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Transcript for “Recogimiento: Virginity, Enclosure, and Female Virtue in Colonial Latin America”

Marissa: Today’s show is focused on the Hispanic concept of recogida and the accompanying system called recogimiento. Roughly translated into English, recogida means “pick up,” or “capture” while the word recogimiento means “recollection,” “seclusion” or “withdrawal” but, as many scholars before us have noted, these Spanish words resist translation. To early modern Spanish-speakers, they evoked a division in the worlds of the sacred and the worldly. 

To modern Spanish-speakers, they evoke social concepts related to honor and shame. We do know that recogimiento first came into use on the Iberian peninsula by Franciscans and Catholic mystics. Though this usage continued, the term also came to represent a system of virtue for women, one that revolved around sexual purity, honor, and physical enclosure. Eventually, this tradition-turned-social norm evolved into an institution for women with many purposes. Join us as we uncover the long and winding history of recogimiento in colonial Latin America. 

I’m Marissa

And I’m Sarah

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: After 1492, Spain quickly established dominance in the Andean and Central American regions. My goal here is to capture sexual practices and attitudes encompassing recogimiento in Central and South America from the pre-Columbian era where the Americans and Iberians developed sexual practices in isolation from each other, to the point of contact, to the centuries-long period of Spanish colonial rule. By 1600, recogimiento reached beyond the bounds of ideas and became brick-and-mortar institutions that controlled the sexuality of Latin American women, especially in Mexico City (in New Spain) and Lima (in Peru). 

Sarah: We have covered gender and sexuality in pre-modern Europe pretty extensively in other episodes. So I will make this brief by focusing on how Iberia (comprising Spain, Portugal, and the Basque country) was unique in its approach to gender and sexuality in the 1400s. This gives us some insight into why this context was the site of recogimiento’s conception [haha, get it?]. 

Iberian culture was primarily introduced to the Andean and Nahua people in the 1520s and 1530s by the exploratory and martial expeditions of Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. The men comprising these Spanish forces were reared on a steady diet of patriarchy, warfare, and Catholic exaltation. As historian Karen Vieira Powers puts it, “their attitudes about gender had been formed in the crucible of the Reconquest… military activities dominated life and a culture that eulogized wartime deeds and glorified male bravado.” 

Marissa: The Reconquista was Iberian Catholics’ 800-year struggle to expel the Moors from the peninsula. The Moorish kingdoms in Iberia, together called Al-Andalus, came to control parts of the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s. Al-Andalus was quickly organized under the Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba. Over the medieval period, Spanish and Portuguese Christians worked to repulse Muslim forces off the peninsula. By the 1400s, only one stronghold remained, the emirate of Granada. At this time, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile joined their kingdoms together and convinced Pope Sixtus IV to declare their war against the Moors as a holy crusade. This was the Reconquista, and it was accompanied by decades of violence, forced conversions, and the establishment of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. The Inquisitions were national institutions created to root out any unorthodox Catholic theology, insincere conversion, or heretical behavior on the peninsula. 

Scenes of the Spanish Reconquest by Military Order of Santiago. Monastery of Ucles, Cuenca, Spain. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: In practice, the Inquisition primarily targeted mixed-race Spaniards, crypto-Jews, and the descendants of converted Muslims and Jews. Ethnicity and lineage became increasingly important to proving that one belonged in Iberia. In this climate, an honor culture developed, emphasizing purity of blood based not only on ethnic lineage but confessional lineage as well. Iberians paid special attention to marriage rites. The legal and social consequences of illegitimacy– birth outside of wedlock– were severe. 

Unsurprisingly, this was a resolutely patriarchal society, one whose gender norms were governed by ideas of religious virtue, ethnic purity, and confessional orthodoxy. Political authority was restricted to men who became the public representatives of their households, while women were increasingly confined to the home. In trial law, three female witnesses equaled the legal weight of one male witness. Men were charged with maintaining orderly households and regulating the virtue of the women and girls within their homes.

Marissa: So far this sounds pretty similar to early modern Northern Europe as well but there is a few important differences. One is that this was a solidly Catholic environment. Virginity was the ideal state for all humans, but especially for women. This is one of the reasons for the Hispanic commitment to the Virgin Mary. Married women were defiled and, therefore, inferior. Still, marriage was considered to be a necessary evil. Why? 

Large numbers of Iberian women sought contemplative lives, away from the overbearing authority of men, in cloistered convents. Some women religious, such as Teresa of Avila, managed to publish important theological treatises and earn considerable authority as Catholic mystics and martyrs. One of Teresa of Avila’s contributions to Catholic theology was her perfection of the Franciscan method of mental prayer called recogimiento. According to historian Elena Carrera, the Franciscan practice of recogimiento was “aimed at passing beyond the bodily, the sensible and even the intelligible, by means of faith and love.” 

Sarah: The three phases of recogimiento exercised “different faculty of the soul: memory, understanding, and will” aimed at quiet, reflective, self-knowledge. Teresa of Avila perfected this process of self-examination and came to the conclusion that power “does not simply circulate through a network of communications external to individuals, but is internalized through the individuals’ perception of themselves.” This idea that voluntary seclusion and introspection translates into power– that was dangerous to the Catholic Church. 

