Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition

Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition

Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition

Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition

Synopsis

On July 21, 1578, the Mexican town of Tecamachalco awoke to news of a scandal. A doll-like effigy hung from the door of the town's church. Its two-faced head had black chicken feathers instead of hair. Each mouth had a tongue sewn onto it, one with a forked end, the other with a gag tied around it. Signs and symbols adorned the effigy, including a sambenito, the garment that the Inquisition imposed on heretics. Below the effigy lay a pile of firewood. Taken together, the effigy, signs, and symbols conveyed a deadly message: the victim of the scandal was a Jew who should burn at the stake. Over the course of four years, inquisitors conducted nine trials and interrogated dozens of witnesses, whose testimonials revealed a vivid portrait of friendship, love, hatred, and the power of rumor in a Mexican colonial town.

A story of dishonor and revenge, Death by Effigy also reveals the power of the Inquisition's symbols, their susceptibility to theft and misuse, and the terrible consequences of doing so in the New World. Recently established and anxious to assert its authority, the Mexican Inquisition relentlessly pursued the perpetrators. Lying, forgery, defamation, rape, theft, and physical aggression did not concern the Inquisition as much as the misuse of the Holy Office's name, whose political mission required defending its symbols. Drawing on inquisitorial papers from the Mexican Inquisition's archive, Luis R. Corteguera weaves a rich narrative that leads readers into a world vastly different from our own, one in which symbols were as powerful as the sword.

Excerpt

This book centers on a scandal that took place on 21 July 1578 in the Mexican town of Tecamachalco (in the present state of Puebla), the four-year investigation that followed, and nine trials conducted by the Inquisition. For more than two centuries, the documentation for these events belonged to the secret archive of the Mexican Inquisition, located inside the large building that served as the tribunal’s headquarters, now a museum on the Plaza de Santo Domingo, near Mexico City’s cathedral. After the abolition of the Mexican Inquisition in 1820, some of its papers became available for purchase. in 1909, an antiquarian bookseller based in Mexico City sold thirty-two volumes of inquisitorial papers to the Arizona mining engineer Walter Douglas, who, in 1944, bequeathed them to the Huntington Library in California. One of these manuscripts (HM 35097), still in its original leather binding, contains the main group of documents dealing with the Tecamachalco scandal. the Huntington manuscript and other documents from the case that remained in Mexico total almost seven hundred pages of detailed information about what was little more than a minor, one-day incident in a provincial town. Still, the documentation is incomplete, since one of the nine trials is missing and presumed lost.

My research on the Huntington manuscript began as part of a larger project on the power of images and symbols in the Spanish empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. the manuscript’s description in the library’s inventory was intriguing: a trial for “stealing” a “statue” and a number of sambenitos—garments that the Inquisition imposed on those found guilty of acting against God and the Catholic Church (see Figure 1). the theft of the statue and the sambenitos recalled other Inquisition trials in Mexican and Spanish archives dealing with cases of sacrilege, blasphemy, and superstition involving sacred objects. Catholics who otherwise did not challenge Church dogma had nonetheless stolen consecrated hosts, attacked crucifixes, or destroyed religious paintings. Rather than deny useless . . .

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