The Social Worlds of Devotional and Moral Discourses in Colonial Mexico and Guatemala

AHA Session 147
Conference on Latin American History 36
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

The notion, generally associated with Michel Foucault’s work, that discourses about the religious and moral order constitute and delimit social reality has a long trajectory in the historiography of colonial societies. This emphasis on ideologies as constitutive—rather than reflective—elements of social reality appears, for instance, in Bernard Cohn’s examination of British colonial rule in India, and in Serge Gruzinski’s study of a social imaginaire shaped by cultural hybridity in Mexico. Other scholars, however, have focused on the sources, social differentiation, and institutional control of moral discourses in Spain and Spanish America. Discourses derived from the Old Testament, as shown by François-Xavier Guerra, were an important influence on sociopolitical discourses about the Spanish monarchy. Furthermore, the deployment of moral discourses involved the active participation of elite and non-elite intellectual communities, as demonstrated by Roger Chartier and Jesús Martín-Barbero. Although the Holy Office—and, as shown by William Taylor, parish priests—made periodic attempts to control the circulation of such discourses in Spanish America, a degree of tolerance was retained in both elite and popular ideas about religion and morality, as Stuart Schwartz recently argued.

This panel aims to contribute to our historical knowledge of colonial religion and morality by focusing on how discourses about Christian devotion and the moral order helped constitute and modify colonial social spheres between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries in Mexico and Guatemala. Nesvig’s paper focuses on an important late sixteenth-century case study in which the recently established Mexican Holy Office tribunal sought to determine whether translations of the Bible in vernacular languages—a central concern of the Reformation—had a place in colonial evangelization projects. Nesvig’s research also illuminates the debates within the Franciscan order as an intellectual community. Tavárez’s essay examines the emergence of networks devoted to intellectual collaboration between Franciscan and indigenous authors, who established new devotional discourses in indigenous vernaculars. Through an analysis of the intellectual and sociopolitical stakes that surrounded the Nahuatl-language adaptation of one of the most popular early modern devotional texts—Kempis’s Imitation of Christ—this paper highlights the balance of revisionism and cautious experimentation that accompanied the Counter-Reformation in Central Mexico. Few’s presentation propels our inquiry into the Borbonic period through a careful contextualization of the moral discourses that informed the first attempts to introduce the live smallpox vaccine in Guatemala. Few’s paper also advances our understanding of the links among moral discourses, the emerging notion of “public interest,” and medical practice as an intellectual product of Enlightenment ideologies in Spanish America.

In the end, this panel employs lines of evidence drawn from social history, the “linguistic turn,” and intellectual history to address two important historiographical questions—How did elite and non-elite discourses about morality and religion interact with each other and impact the social order in Spanish America? What were the limits of institutional control over religious discourses?—during two important transitional periods in colonial Latin America: the Counter-Reformation and the Borbonic period.

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