Convent and Medicine — Owens
By Sarah E. Owens | Published on November 10, 2021
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.