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Women and the Catholic Church in Colonial Brazil

Summary and Keywords

Women in colonial Brazil (1500–1822) were affected by the presence of the Portuguese Roman Catholic Church in nearly every dimension of their lives. The Catholic Church dominated the colonial religious and social world and, with the imperial government of Portugal, set and transmitted gender expectations for girls and women, regulated marriage and sexuality, and directed appropriate education and work lives. Even with the harshest restrictions, women were able to develop an independent sense of self and religious expression both within the Catholic Church and outside its reach.

Native Brazilian women felt the impact of the new faith from the earliest days of conquest, when their opportunities for religious influence expanded among the early colonists and missionaries. After the 1550s, however, new rules for belief and behavior gradually replaced indigenous culture. Offering the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman, the Church expected that indigenous women convert to Catholicism, work for the colonists, and marry according to traditional canon law. Portuguese immigrant women also faced the constraints of the early modern gender roles, with chastity, modesty, and submission deemed essential to their feminine nature, and marriage, domestic labor, and childcare their fate. Enslaved African women were compelled to accept Catholic teachings alongside the expectations of servile work and marginalization in colonial society. For each segment of colonial society, religious rules barely acknowledged the real abuses that afflicted women through the personal and sexual domination of colonial men, and women found little consolation in the ideals set for elite women.

Religion itself presented women with opportunities for personal development, and women found spiritual expression through votive prayers, cloistered convents, membership in religious brotherhoods, and covert religious and magical practices. European women used magical rites in defiance of Catholic teachings, while indigenous women preserved elements of their own healing traditions, and African women and their descendants created charms and celebrations that secured their separate religious identity.

Keywords: colonial Brazil, Roman Catholic Church, gender ideal, women’s education, women’s work, marriage, sexuality, convents

Gender Expectations in Colonial Brazil

Long before native Brazilian, Portuguese, and African women met in the colonial order of Brazil, expectations for their gendered roles and natures had been set in medieval and early modern Europe by imperial and Christian concepts of the human person. Ancient authors had exaggerated women’s perceived deficiencies and contributed the values of seclusion, chastity, and silence to European social norms. By the Christian Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, had emerged as the most powerful symbol of femininity, idealized as a virginal daughter, obedient and chaste mother, and self-sacrificing widow. Women received this model for their roles and behaviors in early modern Portugal and Brazil, where their attainment of honor and virtue seemed characterized more by effacement than by achievement. While family instruction imbued the role of devoted and protected woman with significance, the Roman Catholic Church conveyed that ideal through specific devotions to the Virgin Mary in Portugal and its empire.

Religious and secular sources alike collected lists of laudable feminine attributes and used those to promote the Christian virtues, propose suitable education and behavior for girls, and determine behaviors that the docile wife and mother might cultivate in herself and her daughters. Women’s best qualities, including chastity, fidelity, modesty, and diligence, were deemed to be natural to them, even though many fell short of such “natural” virtues. When women gave in to gossip, vanity, luxury, and idleness, secular authors blamed feminine weakness, whereas Christian authors blamed women’s sinful heritage and the devil himself.

In colonial Brazil as in Portugal, women of European descent were at once the models and the audience for the recitation of virtues. The colonial patriarchy insisted on standards of honor associated with its elite immigrant men and women, and women’s honor was bound to their hidden and pure lives as daughters, wives, and mothers. Expectations for elite women were linked with their lineage and property so that the family’s social status, religious devotion, racial purity, and legitimacy formed the foundation for a woman’s virtue. Her public honor began with the family but was fully realized through her own reputed behavior in private, so that a religiously devout, quiet, and reclusive daughter whose virtue was unchallenged in public affirmed her family’s worth.

The virtuous ideal for women in the early modern period left little place for women’s autonomy: An elite woman further proved her value through obedience and self-denial and gained honor through marriage and childbirth. Feminine virtue was irrevocably linked with “the comportment of women in relation to sexual conduct,” and even an inclination toward independent actions might be construed as sinful or as a threat to the religious constancy of a devout woman.1 Women of lower strata or of non-European ethnicities were more vulnerable to sexual seduction or attack because their daily lives took them out of the home, although they were rarely expected to achieve the ideal of feminine virtue. Even indigenous and African women, however, could claim honor through personal behaviors like modesty, chastity, and religious devotion. Religious doctrines, in particular the gender-specific teachings that the Catholic Church provided, shaped the feminine realm in which women might seek honor, while the hierarchy of privileges tied to elite status remained unchallenged by women’s contrary behavior.

The power of the Catholic Church in setting standards for women’s virtue cannot be underestimated: Christianity had been the repository of the literature of virtue and vice for centuries in Europe. From entrance into the Church through baptism and confirmation rituals to acceptance into later roles through marriage and funeral rituals, women found their places in Portuguese colonial society inscribed by Catholic doctrine. Different Marian images served the diversity of the empire in Brazil, with Our Lady of the Conception as an aristocratic, richly dressed mother for the patriarchy and Our Lady of the Rosary the image for enslaved Africans and their descendants. The Catholic Church idealized the Virgin Mary, but her appropriation by devotees both followed and defied Catholic idealization; they not only broke her into pieces—praying to the Virgin, Our Lady of Childbirth, and Our Lady of Sorrows—but also embraced themselves in each facet of her being. While the Church, then, glorified an impossible image, Portuguese and Brazilian women saw a possible model for their lives.2

