When Medicine is a Sin: Sex and Heresy in Colonial Mexico

Farren Yero

Laboring in the Mexican mining district of Real del Monte, José Antonio de la Peña met Manuel Arroyo in the summer of 1775. The two young men struck up a secret relationship, sharing a bed, a blanket, and a provocative cure for syphilis. It was the latter that landed Arroyo in an inquisitorial cell, charged with the crime of heresy.[1]  As the trial records indicate, de la Peña had received over thirty bocados (or mouthfuls), the term Arroyo used to describe acts of fellatio he performed upon his friend in order to treat his venereal disease. Their sex life, however, was not the problem. It was the men’s potentially heretical claim that “it is not a sin to suck human semen for reasons of health” that galvanized ecclesiastical authorities to intervene.

Fig. 1: Inquisition Case of Manuel Arroyo. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

 

The Holy Office of the Inquisition did police sexual proclivities.[2] However, maintaining religious orthodoxy remained their primary concern. For them, challenges to Catholic doctrine—including what might or might not constitute a sin—posed a far greater risk to the social order than clandestine sexual partners, even ones of the same sex. After all, if health demanded doctrinal exception—as Arroyo implicitly suggested—the Church would be hard pressed to preserve the strictures by which it managed its flock, a problem we continue to see play out over issues around access to contraception and abortion today. That Arroyo professed his oral ministrations to be acts of Christian duty only exacerbated the struggle to parse out the significance of his unusual claim.

 

According to Arroyo’s testimony, his acts were done to remove “bad thoughts” of women, prevent men from sinning with them in the first place, and—even more confounding for the judges—to heal. Arroyo insisted that, when aided by the medicinal effects of camphor and aguardiente (distilled spirits), these same benefactions were treatments for syphilis—an illness interpreted by Arroyo (and many others) as an outward symptom of impurities within. To prove this point, Arroyo recalled, for example, his quick recognition of the telltale pustules dotting his friend’s genitalia, a rash that purportedly required him to perform fellatio, employing a gargle of mixed herbs, in his words, “for his health, for his wellbeing, and for his remedy.” Though certainly damning, Arroyo did not shy away from these convictions. Instead, he worked tirelessly to convince his captors of their legitimacy, providing elaborate and intimate details of his time with de la Peña to defend his own knowledge and position as a healer.

 

When the local priest in Pachuca first learned of this strange ministry, he turned to a neighboring ecclesiastical judge, at a loss for what to do. Did something like this fall under the purview of the Inquisition? Or was this a matter for the civil authorities? Perhaps this was best left for the Protomedicato, the royal medical tribunal? Arroyo’s unorthodox assertions wove together the mind, the body, and the spirit, creating jurisdictional confusion and reflecting the myriad ways in which early modern patients and practitioners understood their relationship to health and disease. Because of this, his Inquisition case can tell us a great deal about how people made sense of their own bodies beyond the world of printed and professional medicine.

 

Read alongside indigenous-language volumes, such as the Chilam Balam, discussed by Ryan Kashanipour, and published tracts by natural philosophers, examined here by Heather Peterson, Inquisition documents can enrich our understanding of “different ways of knowing” the body, as Pablo Gómez puts it in his study of the Spanish Caribbean.[3] This is true for scholars working on both sides of the Atlantic. Early modern physicians throughout the world sought out and studied indigenous pharmacopoeia, such as chupirini or chinanteca, but Arroyo’s case suggests how patients themselves understood the value of such herbs and their relationship to disease. Translated primary source readers, such as Women in Colonial Latin America, can allow students the opportunity to weigh in on such cases, like that of Isabel Hernández, a midwife and healer, who appeared before the Inquisition in 1652.[4]

 

Of course, modern readers—not unlike colonial inquisitors—might question whether a remedy like Arroyo’s “bocado” can really be considered medical in nature. When caught, did the denounced simply turn to health to mask an otherwise compromising affair? We can’t necessarily rule it out. Yet, if Arroyo did make it up, then he also contrived a number of authorial forms to back it up as well. As he explained to the inquisitors, he knew that the remedy worked because a woman had performed it for him. To be sure it took effect, she would extract his semen for her doctor, who was able to then determine if it was, in his words, “damaged.” If this was not proof enough, Arroyo confessed that she had first learned this remedy through none other than her local priest. This kaleidoscope of evidence, regardless to what extent we believe him, suggests the complexities that underlay beliefs about medical efficacy at this time. We see similar kinds of invocations in other Inquisition cases, provided by the thousands of colonial subjects imprisoned at one time or another in the dungeons of the Inquisitorial Palace, a building that ironically enough, became the medical school for the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Today, it houses museums to both institutions: mannequins lay prone, emulating the bodies from which doctors and judges sought secrets hidden within.

Fig. 2. Palace of the Inquisition, now the Mexican Museum of Medicine. Photo by the author. 