Women’s growing religious authority disrupted the patriarchalism that was so ingrained in Iberian culture. In some contexts, this was remedied by incentivized and coerced marriage.  Marriage appeared as a good solution to Iberian and papal authorities who were indignant at the so-called feminization of the church because marriage subverted women’s religious authority. Married women, if they wished to keep their honor, must ask their husbands to intercede on their behalf in spiritual as well as political and legal affairs. 

Marissa: This devoutly Catholic, militaristic, honor-and-purity-bound society was the same society that financed European exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Caribbean, and Central- and South-America. So what did it look like once Iberian culture collided with the indigenous cultures they found in the Americas? Before we talk a little about pre-Columbian indigenous sexuality, I want to establish a few important facts about Spanish rule in Latin America. 

Sarah: The first is that the Catholic Church had special authority in the American colonies. The papacy was granted special privileges from the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns, called the Patronato. Therefore, in colonial Latin America, the church and state were often merged into one. This remained the case until about the 1770s. Due to the language barriers and cultural syncretism happening after contact, indigenous conversion was not easily measured in terms of theology or attending to the sacraments. However, indigenous people’s commitment to Catholic sexual and gender norms was one metric that they could use to gauge the mission’s success. 

Marissa: Therefore, regulating indigenous marriage and sexuality were incredibly important to establishing colonial rule and sexual transgressions. Sexuality was policed in church and by Catholic confraternities and deviance was litigated in several institutions: church courts, by the Inquisition, during the sacrament of confession, and within various Catholic missions. When missionary Juan Perez Bocanegra prepared a penitential guide for colonial priests, he included 236 questions about sex. Most of them were concerned with convincing indigenous converts that practices such as trial marriage were now to be understood as sinful.  

Sarah: Another important thing to add: shortly after contact, Latin America was populated by not only indigenous peoples and Europeans, but by free and enslaved Africans as well. After 1550, the issue of miscegenation would become important but in the early years, inter-confessional relationships were the Crown’s main concern. Because of the reality of the Reconquista, inter-faith marriages were prohibited. This became a problem when the Conquistadores engaged in sexual relationships with indigenous women, because they were not Christians. It became common, then, for Conquistadores to perform cursory baptisms on indigenous women before they had sex with them.  

Marissa: I want to take a quick detour, though, into the attitudes and practices that were prevalent in the Americas before contact with Europeans. The diversity in Central and South America was, and still is, dizzying so it’s risky making generalizations but for the sake of clarity, I’m going to make some tough calls. I will focus mostly on the Quechua-speaking people (the Inca and surrounding Andean cultures) as well as the Nahua-speaking people of Central America (the Inca or Mexica and surrounding cultures). Both of these areas were highly developed before European contact and both were also colonized by the Spanish as early as the 1520s. Moreover, Lima and Mexico City, two cities important to the story of recogimiento, were located in these regions. 

The concept of marriage was widespread within the indigenous societies that lived in Central and South America prior to 1492. Marital partners were usually chosen communally, not by the spouses themselves. However, compatibility did matter and trial marriages were common, especially among Andean cultures who called the practice servinacuy. Prospective couples lived together in the home of the bride’s father for a prescribed period of time. Sometimes this practice was a means of ensuring fertility between the couple. In that case, the marriage would be solemnized in a ceremony once the bride became pregnant. Other times, it became clear that the couple was incompatible. The trial marriage was dissolved and both partners were free to marry others. 

Sarah: There were some prohibitions against incest or consanguinity (which is what it’s called when spouses descend from the same ancestors- so typically more distant relations) but these prohibitions were not uniform or necessarily compatible with Catholic concepts of incest or consanguinity. Most marriages among indigenous couples were monogamous but there were some important exceptions to this. Some indigenous elites, most notably the Inca, practiced polygamy as a status symbol or to extend their kinship networks. 

The indigenous American attitude toward pre-marital sex was more relaxed than those in Europe. Couples were expected to have sexual relations during their trial period, before their marriages were solemnized. Sexual promiscuity was certainly not the norm but there were no strict requirements of virginity on the wedding night. However, indigenous attitudes toward extra-marital sex, or adultery, were similar to those in Europe, especially for women, who were sometimes subject to severe punishment. Also similar to Europe, there was a gendered double standard. Indigenous men were much more likely to get away with extra-marital sex than indigenous women.

Marissa: Among most indigenous Americans, human bodies and sexuality were linked cosmologically with systems of order and disorder. Maintaining bodily control was crucial to the harmony of the cosmos. Hypersexuality could, therefore, be conceived as disruptive, so much so that some societies preferred to relegate all sexual activity to the outdoors. Indigenous societies practiced periodic ritual abstinence and placed taboos on sexual activities like incest, adultery, abortion and homosexuality. 

Some indigenous sexual norms sound similar to European, Christian ideas of sexuality that we’ve discussed in past series. But there were very important distinctions that come to light when we look at the period directly after initial European contact. One has to do with theology, which sounds boring, but not in this case. Catholic Europe perceived the cosmos as one that operated on a scale of good and evil. Therefore, the ideal state was good, which was on one end of the scale. Sinful and deviant activities were believed to pollute the soul and purifying ceremonies like confession and penitence were meant to restore the soul to that GOOD state. 

