Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru

Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru

5.0 1
by Kathryn Burns

See All Formats & Editions

In Colonial Habits Kathryn Burns transforms our view of nuns as marginal recluses, making them central actors on the colonial stage. Beginning with the 1558 founding of South America’s first convent, Burns shows that nuns in Cuzco played a vital part in subjugating Incas, creating a creole elite, and reproducing an Andean colonial order in which economic


In Colonial Habits Kathryn Burns transforms our view of nuns as marginal recluses, making them central actors on the colonial stage. Beginning with the 1558 founding of South America’s first convent, Burns shows that nuns in Cuzco played a vital part in subjugating Incas, creating a creole elite, and reproducing an Andean colonial order in which economic and spiritual interests were inextricably fused.
Based on unprecedented archival research, Colonial Habits demonstrates how nuns became leading guarantors of their city’s social order by making loans, managing property, containing “unruly” women, and raising girls. Coining the phrase “spiritual economy” to analyze the intricate investments and relationships that enabled Cuzco’s convents and their backers to thrive, Burns explains how, by the late 1700s, this economy had faltered badly, making convents an emblem of decay and a focal point for intense criticism of a failing colonial regime. By the nineteenth century, the nuns had retreated from their previous roles, marginalized in the construction of a new republican order.
Providing insight that can be extended well outside the Andes to the relationships articulated by convents across much of Europe, the Americas, and beyond, Colonial Habits will engage those interested in early modern economics, Latin American studies, women in religion, and the history of gender, class, and race.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
Except as saints and sinners, women have been marginalized in the study of colonial Peru. Kathryn Burns, however, in Colonial Habits, reconstructs the world of Cuzco by placing women at the center. The realignment is original and instructive, and, by focusing on convents, the author chooses virtually the only institution where women exercised real authority and gained some independence...[H]er book is a product of perseverance as well as of scholarship.
[A] highly readable and significant contribution to colonial Latin American historiography.
From the Publisher
“It is fascinating to revisit the history of Cuzco through the gates of the convent. Burns’ clear, succinct prose, her gift for narrative, her eye for detail, and her engagement of larger issues of power, gender, and race make this an attractive book for a wide variety of readers.”—Brooke Larson, SUNY Stony Brook

Burns’s important and highly readable work takes a fresh look at the key economic, social, and cultural relationships that created and sustained a densely woven urban-centered colonial society in the Andes. Among its new findings: at the heart of the economy of colonial Cuzco, a credit institution run by women favored the conquered indigenous elite with long-term finance at concessionary interest rates.”—John Coatsworth, Harvard University

American Historical Review - Kenneth Mills
“[A] thoughtful and well-written study. . . [and] an important contribution to the understanding of Andean and Latin American history.”
Journal of Women's History - Ann Twinam
“[I]maginatively researched, logically organized, and intelligently constructed. . . . [T]his is a wonderful study. Colonial Habits makes an elegant and a major contribution to the history of women and gender in colonial and nineteenth-century Spanish America. Its accessibility will make it a natural assignment for undergraduates; its content will make it a standard for experts.”
Latin American Studies - Ellen Gunnarsdóttir
“[M]eticulously researched and exquisitely written. Burns is one of the best prose writers working in the field today, and her story unfolds effortlessly and harmoniously. . . . With her excellent book Kathyrn Burns, has thrown the evolution of Peru’s Andean region into new relief, and produced a leading work within this emerging field.”
Comparative Study of Society and History - R. Alan Covey
“Burns provides an important means of addressing the role of Colonial Cuzco’s convents, in a well-written and engaging narrative that incorporates archival documents from both administrative and religious archives. Vivid accounts of individual lives are well integrated with discussion of how Cuzco’s nuns mediated the sacred/secular divide to advance or simply preserve their corporate interests.”
Religious Studies Review - Iain S. Maclean
“Burns’s fine study reveals the nuns as a critical factor in the subjugation of the Incas, the creation of a creole Peruvian elite, and in the annual provision of finance for the whole regional economy.”
The Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Kenneth J. Andrien
“Carefully researched [and] well-written, . . . Colonial Habits makes important contributions to the historiography of colonial Spanish America, and deserves a wide readership.”
Colonial Latin American Historical Review - Sister Maria Consuelo Sparks
“In a well-researched and carefully considered study, Kathryn Burns makes a serious case for the important role cloistered nuns played as the center of economic and spiritual life in colonial Cuzco from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, a role that remains influential to this day. . . . Colonial Habits is a highly readable work that introduces valuable historical data and provides a fascinating analysis of the economy and spiritual interests in colonial Cuzco.”
Church History - Jeffrey L. Klaiber
“In this fascinating and well-researched reconstruction of convent life, Burns lays the axe to several widespread assumptions. . . . It is frequently said that to understand colonial religious life one must understand colonial society. But Colonial Habits suggests that the reverse is equally true—to undersand colonial society fully one must enter the inner world of its convents and monasteries.”
The Americas - Elizabeth Anne Kuznesof
“Kathryn Burns’s book provides original insights into several of the most significant and contested areas of colonial history, particularly those concerning race, religion, family history, and economic development. Scholars of colonial Latin America will find much of interest in this fascinating, multi-faceted book.”
The Catholic Historical Review - Asunción Lavrin
“Richly textured, this work is well anchored in archival research and fulfills the ambition of its author to create a new historical locus for the institutions as well as for the women who created and managed them.”
Report of the Chairman of the Committee on the John Gilmary Shea Prize, The Catholic Historical R - John C. Moore
“[I]maginatively conceived and expertly executed. Dr. Burns writes a graceful and lucid prose that enlightens and delights. This is a book for specialists, for general readers curious about its subject matter, and for anyone who loves insightful and engaging works of history.”