Preachers were only moderately successful in directing women’s devotions, however, when their guidance clashed with the concern for social status and personal virtue. Families that controlled women based their movements not on simply the securing of honor but also on the avoidance of shame: women who were reserved and chaste perpetuated family honor. Girls lived in virtuous seclusion until transmitted from their fathers to their husbands, and the reputation of virginity was valued at the highest ranks. At the beginning of the colonial era, when few white women were present, and toward its end, when restrictions eased, women traveled more easily, conducting family business, meeting with female friends, or visiting religious shrines. In the 17th century and especially in colonial cities on the coast, however, elite women were warned that their unguarded behavior undermined the honor that preserved their own families’ social rank and the very inequality on which that rank depended.

Indigenous Brazilian women taken as wives, sexual partners, and slaves faced not only European gender expectations but also patterns within the European imaginary that identified the alterity of America’s inhabitants. Indigenous communities were considered alien but accommodating, the women representative of a docile and exploitable population. Jesuit missionaries reported on the receptiveness of indigenous women to their catechism, but, as they met resistance to colonization, they also portrayed native Brazilian women as brutal and wild, bearing greater resemblance to Amazons and witches than to childlike catechumens. Indigenous women had previously shared work and prized their complementary roles, and some played significant parts as early converts and leaders among their compatriots and the colonists. Still, by the late 1500s, few women could resist the transformative effects of the introduced gender roles or command the respect of a Portuguese immigrant woman from the lowest ranks of society.

Women of mixed indigenous and Portuguese descent assumed new roles in the colony, serving as “go-betweens” linking indigenous and Portuguese cultures and acting in the place of the absent Portuguese women.3 In rare cases, newly converted Catholic women were recruited by Jesuit missionaries to set examples of virtue for the mixed and indigenous populations, either by their own modest and married behavior or by serving the missionaries and churches as translators, prayer leaders, or instructors of younger women. Jesuits took particular care to inculcate devotion to Mary among indigenous women with sermons about the rosary, separate catechisms for their indoctrination, and rewards for those who learned their roles well.4

Like native Brazilians, African women were already dishonored by their lower social rank and servile state, and they, too, were condemned for their failures to achieve the virtuous ideal. In the slave trade to Brazil, fewer women than men were taken from Africa, and fewer opportunities were presented to them to preserve African gender norms, had they chosen to do so; instead, the gender expectations of imperial Portuguese religious culture marked enslaved women immediately. Despite colonial law, Portuguese owners repeatedly avoided providing even the minimal religious instruction for enslaved Africans, so that such women had little contact with sacraments or even the church itself after baptism.

Gender was not the only determinant of rank and power in colonial Brazil; indeed, a woman’s life was shaped as well by status, wealth, ethnic origin, family lineage, and personal attributes. In that hierarchical society, however, nearly all women found themselves additionally burdened by restrictions stemming from Catholic teachings and marginalized in the economic and political life of the colonial world. Ideal women were defined by their relations to men and confined by family and religion in order to protect their virginity and virtue. Few women challenged their restricted status directly, but many took the opportunity to develop personal relations and fuller lives than might be imagined from the proclamations about their true nature.

Education and Work

Formal education for women was rare during the colonial era, but native Brazilians, Portuguese immigrants, and enslaved Africans learned basic prayers, simple doctrines, and mandatory behaviors during church services. Women’s nature, according to ancient authorities, did not incline them toward learning in the arts, sciences, or literature, but during the Renaissance authors defended women’s contributions to civilization, and demands for private or religious schooling had begun in earnest in Portugal by the fifteenth century. Social and religious demands for the seclusion of white women forestalled further arguments for women’s education, although basic instruction in feminine tasks and Christian virtues was deemed to support women’s own salvation and their (future) wifely duties.

According to Brazilian tradition, the daughters of early Portuguese traders were the first to read and write in the new colony, but few followed their example. Jesuits began religious instruction among indigenous women after 1549, separating the girls so that they might learn their new domestic roles as well. Converts among the indigenous women helped spread the new teachings to others, and the eager and devout women were praised for their spiritual acumen.5 Wealthy colonists sent daughters to religious retreat houses or convents, where women acquired a modest education while preserving their honor and family fortunes. In the first Brazilian convent, Santa Clara do Desterro in Salvador, Bahia, the abbess oversaw classes in “sewing, embroidery, . . . and baking” alongside instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic. More ambitious women in the convents learned to direct devotional activities and to manage the financial and organizational structures that sustained those institutions.6

Girls in the colony who were barred from formal education had less formal options such as private tutoring and domestic schools, as noted in chronicles and religious reports. The pupils of Branca Dias, for example, learned to spin, sew, embroider, cook, and launder in her home in Olinda in the 1560s. Among them were her own daughters, a granddaughter, and two girls of mixed ethnicities.7 Girls from mercantile families or the daughters of tradespeople occasionally joined their much wealthier counterparts in convent schools but were more likely to learn service and household management rather than letters, and young women of indigenous or African heritage rarely gained admittance. Only a few Brazilian girls, such as Dona Maria Xavier and Dona Margarida de Campos, studied at convents in Portugal in the 1700s and were deemed “knowledgeable in letters” by their Brazilian peers. The first female Brazilian author, Teresa Margarida da Silva e Horta, was educated in Portugal as well, but after that the imperial order ended the practice of sending eligible girls back to the metropole.8