Sarah: Indigenous American societies understood the cosmos as one that operated on scale of order and disorder. But the goal was NOT to achieve perfect order, on one end of the scale. The ultimate goal was balance: to achieve moderation between order and disorder. Therefore any extreme, be it sexual or otherwise, could be harmful to the body and, by extension, to the cosmos. Generally speaking, then, indigenous ideas of sexual pollution and purity were rather moderate (rather than extreme) in comparison to Catholic ones. 

Marissa: We know the most about the Aztecs and the Inca specifically because of their prolonged contact with Spanish missionaries and statesmen, their early adoption of Iberian languages, and their translation of their own languages into alphabetical scripts. Some historians think that the more centralized indigenous polities became, the stricter and more hierarchical their societies became, therefore leading to more gender and sexuality restrictions. The Inca Empire, though huge and powerful, was relatively decentralized compared to the Aztec empire which dominated the Nahua-speaking folks further north. WARNING: This could also be because immediately after contact, missionaries were keen to highlight similarities rather than differences between their two cultures in order to facilitate conversion. 

As far as we can tell, the Mexica (the Nahua people who built the Aztec empire) favored the marital state and wives were subordinate to husbands. According to the huehuetlatolli, a discourse of Nahua elders, “when [your husband] asks you something or entrusts something to you or when he tells you to do something, you are to obey him properly.” The Mexica also distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate children but among the Nahua communities who practiced trial marriage, children resulting from unsuccessful trial marriages were raised with legitimate status. Nahua women were apparently advised to be modest in their demeanor, a recommendation that the Spanish both emphasized as a similarity and then negated by clutching their pearls at Nahua women’s so-called promiscuity. In all, the Mexica’s approach to gender and sexuality was aimed at balance and moderation as was that of other Nahua-speaking people such as the Maya. 

Sarah: Catholics encountering the Mexica would probably not have understood their societies as moderate in any way. Aztec religious rituals often involved sexual components because they were aimed at agricultural fertility which was linked to human fertility. One ritual included the procession of a male priest with an erect penis, or a male priest wearing the flayed skin of a female human sacrifice. Catholic missionaries were, obviously, scandalized by these performances and used them as evidence that the Mexica were savage idolaters. 

Inca society functioned quite differently from Iberian society in that it practiced gender complementarity and gender parallelism. Gender parallel societies contain two separate spheres for men and women but each operates with autonomy in their own sphere. One is not in control of the other. Gender complementarity refers to the Inca understanding of the two sexes. They ascribed different roles and qualities to men and women but understood both the masculine and the feminine as essential to creating balance and harmony. 

Marissa: Rather than opposing camps in the fight for authority, Inca men and women were necessary for each other. Unlike the Iberian context, where women’s roles were auxiliary and marriage was a device to keep them out of trouble, Inca men and women were essential parts of one whole and spouses were “partners in the business of life.” For example, Inca origin stories tell of a “founding couple” rather than a “founding father” or Adam, the first man, who makes the first woman out of his rib. 

Sarah: Sometimes Spanish missionaries highlighted indigenous ideas of ritual pollution and purity as a system comparable to Catholic concepts of purity and Iberian preoccupations with pure bloodlines. Indigenous people, however, would have failed to see the similarities. Indigenous concepts of pollution and purity were embodied (rather than moral). For example, in Nahua culture, newborn infants were ritually bathed in order to wash away the pollution ascribed to their bodies by their parents’ sexual activity. Once the infant’s body was clean, balance was restored. But this was not so in Catholic Europe. Purity and pollution were moral, related to the state of one’s soul, rather than bodily, related to the state of one’s body, and perfection, rather than balance was the goal. 

The Catholic practice of Consecrated Virginity, a medieval rite which was restored after Vatican II, is a good example of this. A Consecrated Virgin is a woman who has been consecrated by the church to a life of perpetual virginity as a spouse of Christ. The ceremony celebrates the purity of her soul and the purity of her body is secondary. If her body is defiled, it is important inasmuch as it defiles her soul. Restoring her hymen, a surgical procedure some believe will restore the virgin state, does absolutely nothing because her soul is defiled. 

Marissa: This is why, among indigenous populations, sexual relations were considered to be not only necessary but enjoyable. The official Catholic understanding of sex was that the virgin state was preferable but that marital sex “was an obligation and was to be enjoyed as little as possible.” This would have been absolutely puzzling, and unnatural to indigenous Americans. Granted, there were strong traditions of ritual virginity within the Inca Empire but they were strategic and relegated to powerful Inca elites. Every year, Inca magistrates chose beautiful virgins to become acllas. They were secluded in acllawasi while they awaited their assignments under heavy guard. Some were destined to remain virgins for their entire lives, serving as “wives to the Sun” while others became the Inca’s concubines. This practice was meant to service religious ritual but it also created elite, interethnic bloodlines which were important to Inca politics. 

Sarah: Though the acllas may have had special spiritual authority akin to Teresa of Avila, most Andean women valued marital sexuality. Prior to contact, Andean gender parallelism also meant that daughters inherited property and status from their mothers and sons inherited from their fathers. Girls and women had just as much access to their ayllu’s resources as boys and men. Female rulers, called capulanas, ruled over communities in the Northern Andes. Both sexes served as priests and confessors. Andean midwives had a special status as earthly representatives of Pachamama (the Earth mother). Andean women participated in public life as healers, textile manufacturers, and farmers. 

