Noah himself: they will perish as those perished: you will be saved in the arms and the bosom of the Church symbolized by Noah's Ark.34
The same story was used to a different effect in Canada. Several months after the passing of the cholera in Quebec, the Venerable G. J. Mountain questioned the lasting moral effect of the epidemic in a manner more nostalgic for the conscientious reflection and faithful contemplation that had prevailed there during the epidemic, supplanting more mundane activities like marriage.
How many more, [he wrote] who began in that time of consternation to ponder upon their ways, to remember that they had immortal souls, to regard their salvation as a concern too long neglected, to put this question to their own breast,-Am I, if my turn should come, in a prepared condition to face my God-are now only busy in repairing the interruption of their worldly pleasures and pursuits,-eating and drinking, building and projecting, marrying and giving in marriage, all thought being dismissed of the coming of the Son of Man-and all the forced suspension of indulgence being considered as taken off!35
Morality and mundane activities were common concerns for those awaiting the first cholera epidemics in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Eating, drinking, and sexual relationships were subjected to scrutiny and roundly condemned as gluttony, drunkenness, and sensuality, each of which was thought to contribute to the risk of sudden death from cholera. These sins were often identified with the poor. Lower-class food and drink were banned in many places in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Although there was universal condemnation of immoral, irregular, and overly-indulgent sexual behavior in all three countries, the tone seems particularly harsh in Mexico.
In any case, there was no common popular response to the rhetoric. Marriage patterns varied considerably. In the United States, marriage rates attracted neither contemporary comment nor scholarly concern. In Canada, weddings were thought a worldly pleasure unsuited to the austere atmosphere of contemplation and restraint; the frequency of marriage declined, but weddings were not entirely forbidden during the epidemic. Mexicans hesitated as cholera approached, then rushed to the altar during the epidemic or married on their deathbeds. It appears that those Mexicans who married during the epidemic saw marriage as a holy obligation to be fulfilled when the wrath of God threatened punishment for their unsanctioned sexual relationships, while Canadians thought weddings were too mundane to be carried out during the time of cholera.
Sexual behavior is one of the most private areas of personal life. The sensibilities of the Victorian era limited explicit public discussion of the role of sexuality in the prevention of disease (as indeed they still do today). Sex and marriage in the time of cholera have not received more than cursory attention from modern historians, because today these issues are so clearly irrelevant to the actual etiology of the disease. Nevertheless, these were important issues in the nineteenth century. Differences in the relative frequency of marriage during cholera epidemics provide new clues to mass reactions to the threat of sudden death from epidemic disease. The broad variation between Mexican and Canadian reactions to marriage in the time of cholera seems to result from differences in their political histories and the relative strength of religious authority in different parishes. In the province of Quebec, the Sulpician monopoly of the Catholic parish of Montreal provided a remarkable degree of unity and consistency. In Mexico, the orderly administration of religion was disrupted by the transition to independence; although Roman Catholicism was the only legal religion, ecclesiastical power was challenged by political authorities.
The literate readily condemned lower-class proclivities to drink too much and to eat the wrong foods. They agreed that excessive sexuality, commercial intercourse, and unsanctioned liaisons were likely to contribute to the probability of death from cholera, but Canadians and Mexicans clearly did not share a common idea of the appropriateness of marriage in the time of cholera. Yet, the relationship between sexual anxiety and epidemic disease, seldom the subject of historical investigation, is paradoxically more susceptible to measurement and comparison than are other mundane activities such as the consumption of food and drink. Further analysis of marriage patterns in the time of cholera promises a better understanding of sexual issues and religious attitudes in the nineteenth century.
1 Robert John Morris, Cholera, 1832: Social Response to an Epidemic (New York, 1976), p. 129.
2 The relevant literature on cholera is vast. Much of the early work was done in Europe beginning with Louis Chevalier, Le Choléra. La Première Épidémie du XIX^sup e^ Siècle (Bibliothèque de la Révolution de 1848, vol. 20) (La Roche, 1958); Asa Briggs, "Cholera and Society in the 19th Century," Past and Present, No. 19 (1961), 79-96; and, more recently, Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910 (Oxford and New York, 1987). For a review of more recent works, see Richard J. Evans, "Blue Funk and Yellow Peril: Cholera and Society in Nineteenth-Century France," European History Quarterly, 20 (1990), 111-126. The classic and influential work for the United States is Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago, 1962; reprint 1987). On Canada, see Geoffrey Bilson, A Darkened House: Cholera in Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto, 1980), and Charles M. Godfrey, The Cholera Epidemics in Upper Canada 1832-1866 (Toronto, 1968). C. A. Hutchinson's "The Asiatic Cholera Epidemic of 1833 in Mexico," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 32 (1958), 1-23, 152-163, is the classic study for Mexico. More recent publications include; Lilia V. Oliver, Un verano mortal: Análisis demográfico y social de una epidemia de cólera: Guadalajara, 1833 (Guadalajara, 1986); El cólera de 1833. Una nueva patología en México. Causas y efectos with contributions by Miguel Ángel Cuenya, Elsa Malvido, Concepción Lugo O., Ana María Carrillo, and Lilia Oliver Sánchez (Mexico City, 1992); Lourdes Márquez and Leticia Reina Aoyama, "El cólera en Oaxaca en el siglo xix," Cuadernos de Sur, 1 (1992), 71-98. On Koch and the germ theory, see Norman Howard-Jones, "Choleranomalies: The Unhistory of Medicine as Exemplified by Cholera," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 15 (1972), 422-423; William Coleman, "Koch's Comma Bacillus: The First Year," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 61 (1987), 315-342. Robert Pollitzer, Cholera (Geneva, 1959), is essential on medical and biological aspects of the disease.
