Amazons, Wives, Nuns, and Witches

[ Latin American Studies ]

Amazons, Wives, Nuns, and Witches

Women and the Catholic Church in Colonial Brazil, 1500-1822

By Carole A. Myscofski

Writing Brazilian women back into history, this book presents the first comprehensive study in English of how women experienced and understood their lives within the society created by the Portuguese imperial government and the colonial era Roman Catholic Church.

November 2013


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6 x 9 | 320 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-4773-0219-4

The Roman Catholic Church played a dominant role in colonial Brazil, so that women’s lives in the colony were shaped and constrained by the Church’s ideals for pure women, as well as by parallel concepts in the Iberian honor code for women. Records left by Jesuit missionaries, Roman Catholic church officials, and Portuguese Inquisitors make clear that women’s daily lives and their opportunities for marriage, education, and religious practice were sharply circumscribed throughout the colonial period. Yet these same documents also provide evocative glimpses of the religious beliefs and practices that were especially cherished or independently developed by women for their own use, constituting a separate world for wives, mothers, concubines, nuns, and witches.

Drawing on extensive original research in primary manuscript and printed sources from Brazilian libraries and archives, as well as secondary Brazilian historical works, Carole Myscofski proposes to write Brazilian women back into history, to understand how they lived their lives within the society created by the Portuguese imperial government and Luso-Catholic ecclesiastical institutions. Myscofski offers detailed explorations of the Catholic colonial views of the ideal woman, the patterns in women’s education, the religious views on marriage and sexuality, the history of women’s convents and retreat houses, and the development of magical practices among women in that era. One of the few wide-ranging histories of women in colonial Latin America, this book makes a crucial contribution to our knowledge of the early modern Atlantic World.


Introduction. Amazons and Others

Chapter 1. Amazons and Cannibals: Imagining Brazilian Women in the Colonial Period

Chapter 2. The Body of Virtues: The Christian Ideal for Brazilian Women

Chapter 3. Reading, Writing, and Sewing: Education for Brazilian Women

Chapter 4. Before the Church Doors: Women as Wives and Concubines

Chapter 5. Freiras and Recolhidas: The Reclusive Life for Brazilian Women

Chapter 6. Women and Magic: Religious Dissidents in Colonial Brazil

Conclusion. Closing the Colonial Era




Myscofski is McFee Professor of Religion at Illinois Wesleyan University. She served as the area editor for ‘New Religions’ for the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion and as the editor of the American Academy of Religion Academy Series published by Oxford University Press.

“This beautifully written book will be useful as a an introductory survey for students and a rich source of bibliography for specialists.” 
The Historian

“The insights related to women in convents and changes in magic as an aspect of religious practice and everyday life will be interesting to scholars.” 
The Americas

“This is history at its best—nuanced, animated, and theoretically informed. Like the bandeirantes of colonial Brazil, Myscofski is a trailblazer leading us into the uncharted territory of the lives of women during the era of Portuguese dominion. After reading this book, students of Brazilian and Latin American history, religion, and gender studies will have a much better grasp of the complex intersections between women and the Catholic Church during the colonial era.”
—R. Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University

“There is no [other] text that I know of that examines the broader history of women in colonial Brazil, nor the norms that attempted to keep women in their places. . . . In addition, there are no works that bring together the relationship between women and the church in colonial Brazil. Some works on colonial confraternities touch on issues of gender, but do not put them at the center of the story. In short, this will be a welcome addition to the colonial history of Brazil because of its broad scope and its new approach to the material.”
—Elizabeth W. Kiddy, Director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Associate Professor of History, Albright College, and author of Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Geraís, Brazil