Convent ledgers from colonial Are­quipa, Peru, reveal that female reli­gious com­mu­nities spent large sums of money on a wide variety of medical ingre­dients in the care of their members. In addition to cul­ti­vating healing herbs and fruits in the convent garden, nuns pur­chased many ingre­dients such as coral, nitrate salt, tincture of castor, sper­maceti (derived from the sperm whale), extract of palo santo (Lignum vitae), saffron, manna, and violets. This essay focuses on the med­icine cab­inets and healing prac­tices of three Are­quipan con­vents, Santa Catalina, Santa Rosa, and Santa Teresa during the late eigh­teenth century. Based on archival research it explores how Peruvian nuns adopted phar­ma­ceu­tical tra­di­tions from Europe (very few of their med­i­cines came from the New World), at the same time they adapted to the strict reforms enacted by the Bourbon Crown of Spain. Com­bined with an analysis of detailed convent ledgers, listing med­i­cines, ingre­dients, and prices of each convent’s med­icine cabinet, this essay also probes first person letters written by several abbesses about the ail­ments and requests of nuns and their ser­vants restricted by the Bourbon reforms. The abbesses’ repeated requests to the bishop to allow for more visits from a variety of physi­cians, hint at the agency of these women, espe­cially in the context of their own medical care. These letters also allow us to see firmly entrenched hier­ar­chies that were not erased by Bourbon reforms. Wealthy nuns still employed ser­vants, and when one got sick, they often peti­tioned the bishop for a replacement. In short, these convent ledgers and letters provide us a glimpse into health and healing in Peruvian con­vents through the lens of gender, class, and race. We see that the abbesses used the written word to fight for better medical care, but at the same time they sought to keep the same class and racial norms within their community.

Recently I had the oppor­tunity to give a Grand Rounds lecture to a group of physi­cians and res­i­dents of Maternal Fetal Med­icine at the Medical Uni­versity of South Car­olina. The coor­di­nator of Grand Rounds Speakers invited me as part of His­panic Her­itage Month. He told me that his department would be inter­ested in learning about gender/sexuality from a his­torical per­spective and that they were trying to enrich their faculty by including more of the medical human­ities. Of course, it was a bit daunting to speak to medical doctors about health care, but I stuck to my spe­cialty: early modern nuns and healing. Several of the physi­cians com­mented later that they had no idea about the rich history of His­panic nuns, their infir­maries, and healing tech­niques. That talk reminded me that our dis­ci­plines have become very iso­lated. Mar­garet and I spoke about this in our intro­duction to this volume and we are grateful to scholars such as Rita Charon, who calls for more inter­dis­ci­plinary approaches between nar­rative med­icine and the training of current-day physi­cians. If I were to add to my essay today, I think it would be to flesh out more of the con­nec­tions between the hier­archy of care in early modern con­vents and how that con­tinues today in our society. It’s easy to see the dis­par­ities of care in the con­vents of colonial Are­quipa and how race and class affected those women. In some ways, we could use that same lens to under­stand some of the problems plaguing rural hos­pitals and low-income people who have little access healthcare.