Love correspondence between Novo-Hispanic religious of the XVIIIth century

18/02/2021

"Dear, where are you, my dear, heaven of my thoughts? Where are you not persecuting (sic) my sighs and my laments? With this, I returned to my old sorrow and I remained like the Jews waiting for the Messiah...", thus begins a letter that the Franciscan friar José Ignacio Troncoso addressed to the Poor Clare nun María de Paula de la Santísima Trinidad. It was written between June 1797 and March 20, 1798, the date on which the friar denounced himself before the Tribunal of the Holy Office.

The details of this illicit love affair were exposed by Jorge Rene Gonzalez Marmolejo, the doctor in anthropology and researcher attached to the Direction of Historical Studies of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), in his talk Love and lovelessness in the religious orders with which he closed the cycle on "Aspects of the daily life of the 18th century in New Spain".

As part of his most extensive research on the sexuality of the clergy in New Spain, Gonzalez Marmolejo highlighted the extraordinary thing about finding love letters exchanged between religious men and women among the legal documents of the Holy Inquisition trials.

Although there were complaints -which could be anonymous- before the Holy Office for this type of illicit relationships, of the 90 processes of the Archbishopric of Mexico reviewed by the specialist (each with 150 pages on both sides) over more than a decade, he hardly found any cases that deserved his attention.

Given the fact that "all the letters that are preserved in the files are those that the clerics sent", the question remains as to whether the spiritual daughters did not decide to answer in any case, or if they did, why no examples of the missives written by them survive?

One possible explanation is that the processes were all followed against the priests, since they, according to the mentality of the time, could not be "petitioners". And it is clear that the instruction of a professed nun included knowing how to read and write.

The crime of solicitation, according to an edict of the Tribunal of the Holy Office promulgated on February 14, 1781, "consisted in that a confessor of any grade, condition or preeminence, during the act of confession, after it or because of it, provoked with words or actions his son or spiritual daughter to commit clumsy and dishonest acts, with him or third persons", Gonzalez Marmolejo reviews in his book Sex and Confession.

Other possible causes for the absence of erotic missives from nuns addressed to their applicants, the anthropologist ventures, is that "if they had the women's answers they were not going to show them, because it was a way to complicate their situation even more.

Another hypothesis is that the petitioners were not very concerned about keeping the letters." All in all, from reading the messages that are preserved, it can be deduced that they respond to another one that precedes it.

These types of documents are a privileged window into the ways in which love was given even among those among whom it was considered not only a sin but a crime.

It is important to remember that "in the 18th-century people could not separate the feeling of love from the sexual identification with the loved one, in fact, love and sex were considered as a similar manifestation," wrote González Marmolejo in his participation in the collective book Amor y desamor, vivencias de parejas en la sociedad novohispana (Love and heartbreak, experiences of couples in New Spain society), research that served as material for his talk.

"What is there my soul, you have had me with much care because I have no other consolation than to see you", said the paper that the Augustinian Ignacio de Escovar sent to the nun Manuela de Theresa, who denounced this correspondence before the authorities of the Holy Office on October 27, 1714. The crime of solicitation, the object of study of the INAH researcher, was, along with bigamy and forbidden books, one of the 150 crimes most persecuted by the Holy Office.

"My soul, how do you feel, last night I was thinking of you because I was awake, don't you remember me, don't you love me, because I love you very much, and I want nothing else but you, and only for you I come to confess to this convent, you can thank you for coming, otherwise I would not come because I have no other consolation than to come to confess you", the aforementioned Ignacio de Escovar wrote to Manuela de Theresa on a certain occasion. These communications make clear the need of the religious for the affections and amorous passions beyond if their condition prohibited them.

On the other hand, as the subtitle of the book De la santidad a la perversión (From holiness to perversion), one of the publications of the Seminario de Historia de las Mentalidades (History of Mentalities Seminar)-of which Jorge René González is the founder- states, the law of God was not fulfilled in the society of New Spain. The three aforementioned crimes represented 50 percent of the total number of files and processes of the Holy Office. But as happens in any human relationship, not everything was love. There were also expressions of lovelessness that could include threats.

Affectionate to the rhetoric of the time, the religious who ventured gallant epistles, used to use formulas such as "daughter of my heart", "I love you more than my eyes", "lady of my eyes" or "you have filled my eye". The cultural peculiarities of the time also inspired love verses such as those composed by Fray Troncoso to the Poor Clare María de Paula: "Do not be ungrateful to me/ kill me always looking/ and if it cannot be/ kill me from time to time (sic)..."

The interesting thing about these files is that they reveal many concrete details that together allow us to reconstruct some aspects of daily life in New Spain. The letters show particular modes of expression in a range of tones from love to indifference.

Among other aspects, the processes uncover the deep knowledge that the ecclesiastics had of male and female sexuality, as well as the way in which this knowledge and institutions such as confession served to exercise precise social control, concluded the INAH researcher.

By Mexicanist, Source INAH