By the end of the colonial era, girls’ paths to education had not strayed from the expectations of previous centuries. Moralists and educators valued modesty, chastity, and delicacy of voice and demeanor and used devotional activities to guide girls as they grew to womanhood. In the 1800s the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Glória provided girls with two directions for their instruction, one designed for future religious recluses and the other for those destined to be mothers. The domestic path taught girls reading, writing, math, sewing, and embroidery, while instruction in religion centered on Catholic doctrine rather than history or philosophy and included charitable works so that they might practice virtues and unlearn the “ordinary defects of their sex”—including both garrulousness and timidity.9

The religious ideals for virtuous women may have included some domestic education but rarely involved any expectations for productive work. Nonetheless, women from indigenous communities, Africa, and the lower strata of Portuguese colonial society worked at domestic tasks and farming, whether for wages or in forced labor. Before colonization, Brazilian Indian women had typically shared such tasks as collecting wild foods, cooking meals, growing small crops, and processing manioc; for the most part, these tasks continued under Portuguese domination. Although some retained independent lives, native Brazilians near the new settlements were forced to work for the colonists, and by the late 1500s, women had shifted from agricultural labor to domestic work that included personal and religious duties. Even the Jesuits, who decried the injustice of slavery, required women to manufacture clothing and prepare food for themselves and others and did little to prevent their sexual exploitation by male colonists.

When landowners in the mid-1500s demanded intensive labor, African women were assigned to labor alongside men in sugar cane planting and production or learn specialized occupations deemed suitable for their sex. On sugar plantations African women cultivated and harvested cane but provided less work within sugar production, in part because men were seen as more suitable. In domestic service African women cared for children and the elderly, prepared and served meals, and manufactured and laundered clothing; their daughters were also enslaved, even if they were of mixed race. Once gold production began in Minas Gerais in the 1700s, enslaved African women there hauled tools and debris from mines or provided domestic and sexual service. In cities, where slaves might be hired out, women worked as market vendors, bearers, and prostitutes.10

Colonial records reveal that free(d), mixed-race, and Portuguese women in the lower strata of the colony sewed, cooked, cleaned, did laundry, and cultivated gardens as part of their domestic contributions.11 Work as bakers, innkeepers, or midwives was relatively rare, so women also earned household income through small-scale clothing production, doing laundry, selling vegetables or prepared foods, keeping small shops, cooking for religious communities, or by working as prostitutes in the larger towns and mining camps. White and mixed-race women were more likely to hire out their slaves for extra income; poorer women might have one female slave for domestic service. Women could own small farms for their own use or for market produce or lease property for the growing of sugar cane, coffee, or subsistence crops during most of the colonial era.

Women in the ruling families seldom engaged in manual labor, typically working at ancillary decorative work such as embroidery, sewing, lace making, candy making, and so on. Their limited education included sufficient writing and arithmetic to allow them to keep household records, though many managed the household accounts and activities and directed the work of servants and slaves. Some held and managed their own properties, directed their husbands’ or families’ properties, and even governed a city or captaincy in their husbands’ absence. Single women and widows in the sugar-cane regions held title to as many as one third of the mills in the late 1700s and on the larger plantations used up to five hundred slaves. In some regions, for instance, along the São Francisco River in Minas Gerais, female landowners in the 1700s influenced economic and political change. But few women managed their property or their enslaved workers independently, and most were bound to receive direction from men in their families. Women held about 20 percent to 30 percent of the working slaves, but in smaller households kept only two or three for domestic work.12

Women’s education and working lives were limited by the virtuous ideal, but women nonetheless contributed their free and forced labor to the economic development of colonial Brazil. Documents preserve the accomplishments of elite women such as Ana Pimentel, who governed São Vicente during the absence of Martim Afonso do Sousa in the 1540s, and of enslaved women such as Esperança Garcia, who petitioned the governor of the captaincy of Piauí for relief from her mistreatment.13 Even Catholic preachers in the colony affirmed that women were to uphold the domestic order under the paternal rule of husband or father. Their service to men and God could take the further form of submission to marriage and religious obligations.

Marriage and Sexuality

In colonial Brazil, the Roman Catholic perspective on sexuality and marriage built on the longstanding Christian doctrines favoring virginity and chastity for women. In response to the Protestant movements of the early 1500s, the Council of Trent had affirmed both the preeminence of the monastic life and the binding rules for marriage, undertaken as a sacramental bond between willing partners for the purposes of procreation. Destined for marriage and motherhood, women were exhorted to inhibit their inclination—inherited from the sins of Eve—to indulge unrestrained desires. Early missionaries abhorred what they saw as the many sins of colonial residents, from the unchecked sensuality of native Brazilian women to the sexual abuses committed by male colonists against enslaved women. Still, the Church failed to formulate and support consistent policies concerning sexuality and marriage, proclamations from bishops and the inquisitors notwithstanding.

