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Feminist Review

, Volume 83, Issue 1, pp 171–173 | Cite as

Women who live evil lives: gender, religion, and the politics of power in colonial Guatemala

  • Sarah C Chambers
Book Review
  • 443 Downloads

Martha Few; University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002, 208p, ISBN 0-2927-2549-3 £15.50 (Pbk); ISBN 0-2927-2543-4 £39.00 (Hbk)

Few situates her book as a contribution to important themes in the historiography of colonial Latin America: understanding both colonialism and community formation as dynamic and contested processes, and specifically analyzing how women exercised authority and power within these. The majority of her source material comes from Inquisition trials, supplemented by other ecclesiastical and secular lawsuits, correspondence of colonial officials, city council records and religious tracts. While acknowledging the ways in which official Catholic doctrines and colonial power relations shaped testimonies taken by the Inquisition, she found that the lack of ‘rigid lines of questioning’ (p. 8) produced rich sources on local beliefs about the supernatural and revealed both the formation of social networks and conflicts within communities.

Few's specific case study is for the city and hinterland of the colonial capital of Santiago de Guatemala between 1650 and 1750, with the bulk of the Inquisition cases falling in the middle of this period. Chapter 2 introduces this particular historical context for the reader. According to Few, economic growth and an increasingly diverse population in the late 17th century initiated a period of social and cultural change that created opportunities for lower-class, often racially mixed women in the city to exert a degree of power through their reputations for sorcery and healing. Ecclesiastical and secular officials viewed with alarm the blurring of ethnic divisions and expansion of opportunities at the margins of the official economy, and associated the resulting disorder with women's activities. Strikingly, although the court testimonies refer to the activities of male sorcerers and healers, almost all of those prosecuted were women. Few could have explained more fully the degree to which this gender bias reflected the concerns of the Inquisition officials and/or the Guatemalans who filed accusations. It also would have been interesting to know more about the social profile of the accused women.

Chapter 3, the most intriguing in the opinion of this reviewer, focuses on bodies as sites of both colonial domination and women's exercise of supernatural powers. Women were widely believed to have an ‘intimate knowledge of the human body through their roles in birth and death, washing the newborn and the dead, lactation, menstruation, and caring for the sick and elderly’ (p. 53). Moreover, through their control of food preparation, women ‘symbolically penetrated men's bodies’ (p. 53) by mixing parts of their body (such as hair, nail clippings or fluids) into food and drink, especially chocolate beverages. Denunciations and testimonies demonstrate that men and women of all classes and ethnic groups believed they were potentially vulnerable to the power of female sorcerers. Sorcerers could both affect the bodies of their victims, often inverting them in gender terms, and transform their own bodies into animals, birds, or even light, an attribution Few identifies with anxieties about women's unstable and shifting roles in this period. She provides vivid examples from the Inquisition trials, including cases in which priests and sorcerers entered into a public competition for power over the bodies each tried to possess through the use of rituals.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine the healing and economic aspects of sorcery, respectively. Guatemalans in the colonial period consulted both male and female healers who mixed herbal and supernatural remedies to illnesses; the only specializations that Few identified were that midwives were always women, and that some indigenous men were regarded as specialists in blood healing. Chapter 5 considers sorcery as both a livelihood for accused witches and a resource for clients who wished to improve their fortunes; small shopkeepers, for example, were both the targets and purchasers of spells. At least as significant as these topics (healing and economic strategies) are the larger themes about dynamics within communities and the interventions of ecclesiastical and secular authorities that Few analyzes in both chapters. The networks of magical specialists and clients reveal the formation of multi-ethnic and even cross-class networks in urban Guatemala by the 17th century. Given the nature of her sources, Few sees these networks during moments of social conflict, when certain members of a community chose to denounce their rivals as witches. She highlights the power of talk or ‘gossip’ to both build and rend women's networks, perceptively identifying the double-edged nature of success as a healer or sorcerer: ‘… the crucial public aspects of women's activities that attracted more customers … also invited the state into community relations’ (p. 124).

The book will appeal to a wide audience. Its clarity of style and compelling tales from the Inquisition make it accessible to students. Scholars of gender will be interested by Few's broader analysis of how sorcery provides a window into changing social relations under colonialism, and specifically the nature of power wielded by women within urban and village communities.

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© Feminist Review Ltd 2006

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  • Sarah C Chambers

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