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Colonial Habits

Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru

By Kathryn Burns

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9619-2


Gender and the Politics of Mestizaje

When the city council of Cuzco met on April 17, 1551, its members, all battle-hardened Spanish veterans, were enjoying a respite from seemingly endless rounds of war. Soon they would pick up their weapons and charge back into battle, for the fighting in the strategic center of the Inca heartland of Tahuantinsuyo was far from over. But on April 17, the Spanish city fathers of Cuzco had other business on their minds. That day they decided to buy a piece of city property and found a cloistered nunnery. Two weeks later, on April 30, the price of the property was donated by councilman Diego Maldonado "el Rico," a shrewd survivor of many battles and the wealthiest Spaniard in Cuzco. Very few Spanish women were available to set the tone for the new foundation, yet rather than delay and send to Spain for nuns, the councilmen eventually found a local widow named Francisca Ortiz de Ayala to serve as abbess for life—which she did, as Abbess Francisca de Jesús. So began one of the first religious houses for women in the Americas, Santa Clara, still operating today more than four centuries later.

Why a cloistered monastery, of all things, in such a turbulent time and place? The minutes of April 30, 1551, record that Diego Maldonado made his gesture to ensure the actual founding of a monastery to "remedy" mestizas—the children of conquest, daughters of Spaniards like himself and Andean women. Writing to Francisca de Jesús in 1560, the corregidor of Cuzco, Juan Polo de Ondegardo, gives an expanded account of the motives behind these founding acts. He begins by linking the nunnery directly to the fighting: since so many Spaniards had died far from home, Christian charity obliged the survivors to care for the orphans of their fallen comrades.

But why not care for the orphaned mestizo sons as well? Did mestizas hold—at least momentarily—greater promise or value in their fathers' eyes? Seeming to anticipate the question, Polo de Ondegardo writes that "although it appears the same should be done for the orphaned boys, they run less risk than the girls, and ... it is fitting to provide for the greater need." A masterpiece of patriarchal succinctness, Polo's statement expresses the gendered logic of his culture, according to which girls' virginity, a prized token of male honor and the means of shaping lineages, was constantly at risk and had to be protected at all costs.

Yet that was only part of the story. As he continues, Polo de Ondegardo conveys the special urgency that attended the founding of Santa Clara, only two decades after Spaniards first arrived in the central city of the Incas. In the cloisters of Santa Clara, Francisca de Jesús would win these young women from their Inca mothers and save them for their Christian fathers. The corregidor congratulates the abbess on the many (mestiza) souls he expects her to save:

and I have no doubt they will be many, because the people born of this land, I have observed well, are all possessed of a very humble nature, which is excellently suited to receive the imprint of the truth, removing them from all communication with their mothers, as you do, which was an impediment to instilling anything good in them.

Polo goes on to depict the abbess as engaged in a tug-of-war for the souls of mestizas with the devil himself, whose temptations "cannot fail to be great." He suggests Santa Clara help advance the cause of Christianity in the Andes, tearing girls away from their mothers in what he and his companions considered a necessary violence.

