Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Monstrosities of nature

Went to a paper at Melbourne University by Francois Soyer on Monstrosities of Nature: Demonic Possession, Ambiguous Gender and the Inquisition in the Early Modern Iberian World which, after putting the Inquisition in context, concentrated on the Portuguese Inquisition’s 1741-4 Maria Duran case.

Maria Duran was a runaway Catalan housewife (she left after her husband contracted syphilis) who went off and became a dragoon officer in the Spanish cavalry. She then turned up as a nun in a Portuguese convent where she had sex with various of the nuns. Her case was referred to the Inquisition. She was arrested in 1741, and interred for two years in solitary confinement. She was then questioned, tortured, tried (the trial record extends to 800 pages, one of the 47,000 trials carried out by the Portuguese Inquisition from its founding in 1536 to its abolition in 1820) and sentenced to 200 lashes and exile. After the sentence was duly carried out in a 1744 auto-de-fe, she disappears from the historical record.

There was witness testimony that she had been examined by a doctor, and found to be “a simple woman” but nuns and other women testified that she had a penis when she had sex with them—some of this recorded testimony was quite graphic. Given the lack of said penis when medically examined, the possibility of a demonic pact had been considered: it was all too hard for the local Church authorities, who referred the matter (and Maria) to the Inquisition. During the period of examination, she was re-examined by a doctor hired by the Inquisition and also made to stand naked in warm water to see if relaxing the muscles would make the alleged penis appear.

The Inquisition decided there was insufficient evidence to accept that any pact or demonic possession had occurred, that there was no sodomy—as no penis—but that she had told the nuns to not tell any confessor about what they had done: this was the crime she was found guilty of, publicly whipped and exiled. The actual details of her crime were not read out, this was felt to be too embarrassing.

Prior to going through the case, Francois Soyer took us through the origins, remit and operating procedures of the Inquisition. Both the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisition were arms of the state (the king appointed the Inquisitor-Generals) staffed by men of the cloth who enforced Church doctrine. They arose out of the problem of the conversoes; determining whether the forced converts were true Christians or not (since, having publicly accepted Christianity, apostasy was not permitted, so there was no going back).

Sexual concerns (homosexuality, bigamy, bestiality, solicitation of sexual favours by priests in the confessional) developed after the 1545-63 Council of Trent. Homosexuality was “sodomy” or “the abominable sin” (so awful, it could not be named). It was part of a demonic plot to destroy Christendom itself, with the example of Sodom and Gomorrah providing warning of what God would do to a society that tolerated it.

The Inquisition used torture but, as it was staffed by men of the cloth, it was not supposed to draw blood, so used bloodless tortures (which included what is now known as ‘waterboarding’). There would also be a doctor present, to ensure the torture did not go too far. A person could only be tortured once, but that was got around by “suspending” torture sessions rather than officially ending them. The auto-de-fe, held annually, were grand spectacles meant to both terrorise and educate. The Inquisition did not actually carry out punishments themselves: the guilty person was “relayed to the secular arm” but it was Church doctrine that was being enforced.

Francois Soyer found striking that, in 350 years (the Spanish Inquisition ran from 1480-1834), the procedures do not change: inquisitors were asking the same questions in its beginnings as they were in its final days. This was a society and an institution where ‘novelty’ was a bad word. The operations of the Inquisition were highly codified. For example, three denunciations were required for arrest: but they could be years apart. The Inquisition had a network of agents to provide information. Charges read out to the arrested person would be stripped of identifying people and place and, once arrested, people would essentially have to prove their innocence. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of trials resulted in guilty verdicts (though not necessarily on all counts).

The Inquisition tended to be sceptical of accusations of demonic possession, it required proof. Exorcism was only likely after such evidence was accepted, particularly if the person renounced the alleged pact. Medical evidence also tended to trump witness statements. The Inquisition was also much less likely to find people guilty of witchcraft than other areas in Europe, such as East Anglia in the 1640s, or parts of the Holy Roman Empire. (Due its insistence on evidence.)

In its own terms, the Inquisition’s concern was for the prisoner’s welfare: their salvation. But it was their welfare not as they might conceive it, but as Church doctrine conceived it. So, the initial examination was put in terms of, having heard the charges, did the person having anything they wanted to unburden themselves over. Reconciliation with the Church was always the first option.

The Portuguese Inquisition recorded about 5,000 denunciations for homosexuality, leading to about 500 trials. Overwhelming, those denounced or tried were men, and generally foreigners. (Makes one wonder if local mores of masculinity was what was being enforced.)

Recolhimento were religious houses for women held to be vulnerable and in danger of falling into prostitution and where they could stay in hopes of reformation (marriage, employment as a domestic, going to a convent). Husbands leaving to go overseas could leave their wives there. Maria had spent some time in one.

‘Hermaphrodites’ (which covered a range of conditions) were accepted as part of nature: what one was supposed to do, however, was pick a gender and stick to it. Failure to do so would attract the attention of the Inquisition.

Francois Soyer’s reading of the evidence of the nuns and other women who had sex with Maria Duran is that they were confronted by having the sex—especially her (to put it mildly) “aggressive” mode of operation—with a woman and concluded she had to be a man (hence the penis) and the devil had to be involved. Maria Duran had previously attracted the attention of the Inquisition over passing as a man: the Spanish Inquisition had merely given her a strict warning not to do it again. But the Inquisition records included details about how she managed to pass as a man—binding her breasts, having a gourd full of water in her pants she would release against a wall, publicly fondling the breasts of women.

I enjoyed the presentation and subsequent discussion, though I was struck by the way the academics and graduate students present had difficulty talking about the gender, sexuality and natural law theological issues. It is not that they said anything silly or stupid, it was just a general diffidence and awkwardness. Admittedly, I have done a fair bit of reading in all three issues: still, it was striking. A useful reminder that, like the nuns confronted by Maria Duran’s sexual predation, dealing with things outside your normal framings can be difficult.

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