Marissa: After contact, the Spanish reorganized Andean communities into ayllus which systematically dismantled the Inca elites’ system of kinship by forcing marriages outside of the royal bloodlines. In Central America, the Spanish Crown tried to keep indigenous, African, and European communities apart but the skewed sex ratios among Europeans and Africans made this impossible. Indigenous women were often the only women available for marriage or sex. This issue was exacerbated by the encomienda system when required that men granted an encomienda be married lest they forfeit their grant. In this context, “marriage” always meant that which would be recognized by the Spanish Crown and solemnized by the Catholic Church, presumably to Spanish women. Many men had already married or cohabited with Indian women and fathered miestizo children before receiving their grants. In those cases, they often took a Spanish wife as soon as they could and spent most of their lives providing for two different families. Despite its intent, the state’s restrictions failed to prevent racial mixing on a large scale. 

Sarah: In the early years, Spanish conquistadores appeared to care little about maintaining the sexual virtue of indigenous women as they used sexual violence and concubinage to slake their lusts during conquest. After 1530, in the colonial context, recogida became incrementally more central to the lives of many Latin American women.

Mama Huaco, an Inca deity. Anonymous painter, 18th century | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Friars charged themselves with converting polygamous marriage among the Inca into monogamous ones during the 1530s and 1540s. They spent endless hours investigating polygamous marriages in an attempt to deduce which wife had been taken first. One Spanish friar said of this process, “we found ourselves in a labyrinth of great difficulty, for they lied in saying which was the first, and they committed fraud in order to marry those for whom they had greater affection.” This process was particularly life-altering for elite Inca wives whose had not been deemed their husband’s “true wife.” Their status changed tremendously from one of honor and nobility, sitting at the head of an important political alliance, to that of concubines, prostitutes, and sex slaves of in their new Hispanicized context. These women would have become painfully aware of the notion of recogida, female virtue in this new world. 

Marissa: The Spanish used marriage and sexuality to aid in their colonial endeavors. This is well-illustrated by the story of a girl of elite Inca heritage, named Beatriz. The girl’s father, an Inca loyal to the Spanish, died in 1560, when Beatriz was an infant. Her noble, Inca lineage was attractive to allied Inca and Spanish statesmen who sought to consolidate colonial power in Cuzco. They planned to marry her to a young man, also of noble Inca blood but a converted Christian, in a bid to join Inca and Spanish interests. However, Beatriz and the boy were first cousins and their marriage would have violated Catholic proscriptions against consanguinity. Without a dispensation from the Pope, the young couple’s marriage would not be a legal one in the eyes of the Spanish. 

Sarah: In the meantime, Beatriz’s mother objected to the Incas’ plans, preferring for her daughter to marry into a different Spanish family of her choice. But since the Spanish did not recognize mothers’ authority over their daughters like the Inca did, her desires were immaterial. She secluded the child in the Santa Clara convent in Cuzco until the time when her future was decided. The plot to reform the Inca state failed. Historian Jane Mangan writes, “When Inca rulers anticipated incorporation of the Spanish through gifting of women, they found instead that Spaniards expected to dominate politically and culturally.” 

Beatriz remained secluded in the convent for her protection. When she was eight years old, Beatriz’s mother purportedly arranged for Beatriz to be kidnapped from the convent and secretly married to a Spanish soldier, Cristobal Maldonado. Maldonado raped the young girl to consummate the marriage and stake his claim on her influence and fortune. It is unclear if her mother conspired with Maldonado or if she was coerced into handing over her daughter. 

Marissa: The marriage was invalid because it was done without permission from the Church. Moreover, it angered Spanish officials because it brought together the two most powerful encomiendas in Cuzco. Moldonado was exiled and Beatriz was returned to Santa Clara. The Spanish Crown sued Moldonado for the damages they had incurred due to the loss of Beatriz’s virginity. Her mother was devastated because her attempt to determine Beatriz’s future had failed. When Beatriz was 15, she was given the choice to take her vows or to marry. She chose to marry. The Viceroy of Peru arranged for her to marry a Spanish Captain who received a massive bribe from the government to do so and went on to serve as the Governor of Chile. 

Sarah: One of the unforeseen consequences of this tactic was the concept of recogida, loosely translated as virtue. Recogida ties female seclusion to virginity and honor. Beatriz’s seclusion in Santa Clara was made necessary by her value as a bride in the colonial context. Her period of seclusion was meant to preserve her virginity and piety while her political marriage was resolved. If Beatriz had lived in pre-Columbian times, her mother would have had the authority to choose an advantageous marriage for her daughter according to their customs. No seclusion or Catholic indoctrination would have been necessary. Instead, Beatriz was used as a pawn by both the Inca and the Spanish but, as illustrated by their petition for a dispensation, on Spanish terms. In historian Jane Mangan’s words, “native elites still might use marriages as a way to stem the tide of physical or cultural violence but the negotiations entailed risks and women, particularly, might suffer.”