Not only do we glimpse the devil through Polo de Ondegardo's eyes, but he points us in the direction of a major revision of the story of conquest: toward seeing women as both subjects and objects of Spanish evangelizing drives. For evangelization this certainly was, of a gender-specific, strategic kind. Moreover, Santa Clara was designed to play an explicitly reproductive role, redirecting the energies of child-rearing to increase the numbers of female Christians in Cuzco. The point was not simply to populate the city with nuns. Abbess Francisca de Jesús was to take the place of the children's Andean mothers and keep the girls in the cloisters until they were old enough either to profess or to leave the monastery and assume a role (estado) in the Christian society their fathers planned to erect in the city.

We are not used to thinking of cloistered convents as sites of reproduction. Thanks to an unusually detailed source, however, we can gain insight into the importance and outcomes of this seemingly incongruous project. In 1560, Polo de Ondegardo gave Francisca de Jesús a book for her to inscribe basic information about her young charges. The records she kept are limited to the convent's first entrants, and many entries are incomplete. Nevertheless, this libro de la fundación indicates that Santa Clara in its earliest years succeeded in annexing to Spanish culture a number of mestiza girls, who grew up to become not only nuns but wives and servants in the Spanish households of Cuzco. In short, the project initially worked: it obeyed its founders' designs, at least for the space of a few critical years.

This information opens up new analytical angles on the Spanish conquest, enabling us to draw new connections: to see conquistadores and encomenderos as fathers; to take nuns into account as significant historical agents, involved in social reproduction; and (not least) to see a gendered dimension to the remote historical antecedents of what we now call race. I will argue that Santa Clara and its earliest entrants were vital to the production and reproduction of Spanish hegemony in Cuzco, helping remake the former capital of the Incas into a center of Spanish colonialism. For it was not enough for Spanish men to seize the Inca heartland. To gain firm control over the Andes, these would-be lords had to find the means to reproduce themselves—their lineages, authority, culture. Cloistering their mestiza daughters at a particularly sensitive moment in the consolidation of Spanish rule gave the leading Spaniards of Cuzco the means to do this, and thus stake a permanent claim to power in the Andes.

Appreciating fully the significance of these founding acts requires us to situate them in their notoriously turbulent historical context. Diego Maldonado and his companions were engaged in a ferocious struggle to control their encomiendas, those grants of Andean labor and tribute which they had won by acts of conquest and which had enriched them beyond their wildest imagination. Their best hope of establishing glorious legacies in the Andes lay in transmitting these prestigious and valuable grants to their heirs. Ironically, the very privileges afforded men by Iberian-style patriarchy made mestizos a threat to the consolidation of Spanish control at this volatile, politically charged moment in Andean history. By attending carefully to the gender politics of this critical juncture, we will see why the Spaniards increasingly came to see mestizos as "others," dangerous rivals to be feared, whereas their mestiza daughters might, if properly raised, help them to consolidate their power—why, in other words, Spaniards at this point developed a kind of gendered double vision of their own progeny.

The Historical Context: A Protracted Conquest

To understand why the leading Spaniards of Cuzco were obsessed with inheritance and concerned about mestizos in mid-sixteenth-century Cuzco, we first have to examine who these men were and how they got there. Spaniards first saw Cuzco in 1533, the year Francisco Pizarro and a group of several dozen followers reached the city. At that point they had been inside the vast Inca state of Tahuantinsuyo for more than a year, and had long since realized they had had the good luck to intervene just as the Inca leadership was emerging from a bloody succession crisis. They had made the most of their fortuitous timing by seizing, ransoming, and then killing the Inca ruler Atahualpa at Cajamarca in a sequence of events that would be argued over for centuries. Pizarro had rewarded his followers by distributing precious metals and Inca women: Diego Maldonado, one of the most abundantly rewarded, got thousands of pesos' worth of gold and silver and a woman later baptized as Lucía, a sister of Atahualpa. Eager to see and acquire more, most of the "men of Cajamarca" then followed Pizarro as he made his way higher into the Andes toward the central city of the Incas.

