Monjas cimarronas: conflicting normative frameworks and human dramas in early republican Peru


Once understood in the context of the narratives that give
it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be
observed, but a world in which we live.

Robert Cover (1983-1984)

Building upon the project Transgression, abjection and unfruitful pain. The case of Sister Dominga Gutiérrez de Cossío (Arequipa, Peru, 1831), which was developed while at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History (October 2019-November 2020), my current research incorporates and extends the work done on Sister Dominga. The primary aim is to identify and analyse other instances in which nuns struggled to free themselves from their perpetual vows and start a secularised life during the first decades of the newly founded Peruvian Republic (1821-1852), a period known as Derecho Intermedio in Peruvian legal historiography.

My objective is to identify the impact of the recently arrived 19th-century liberal nomos on the traditional normative framework that structured the life of nuns since colonial times. While priests were successful in freeing themselves from their perpetual vows for centuries, only at the beginning of the 19th century did cloistered nuns start to use different means to seek their freedom. One of those means was to appeal to the liberal legislation issued in the 1820s that allowed nuns and priests to leave their monastic orders, arguing serious reasons of conscience. Appealing to the natural right to self-preservation, which included claiming justice at ecclesiastical and civil courts, nuns developed an active legal subjectivity based on the bottom-up ‘practice’ of the Enlightenment (Premo 2017).

How was the notion of enlightened freedom (libertad ilustrada, Burns 2002) vernacularised and deployed in the judicial claims of monjas cimarronas to reject their perpetual vows, overcome their civil death and start a new life in the secular domain? Is it possible to determine the impact of the liberal rights regime on the conventual normative spatio-temporalities (Mecarelli and Solla 2016; Valverde 2014) of early republican Peru? How did the nuns´ engagement with the ecclesiastical and civil authorities shape the legal and political configuration of the young liberal republic?

To avoid procrustean interpretations, I will carefully document and compare the legal trajectories of their cases in order to ask how the ensuing jurisdictional conflict between ecclesiastical and civil authorities were handled as well as how the cases were decided. Depending on the richness of the sources located in the archives of cities like Lima, Arequipa, Cuzco and Huamanga, I will also attempt to find out how the dilemmas produced by the breach of the nuns´ perpetual vows played out in the court of conscience (Decock 2017).

Finally, I will document the legal and personal consequences of the secularisation requests and processes, as well as the normative response of their surrounding social bodies. As in the case of Dominga Gutiérrez (Guevara Gil 2019), it is highly likely that the implicit social and moral norms that governed the behaviour of the nuns and – in general – Catholics were stricter than the ones formally established by the Church. Thus, they were critical in shaping the social dramas and human consequences of their decisions. Tracing this ethereal and undefined yet finally binding social nomos is important for understanding how liberal ideas and policies were conditioned by protracted cultural norms and expectations that defined the republican order as a tertium quid (Guevara Gil 2021) and not as a triumphant attack of liberalism against the Ancien Régime that supposedly faded away after the Derecho Intermedio period.

Given the ideological, political and legal fluidity of the period, in which liberals and conservatives were embroiled in a fierce and shifting battle for the soul of the new republic, I expect to find differential outcomes and distinct rearrangements of the normative frameworks at odds. Portraying these rearrangements will, in turn, contribute to an alternative reading of 19th-century Peruvian history of law.

I contend that 19th-century Latin American legal history needs to be rewritten under the perspective of legal pluralism. The reason is simple. It is widely accepted that the Spanish empire was a composite monarchy (Yun-Casalilla 2019) that was the embodiment of legal pluralism (Benton and Ross 2013) due to its normative diversity and jurisdictional complexity. It is also taken for granted that the new liberal republics were obsessed, ab initio, with legal standardisation and centralisation, a mission supposedly accomplished by the mid-century. However, this is not the case, at least in Latin America. Antonio Manuel Hespanha reminds us that ‘19th-century liberalism proposed and promoted a policy of multiplying the sources of government of society’, (2019) to create an archipelago of communities (Levrau and Loobuyck 2018). Thus, contrary to what mainstream scholarship claims, the liberal nomos was not a triggering factor for legal standardisation but rather a breeding ground for legal plurality.

The normative and jurisdictional tension between the traditional Catholic Church and the modern nation-states epitomises this legal multiverse. Moreover, the secular conflicts between these fora had not only legal, political, social and economic consequences, but also human dimensions usually absent from systemic or structural narratives. It is precisely these conflictive normative frameworks and human dramas that I will study

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