3 Mexico City, Archbishopric, Dean y Cabildo Eclesiástico de la Santa Iglesia Metropolitana de México. [Broadside] dated August 10, 1833, Indiana University, Lilly Library, Mellon Collection (BX 1431 .M62 A1 1833).
4 Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 45. See, for example, Junta de Sanidad (Puebla), Avisos, p. 5: "Advertimos que las carnes saladas y endurecidas, el pescado, los vegetales que no sean harinosos, como la papa &c., los quesos viejos salados, y otras sustancias que por lo comun forman lo que llamamos comidas de viérnes, son de los mas indigeribles (sic), y en caso de epidémia sumamente peligrosas. . . ."
3 See Rosenberg, op. cit., pp. 47-54.
6 Bilson, op. cit., pp. 19, 84, 130. Godfrey, op. cit., p. 19.
7 Quoted by Bilson, op. cit., p. 50.
8 On the political conflicts of this period, the best account is Michael P. Costeloe, La primera república federal en México (1824-1835): (un estudio de los partidos políticos en el México independiente) (Mexico City, 1975), pp. 371-411. It should be noted, however, that the real thrust of the reforms of 1833 did not begin until after the epidemic had ended. See especially pp. 396ff.
9 Francisco Pablo Vázquez, Pastoral que el Illmo. Sr. Dr. D. Francisco Pablo Vazquez, Obispo de la Puebla de los Angeles, dirige a sus diocesanos con motivo de la peste que amenaz (Puebla, 1833), p. 12.
10 Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 41. Sylvester Graham used the same wording, apparently from the same source. See Stephen Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform (Westport, Connecticut, 1980), p. 100.
11 College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Report of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, to the Board of Health, on Epidemic Cholera (Philadelphia, 1832), p. 24.
12 Quoted by Nissenbaum, op. cit., p. 100.
13 François Joseph Victor Broussais, Lecciones sobre la enfermedad cólera-morbus y su método curativo (México City, 1832), p. 10. See, for example, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, op. cit., p. 24.
14 Benito Hordas y Valbuena, Dictamen sobre la chólera-morbus (Mexico City, 1832), p. 11; Pedro del Villar, Consejos al pueblo mexicano sobre los medios más sencillos y faciles de precaver y curar el cholera-morbus epidémico, puesto del modo más acomodado a sus usos y costumbres, de orden del supremo gobierno (Mexico City, 1833), p. 6; El Fénix de la Libertad (Mexico City), June 28, 1833, p. 3.
15 Concepción Lugo Olín and Ruth Solís Vicarte, "1833: Los días aciagos," Historias, 27 (October, 1991-March, 1992), 108.
16 Morris, op. cit., p. 144.
17 Oliver, Verano mortal, pp. 137-146. She also notes that the percentage of remarriages increased from 23 percent of all marriages to 40 percent.
18 The small size of parishes in the United States combined with the greater variety of denominations complicates the study of marriage during cholera epidemics there.
19 George Jehoshaphat Mountain, A Retrospect of the Summer and Autumn of 1832; Being a Sermon Delivered in the Cathedral Church of Quebec, on Sunday, the 30th December, In That Year (Quebec, 1833), p 7.
20 From an average of 7.4 marriages per week (during permitted seasons), marriages in Notre Dame parish declined to a total of only 13 (an average of 3.25 per week) in the four weeks between June 10 and July 7, 1832. Calculated from microfilmed parish registers, Notre Dame de Montréal, Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City. See below p. 91.
21 Based on my calculations from marriage and burial registers for Notre Dame de Montréal.
22 There were no marriages in Sagrario parish from August 2 through August 10, 1833, a highly unusual dearth. A dramatic rise in the burial rate and the resumption of marriages coincide on August 11. Sagrario Parish averaged 4.6 weddings per week prior to the epidemic, and 13.75 during the first four weeks (August 11 to September 7, 1833). Calculated from microfilmed parish registers, Sagrario Parish (Mexico City), Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City.