For the Catholic Church and the Portuguese Empire, marriage functioned as the basis for religious instruction and the promulgation of related social norms, but marriage practices varied considerably by social class and wealth. In elite families, a woman’s virginity before marriage assured family honor through an untainted lineage, and such women expected to marry and raise children within an extended patriarchal system that confined or diminished their sexuality accordingly. Prospective grooms were chosen with an eye to lineage and property, and the bride’s dowry included rents and real estate conferred upon the couple over time. Given the relative scarcity of white women in colonial Brazil and the expectation of large dowry payments for their eldest daughters, property-owning families chose to consign younger daughters to Portuguese and later Brazilian convents, where costs were much lower.

Women who had some white parentage, especially those whose parents had married, might have expected the sacrament of marriage “before the church doors” with men who were artisans, merchants, and small landholders. Cultural expectations and church regulations, however, made matrimony for slave women, whether native or African, an elusive goal. Indigenous women were barred from marriage until their conversion to Christianity, often by the very missionaries who condemned their sexual immorality, and early colonists routinely disregarded the existing marriages of native Brazilians when separating families in order to enslave the adults. Missionaries demanded segregation of young Indian women in their charge and extolled the apparent support for sacramental marriage on the part of Christian converts.14 That virtuous chastity was, however, denied to most indigenous women, who were typically perceived as sexually available to male colonists and slave owners.

African women, who made up less than 40 percent of the slave population, had few opportunities to marry. Slave owners prevented permanent relationships so that they might sell individual slaves without legal or ecclesiastical reprisals, and reportedly viewed slave women as licentious and corrupting. Colonial attitudes inhibited marriage of free persons to slaves, for the religious and civil authorities stipulated that the free spouse accompany the enslaved one and, in effect, take on the latter’s bondage. In the 1590s and early 1600s, men confessed to the visiting Inquisition a persistent but heretical claim that sexual relations with unmarried women was no sin, even suggesting—as did Dominguos Pirez in 1618—that it was “no sin for a man to sleep carnally with a black woman if he paid her.”15 The Catholic Church itself made marriage more difficult for Africans, requiring either payment of church fees or the nearly impossible publication of banns in the couple’s hometowns.16

Instead of marriage, mixed-race women and native Brazilian women faced long- or short-term consensual unions such as concubinage or cohabitation with single men, including priests, and clandestine or coercive sexual relationships with married men. According to the Constitutions promulgated by Archbishop D. Sebastião Monteiro da Vide in 1707, concubinage consisted in “an illicit relationship of a man with a woman continued for a considerable time.”17 Couples could be denounced by neighbors or authorities, and “those who are guilty . . . of living in concubinage with infamy, scandal, and perseverance in the sin” received first “admonitions and penances,” then criminal penalties for repeated offenses or when one member of the couple was already married. Parish priests apparently ignored cohabitation, the Constitutions of 1707 disregarded the sexual relations between landowners and slave women, and Jesuit missionaries valued compliance with Catholic doctrine above marital norms for the converted Brazilian Indians.18

The warnings against cohabitation and concubinage were barely heard by a populace that seemingly avoided the formalities of matrimony. Across the colony it was mostly unmarried, impoverished, and enslaved women who entered illicit liaisons with older, wealthier men of higher social status, but landowners, farmers, and civil officials, even when married to white women, exploited the sexual availability of their female slaves and servants. Some men recognized their “natural” children as heirs or petitioned for legal recognition but failed to extend their wealth and status to mistresses and concubines. Priests, too, kept servants or slaves in concubinage and thus were less likely to denounce the sexual sins of their neighbors.19 Little is recorded of women’s reactions to these relationships; the records more often use the convenient image of the sensuous woman of color—native, slave, or mixed-race—to excuse their male partners and assign sinful blame to the concubine.

Although the working poor resorted to marriage sanctioned by the Catholic Church when needed or possible, consensual unions were expedient at every level of society. Impoverished and marginalized women, whether single or widowed, established independent households and provided a stable home for their children, children’s partners, grandchildren, and other relations. Whereas younger or poorer women might live with a lover because of affection or need, older women might avoid marriage if it interfered with their rights concerning inherited property. When marriage was impracticable, free women typically cohabited with free men, but many temporary and even consensual relationships were between women and socially superior men, leaving slave, freed, and mixed-race women more vulnerable to violence and abandonment. Rates of illegitimacy reaching 65 percent in the 1700s in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais suggest that consensual relations were increasingly common among all levels of the population.20

The development of slavery in Brazil seemed inexorably linked to the sexual abuse of native Brazilian and African women. Patterns of inequality are revealed in their illicit relations: white men of the elite classes of government officials and landowning families kept native Brazilian, African, or mixed-race slave women as concubines; lower-class white men kept mixed-race, freed, or enslaved concubines; and mixed-race men and freed or enslaved men had slaves as concubines.21 Even as they blocked marriages among slaves and between slaves and masters, religious and civil authorities failed in restricting exploitation by masters. Prostitution similarly was condemned by religious and civil authorities as the erosion of the moral order, but poor and marginalized women turned to the practice to support themselves and their families, especially in the mining regions of colonial Minas Gerais. With few prospects for marriage, for most of the dispossessed population “prostitution represented . . . an accessible alternative in which free mulatas and black women, and more rarely white women, might guarantee the means for their own immediate survival and that of their dependents.”22

