Season 2, Episode 3: Full Interview with Professor Nancy E. van Deusen

Nancy E. van Deusen is professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is the author of Between the Sacred and the Worldly: The Institutional and Cultural Practice of Recogimiento in Colonial Lima and The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesús.

Hayley Bowman: Why and how, by your estimation, did purgatory (and what you call “purgatorial piety” in The Souls of Purgatory) appeal especially to early modern women? 

Professor Nancy E. van Deusen: That’s a great question, Hayley. There are many reasons, but I’ve, sort of,  identified six. One of them is that because women were not to be seen in public or they’re not supposed to preach, they’re not supposed to say mass or take confession. They could collect alms and after the Council of Trent, monastic enclosure was encouraged. And so because there were limitations to the kind of  social services they could do in the world—en el siglo, as they say in Spanish—I would argue, and I’ve argued elsewhere, that the interior lives of women were particularly well-developed. And so, because they had those restrictions, they went in, they went inward. They went into internal dialogue through a form of, what we would call medication or meditative stance, and in their relationship with God and with other, non-human beings.  

 The second reason why I think that purgatorial piety is really an active domain of women is because of medieval precedents. So you’re asking me about the early modern period, which I’m looking at —in my work, I talk about the 16th and 17th centuries. But these visionaries were relying on the work of medieval mystics  and visionaries–most notably Hildegard of Bingen, in the 12th century, Bergida of Sweden—who not only had visions of seeing souls in purgatory of working as intercessors to, lessen the purgatorial stay and the intensity of sins, but they were encouraged or, they really worked hard to write their own visions, and eventually these manuscripts were published, disseminated, circulated, translated. And so then they arrive in the early modern period, in translated into Spanish. And so women, in the 16th and 17th centuries, see these medieval sisters as exemplary, they see them as models. They see them as a way of developing their own sense of purgatorial piety on behalf of souls that are suffering and they feel connected to them. And so you have this “sororal dialogue” as I call it, that sort of crosses time and space. They’re not thinking of them in a linear kind of way. And so that then encourages them to follow their own path in terms of “purgatorial piety.”

The third reason is that it’s, “purgatorial piety” is safe. The Inquisition, you know, it’s formalized in the 1470s in Spain, but you don’t see the Inquisition putting visionaries and mystics on trial solely for purgatorial piety. It’s usually in combination with what they would accuse them as of arrobamiento or illuminated practices or false mysticism or being aligned with diabolical forces, but never for just purgatorial piety solely.  And so it’s a safe practice. It’s also very charitable because you’re working on behalf of others, within the mind within your visions. And, it becomes very well-developed and sort of what I would say, you know, on your CV, your spiritual CV, saving souls in purgatory is highly regarded. 

The other reason is that women were caregivers and in the early modern period, death is part of the life cycle. It’s just another extension of life. And so women are present at birth and they are often the caretakers at death preparing the corpse for burial saying prayers, et cetera. So purgatorial piety is sort of a natural extension of the social activities within the, the women are engaged in, in life. And so being an intercessor, working on behalf of a soul in purgatory is a natural extension of this.  

The other reason is that purgatory is something that 99.9% of all souls experience. You have to be very, very Holy, having lived an extremely pious life, to go directly to heaven. So purgatory is imagined as a space somewhere between heaven and hell. And it is part of global Catholicism. It is everywhere that Catholicism spreads. You have the notion of purgatory being part of that. Now, the idea that everyone does time in purgatory is a sort of a sobering reality for the living and for intercessors who are helping on behalf of the dead or for the living who are concerned about their loved ones who are dead, who have died. And so it’s, it’s on everybody’s minds, but purgatory, it’s a very, universalized space. It’s conceptually part of Catholic thinking. And yet at the same time, I would say that it’s a very, it’s a space for the imaginary and an act of imagination, and women are very active in conceptualizing how purgatory looks. It’s spatial configurations, it’s relationship spatially to heaven and hell, who they see in purgatory, the kinds of sins that are there, the kinds of punishments that are rendered for certain sins, et cetera. And so both spatially and conceptually women are visionaries, are the ones who are really, actively, making changes to how purgatory is conceptualized over time. 

The last reason is that, you know, there’s a historian named Carlos Eire who has written about purgatory, and purgatory in the early modern Catholic world becomes part of the, the sort of spiritual economy. So there are ways because people believed that they had to spend time in purgatory, theologians and male confessors actually promoted the publication and circulation of manuscripts or the visions that are encouraged to be written down by these visionaries as a way of sort of boosting the moral fiber of Catholic society.  But it is also a way of promoting the spiritual economy, in the sense that purgatory can make money for the church. Because if you say masses on behalf of the dead, that’s believed to help lessen the amount of time in purgatory. There are indulgences. And then of course, these intercessors themselves are consulted. And sometimes they make money doing this, to find out the whereabouts of dead souls in purgatory. So it kind of helps everybody economically and purgatory is part of the economy of Catholicism. So those are the sort of basic, some of the basic reasons why I think purgatorial piety is, really, a female, a feminine domain.  