Marissa: Catholic attitudes toward gender and sexuality were immediately enforced on indigenous people and imported Africans. The Crown established an Inquisition in Latin America, informally called the Indian Inquisition. Colonial wives were taught that they were expected to be submissive to their husbands just as Indians were to be submissive to the Spanish, a concept called reduccion. Within Iberian Catholicism, married and unmarried women constituted different castes. Even though marriage was a normative institution, Catholic doctrine taught that women who married had still somehow lost something. For example in 1 Corinthians 7:34 “There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”

Sarah: This part of Catholic doctrine was one of the focuses of the Spanish Inquisition. Women were often questioned by Inquisitors for having claimed that marriage was more holy than virginity. In 1568, a Spanish shepherd’s daughter named Maria de Cardenas was charged with heretical blasphemy for saying “God did it to Our Lady like her father did it to her mother” and insisting that “God had known Our Lady carnally.” Her blasphemy violated the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception which held that not only Jesus was conceived immaculately but that the Virgin Mary was herself also conceived immaculately, thereby making hers the first conception that did not carry with it the taint of original sin. 

Marissa: As we saw earlier in the story of Beatriz, indigenous women were stripped of political, social, and spiritual authority they had enjoyed before contact. Many of them sought solace in faith and authority in the Church. Catholic doctrine was impressed upon indigenous populations with vigor. Colonial priests, missionaries, Inquisitors, and statesmen constantly reinforced the value of virginity and disparaged indigenous sexual attitudes and practices. For example, Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun wrote the following in one sermon:

“You lost the grace of God, you placed yourself in sin, You pushed away guardian angel. Already the tlacatecolotl [the devil] carries you about. You were still a girl [virgin] you pertained to the girls [virgins]; now ready pertain to the promiscuous women. When you were still a girl your heart knew that it was gold, precious, but now it is like a chamber when you were still a girl [virgin] you were equal to a very good, very flower. Now you are just equal to filth. God’s possession, which he your girlhood [virginity] you gave to the Devil. Oh how wretched…”

Sarah: The only way indigenous women could circumvent this loss of authority was to remain unmarried. In their violent and patriarchal climate, this would have been sexually risky (with a good possibility she might become a concubine or prostitute) and economically unfeasible. The only viable alternative was to become a woman religious whose virginal state would be glorified by the Catholic Church. During this time, the cults of St. Mary expanded rapidly and indigenous people developed new ways to worship Jesus’s Virgin mother. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception became one which indigenous converts and Catholic creoles vowed to protect with their lives, if necessary. Confraternities, universities, guilds, etc. built their institutions around their veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Marissa: During the 1500s, systematic female seclusion was confined primarily to cloistered convents and private homes. These makeshift recogimientos were primarily used to Hispanicize and catechize the daughters of Nahua and Inca nobility. Of course, recogimientos were a means for the Church and the state to control indigenous women’s marriageability (like in the case of Beatriz). But these environment also served to assimilate indigenous nobility to Hispanic society and educate them in Catholic doctrine. This initiative was, for the most part, successful. Indeed Nahua and Inca clergy tended to be even more critical of indigenous beliefs and practices than European clergy. (They drank the Kool-Aid.) That being said, within their seclusion, indigenous women often found some of the spiritual authority they had lost in public life.

Sarah: After 1550, things became much more complicated in colonial Latin America. As these societies became increasingly diverse, complex, and racially mixed, they evolved into “pigmentocracies.” A pigmentocracy is a system that links skin color with honor, virtue, and calidad– which translates to “status.” Latin Americans were, over time, organized into strict, racial hierarchies called castas. Your casta dictated your class, your legal status, as well as your marriage eligibility. High status white men and women found few eligible suitors and marrying below their calidad – a spouse of inferior race, of limited means, or little political power, was NOT an option. 

An illustration of the Spanish casta system. Anonymous painter. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: For men, this was less of a problem since they could take a concubine and sire illegitimate children for decades while they sought a suitable match. Their illegitimate children faced harsh limitations on their social mobility as bastard birth was a permanent stain on their honor but fathers of illegitimate children could go on to marry legally and produce legitimate heirs as was expected of them. Even if a man reaches middle age before finding a suitable wife, he could marry a teenager and produce heirs.

Sarah: For women, whose childbearing years were limited, that was not an option. Even more importantly, women were vulnerable if left unattached. In the absence of financial support and protection from their fathers, brothers, or other male relatives, there was no place for them in public life in Latin America. Therefore, after 1550, we see droves of women of European descent- either peninsulares or creoles and women of mixed race, called mestizas, opting to enter Latin American cloistered and semi-cloistered institutions instead of contracting disadvantageous marriages that would damage their honor.

Marissa: In 17c Portuguese Brazil, only 14% of the daughters of elite families married, while 77% went into convents. Indian and white families began opting for arranged marriages or coercion to enforce honorable marriages among their daughters. Whites were able to use the method of seclusion to shape their daughters’ marriage prospects. It became common for white families to cloister their daughters from birth to prevent them from meeting any men other than the man who was her intended spouse. 

Through this confluence of events, the colonial period appears to have been the crucible in which recogimiento was forged. The imposition of Spanish gender norms, catechization of indigenous people in Catholic doctrine, and the development of castas complicated the process of marriage and reproduction and bounded women of all races by strict moral codes. The evolution of recogida was, however, a long and slow one and the formation of recogimientos as institutions took even longer.