Same-sex relations among women were seldom discussed in colonial Brazil apart from the few inquisitional records that wrestled with the notion of women’s sexuality. Women’s desire was itself sinful even within marriage, but the inquisitors questioned whether the clandestine homosexual acts that occurred among women constituted sodomy, a grave sin under church doctrine. The sparse confessions and denunciations of women inclined toward “nefarious acts” suggest that same-sex relations were limited to amorous encounters among young women who were not yet married. In the 1500s, a handful of women confessed to repeated relationships of this kind, but few continued their preference for women in place of marriage. Their confessions were, however, short on details of their encounters, perhaps because the participants were discreet, or perhaps because of the lack of interest of the inquisitors.23

Religious Lives: Nuns, Witches, and Calundeiras

Portuguese women held their Catholic faith deeply, though their daily lives were not always consistent with the virtues and practices mandated by the Church. Portugal and its colonies were Roman Catholic by tradition and by law, so that all within the empire were at least nominally Catholic. Indigenous women and enslaved Africans were typically baptized as soon as they could affirm their belief in the Trinity, the saints who inspired miracles, the salvific power of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the damnation that awaited sinners. In towns and on plantations the image of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, represented the devout woman who guarded the true faith and instructed others under her care.24

Church teachings were integrated into women’s daily lives from childhood: the schedules of weekly masses and sacraments, prayer vigils, and minor domestic rituals shaped home life. Responsible for the transmission of key elements of Christianity to children, servants, and slaves, elite women supported popular festivals, attended processions, and kept oratórios, or home shrines for religious images and relics. Some who met stringent racial standards joined religious Third Orders for increased devotions as lay sisters or held honorary positions in lay confraternities. Some also pursued mystical experiences and contemplative and ascetic practices at home, fulfilling their own spiritual needs.25 But intensive devotions were often considered inappropriate because they would draw women from their proper tasks: elite women might abandon their devotion to family and charity, working women might neglect their family and subsistence, and slave women would ignore their masters.

Converts to Catholicism received both religious instruction and social restrictions from their new faith. The indigenous and mixed-race women living as the concubines of Portuguese men became “vocal Christians and strong supporters of the Jesuits” who advocated for the status of legitimate wives. Such women then served as translators during religious services and as independent preachers for the new religion. Just beyond the control of the Catholic Church, however, were indigenous religious prophets in Pernambuco who began movements called santidades by the colonists. Blending “Christian, Indian and possibly African beliefs into a meaningful religious experience” for indigenous slaves and others at the margins of Portuguese society beginning in the 1560s, such movements featured women in more powerful roles as “Mother of God” or as supporters resistant to the authority assumed by church officials.26 Elements of the santidades persisted for decades in local religious festivals and in the accounts taken during the first visitation by the Inquisition in the 1590s.

Resistance could also be observed among the descendants of Jewish converts to Catholicism who took refuge in Brazil in the late 1500s. These “New Christian” women repeated the prayers taught by priests in Portugal and Brazil and appeared at Catholic services but also preserved domestic rituals that revealed their Jewish roots. Women were denounced to the Inquisition for observing kosher dietary practices and mourning customs such as the pouring out of household water. Others reportedly observed the Sabbath on Saturdays with a change of clothes, worked on Sundays, or fasted in honor of Esther, activities that were well outside the calendar followed by practicing Catholics. Women healers of different ethnicities also found themselves outside the accepted religious roles, particularly when they used sacred phrases or objects to assist in their diagnosis and curing.27

Devout Catholic women, both unmarried and widowed, turned their homes into religious refuges for private devotions and even took informal vows to lead a simpler life without the benefit or burden of living in formal convents. Jesuit missionaries had inaugurated the use of such recolhimentos, or retreat houses, among indigenous converts, and Portuguese women created them for their own intense religious practice. Formal recolhimentos were built in nearly every captaincy of colonial Brazil, from the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição in Olinda, Pernambuco, in the 1580s to the cloister opened by the Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida in São Luis Maranhão in 1752.

Some women requested permission from the Church or from civil officials to establish these recolhimentos, and the Portuguese authorities tended to favor these as temporary shelters for young women. Other women, failing to win permission or intending to admit working, mixed-race or “fallen” women, simply set their own rules for an ascetic life apart from the world. Requests for the establishment of formal convents were denied until the late 1600s, so elite families that preferred to guard their daughters from undesirable marriages or other personal and financial risks sent them to convents in Portugal.28

Colonial policy encouraged white women to marry and raise families in the new lands, even while local town councils and wealthy families petitioned for the construction of cloisters that might educate local girls and shelter women who had no dowries or whose male guardians were absent. The first formal convent in colonial Brazil was Santa Clara do Desterro, established in the colonial capital in 1677; three additional convents were subsequently opened in Salvador between 1730 and 1751. Women’s motives for entering the convents and recolhimentos were complex and interwoven, involving economic, social, and religious concerns. Devout and ambitious women resided together, with support for both deeper spiritual development and independent business opportunities based within the convents. Women received donations, maintained relationships with family members outside of the cloister, and even managed their own properties in ways that profited the owners and the church as well.

