Convent Life in Colonial Mexico:
A Tale of Two Communities

Stephanie Kirk

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“A valuable and logical step in the progression of critical studies on convent writing. . . . We have moved from seeing women writers as working at the margins to seeing them as writing subjects.”—Latin American Research Review  
 
“Consider[s] nuns not as merely secular or religious writers, but through the lens of interdisciplinary study, as multifaceted historical agents. . . . The importance of the kind of innovative theoretical work undertaken by this text . . . cannot be over-emphasized, and will offer a both provocative and illuminating read to scholars in a broad range of disciplines.”—Journal of International Women’s Studies
 
“Kirk reconstructs aspects of the lives of colonial nuns through close-up readings of select manuscripts and, additionally, of published primary sources. . . . A lively and provocative addition to the literature on colonial Mexico that offers new insights into the dynamics of religious community.”—Bulletin of Latin American Research  
 
“A thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of community-building among colonial Latin American women.”—A Contracorriente  
 
“A timely scholarly contribution to the field of gender and religion. . . . Presents a fresh look at convent literature by specifically analyzing alliances, friendships, and communities.”—Colonial Latin American Historical Review  
 
“An interesting and ambitious study of the discourses associated with convent life in Mexico.”—Catholic Historical Review  
 
"Ground-breaking in its focus on the alliances and solidarity that nuns created in their convent communities against the vision and institutional restraints imposed by male ecclesiastics . . . an exciting and pleasurable read that I believe will have a significant impact on future scholarship in colonial and women's studies."--Kathryn J. McKnight, University of New Mexico

The Catholic Church produced an enormous volume of written material designed to ensure the servility of nuns. Reading this body of proscriptive literature alongside nuns' own writings, Kirk finds that practice often diverged from theory. She analyzes how seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nuns formed alliances and friendships in defiance of Church authorities' efforts to contain and control them. In the Mexican convents that form the basis of Kirk's study, nuns developed a powerful, counterhegemonic spirit of female solidarity, establishing communities that made possible a surprising degree of productive autonomy, despite official promotion of oppressive ideas about gender and religiosity. Kirk also examines the motivations and discursive structures behind the Church's desire to regulate all aspects of convent life.
Drawing on a rich and diverse body of literature that includes little-known texts, religious tracts, and didactic manuals on convent behavior, historical artifacts including Inquisition documents, letters, sermons, and official decrees, as well as poetry and inspirational religious biographies of exemplary nuns, Kirk's methodology is a departure from studies of the early modern nun as religious writer, focusing instead on the nun as historical agent. Kirk frames her study with well-regarded theory on discourse and gender, including works by Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Joan Scott. Addressing such important questions as the relationship between power and gender, female colonial agency and authorship, early modern subjectivity, and conflicting gender ideologies, Kirk demonstrates that both sides--the nuns and the Church authorities--are shown to manipulate, through conflicting discourses, the nuances of power and resistance. This first in-depth study of the positive community dynamics of female religious in the early modern Spanish world, as seen through their own words, will appeal to scholars of colonial, Latin American, women's, and religious studies.

Stephanie Kirk is associate professor of romance languages at Washington University in St. Louis and the editor of the journal Revista de Estudios Hispánicos. She is the author of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Gender Politics of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico.
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A thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of community-building among colonial Latin American women. --
--A Contra Corriente: A Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America

Well-written and insightful. --
--Colonial Latin American Historical Review

This work will engage other scholars. --
--Journal of Latin American Studies

An interesting and ambitious study of the discourses associated with convent life in Mexico. --
--The Catholic Historical Review

Kirk’s agenda is a valuable and logical step in the progression of critical studies on convent writing, and on Sor Juana in particular. . . . Contributes to our understanding of the complex relationships--male and female, as well as female and female--of religious members and colonial religious institutions. --
--Latin American Research Review

Helps to illuminate a highly understudied section of Early Modern history. . . . The importance of the kind of innovative theoretical work undertaken by this text, in terms of source material and selection of critics, cannot be over-emphasized. --
--Journal of International Women’s Studies

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