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

Research Project

In this project, I study the lives and deeds of monjas cimarronas, in particular the dramatic case of Dominga Gutierrez de Cossio, to determine the impact of liberal law in their efforts to challenge Church law, free themselves from their perpetual vows, and start a secularized life. To explore the conflicting normativities and ideological claims at stake, I will focus on the first decades of the newly founded Peruvian republic, a period known as Derecho Intermedio (1821-1852), in Peruvian legal historiography.

From all the cimarronas, Dominga´s case was the most spectacular, indeed. In 1831, after refusing to renounce her perpetual vows, she escaped from her convent in Arequipa, Peru. With the help of her servants, she smuggled a female corpse into her cell, set a fire that disfigured her face, and sought refuge in her uncle´s estate. When her fellow nuns found the burned body, they mourned and buried Dominga. But the truth was discovered soon. Dominga was not dead, but alive and well, though she was stigmatized fatally or the rest of her life.

Her deeds sparked several legal battles between the secular and ecclesiastical authorities, to the point that both the Roman Pope and the Supreme Court of the young republic adjudicated her lawsuits. The paper trail of her tribulations is substantial, but other nuns also attempted to use the new liberal laws and ideas to win their freedom.

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 freedom. One such means was an appeal to the liberal legislation issued in the 1820s that allowed nuns and priests to leave their monastic orders by 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) vernacularized and deployed in the judicial claims of monjas cimarronas willing to abandon the sacred domain and enter the secular one? 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? Examining lawsuits from Arequipa, Lima and Cuzco, I will compare the legal trajectories of their cases and assess how the ecclesiastical and civil authorities handled their cases.

I will also document the legal and personal outcomes of the secularization 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 behavior of the nuns were stricter than the ones formally established by the Church. Thus, they were critical in shaping the social reaction to their decisions. Tracing this ethereal and undefined yet finally binding social nomos is important for understanding how liberal laws, ideas and policies were conditioned by protracted cultural norms and expectations that lasted well into the century.

In short, I will study the normative and jurisdictional tension between the Catholic Church and the Peruvian modern nation-state as epitomized in secularization processes. I am interested not only in the legal and political consequences of these conflicts, but also in the human dramas they unleashed.



Burns, Kathryn (2002)
Monjas descarriadas y padres de la ciudad: conventos, género y “libertad” en el Cuzco a comienzos del siglo XIX, in:
Flores, Javier y Rafael Varón (eds.), El hombre y los Andes. Homenaje a Franklin Pease G.Y., Lima, tomo II, 1105-1114
Guevara Gil, Armando (2019)
Las penas de la monja Dominga Gutiérrez (Arequipa, Perú, 1831), in:
Gaune, Rafael y Claudio Rolle (eds.), Homo Dolens. Cartografías del dolor: sentidos, experiencias, registros, Santiago de Chile, 107-133
Mecarelli, Massimo, María Julia Solla Sastre (2016)
Spatial and Temporal Dimensions for Legal History: An Introduction, in:
Mecarelli, Massimo and María Julia Solla Sastre (eds.), Spatial and Temporal Dimensions for Legal History. Research Experiences and Itineraries, Frankfurt, 3-24
Premo, Bianca (2017)
The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire, New York
Valverde, Mariana (2014)
“Time Thickens, Takes on Flesh”. Spatiotemporal Dynamics in Law, in:
Braverman, Irus et al. (eds.), The Expanding Spaces of Law. A Timely Legal Geography, Stanford, 53-76
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