Sarah: Some convents served as recogimientos because they were licensed to house both women who intended to take orders and those who did not but sought refuge. Some convents were reformed into monasteries at which point inhabitants were expelled if they did not take religious orders and indigenous and mestiza inhabitants were, at that time, prohibited from taking religious orders. Enter the recogimiento proper. In the 1550s it became apparent that different institutions were needed, ones that admitted women of all races and did not depend on the inhabitant’s willingness to take religious orders. 

Marissa: After 1580, officials became more concerned with regulating women who were “wayward and unstable.” The logic behind the institutionalization of recogida lay in the widely held belief that women were inherently vulnerable and predisposed to sexual deviance. Loose networks of cloistered convents and private homes were no longer robust enough to house all the women “in need.” A broad range of semi-cloistered institutions emerged to both punish, protect, and separate inconvenient women from general society. Beaterios sit somewhere between the convent and the boarding house, comprising lay women who lived under simple vows. Depósitos were houses where women were deposited by family members and officials for their “protection” during the absence of their husbands or other male relatives. Recogimientos began on the lowest end of this spectrum of semi-cloistered institutions as places where orphans, reformed prostitutes, and “unruly or feckless women could be deposited by male relatives.” 

Sarah: The founding documents of the Santa Clara convent list several dozen inhabitants. Many of them came along with monthly donations, room and board, or their dowries to finance their stays. But this was not always the case. 

“Juana. Poor, orphaned, father unknown, found in an Indian village, brought to this monastery in early 1561 with no dowry or board; she is to be catechized and remedied for the love of God, and it shall be set down on this page what becomes of her.  

Juana and eighteenth other young women were listed as orphans (meaning their FATHER was dead and no one cared about their Andean mothers). Seven of them were daughters of Spaniards who died valiantly in wars of conquest. Of the several dozen women who lived at the recogimiento, 18 of them took vows but 33 of them left the home and were often married to Spaniards. There is some evidence that the lowly origins of the inhabitants occasioned plenty of criticism from both indigenous folks and the Spanish. 

Marissa: Guaman Poma, a 16th-century Quechua activist denouncing Spanish atrocities in the Andees, said the following of early recogimientos: “Christian Indians enter nuns’ convents. They learn reading, writing, music, and sewing. They work, cook like Spaniards, sew, clean, and bake but are also sent into the streets late at night where they see all the bad and end up whores.” Historian Kathryn Burns argues that this kind of reaction demonstrates how much resentment and anxiety there was among indigenous people about their acculturation into Hispanic culture.

Many people believed that recogimientos were some kind of low-rent, fake convent and therefore they failed to treat the recogidas with respect. In 1689, Don Pedro de Balbín sent several mestiza women to be admitted into the local recogimiento but they arrived after hours and were refused entrance. Angered by this refusal, Balbín went to the building himself and demanded entrance. The head of the recogimiento declined to open its doors, saying it was a “suspicious and indecent hour for a recogimiento of so many maidens to open.” This suggests that these institutions took seriously their charge to protect the virtue and reputations of its inhabitants. Balbín, in his anger, yelled that they were all whores, saying that they let men climb over the roof at night, and that they bore bastard children inside those walls. He finished his tirade by threatening to whip them before he threw them all out of the building.  

Sarah: Some of this disdain may have come from the transgressions of some inhabitants. In many cases, seclusion in a recogimiento was involuntary. This was primarily a way for the Church, the Inquisition, and women’s families to police female sexuality under the guise of protecting female virtue. A great example is the story of a Mexican woman named Augustina Ruiz who was investigated by the Inquisition in Queretaro, Mexico in 1621. Ruiz was denounced by her own parish priest to whom she confessed her sins. She told him she had committed self-pollution (masturbation) every day since she was 11 years old. She told him that she fantasized about Jesus and the Virgin Mary and that during these visions, they penetrated her both vaginally and anally. She even admitted to becoming aroused by the Eucharist and masturbating during mass. She absconded before she finished her confession and was absolved of her sins so her disturbed priest denounced her to the Office of the Inquisition.

Marissa: Ruiz was a twenty-year-old unmarried mother of a seven-year-old son. She had cohabited with a lover, whom she intended to marry, in Mexico City in her early teens. The couple bore an illegitimate son when Ruiz was only 13 but her lover died before they could legitimize their union through marriage. Before her trial, Ruiz was involuntarily deposited into the house of a family in Queretaro by her brother. Her Inquisitors removed her from this home and placed her with a more respectable family and advised her that she was not permitted to speak to any man during the time of her confinement. During her trial, women in her community testified that they’d witnessed Ruiz out in public allowing a man to put his hand up her skirt. 

Sarah: Interestingly, historians have noted that Ruiz’s confession bears similarities to the experiences of female mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila and the Peruvian mystic St. Rose of Lima. (Remember Teresa of Avila from the top of the show? The saint who perfected the practice of recogimiento prayer?) In what became known as the “ecstasy of Teresa”, the Spanish mystic claimed that a beautiful angel with a great golden spear “plunged it into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God.” 

Marissa: These very erotic expressions of spiritual ecstasy were common within the tradition of bridal mysticism and were meant to convey a physical and spiritual union with Christ. Historian Zeb Tortorici suspects that Ruiz was familiar with this brand of mysticism (which was widespread in Catholic Latin America) but that she was uneducated and used vulgar, street language to articulate the experience. The Mexican Inquisition pronounced that she had been seduced by the Devil and they sentenced her to three years imprisonment in a Mexico City convent. 