Cuzco made an enormous impression on the first Spaniards who saw it. Pero Sancho, secretary to Pizarro when the Spaniards entered the city in 1533, observed that Cuzco was so large and beautiful a city that it would stand out in Spain. As for its principal fortress, Sacsayhuaman, he marveled that human beings could erect such impregnable walls. Pedro de Cieza de León, who arrived in the 1540s, emphasized that nowhere else was such a noble city to be found; all other towns in South America looked insignificant to him by comparison. The population of Cuzco at the time of the conquest can only be guessed at, but the city was probably the largest in South America at the time of the Europeans' arrival, with perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 residents. An impressive network of roads led to it. The carefully preserved bodies of former Inca rulers exercised remarkable power from their central palaces, and stunningly majestic rituals filled the main plaza. To a people accustomed to finding power in cities, Cuzco was clearly the center of gravity of Tahuantinsuyo.

In this awesome place Pizarro staked his claim, formally refounding Cuzco as a Spanish city on March 23, 1534. Pizarro and his men enacted rituals of their own, performing a city into existence by transplanting to this terrain the fundamental institutions of a Spanish city: the picota, or pillory, symbol of Spanish justice; a church, for which a site was designated; and a cabildo, or city council. Eighty-eight vecinos were enrolled with the understanding that each would receive a portion of Cuzco's land and the labor power of its inhabitants. Word of the riches of the conquered Inca empire reached an eager audience in Spain and elsewhere in the Americas with little delay, and a sixteendi-century gold rush was on.

However, Pizarro decided to found his seat of government elsewhere, a decision that would have enormous historical ramifications. He settled ultimately on a coastal site and founded Lima, the "city of Kings," in January 1535. That left an open door to conflict in Cuzco. No sooner had Pizarro left than a vigorous Inca resistance took shape under the leadership of Atahualpa's brother Manco Inca, culminating in a massive attack on Cuzco in mid-1536 that nearly overwhelmed the Spaniards, followed by a devastating, year-long siege. When his efforts to retake Cuzco failed, Manco Inca retreated north in 1537, establishing himself in the montaña stronghold of Vilcabamba. From this "neo-Inca state," resistance to Spanish control of the region continued for decades under Manco and his sons Sayri Túpac (1557–60), Titu Cusi (1560–71), and Túpac Amaru (1571–72). The Inca elites who stayed in Cuzco after 1537 sought to accommodate the Spaniards, but the city remained a welter of bitter enemies.

For almost two decades, rival Spaniards raised forces against one another in a brutal series of civil wars in which Francisco Pizarro and countless other combatants died. Increasingly, these contests revolved around the fate of the encomienda as a means of organizing Spanish access to Andean wealth. An encomienda—often the grant of an Andean ethnic lord (kuraka) and those whose labor and Tribute prestations he supervised—guaranteed its holder tremendous prestige and a lucrative material stake in settling the Andes for Spain. But there were only a few hundred encomiendas, hardly enough to satisfy all Spanish comers. Men who had managed to obtain grants tried desperately to keep them, arguing that they should be awarded perpetual, heritable rights. However, the Spanish Crown, faced with numerous denunciations of arrogant, ruthless encomenderos who abused "their Indians," feared these men would create a seigniorial Spanish American aristocracy defiant of royal control. After a disastrous attempt in the 1540s to abolish encomiendas, the Crown fell back on a less drastic strategy: that of meting out encomiendas in men's lifespans, giving Spaniards rights for two vidas or more. Encomenderos were thus strung along over the issue of inheritance, kept in a state of perpetual uncertainty, with just enough at stake not to rebel (most of the time).

Cuzco was central to the prolonged struggle over encomiendas. For although Lima was the capital, Cuzco at midcentury continued to be the heart of Peru, the prize over which successive waves of conflict broke. Cuzco was the richest region in terms of the Andean labor power and tribute goods that could be commanded there. European diseases caused great disruption and death in the region, but did less damage in the highlands than elsewhere. Thus both the number of encomenderos and the tribute totals they received were higher in Cuzco than anywhere else in Peru. And by the 1550s, Cuzco's encomenderos had hit upon new ways of using Andean labor to enrich themselves. Precious metal had been discovered in a great silver-veined mountain at Potosí in 1545, and the trade in coca leaf and other supplies from Cuzco to the mining city grew remarkably thereafter, as did Potosí itself. Despite all the warfare and uncertainty of the 1540s and 1550s, many encomenderos of Cuzco exploited their encomiendas to become rich.