23 During that portion of the year before cholera reached Mexico City (January 1 to August 1) 27 percent (or 37 of 137) of the marriages had included a bride or groom who had previously been married. During the epidemic this proportion rose only to 34.5 percent (19 of 55) and declined to 27 percent (32 of 118) as soon as the epidemic had past.
24 Silvia Marina Arrom, The Women of Mexico City, 1790-1857 (Stanford, 1985), pp. 111-121; Robert McCaa, "La viuda viva del Mexico borbónico: Sus voces, variedades y vejaciones," in Familias novobispanas: Siglos xvi al xix (Mexico City, 1991), pp. 299-324, discusses the reputation of widows, and concludes (p. 317) that perhaps 15 percent of the so-called widows were unwed mothers in disguise. Quoted phrase appears on p. 300.
25 Twenty-five of 55 first marriages (45 percent) and 8 of the 11 remarriages (73 percent).
26 August 19, 1833.
27 Since confession was required before marriage, parish priests had up-to-date information on the moral condition of men and women who married.
28 In the months prior to the arrival of the epidemic, nearly four out of every five grooms were marrying for the first time. Although the marriage rate for widows increased during the epidemic and remained at a higher level after the death rate declined, the marriage rate for widowers remained pretty much the same in each of the three periods. The percentage of grooms whose previous wives had died remained virtually unchanged during the epidemic, increasing by only one tenth of one percent (from 21.2 percent to 21.3 percent) during the epidemic. After the epidemic, the proportion of marriages that were to widowers dropped ever so slightly to a little less than one in five (18.6 percent). The rate of increase in marriage did not vary much with the social characteristics of grooms. Both widows remarrying and first-time grooms formalized marriages at about the same rate during the epidemic, that is, about 300 percent faster than before. During the four weeks of the epidemic there were 11 remarriages for widowers (294 percent of the earlier rate) and 42 marriages for single men (301 percent of the previous rate).
29 Median age of widows was 38 years before and 48.5 years during the epidemic.
30 Douglas A. Reid in his study of the timing of nineteenth-century marriages in three British cities considered the legal restrictions and the work/leisure preferences of workers in explaining which day might be chosen to celebrate nuptials, but he tends to dismiss the influence of parochial clergy. D. A. Reid, "Weddings, Weekdays, Work and Leisure in Urban England 1791-1911: The Decline of Saint Monday Revisited,"Past and Present, No. 153 (November, 1996), pp. 135-163, especially p. 161, n. 58. See also, Jeremy Boulton, "Economy of Time? Wedding Days and the Working Week in the Past," Local Population Studies, 43 (1989), 28-46.
31 Council of Trent (1545-1563), El sacrosanto y ecuménico Concilio de Trento, traducido al idioma castellano par Don Ignacio Lopez de Ayala. Agregase el texto latino corregido segun la edición auténtica de Roma, publicada en 1564, 4th ed. (Madrid, 1798), p. 311.
32 William B. Taylor, Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Stanford, 1996), pp. 202-203, 366-367. For the condition of the Church during and after the independence wars, see W. Eugene Shiels, "Church and State in the First Decade of Mexican Independence," Catholic Historical Review, 28 (July, 1942), 206-211; Anne Staples, La iglesia en la primera república federal mexicana (Mexico City, 1976), pp. 35-73; and Michael P. Costeloe, Church and State in Independent Mexico: A Study of the Patronage Debate, 1821-1857 (London, 1978).
33 Franklin Toker, The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal, an Architectural History (Montreal, 1970), pp. 5-15; Frank W. Remiggi, "Esquisse géographique du territoire diocésan de Montréal, 1820-1852," L'Eglise de Montréal, 1836-1986: aperçus d'hier et d'aujourd'hui (Montreal, 1986), pp. 30-39; The Catholic Times, "The English-Speaking Catholic People of Monteal," L'Eglise de Montréal, pp. 318-323; Jean-Remi Brault, ed., Les Origines de Montréal: actes du colloque (Montreal, 1993).
34 Mexico (City) Cathedral, Cabildo Metropolitano, Nos el dean y cabildo gobernador de esta santa Iglesia Metropolitana de Mexico . . . Amenazado el feliz Territorio Mejicano de una cruel y violenta enfermedad . . . (Mexico, 1833), p. 15.
35 Mountain, op. cit., p. 7.
DONALD F. STEVENS*
* Dr. Stevens is an associate professor of history and head of the Department of History and Politics in Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance of the Joint Committee on Latin American Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies.…
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Publication information: Article title: Eating, Drinking, and Being Married: Epidemic Cholera and the Celebration of Marriage in Montreal and Mexico City, 1832-1833. Contributors: Stevens, Donald F. - Author. Journal title: The Catholic Historical Review. Volume: 92. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2006. Page number: 74+. © 2003 The Catholic University of America Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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