Book review: False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, by Nora E. Jaffary.
Author: Yoel Benhabib
In her book, False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, Nora Jaffary examines the cases of a significant number of popular mystics who were accused and tried by the Inquisition in New Spain, Mexico, of having feigned their revelations and prophetical abilities. The book offers a significant study on the relations between gender, status, and mysticism in a society that was more and more mixed and developing its own local identity in opposition to the Spanish Crown. Jaffary explores the cases of these ilusos or alumbrados between the end of the sixteenth and beginning of nineteenth centuries and how the Holy Office saw them as a threat to the Catholic Church because of their unorthodox practices. They were accused of unconventional practices and of having been tricked by the devil into believing they had received true prophecies from God. In this regard, Nora E. Jaffary argues that “inquisitors founded their determination of false mysticism only partly on an examination of the religious practices of the accused.” She uses inquisitorial records, a database of iluso and alumbrado trials, documents from ecclesiastical councils, magazines from the time, etc. Although the argument could be persuasive it does not deepen enough into how these Inquisitorial records were acquired from the accused and how reliable could they be in establishing the reality of what actually took place, meaning what can we really get from them? The cases were presented lightly without further deepening. Certainly, a document presenting the testimony of someone frightened and coerced can not be taken as a reflection of the total truth but as a biased reflection of its authors, inquisitorial officials.
The book also explores the reason for these popular mystics and how some were after status, power, and material gain in an unequal society. What is surprising is that many wealthy patrons supported them and boosted their prophetic careers. The ilusos or alumbrados criticized the corruption in society and within the Church, composed theological treatises, personal prayers, and documented their visions and prophecies. It was clear that for ecclesiastical authorities such liberties endangered their authority, although Jaffary says these false mystics just wanted to “secure spiritual and societal endorsement.” During this period, the very fact of being poor and a female were reasons enough to be suspected and accused if you had claimed prophetic inspiration. Women, especially among the mystics, were a challenge to a male-dominated intellectual and religious social order since they were not expected to exhibit such behavior and status.
Jaffary’s argumentation that the Inquisition ruled what was false mysticism by the accused practices is well presented in the book by its many examples. People claimed that these mystics or ilusos were able to perform miraculous deeds setting them apart from the common people such as in the case of Ana Rodriguez de Castro y Aramburu of whom many “detailed the ecstatic fits, visions, prophecies, and bouts of demonic possession they had watched Aramburu experience.” At the same time, others gave a very negative report of her discrediting her deeds and moral reputation, in general, saying she was a drunk woman. But could we say that either testimony presents us with a real characterization of the facts? It is obvious that the Inquisition choose to side with those who presented negative reports about these popular mystics, something that the book does not question deeply enough on the biases and reliability of the records. Could this perhaps have affected the result of the evidence? It could certainly be the case. Although it is not easy to dig further over one hundred and two cases in just a book. The author tells us that as an approximation half of the accused were female and “almost all of these women were either poor members of the laity of beatas.” On the contrary, few of the men tried were poor or belonged to the laypeople. Could such trial reports have enough credit when they seem to target specific strata in society? It seems not really possible for me in such a biased environment.
The author herself tells us the Inquisition manipulated the way in which orthodox Catholicism in Mexico determined what was heretical and what was not, especially during this Counter-Reformation period. Many people, such as in the case of Pedro Garcia de Arias, who was condemned to the stake “for his unorthodox ideas and for his heretical presumption that God had inspired his knowledge of them.” In his case, the tribunal determined that his ideas reflected the teaching of the Lutherans and therefore, a threat to the Church. It seems to be, though, that he was sentenced because he refused to abjure from his ideas and submit to the authority of the Inquisition. It is obvious then that the Church was more worried about preserving its orthodoxy and primacy in a society infected by Lutheran, Indian, and African influences.
Therefore, although Nora E. Jaffary does a good job in presenting us with some of the heretical practices of the ilusos or alumbrados and how the inquisition derived their definition of heresies from such practices; the book does not deepen enough on the reliability of the sources and testimonies of those accused, and the Inquisitorial methods of obtaining them. The records came to us from those who condemned the mystics, a biased and manipulated description of blurred realities from a distant past. Even though, the book is a good source for a better understanding of people’s lives in Colonial Mexico and the efforts of the Church to suppress whatever seemed to pose a threat to their authority and that of the Spanish Crown. Thanks to Jaffary’s research we can learn about how the common people, especially women, claiming divine inspiration and mystical powers were able to obtain wealth, status, power, and influence in an unequal and male-dominated society. Overall the book is a good source of knowledge on gender, status, and mysticism throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth-century Mexico.