Religious vows were not required for young students or for older and widowed women who paid to reside in the same cloisters as their female relatives. Many thus reaped the benefits of autonomy, education, and spiritual development within the cloisters, though women’s choices were still restricted by their ethnicity, status, and wealth. Impoverished women were rarely admitted without some personal or religious talents, and nonwhite women were effectively barred from entry and from taking vows. Forced confinement was also the fate of women who displeased their fathers or husbands or entered without vows as servants and slaves to the nuns.29 Convents and recolhimentos might also house beatas, or holy women, like Rosa Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz, a former slave and prostitute, whose religious writings and ecstatic visions of Mary and Jesus led her to found the Recolhimento do Parto in Rio de Janeiro.30

Well beyond the cloisters were the magic traditions that women interwove from the European, African, and indigenous religions in early colonial Brazil. According to records of the Inquisition, women’s magical practices concentrated on controlling their own fate and that of others through love magic, divinations, cursing, and curing. Women confessed to using magical spells and potions to manipulate their friends or to frighten their enemies, and denunciations recorded from the 1590s through the 1700s indicate that other women who encountered witches were more than willing to denounce them, albeit with hearsay. Although witchcraft was condemned as demonic, women denied association with the devil and justified their use of magic: it worked and was both familiar and common. European traditions of love magic and divination persisted through the colonial era and were used by women of different social classes, whereas the more unusual cures and curses employed by women of European and mixed ethnicities gradually incorporated indigenous Brazilian and African religious elements and symbols. In the later records of the visitation of the Inquisition to Belém do Pará in the 1760s, confessions and denunciations of women’s magic became infrequent, although individual witches who adapted indigenous rituals or threatened powerful men still drew the interest of the inquisitors.31

African women also celebrated their heritage alongside Rosa Egipcíaca in the recolhimentos of Rio de Janeiro as healers, as participants in the religious life of the Catholic Church, and just beyond its reach. Enslaved or free African women rarely appeared before the inquisitors, but a few revealed their willing knowledge of magical practices originating in medieval Europe. Others, especially in Minas Gerais, joined the well-regarded confraternities, such as the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary, that welcomed not only black or mixed-race members but also women who could contribute to their own social programs and lead the organizations as queens or “ministers.” Independent religious activities performed under the aegis of the confraternities and under the eyes of plantation owners outside the colonial centers included dances and drumming performed by enslaved Africans. Such calundus, which were known to colonists in the 1700s, ranged from elaborate nighttime ceremonies to the simpler creation of potions or protective amulets. Among their leaders was Luzia Pinta, whose religion was challenged by the Inquisition and whose legacy may still be seen today in Brazilian Candomblé.32

Although we have very few of women’s own ideas and words from colonial Brazil, their experiences shaped religion across the region, supporting local traditions, creating new religious institutions, and producing a vibrant heritage for imperial Brazil to continue under the Roman Catholic Church.

Discussion of the Literature

Because few women in colonial Brazil could read, write, or even sign their own names, most of the historical record derives not from women’s writings but from official records composed by men and occasionally directed at women’s edification or control. Until the shift to feminist and women-centered studies in the 1970s, historical accounts about women typically addressed fragments of their lives as they interacted with important male figures in the colonial Catholic Church. Susan A. Soeiro’s Social Composition of the Colonial Nunnery: A Case Study of the Convent of Santa Clara do Destêrro, Salvador, Bahia, 1677–1800 (1973) and Ann Pescatello’s Power and Pawn: The Female in Iberian Families, Societies, and Culture (1976), thus represented a breakthrough for Brazilian studies, drawing as they did on extensive archival research in Portugal and Brazil. In that same era, two other notable historians, A. J. R. Russell-Wood in “Women and Society in Colonial Brazil” (1977) and Charles R. Boxer in Women in Iberian Expansion Overseas, 1415–1815: Some Facts, Fancies and Personalities (1975) offered overviews of the social norms that stifled women. These studies responded to the shifting perspectives on colonial life and addressed women’s roles in economic and social spheres alongside analyses of religious activities.

With no autobiographies and few letters from women to shed light on their experiences in the colonial era, archived records of births, marriages, deaths, property sales, and wills have enabled limited study of women’s religious lives. Using these, scholars first examined the patterns of familial relations, with Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva’s Sistema de casamento no Brasil colonial (1984) leading in this newer direction. Mary Del Priore began her extensive work on Brazilian women in 1988 with A Mulher na história do Brasil, and Muriel Nazzari (1991) considered the impact of economic expectations on family dynamics in Disappearance of the Dowry: Women, Families, and Social Change in São Paulo, Brazil (1600–1900). Additional studies of women struggling with the conventions of domesticity followed, as can be seen in Fernando Torres-Londoño’s A Outra família: Concubinato, igreja e escândalo na colônia (1999) and in Kathleen J. Higgins’s “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-century Sabará, Minas Gerais (1999). Women’s influence as religious leaders, educators, and property owners in the northern captaincies has been the focus of more recent studies by Suely Creusa Cordeiro de Almeida in O Sexo devoto: Normatização e resistência feminina no império português, XVI–XVII (2005) and the essays in Antônio Emilio Morga’s edited volume História das mulheres do norte e nordeste brasileiro (2015).

Records kept by the Catholic Church have subsequently supported two different directions for researchers, the first on the growth of convents and religious retirement houses, and the second on women excluded from such religious devotion. Because such sources are difficult to find and decipher, scholars have focused more narrowly on women within a limited sphere, and the results have been incisive analyses of the women associated with the relatively few formal and informal cloisters in Brazil. Leila Mezan Algranti, in her Honradas e devotas: Mulheres da colônia; Condição feminina nos conventos e recolhimentos do sudeste do Brasil, 1750–1822 (1993), explored women’s demands for the autonomous space that religious cloisters might provide. The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were accorded only token acknowledgment among sisters in the elite convents, and they surrendered little of the comfort that their family wealth afforded them, so that, as Anna Amélia Nascimento noted in Patriarcado e religião: As enclaustradas clarissas do Convento do Desterro da Bahia 1677–1890 (1994), the cloister mirrored the social structure of colonial society.