 

 

[1] BANC MSS 96/95m, 13:1 (1775). The Mexican Inquisition Collection. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[2] On the question of sexual deviancy in this case, see: Zeb Tortorici, “Heran Todos Putos”: Sodomitical Subcultures and Disordered Desire in Early Colonial Mexico,” Ethnohistory (2007) 54 (1): 35-67.

[3] Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[4] Nora E. Jaffary and Jane E. Mangan, Women in Colonial Latin America, 1526 to 1806: Texts and Contexts, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2018).

Recipes in the Inquisition Records

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of source which has proved to be a surprisingly revealing source for magical and healing recipes: inquisition records. I’ve been working on the records of the Roman Inquisition in Malta, which are preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, as part of a larger project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ led by my colleague Professor Dionisius Agius (click here for further details). The project revolves around the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Malta who was accused of practising magic for Christian clients. In most cases it was these clients who reported him to the inquisitors, often after they had mentioned the matter in confession and had been referred to the Inquisition by their parish priest.

Valletta, near the site of the slaves' prison where Sellem lived (author's photo)
Valletta, near the site of the slaves’ prison where Sellem lived (author’s photo)

The record is very detailed and, among other things, it describes some of the magical recipes which Sellem’s clients claimed that he used. It should be noted that Sellem himself denied ever using them, although he did admit to knowing astrology. This means that it is difficult to know how far these recipes were actually used, by Sellem or by anyone else. Nevertheless, the records describe these alleged magical recipes in some detail. For example, Marco Mangion testified that he sought Sellem’s help after he became ill with an illness that he suspected was caused by witchcraft. Sellem seems to have asked Marco for his mother’s name and written this down (the trial record is damaged here) on a slip of paper which he burned in his room in the slaves’ prison. Then he gave Marco several more slips of paper [carte] written in ‘Moorish’ (Arabic) with the instruction to wash them in water and ‘with the water of this infusion wash my face and my whole body, and he instructed me to fumigate with a piece of mongione [I have not been able to translate this]… I used these remedies and it seemed to me that the said remedies benefitted me.’ Marco claimed that Sellem also gave him other remedies: a square piece of lead, and another piece of paper with Arabic.

Although it is impossible to know whether these remedies were really used, they would probably have seemed plausible to Marco and to the inquisitors because they resemble what we know about early modern magical practices from other sources, including inquisition records from elsewhere in Europe. The idea of writing significant words, washing them into water, and then drinking or washing oneself in the water can be found in earlier Latin medical texts. More generally charms which involve the writing of powerful words are mentioned very often in medieval and early modern Europe.  Sellem’s use of Arabic is less common, however, and reflects his own background, and this exotic element may have made the charm seem even more powerful to Maltese Christians. A few paper charms also survive, like this printed one from late seventeenth-century Germany, now in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0059000 Amulet and charm to protect against plague, printed Latin ch

Similar written charms were also used in seventeenth-century Malta: although Sellem’s Arabic carte do not survive, the archives do occasionally preserve examples which the inquisitors confiscated. Thus while researching other cases in the archives we found a few slips of paper covered with symbols and prayers, cloths, and even an unidentified lumpy yellow substance. It is rare, and it feels rather strange, to find such a tangible result of an early modern recipe surviving into the present day.

It has long been known that inquisition records are an important source for the history of early modern healing and magic and there have been studies of records from Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. They are also an intriguing source for early modern recipes, which give details not only about what might have been done, but also for whom, and why. As the project continues we hope to uncover more details about the recipes used by Sellem and other early modern Maltese healers. We’d also be interested to hear from anyone else working on similar issues in other inquisition records. (With thanks to Alex Mallett for double checking my Italian translations).

The Pharmaca of Jozeph Coelho: A Family of Converso Apothecaries in Seventeenth-Century Coimbra

By Benjamin Breen

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.
Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.

The apothecaries of early modern Portugal were tradesmen, and, although they were typically literate and well read, they left few archival records. The “Pharmaco de Jozeph Coelho,” a little-known manuscript housed in the National Library of Portugal, stands as a remarkable exception. The face that peers out at us from the title page—long-haired, surmounted by an angel, wearing a dapper black hat along with a rather quizzical expression—appears to be this manuscript’s primary author, Jozeph (or Joseph) Coelho.[1] Although Jozeph’s “Pharmaca” mainly consists of excerpts from Greco-Roman and Islamic medical authorities like Dioscorides and Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue), it also tells us a surprising amount about Jozeph and his family.

One of the first things that jumps out at anyone who consults Jozeph Coelho’s “Pharmaca” (which has recently been digitized) is the surprising number of doodles and visual puns. Coelho’s talent for drawing is evident from the very first page, which, in addition to his apparent self-portrait, features an ornate border abounding with fruits and flowers as well as some typically Baroque scrollwork. Coelho has even gone to the trouble of highlighting two plume-like vertical objects (jets of fire? feathers?) with green ink.

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.
Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.

