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).