Colonial Habits. Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru

By Lavrin, Asuncion | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Colonial Habits. Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru


Lavrin, Asuncion, The Catholic Historical Review


Colonial Habits. Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. By Kathryn Burns. (Durham: University of North Carolina Press. 1999. Pp. xi> 307. $49.95 clothbound; $17.95 paperback.)

After the Inca capital of Cuzco became Spanish in the early 1530's, it lost its paramount political place in the Andean world, but it remained an important urban center in which the ancient traditions mixed with the cultural, economic, and social imports from the "Old World:' In this setting, the three nunneries founded in that city stand as institutions in which the two peoples, Spaniards and indigenous, negotiated their worldly interests and their beliefs, and created a new space for women. This space was multilayered, including the redefinition of worship, the creation of a new understanding of economic transactions sustaining the spiritual world, and the dilemma of assimilating native women into institutions that reluctantly acknowledged their presence but could not embrace a philosophy of multiculturalism.

Burns begins with the foundation of the convent of Santa Clara, which had a unique mission: the acceptance of the mestizo daughters of Spanish men and indigenous women. Spanish male relatives hoped that the convent would educate them in Spanish ways, making them links between the two peoples and conveyors of the European culture. This goal was achieved only in part, as the history of the convents proved that while Christianity offered a port of security for the first generation, those in charge held back complete endorsement of mestizas as the brides of Christ, relegating them to second-class citizenship as nuns.

In the secular world, Indians and Spaniards continued to influence the fate of the three convents. The complex web of pious deeds, credit, and property holding that sustained the spiritual worship in the nunneries involved them in economic and social negotiations which affected the convents, their patrons, and the interests of the indigenous communities. Economic and social obligations forged networks of mutual interests carefully delineated in this work. The symbiosis between rural and urban, Spanish and indigenous, forms a central core of the history of Cuzco, here "engendered" for the new social history.

Women emerge forcefully in the history of these convents, as founders and as religious. True, the main actors of this story remained encloistered or were secular widows. In neither case did their physical lack of visibility or their "unprotected" female condition lessen their ability to become a vital and dynamic part of the city. …

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