Outside the cloistered retreats, women developed alternative religious lives, and the records from the official visits and trials of the Portuguese Inquisition and local episcopal inquiries reveal the extent of women’s creativity and resistance. Historians are now scrutinizing the entanglements that supporters and resisters of Catholic teachings produced in this era. This approach is put to best use in the expansive treatment of the alternative paths of sexuality and witchcraft by Laura de Mello e Souza, The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross (1986). Analytic essays on indigenous women and early colonial gender roles by Ronald Raminelli and Ronaldo Vainfas utilizing those resources are presented in História das mulheres no Brasil (1997). This author’s Amazons, Wives, Nuns, and Witches: Women and the Catholic Church in Colonial Brazil, 1500–1822 (2013) similarly draws from archival sources for a critical overview of women’s religious lives. More narrowly focused work may best be represented by Luiz Mott’s study of the late-colonial visionary in Rosa Egipcíaca: Uma santa africana no Brasil (1993); her transformation from sinner to saint (and back again) challenged the rather fixed categories that the Church had created for such women.

New transnational and thematic studies have continued to advance understanding of gender and the Catholic Church in colonial Brazil. The emergence of the Atlantic world as an area of study over recent decades has, however, left less room for gender studies or colonial studies, especially those concerning Brazil. Among the more fruitful efforts, however, are those by Alida C. Metcalf, especially in “Women as Go-Betweens? Patterns in Sixteenth-Century Brazil” (2007). Queer studies has encouraged further research into colonial sexualities, led by Ronaldo Vainfas in Trópico dos Pecados: Moral, Sexualidade e Inquisição no Brasil (1989) and Ligia Bellini in A coisa obscura: Mulher, sodomia e Inquisicão no Brasil colonial (1989). Whereas Vainfas opens a wider discussion of popular mentalities and individual actions countering the colonial institutions, Bellini carefully places women’s homosexual acts within the framework of the Inquisition’s condemnation of witchcraft. In so doing, she offers new perspectives on the conceptualization of women and women’s bodies in colonial Brazil that affect more than just sin and sex.

Primary Sources

Information about women’s religious lives in colonial Brazil is scattered in the Portuguese and Brazilian archives, but the materials are increasingly available to scholars in print and online. The records of the main visitations of the Portuguese Inquisition to Brazil, containing statements from Brazilian women confessing to crimes from apostasy to witchcraft, are located in Arquivo Nacional do Torre do Tombo, Inquisição de Lisboa, Lisbon (ANTT/IL), under Registros. Further documents that include trials of women may be found in Processos and Cadernos do Promotor (ANTT/IL). The archived documents are now accessible online in scanned versions, and portions of the confession and denunciation books from the Registers and Cadernos have been edited and published by João Capistrano de Abreu, Leonardo Dantas Silva, Eduardo D’Oliveira França and Sonia A. Siqueira, Rodolfo Garcia, Ana Margarida Santos Pereira, and José Roberto do Amaral Lapa.

Letters, petitions, and statutes written for and by women concerning convents and recolhimentos are bound with related papers in the Biblioteca Nacional, Manuscritos, Rio de Janeiro (BN), and published guides for girls’ schools are in Livros Raros (BN). Other religious records, including documents from the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Parto and the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Ajuda, are in the Catedral de São Sebastião, Arquivo da Cúria Metropolitano, Rio de Janeiro.

Letters and related Jesuit records edited by Serafim Leite provide context and details for women’s lives in early colonial Brazil, as do the published chronicles by contemporary visitors André João Antonil, Ambrósio Fernandes Brandão, Domingos do Loreto Couto, Nuno Marques Pereira, and, from the later colonial period, Mrs. [Nathanial Edward] Kindersley.

Arquivo Nacional do Torre do Tombo, Digital Archive.

Arquivo Nacional do Torre do Tombo, Inquisição de Lisboa 1536–1821.

Registro de Visitações (ANTT/IL).

Further Reading

Algranti, Leila Mezan. Honradas e devotas: Mulheres da colônia. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1993.Find this resource:

    Almeida, Suely Creusa Cordeiro de. O sexo devoto: Normatização e resistência feminina no império português, XVI–XVII. Recife: Imprensa Universitária da Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, 2005.Find this resource:

      Figueiredo, Luciano. O Avesso da memória: Cotidiano e trabalho da mulher em Minas Gerais no século XVIII. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1993.Find this resource:

        Kuznesof, Elizabeth A. Household Economy and Urban Development: São Paulo, 1765 to 1836. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986.Find this resource:

          Metcalf, Alida C. Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Parnaíba, 1580–1822. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.Find this resource:

            Nazzari, Muriel. Disappearance of the Dowry: Women, Families, and Social Change in São Paulo, Brazil (1600–1900). Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 1991.Find this resource:

              Mott, Maria Lucia de Barros. Submissão e resistência: A mulher na luta contra a escravidão. São Paulo: Editora Contexto, 1988.Find this resource:

                Myscofski, Carole A. Amazons, Wives, Nuns, and Witches: Women and the Catholic Church in Colonial Brazil, 1500–1822. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                  Pescatello, Ann M. Power and Pawn: The Female in Iberian Families, Societies, and Cultures. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.Find this resource:

                    Priore, Mary del, and Carla Beozzo Bassanezi, eds. História das mulheres no Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Contexto, 1997.Find this resource:

                      Soeiro, Susan A. “The Feminine Orders in Colonial Bahia, Brazil: Economic, Social and Demographic Implications, 1677–1800.” In Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives. Edited by Asunción Lavrin, 173–197. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.Find this resource:

                        Souza, Laura de Mello e, ed. História da vida privada no Brasil. Vol. 1, Cotidiano e vida privada na América portuguesa. Edited by Fernando A. Novais. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997.Find this resource:


                          (2.) Eduardo Hoornaert, “Terceiro período: A cristandade durante a primeira época colonial,” in História da Igreja no Brasil, ed. Eduardo Hoornaert (Petrópolis, Brazil: Editora Vozes, 1977), 346–350.

                          (3.) Alida C. Metcalf, “Women as Go-Betweens? Patterns in Sixteenth-Century Brazil,” in Gender, Race and Religion in the Colonization of the Americas, ed. Nora E. Jaffary (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 22–23.

                          (4.) António Vieira, “Carta LXIV, Ao Provincial do Brasil, May 22, 1653,” in Cartas do Padre António Vieira, ed. João Lúcio de Azevedo (Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 1925) 1:349–350.

                          (5.) Madre Maria Angela, A instrução feminina em São Paulo: Subsídios para sua história até a proclamação da República (São Paulo: Faculdade de Filosofia “Sedes Sapientiae,” 1962), 18.

                          (6.) Susan Soeiro, “The Social and Economic Role of the Convent: Women and Nuns in Colonial Bahia, 1677–1800,” Hispanic American Historical Review 54, no. 2 (1974): 228.

                          (7.) Leonardo Dantas Silva, ed., Primeira visitação do Santo Oficio às partes do Brasil: Denunciações e confissões de Pernambuco, 1593–1595, combined facsimile ed. (São Paulo: Homenagem de Paulo Prado, 1929), 30–32, 44–47, 181–183.

                          (8.) Madre Maria Angela, A instrução feminina, 43.

                          (9.) José Joaquim da Cunha de Azeredo Coutinho, Estatutos do Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Glória (Lisbon: Typographia da Academia Real das Ciências, 1798), 86–109, 76, 80.

                          (11.) Silva, Denunciações de Pernambuco, 65, 150, 361.

                          (12.) Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 289–291, 444–445.

                          (13.) Schuma Schumaher and Érico Vital Brazil, eds., Dicionário mulheres do Brasil de 1500 até a atualidade: Biográphico e ilustrado (Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 2000), 63, 206–207.

                          (14.) Hoornaert, “Terceiro período,” 312–316.

                          (15.) Eduardo D’Oliveira França and Sonia A. Siqueira, eds., “Segunda visitação do Santo Ofício às partes do Brasil: Livro das confissões e ratificações da Bahia, 1618–1620,” Anais do Museu Paulista 17 (1963): 407.

                          (16.) Donald Ramos, “Marriage and the Family in Colonial Vila Rica,” Hispanic American Historical Review 55 (1975): 209–222.

                          (17.) D. Sebastião Monteiro da Vide, Constituiçoens primeyras do Arcebispado da Bahia (Coimbra: Real Colegio das Artes da Companhia de Jesus, 1720), 364.

                          (18.) Hoornaert, “Terceiro período,” 316–317.

                          (19.) Kathleen J. Higgins, “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabará, Minas Gerais (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 110–113.

                          (20.) Sheila de Castro Faria, A Colônia em movimento: Fortuna e família no cotidiano colonial (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1998), 40–41, 60–61; Higgins, “Licentious Liberty,” 128–130.

                          (21.) Higgins, “Licentious Liberty,” 113–114.

                          (22.) Luciano Figueiredo, O Avesso da memória: Cotidiano e trabalho da mulher em Minas Gerais no século XVII, 2nd ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Editora José Olympio, 1999), 76, 78.

                          (23.) Ronaldo Vainfas and Zeb Tortorici, “Female Homoeroticism, Heresy, and the Holy Office in Colonial Brazil,” trans. Luiza Vainfas and Zeb Tortorici, in Sexuality and the Unnatural in Colonial Latin America, ed. Zeb Tortorici (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 87, 84–88.

                          (24.) Eduardo Hoornaert, “Terceiro período,” 370–371.

                          (26.) Alida C. Metcalf, Go-Betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500–1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 97, 219.

                          (27.) Silva, Denunciações e confissões de Pernambuco, 99–102, 110; Mott, “Cotidiano e vivência,” 194–196.

                          (28.) Algranti, Honradas e devotas, 83–85, 90–91.

                          (30.) Mott, “Cotidiano e vivência religiosa,” 182–183.

                          (31.) Myscofski, Amazons, 183–226.

                          (32.) Elizabeth W. Kiddy, Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Gerais, Brazil (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 5, 15, 93–94; Laura de Mello e Souza, The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil, trans. Diane Grosklaus Whitty (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 167–172.