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Vir: Perceptions of Manliness in Andalucia and Mexico, 1561-1699. (Reviews).

Vir: Perceptions of Manliness in Andalucia and Mexico 1561-1699. By Federico Garza Carvajal (Amsterdam: Amsterdamse Historische Reeks, 2000. xii plus 306 pp.).

Federico Garza Carvajal's book asks why discourses about and prosecutions of sodomy began to increase in number and change in nature beginning in the late fifteenth century, first in Spain, then in New Spain. His answer in brief is that ideas about sodomy became increasingly linked in the Spanish imperial mind with other emerging discourses, notably those concerned with manliness as well as those related to imperialism and colonialism. If he is more successful in showing that these discourses indeed were linked than in explaining why, Garza Carvajal nonetheless raises important questions about changing definitions of masculinity, a topic little explored thus far for either side of the Iberian Atlantic (especially in comparison to the voluminous literature produced by women's and gender historians about Spanish and colonial women).

Using an incident involving the manly honor of Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman (otherwise known as Catalina de Erauso), the author begins the first chapter by discussing the increasing textual attention paid to the subject of masculinity by early modern Spanish writers. These writers defined the Spanish Man or Vir less in terms of what he was, or was to be, and more in terms of what he was not: not sodomite, not woman, Indian, African, nor of mixed racial background. Instead he was to be a warrior like Alonso/Catalina, one who reveled in both his gender and national identities, both in some sense created rather than pre-existing or inborn.

The next chapter depicts how the monarchs Isabel and Fernando issued a proclamation on sodomy in 1497, setting off a wave of prosecutions that would continue for several more centuries. While older texts, even the Old Testament of the Bible, had described sodomy as a sin, early modern religous writers developed, in the author's view, a new concern with sex and sexuality as sinful, defined women as passive sexually, and grew more concerned to stamp out sodomy, now defined as both sin and crime, a crime that might be tried in secular or religious tribunals, depending on where geographically the case was heard. Associated actions, often categorized as effiminate behavior according to early modern writers, became thought of as not only sinful but as signs of an "internal moral disorder" that led sodomites to perform criminal acts (p.92).

The third chapter relies more heavily on court cases to show that the language of sodomy prosecution became linked to discourses about both manliness and national identity. Going into vivid detail, Garza Carvajal shows how those accused--many in the lower rungs of the mariner hierarchy and foreigners--were interrogated, examined, and harshly punished, often by death. But here a problem develops in the argument. If sodomy was clearly linked to emerging national and imperial discourses, why were so many more cases prosecuted in Aragon (some 1,623 between 1540 and 1700) than in Castille and Leon between 1498 and 1626, where only some twelve case records exist? Garza Carvajal does show how the House of Trade also prosecuted such cases, hearing fifteen in the years between 1560 and 1699 and burning some sixty-five individuals found guilty between 1578 andd 1616 (p.107). Often foreigners, the men involved received little sympathy, with officials judging them as lacking in manly honor and failing to live up to the e merging early modern ideals of manliness.

The fourth chapter discusses more fully the colonial implications of the intertwined discourses about sodomy and manliness. In the New World, New Spain in particular, sodomy became closely tied to Spanish ideas about effiminacy and the realm of the diabolical, thus encouraging Spaniards still further in their ideas that their rule was both just and justified. Again relying upon close readings of cases along with a variety of Spanish and indigenous writers, Garza Carvajal shows how both kinds of texts reveal an increasing anxiety over sodomy and transvestism as well as a Spanish inability to comprehend the range of meanings a behavior like transvestism might have within indigenous cultures. Cultural misperceptions played into the Spanish need to vindicate their imperial system and help reveal the multiple ways discourses about gender and sexuality described less about colonized peoples and more about colonizers' needs, fears, and self-justifying dogmas and delusions. On this point, Garza Carvajal offers more s keptical readings of Spanish texts than did Richard Trexler in his pathbreaking, though flawed, Sex and Conquest. (1)

But Garza Carvajal's book is not without its own flaws. While he shows clearly an increase in the number of writers on both sides of the Atlantic who concerned themselves with sodomy, the relatively small numbers of cases he finds both for Castile as well as New Spain make one doubt whether the issue preouccupied the legal system to the extent suggested. The author is also quick to criticize the perspectives of other historians writing about gender, especially criticizing them for viewing Spain and New Spain as more separate culturally than they actually were. Yet Garza Carvajal separates discourses and legal cases concerned with sodomy from a wider matrix of textual attention to the control of women, other types of sexual behavior, and family matters more broadly. In addition to important works by Serge Gruzinski, Asuncion Lavrin, and Ann Twinam cited by the author, both Richard Boyer and Mary Elizabeth Perry, among historians publishing in English, have written on topics like bigamy and the control of vario us kinds of unruly women, topics thematically close to the concerns of the book, yet ignored by the author. (2)

That said, the book does a fine job providing the flavor of many texts from the early modem period, especially capturing the language and sensibilities of sodomy prosecutions. Garza Carvajal convincingly demonstrates that conceptions and varieties of masculinity are geographically and historically contingent, and specialists in Spanish and Latin American history, especially those interested in the history of gender and sexuality, will find an insightful interpretation of the ways in which the growth of empire led to a more restrictive redefinition of masculinity in the early modem period.


(1.) Sex and Con quest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas (Ithaca, NY, 1995).

(2.) Richard Boyer, Lives of the Bigamists: Marriage, Family, and Community in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque, 1995); Mary Elizabeth Perry, Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville (Princeton, 1990).
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Author:Kellogg, Susan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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