After a short dedication written in Spanish by another hand (an ode to the wisdom of Andrés Laguna, a converso physician who authored one of the most influential sixteenth century commentaries on Dioscorides), the text gets down to business, with minimal ornamentation to distract from a series of Latin and Portuguese quotations of Dioscorides’ De materia medica and Pseudo-Mesue’s Canones universalis. But when he segues into translating Pseudo-Mesue’s list of medicinal simples (De simplicibus), Coelho’s decorative inclinations seem to kick in. Many medicine names receive ornate borders, like these for Cassia fistula (the “Golden Shower tree,” native to Southeast Asia) and conserve of violets, where Coelho plays on the similarity between the Portuguese words for violet (violeta) and guitar (violão).

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 14r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 14r.

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 15r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 15r.

 

By page thirty, Coelho’s doodling has ramped up even further. On fol. 33v, a list of pills described by Mesue and the Byzantine physician Nicolaus Myrepsus, there are no less than seven decorated initials, including two personified moons, two men holding arrows, and a man wearing a headdress (a motif that reocurrs throughout the text and might reflect Coelho’s idea of an indigenous Brazilian).

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 33v.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 33v.

 

Coelho’s “Pharmaca” may have been a didactic work designed to instruct journeyman apothecaries, so this visual ornamentation might amount to something more than mere doodling. Perhaps we can liken Coelho’s drawings to the early modern equivalent of New Yorker cartoons: visual jokes that allow the reader to pause and catch their breath before diving into another complex block of text.

 

Not only does the manuscript abound with unusual drawings, it also offers some useful clues about the Coelho family’s practice. One place to start is the title page itself, which identifies itself as a product of the botica (apothecary shop) of Rua Larga (Broad Street) in the Portuguese town of Coimbra. From this we can surmise that the botica supplied the physicians of the University of Coimbra, because that university’s school of medicine was located on the same short street. Indeed, although the shop of the Coelhos has long since been replaced by boxy buildings of gray concrete and student parking, the Rua Larga is still the home of the University of Coimbra’s School of Medicine today.

 

Credit: Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, (Cologne, 1598), “Illustris Civitati Conimbriae In Lusitania.”
Credit: Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, (Cologne, 1598), “Illustris Civitati Conimbriae In Lusitania.”

A 1598 bird’s eye view map of Coimbra gives a sense of the town as the Coelhos would have known it. It was already an ancient settlement by this time, having been founded by the Romans as a frontier outpost in the first century CE and successively controlled by a series of Visigothic kings, the Islamic caliphs of Al-Andalus, and finally the Portuguese crown. The map testifies to this complex history, depicting both Roman ruins (the three columns to the left of the Rua Larga) and a gate to “Almedina” (the medina quarter of the old Moorish city). Following the forced conversion or expulsion of Portuguese Jews in 1496, the University of Coimbra became a haven for the converso, or “New Christian,” descendants of Sephardic Jews who chose to remain in Iberia.

 

The Coelhos numbered among this New Christian community. We know this not only because Coelho has historically been a Sephardic name in Portugal, but because a member of their family, Maria Coelho, was arrested by the Inquisition of Coimbra on charges of judaísmo (retaining Jewish customs) in August of 1666. The “Processo” relating to her case records her father as the apothecary Filipe Coelho, and describes Maria as an unmarried, thirty-year-old “boticaria” (female apothecary). Working from the assumption that there was unlikely to have been two different apothecary families named Coelho working in Coimbra at the same time, my conjecture is that Jozeph Coelho was Maria’s brother.

 

After being interrogated and jailed for three years, Maria was in 1669 transported to Brazil as a degredado (deported criminal), where her fate is unknown. Although Maria likely spent the end of this period in Lisbon, from whence degredados were usually shipped, she would have initially been jailed in the Inquisition prison of Coimbra. As the 1598 map reveals, this was just a few minute’s walk from Maria’s family shop on the Rua Larga. The anguish that Maria and her family would have felt about this drawn-out imprisonment is hard to detect in the surviving sources, but painfully easy to imagine.

 

I suspect that the the “Pharmaca” actually contains a portrait of Maria. The manuscript’s title page announces that it was written in 1668, and Maria would therefore have been absent from her family for one to years by this time. Given this context, I interpret the drawing of a “Boticario” and “Botica[ria]” (male and female apothecaries) on fol. 76r of the “Pharmaca” as a tribute to Maria’s memory, created by a brother who would never see her again.

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 76r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 76r.

*************

Benjamin Breen, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing a dissertation on the early modern drug trade. His articles have appeared in The Journal of Early Modern History, The Journal of Early American History, and History Compass. He is the editor-in-chief of The Appendix, a journal of narrative and experimental history.


[1] The manuscript actually contains at least four different hands, but I am making the assumption that the hand that appears in the first half of the text along with the title page is Jozeph Coelho. I suspect that hands in the second half of the text are additions by either Coelho’s family members or perhaps (if my surmise that this was a didactic text is true) by journeyman apothecaries adding further notes and commentaries.