These years were marked by extreme violence, not least of it Spaniards' violent treatment of Andean women. The conquerors' imperious actions were only barely checked by the handful of Catholic clergy who had made it to Cuzco by midcentury. Vicente de Valverde, Cuzco's first bishop, was present in the city only sporadically, but made some effort to control individual Spaniards' excesses. In 1539 he punished two Spaniards with fines and brief jail sentences for holding Indian women against their will. Francisco Gonzalez admitted to the bishop in January 1539 mat he had kept a woman named Pospocolla in his house for a month and a half, and that "the other day he yanked her by the hair because the Indian said she wasn't his." Pospocolla testified that she had been beaten and taunted. The following month, Juan Begines appealed the bishop's sentence against him, even while admitting that he had kept a woman named Mencia, "an Indian who said she was a Christian," chained up inside his house and had whipped her many times—he couldn't recall how many—with a stick or whatever he found close at hand.

Meanwhile, Spanish authorities (from the king down) were trying to settle Spaniards and convince them to stop their licentious ways and "bad example," preferably by marrying Spanish women. Earlier the monarchs had entertained the idea of intermarriage as a vehicle of conquest, suggesting that some Spanish women and men marry Americans "[so] that they may communicate with and teach one another ... and the Indians become men and women of reason." However, by the time Spaniards reached Peru, this notion had long since been dropped in favor of a new approach, one more in keeping with the monarchs' propensity to treat Spaniards and Americans as irreducibly different kinds of people who should be kept apart in separate "republics" (repúblicas). The new strategy relied on the trope of mirroring, the idea being that malleable Americans, like children, would imitate their conquerors. The Crown exhorted Spaniards to set "good examples": to stop keeping Andean women in their households, form legitimate Spanish households, and demonstrate to Andeans the benefits of Iberian-style civilization. And deadlines were set for encomenderos to marry or risk losing their encomiendas.

But encomenderos did not want to marry just anyone; the decision was too important to the propagation of their lineages. It might take months to go over and find a wife in Spain or to arrange for a partner to bring over his marriageable kin. Instead, many encomenderos put off marriage and lived with elite Inca women. Diego Maldonado is one example. Another is Captain Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega, who, while serving a term as corregidor in the 1550s, lived and had two children with an Inca noblewoman named Chimpu Ocllo; their eldest son was the eloquent mestizo author best known by his adopted name, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616). Spaniards were quick to grasp the benefits of such arrangements. The Inca nobility regarded them as kin and assisted them accordingly. But like Garcilaso's father, the encomenderos did not marry their Inca partners. Almost to a man, they eventually wed Spanish women—often the daughter or sister of a fellow encomendero—and married off their Andean partners to less prominent Spaniards, as though tossing down scraps from a banquet table.

Various Spanish accounts note one result of these turbulent years: the proliferation of mestizos. The etymology of the term "mestizo" is uncertain. The Inca Garcilaso asserts in his Royal Commentaries of the Incas that the term was initially used as an insult. "Mestizo" soon became in Spaniards' mouths a synonym for "illegitimate," since almost all mestizos were natural children (hijos naturales), born to unmarried Andean women and Spanish men. Some of the boys were taken into the religious orders to serve as lenguas, translators in the campaigns of evangelization that were launched across the countryside from cities like Cuzco. Others accompanied their Spanish fathers on expeditions to extend Spanish claims to new territory. But Garcilaso and his mestizo companions occupied an unsatisfying, in-between position. They were arguably twice noble, the children of both Spanish and Andean elites, yet the Peruvian viceroyalty had made no special place for them, no republic.

By midcentury, a first generation of mestizos was nearing adulthood and beginning to worry Spanish officials. As early as the 1540s, the occasional Spaniard had registered apprehension about the mestizo population. By the 1550s, the warnings in letters and reports to the Crown were becoming sterner and more paranoid. These boys and girls needed to be attached somehow: mestizo boys to learn oficios or trades, girls to be domesticated into Spanish homes (i.e., made auxiliaries, supportive players). The boys in particular were starting to appear dangerous. Many had learned how to wield Spanish weapons, and some of the older ones, like Diego Maldonado's son Juan Arias Maldonado, had fought alongside their fathers in the midcentury wars.


Excerpted from Colonial Habits by Kathryn Burns. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Burns is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina,Chapel Hill.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago