Sins against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain

Sins against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain

by Zeb Tortorici


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


In Sins against Nature Zeb Tortorici explores the prosecution of sex acts in colonial New Spain (present-day Mexico, Guatemala, the US Southwest, and the Philippines) to examine the multiple ways bodies and desires come to be textually recorded and archived. Drawing on the records from over three hundred criminal and Inquisition cases between 1530 and 1821, Tortorici shows how the secular and ecclesiastical courts deployed the term contra natura-against nature-to try those accused of sodomy, bestiality, masturbation, erotic religious visions, priestly solicitation of sex during confession, and other forms of "unnatural" sex. Archival traces of the visceral reactions of witnesses, the accused, colonial authorities, notaries, translators, and others in these records demonstrate the primacy of affect and its importance to the Spanish documentation and regulation of these sins against nature. In foregrounding the logic that dictated which crimes were recorded and how they are mediated through the colonial archive, Tortorici recasts Iberian Atlantic history through the prism of the unnatural while showing how archives destabilize the bodies, desires, and social categories on which the history of sexuality is based.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371328
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Zeb Tortorici is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at New York University, coeditor of Centering Animals in Latin American History, also published by Duke University Press, and editor of Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America.

Read an Excerpt


Viscerality in the Archives

Consuming Desires

This book begins, perhaps counterintuitively, with an archival outlier. On February 15, 1810, a Spanish woman named Ignacia Gómez went, accompanied by a female friend, to the cemetery of San Juan de Dios in Mexico City. Their plan was to offer up prayers and light candles for Gómez's elderly aunt, Antonia Fontecho y Hurtado, who had died the previous day at nearly one hundred years of age. Upon entering the graveyard, the two women were affronted by the spectacle of a man on top of the elderly woman's corpse, with his genitals exposed, moving in a manner that left "little doubt" as to the "carnal act" he was carrying out. The description that eventually made its way into the criminal case, and thus into the archive, hints at a visceral response on the part of these women. Gómez and her friend shrieked, shocked and disgusted by what they were witnessing — a spontaneous reaction to an incomprehensible event. The man fled over the cemetery wall into the kitchen of the convent next door but was immediately apprehended by the resident priest, who had heard the women's screams.

The suspect, José Lázaro Martínez, was an eighteen-year-old unmarried indigenous man from Oaxaca. He was the servant of a bedridden man in the hospital adjoining the graveyard and was "uninstructed in the Christian doctrine." After detaining Lázaro Martínez, the priest handed him over to the Tribunal de La Acordada — a court that included its own autonomous police force, established in 1710 to punish highway robbery and contraband, among a variety of other crimes — to be imprisoned and tried for his crimes. Court officials first took statements from the two female witnesses. They then interrogated Lázaro Martínez, with a court-appointed clerk transcribing his confession. As usual for criminal and Inquisition trial records, notaries and scribes formulaically altered the speaker's first-person testimony into a third-person narrative. When, as was customary procedure, court officials asked the suspect if he knew why he had been imprisoned two days earlier, Lázaro Martínez confessed that on Wednesday of this week, at around two o'clock in the afternoon,

two women found him in the graveyard of San Juan de Dios on top of a dead woman with whom he was fornicating, [and] that he did this because Miguel, the young servant of Father Lastra, sacristan of the same convent, had advised him so. [And] who, on two occasions, he saw that he [Miguel] locked himself in the cemetery, and he told him that he was going to fornicate with the dead women because his amasia [lover], who had died pregnant in that same hospital, was buried there. The abovesaid Miguel also advised that he make a hole in the underskirt of the dead woman to be able to fornicate with her.

The day Lázaro Martínez was caught, he told tribunal officials that he and Miguel drank pulque — a traditional Mesoamerican alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey, or agave, plant — and, in a state of intoxication, they entered the graveyard with the intent of engaging in "carnal acts" with corpses. Lázaro Martínez swore that this was the only time he had carried out such an act, and Miguel, he said, fled before witnesses saw him.

One week later the court appointed a curador — a public defense lawyer — to represent Lázaro Martínez, and the trial proceeded, with the illustrious don Manuel Campo y Rivas as judge. In order for the suspect to swear an oath to the court, the judge, citing Lázaro Martínez's inability to make the sign of the cross as evidence that he was ignorant of Christian doctrine, deemed it necessary that he receive rudimentary religious instruction first. To this end, he was placed in the care of the prison's infirmary for several weeks. A second deposition was taken on April 12, 1810; this time he changed his story (though he was noticeably reticent, not wanting to respond to questions posed to him): "He said that he is in prison because in San Juan de Dios they found him in the graveyard on top of a dead woman, but that he does not remember because he was drunk." Despite the court's instigation, Lázaro Martínez, now understanding the potential gravity of his situation with the help of legal counsel, asserted that his previous testimony was false, and that he was never found "carnally mixing with the dead woman."

The tribunal did not find Lázaro Martínez's change of heart convincing, concluding that "without a doubt" he had either been counseled to prevaricate or was trying to evade being punished for his crime. The very politics of memory were at stake. But, what exactly was the crime that Lázaro Martínez had committed? For twenty-first-century readers, the answer is obvious: this is a case of necrophilia. Yet that term, like "homosexuality," did not yet exist. It was not until 1850 that a Belgian physician and head of the psychiatric hospitals at Ghent, Joseph Guislain (1797–1860), coined the term nécrophiles in a lecture he gave in reference to the contemporary case of François Bertrand, a French sergeant who dug up dozens of corpses from a Paris cemetery to have sex with them (and was sentenced to one year in prison). Lázaro Martínez's crime thus remained not entirely understandable, or classifiable, to his contemporaries — just one of the crucial terminological and conceptual points of disjuncture between the past and the present to which we will return in the pages that follow.

The tribunal faced a predicament: there was simply no law in Spain or in New Spain that dealt specifically with the act of "carnal congress with a corpse." Instead, Lázaro Martínez's defense interpreted the eighteenth-century Spanish legal code — specifically, the 1785 Compendio de los comentarios extendidos por el maestro Antonio Gómez a las ochenta y tres leyes de Toro ..., compiled by Antonio Gómez — to mean that the act would be subsumed under the sins against nature. Chapter XII of Law LXXXII stipulated that "the crime contra naturam be punished with the customary penalty [death], even though it is neither perfect [i.e., in the anus] nor consummated [with ejaculation], but only attempted and prepared [for], by reason of its singular gravity." The same segment of the code specifies: "only an arbitrary punishment is deserved if [carnal] access with another is not in the exterior vessel [i.e., the anus], but rather in another part of the body, or if there is only touching by hands with the spilling of semen." The defense understood the act as falling within the sins against nature, but only in relation to carnal access with "another part" of the (dead) body, which carried less gravity than anal penetration. Lázaro Martínez's defense also (contradictorily) referenced other laws under which "a similar crime" could either enjoy immunity from the law or receive a ten-year sentence of forced labor on a presidio. Citing the boy's youth, status as an Indian, rusticity, and lack of understanding of Christianity, the defense pleaded that Lázaro Martínez be shown mercy.

The judge found no legal precedent in New Spain's criminal and ecclesiastical courts to which he could turn. Indeed, my years of research at dozens of archives have turned up only one other reference: a one-page denunciation made by fray Miguel de Zárate to the Inquisition in 1581. Conceptually, the judge made sense of Lázaro Martínez's act by invoking the unnatural: "taking into account that he should be given a punishment for an act so scandalous, horrible, and repugnant to nature itself and even unto brute animals, and much more [so] having verified it in a sanctified place, dedicated to the burial of cadavers [of those] that died in that Hospital [of San Juan de Dios]." The court transcripts also describe the act of carnal congress with a corpse as a grave "excess" deserving of punishment but reference no specific law or established punishment.

On May 14, 1810, a judge from Mexico's highest criminal court, the Real Audiencia, sentenced Lázaro Martínez to receive "twenty-five corrective lashes inside of the prison" and to labor for four years at the Fort of Perote, where he was to be instructed in the tenets of Christianity. The punishment was an arbitrary one but was in line with other late colonial criminal sentencing, that is, after the Bourbon Reforms were enacted in the eighteenth century. No doubt, Lázaro Martínez was to be whipped in private so as not to scandalize the public with, or fuel local gossip about, the obscene and practically unimaginable nature of his acts. The decision of the colonial court to not employ a town crier, or a pregonero — as was customary, to publicly shame the subject and proclaim the details of the crime to the masses — is instructive, highlighting some of the ambivalences of archiving. Despite leaving behind highly detailed bureaucratic records about the case — thereby permanently archiving this body and its "criminal" desires — the court sought, at some level, to publicly eradicate the memory of the defiling nature of his acts.

Beginning with two women's horror in a graveyard on the afternoon of February 15, 1810, this chapter examines viscerality in the archives. This is a theme that resonates throughout this book. How do visceral reactions affect the ways that a document comes to be archived? How do they alter the contents of the archive, and how do particular histories — and documents themselves — come to be encountered, classified, and interpreted? This chapter moves between two late colonial case studies: the 1810 criminal case of Lázaro Martínez and the 1775 Inquisition case of Manuel Arroyo, whose particular act of "sucking semen," we will soon see, confounded inquisitors nearly as much as Lázaro Martínez's sex with a corpse had perplexed authorities. In the historical past, in the archive, and beyond, these (and other) sins against nature have provoked a vast range of responses across time, from disgust to desire, indignation to indifference.

What conceptually unites these two cases — and many more, especially in the final chapter — is that these desires (and the bodily emissions that may have resulted) do not necessarily comply with the standard official and notarial terminology of the archive, despite the fact that they fell broadly within the purview of the sins against nature. The acts of Lázaro Martínez and of Arroyo are less legible and more historiographically marginalized than, for example, more straightforward cases of bestiality, sodomy, or masturbation. This chapter is thus partly about how official, standard, and bureaucratic language and categories shape (and are shaped by) the visceral, which in turn shapes the archive. To this end, I am interested here in practices of archival naming — which corporeal acts get specifically named and which do not.

This chapter explores the ways that the archive classifies the desires of the past and, in particular, the visceral, as illustrated in the criminal case of Lázaro Martínez and the Inquisition case of Manuel Arroyo. I then analyze the metaphorics of consumption that undergird the archive (in both a textual and a corporeal sense). In particular, I show how the idiom of consumption has, by no small coincidence, filtered through archival theory and historical scholarship, and why this is relevant for the rest of the book. One thread weaving through this book is how scholars and archivists encounter documents — as well as the human protagonists and marginalized desires found within — through a type of cross-temporal affective engagement. This chapter stages an initial archival conversation about the past and present, telling a story about how people, including myself, engage with the archive over time. Focusing on viscerality in the archives, and on what sometimes gets left out of archival descriptions and scholarly analysis, enables such a conversation to take place. Viscerality, as we will soon see, has significant implications for those who create, order, and use archives.

Archiving the Visceral

I came across the criminal case of Lázaro Martínez years ago, by accident, through an exceptionally vague reference in the computer database of Mexico's national archive, the Guía General (General Guide) of the Archivo General de la Nación. I was then researching cultural, legal, and religious attitudes toward "unnatural" death — suicide, abortion, and infanticide — in colonial Latin America for a distinct but related and ongoing research project. Unlike the nineteenth-century categories of "necrophilia" and "homosexuality," which do not appear in colonial Mexican archival catalogs and digital finding aids, the words "abortion" (aborto) and "infanticide" (infanticidio) appear with some frequency. "Suicide" (suicidio), in contrast, appears rarely, and typically only in relation to late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century records. My search for suicide in the archives thus necessitated creative digging for correlated terms, often framed in the self-reflexive tense, such as having "hanged" (ahorcado), "drowned" (ahogado), or "poisoned" (envenenado) oneself.

On a whim one day in Mexico City, I searched for the word "cadaver" (cadáver) with little hope that it would lead me to suicide cases (it did not). What I did come across, however, was a case that — in the perfunctory, euphemistic language of the anonymous late twentieth-century archivist responsible for classifying the document — referred vaguely to the "profanation of cadaver," or profanación de cadáver. This turned out to be the 1810 criminal case of Lázaro Martínez, though based on the description one would never know what his crime was. The database entry appears in the archive's computer database as such:

General Archive of the Nation / Colonial Institutions / Real Audiencia /

Criminal (037) / Container 313 / Volume 705

Title: File 24

Date(s): YEAR 1810

Level of description: Composite documentary unit (File)

Volume and support: Pages: 237–250

Producers: (Pending)


That day in the archive, I filled out the necessary forms to access volume 705 of the colonial criminal records, waited some ten minutes to receive the tome, and turned to folio 237. I was immediately and unpredictably shocked and enthralled. My vision narrowed on the page; I could barely believe what I was reading. The document, despite archival equivocation about its contents, turned out to be unlike anything I had expected, in part because the archivist's classification had distorted my expectations.

In extreme contrast to the database entry, the cover page, affixed to the criminal case when the documents were compiled in (or shortly after) 1810, read: "Mexico [City], Year of 1810. Against José Lázaro Martínez for having been found carnally mixing with a dead woman" (fig. 1.1). That singular archival discrepancy, between catalog and document, triggered something that, in my years of research in the archives, I had never quite experienced; it was something not quite articulable — a cross between a vague sense of disgust at the details of the act (especially Miguel's advice that he cut "a hole in the underskirt of the dead woman to be able to fornicate with her"), a lurid fascination with the graphic descriptions of witnesses and suspect, and a burning, unrealizable desire to know more about the motivations of both men, especially those of Miguel.

What I felt that day in the archives, in other words, was visceral — an abrupt, intense, intuitive gut response to some external stimulus, experienced through conflicted and partly incomprehensible corporeal and emotive sensations. Viscerality, I believe, has an untapped potential for archival studies of early modern sexuality (and beyond). For Brian Massumi, viscerality "registers intensity" and "excitations gathered by the five 'exteroceptive' senses even before they are fully processed by the brain." Those five senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste — help, through proprioception, to perceive one's own bodily position, motion, and state in relation to the external environment. Attentiveness to the visceral has the potential to seduce (and nauseate), for it emerges from "that abject and erotic territory — the blood and guts, cum and shit" of the archive, provoking us, sometimes unwillingly, to feel our own bodies, desires, and gut reactions in intimate relation to archival narratives of sex and desire in the past. Visceral reactions unsteadily guide us into the uncharted territory of how we ourselves, as archive users, can be physically and affectively moved by the archive in ways that we might not fully like, expect, or understand. In opening our analysis up to viscerality, we may find surprising points of connection (and disjuncture) between the past and the present, between the ways that historical actors and we ourselves may (or may not) share certain responses in the face of a particular image or event.


Excerpted from "Sins Against Nature"
by .
Copyright © 2018 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.

Table of Contents

A Note on Translation  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Archiving the Unnatural  1
1. Viscerality in the Archives: Consuming Desires  25
2. Impulses of the Archive: Misinscription and Voyeurism  46
3. Archiving the Signs of Sodomy: Bodies and Gestures  84
4. To Deaden the Memory: Bestiality and Animal Erasure  124
5. Archives of Negligence: Solicitation in the Confessional  161
6. Desiring the Divine: Pollution and Pleasure  197
Conclusion. Accessing Absence, Surveying Seduction  233
Appendix  255
List of Archives  261
Notes  263
Bibliography  297
Index  309

What People are Saying About This

For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India - Anjali Arondekar

Sins against Nature offers a strikingly original contribution to the understanding of histories of sexuality in colonial New Spain. Zeb Tortorici's supple readings of records of sodomy, bestiality, and masturbation reveal radically divergent orientations to knowledge, affect, and reason at the very heart of the colonial archive. This is a work of compelling historical scholarship—interdisciplinary, imaginative, meticulous, and critically self-reflexive.”

The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture - Pete Sigal

“Based on an astonishing amount of research that scholars will mine for decades (one wonders if Zeb Tortorici has gone to every single archive and library in all of Mexico), Sins against Nature is a rigorously argued work that takes the field to the next theoretical and methodological level.”

Customer Reviews