The most common form of involuntary deposit was by family members who felt their female relatives were threatening to dishonor their families. This may have been the reason why Ruiz’s brother deposited her BEFORE her trial began and her sins became generally known. More often, this involved marriage negotiations. Women who contested their parents’ choice of spouse for them or women who fell in love with someone who did not meet her family’s requirements were in danger of engaging in pre-marital or extra-marital sex, or of securing a secret marriage if she had the ear of a clergyman. 

Sarah: The early role of recogimientos in Latin American expanded quickly. Protecting female virtue became such a priority to the Catholic Church that they even agreed to overlook their own rules if it meant they could preserve women’s virtue. In this strict Latin American pigmentocracy, young couples who fell in love were often prevented from solemnizing their union due to the restrictions placed on their casta. In many of these cases, the Catholic Church performed secret marriages to help young couples circumvent family objections to matrimony. They reasoned it was the only way they could prevent the sins of fornication, concubinage, and prostitution.

Societies that limit women’s independent access to resources often face the “scourge” of prostitution. We have seen this in many other patriarchal societies we’ve encountered on the show.  In Latin America, however, this issue was compounded by a system of status based on race, wealth, and family bloodlines that complicated marriage negotiations. This created a heterogeneous pool of women who found sex work to be their only means of survival. Even in their earliest years, recogimientos served as homes for penitent prostitutes where they lived as semi-cloistered women religious. In much of the Catholic world, these institutions are also called Magdalene Homes and their regiments are informed by the story of Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s friend and reformed prostitute.

Marissa: Despite their purpose, recogimientos were not always safe spaces for female virtue. There were a few scandals wherein priests and bishops sexually assaulted women housed in their affiliated recogimiento. Ambitious men occasionally abducted wealthy women and girls from recogimientos and raped them in order to force a marriage and forfeiture of her family’s estates to him. However, women from lower castas were still vulnerable too. For example, in 1673, a slave named Florentina del Sacramento was abducted from the convent of Santa Clara and raped. Since her family had no wealth or power, her rapist absconded rather than marry her. (Nowadays, good riddance) But in the 17th century, this put Florentina in a horrible position. She was defiled, dishonored, and closed from all walks of life except prostitution.    

Sarah: The seclusion of the “wayward” did not end with reformed prostitutes though. Recogimientos also began housing women known as divorciadas. After 1550, the Church began granting annulments and divorces in Latin America. This was a development that they resentfully blamed on Latin American women, especially once they realized that women were using divorce and annulment to reverse the loss of autonomy they experienced in marriage or to engage in sinful sex.

The Second Council of Lima issued the following proclamation in 1567:

“Many persons, especially women, for extremely shallow reasons and with the intention of regaining their freedom, fulfilling their lust, and avoiding the burdens of marriage, are too quick to initiate divorce proceedings… We order that from now on nobody, but the bishop

himself, may be allowed to hear divorce cases. The bishop may do so only for absolutely certain, rational, and manifest causes.”

Marissa: Still, separation, annulment and divorce proceedings continued. This should not be surprising in a society that valued political expediency and social mobility over compatibility in match-making. Most marital suits, called querellas, were brought by wives rather than husbands. We’ve seen examples of this in past episodes but it’s always interesting to see how women use the patriarchy against itself in legal cases. One of the most common grounds for divorce used by women was that their husbands failed to uphold a sense of moral enclosure within the household.

By 1650, recogida had become an objective of all women in Latin America irrespective of race or status. And it was something they sought to achieve within their own homes. The excellent historian Nancy van Deusen’s study of marital litigation in Lima is so helpful here. She found that women of all races and social classes described themselves as “recogida” in their divorce suits. They worked to prove that they were “living honestly and recogidemente,”  meaning their lives were not overly public or scandalous and they had NOT stained their husband’s honor. 

Sarah: The 1667 case of Dona Marcela Gutierrez is illustrative. She complained that her husband “dragged her from farm to farm,” forcing her to work in front of his slaves and that he did not provide her with clothing befitting of her station. She described what this had done to her, “disdain and discredit me having been raised in my parent’s house with recogimiento, honor, and estimation. In his power, I have lost everything.” One of their Indian farmhands testified that Dona Marcela was a “virtuous and recogida Spaniard.” Her husband defended himself by saying that she was nothing more than the daughter of “mulatto dogs” and so she was, therefore, of the calidad (status/condition)to work with the others.

Marissa: For Dona Marcela, manual labor damaged her honor. But even low-born and enslaved women were claiming recogida in their suits and they were able to frame manual labor as a contributing factor to their recogimiento. Maria Magdalena de la Cruz, an Indian woman, sought divorce on the grounds that her husband Juan “does not give me shoes, nor dress my two children…. I have always been recogida and faithful to him.” A woman named Maria Coronado testified that her husband was failing to support their family. Coronado was described by others as a “poor but recogida woman.” Both women argued that their husband’s failure to uphold his conjugal responsibilities had forced them to become public women, working with their hands to feed their families. They were successfully able to deflect this dishonor onto their husbands but only because their track records as wives were spotless. In these cases, their recogida was restored when their divorces were granted and they went to reside permanently in recogimientos

Sarah: It is possible that the opening up of recogimientos to low-born and wayward women had the effect of expanding who was eligible to claim recogida. This also had the effect of making the private home a universal form of recogimiento in Latin American society. Van Deusen even found several cases of enslaved women claiming recogida. For example, in the 1685 case of Maria Ferrero, a mixed-blood slave, she announced to the court that it was well-established that she was recogida and that she had the support in her entire neighborhood in the case. 

During the investigation necessitated by marital litigation, it became customary for the wives in question to undergo depósitio. This meant that they were deposited in the home of a respectable man or, if one existed, a recogimiento. If the litigation ended in an annulment, which was very rare, both spouses could go on to remarry. If it ended in a divorce, which was more common, both spouses must remain legally separated but they could not remarry. In this case, the women often stayed in their recogimiento.

Marissa: So this begs the question of whether depósitio was voluntary or not. It appears that, in some cases, it was. Women apparently brought marital suits to court knowing that, in the best case scenario, they would live the rest of their lives in a recogimiento. Van Deusen asserts that many women did not view recogimientos as prisons. Rather, they thought of them as places of tranquility and autonomy and preferred to be confined by secular or religious institutions rather than by marriage. The historical record supports the fact that many women in Lima and Mexico City, escaped abusive parents or spouses to live in the all-female environment of a recogimiento

Sarah: There were also other scenarios where seclusion in a recogimiento was voluntary, especially as the 17th century progressed. Women sought seclusion for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the decision was made by women who resented their lack of authority in the temporal world and sought power from within, á la Teresa de Avila. Other times, as mentioned earlier, women opted for seclusion in the absence of honorable marriage prospects. As we mentioned earlier, women short on marriage prospects often took vows and lived their lives within cloistered convents. Van Deusen refers to this as “investing in spiritual capital.” However, as the state grew, it became increasingly difficult for women to obtain licenses to open convents and the initial investment was often cost-prohibitive.

Licenses for recogimientos or beaterios were much easier to obtain and the cost to set one up was much more manageable. Moreover, some women did not want to become nuns. This was especially the case for those who eventually became lay holy women, beatas. Beatas often served in honored positions in Latin American society. In Spain, Queen Isabella honors beatas at court and in the 1530s, Hernan Cortes petitioned the Crown to send several beatas of an “honest lifestyle” and “proper recogimiento” to Latin America to teach at its thriving recogimientos.

Marissa: In many ways, the history of recogimiento is very much a story of the collision of worlds: the collision of sex lives, spiritual beliefs about human sexuality, ritual purity, and sexual morality. Recogimiento, as a mystical precept, originated in Catholic Iberia but it remained an esoteric concept until after Spanish and Portuguese explorers made contact with American Indians. It was in this colonial environment in Latin America that recogimiento evolved from a Franciscan method of prayer, to a system of behavioral norms used to control indigenous sexuality, an amorphous concept that tied seclusion to virginity and honor. Over time, this system of behavioral norms broadened to include all Latin American women and inspired a host of new institutions called recogimientos for repentant prostitutes, prospective divorcees, and abused women. Much like the concept had shaped the institution, the institution, in turn, re-shaped the concept into a working class notion of married female virtue. 


Boyle, Margaret E. Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence, and Punishment in Early Modern Spain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018.

Burns, Kathryn. Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

Chowning, M. 2008. “Convents and Nuns: New Approaches to the Study of Female Religious Institutions in Colonial Mexico”. HISTORY COMPASS. 6, no. 5: 1279-1303.

Guengerich, Sara Vicuña. 2015. “Capac Women and the Politics of Marriage in Early Colonial Peru”. Colonial Latin American Review. 24, no. 2: 147-167.

McKinley M.A. 2014. “Illicit Intimacies: Virtuous Concubinage in Colonial Lima”. Journal of Family History. 39, no. 3: 204-221.

Powers, Karen Vieira. 2000. “Andeans and Spaniards in the Contact Zone: A Gendered Collision”. American Indian Quarterly. 24, no. 4: 511-536.

Van Deusen, Nancy. Between the Sacred and the Worldly: The Institutional and Cultural Practice of Recogimiento in Colonial Lima. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University, 2002.

Van Deusen, Nancy E. 1997. “Determining the Boundaries of Virtue: the Discourse of Recogimiento Among Women in Seventeenth-Century Lima”. Journal of Family History. 22, no. 4: 373-389.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice. [S.l.]: ROUTLEDGE, 2020.


Liz Almlie · July 14, 2020 at 12:16 pm

Are the Iberian traditions of women and purity connected to Muslim traditions of female clothing (another type of physical border…), given the Muslim history in Spain? Did they develop in communication, or just as parallels?

    Elizabeth Garner Masarik · August 31, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    Reply from Marissa Rhodes: I suspect that Muslim norms of female modesty were highly compatible with this aspect of Iberian culture and that the two shaped and reshaped each other. This is another reason why Islam’s exclusion from the “Western World” by contemporary standards make no sense. All Abrahamic religions and the cultures shaped by those religions are highly compatible and interactive. Despite the rhetoric surrounding the Crusades and Reconquista which pit Christendom and Islam against each other.

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