Hayley Bowman: How do women, especially someone like Ursula de Jesús, fit into this kind of knowledge production? How do things like race and social class affect visionary experiences? Or, maybe more simply, how were ideas of purgatory (and its location, etc) shaped by the lived experiences of these women? 

Nancy E. van Deusen: Those are really important questions. I would say that thinking about purgatory in relationship to intersectionality is, is really an important way of understanding how a person’s social racial and political identities are combined to create modes of both discrimination and privilege. So they’re both two sides of the same coin. And I would add too, you know, when we talk about intersectionality of race and class and gender, I would add historicity, or what is also happening in that place where these women are living and experiencing purgatory. And of course that’s related to how things are gendered and racialized, et cetera. So they’re all sort of, that’s what intersectionality is about. So, I wanted to share an example of before I get into Ursula and women of color and their ideas of purgatory, I want to talk about, purgatory as it’s historicized by, in this case, a woman whose treatise I read on purgatory, a Spanish woman from Pamplona.  

So she’s Spanish, she comes from a privileged background and she was known for saving souls. Her name was Francisca del Santissimo Sacramento, and she was from Pamplona. And she received hundreds of visitations from souls, some of whom had lived in the convent or community where she was living. But what I found really interesting was that the way that Francisca conceptualized the cavities of purgatory or within purgatory, there were certain spaces where certain people went. She used the medieval idea of estates. So there were certain cavities where the clergy would go. There were certain cavities where the nobility would go, and the peasantry. And so that led me to think about, you know, the historical moment within which women are conceptualizing purgatory. Also keeping in mind that they’re borrowing again, going back to the sororal dialogue from their medieval, their medieval sisters, as it were, who are writing about it.  So they might be adapting and medieval constructs in the early modern period and, and carrying those forward. 

But in terms of  the intersectionality of race and class,  it depends on the demographic constituents of the convent, where these women are living or the beatario, lay pious house, where women went to live and took informal vows. And still thinking a little bit about privilege, when I was working on Ursula, I’ve wanted to read the purgatorial accounts of privileged Spanish, or Creole women to see if they are communing with servants and slaves, and helping to save those souls as well. And often that’s not happening. In the case of Maria de San Jose, who was an Augustinian nun in Mexico, her diary was translated and transcribed by Kathleen Myers, she would see women like her, of Spanish descent, because those are the women with whom she spent most of her time.  

So they would talk about doing purgatorial piety as if they were a slave, a slave of the slaves, but, it’s different from someone like Ursula. So if you read Ursula de Jesus’s diary… and just by way of introduction, she was a woman of African descent, but she was born in Peru at the beginning of the 17th century. Her mother was a slave. We don’t really know who her father was. Some say that he was a Spaniard, but I, I don’t have clear evidence of that other than from her biographer. And, she, you know, she was a slave and she lived in slavery and out in the world and in a convent. And so she experienced what it was like to do the labor, use your body as a laboring body on behalf of others, and particularly on behalf of nuns, so privilege or discrimination definitely have a really big role in the, the ways by which women configure purgatory, as well as who they see in their visions.  

Now, I’m not saying that no Spanish nuns are nuns of Spanish descent saw slaves, or servants. I’m not saying that at all, but it tends to be your cohort or the people with whom you spend your time. So Ursula, in particular is, you know, as a woman of color, she communicates a lot with people who were part of her world, the servile world, and she was privileged enough to become a donada, a religious servant. She was also fortunate to have a nun buy her freedom for her. So, she went from one class or she went from not being owner of her body to being the owner of her body, being a free woman. But by being a donada,  she was still a religious servant and having lived most of her life in the convent, she didn’t gain her freedom until she was in her forties. Some of the nuns still saw her and still discriminated against her, seeing her still as a kind of “free slave” as it were. And they ridiculed her mystic abilities thinking that she was arrogant. So Ursula had to grapple with that a lot. 

And you see in her visions and in her internal dialogues with her spiritual guides, like Saint Francis, question well, does the status of donada have any value? And St. Francis would say, of course. If you’re Spanish, you’re going to see it in a certain way, but God sees everyone on equal footing. And so,  I thought one in the most beautiful parts of Ursula’s diary was the way she represents purgatory as an equalizing space. So everyone has to spend time there and she sees the Queen of Spain. She sees priests, she sees nuns, but she also sees in one beautiful passage, a black woman, whom she had previously known, rise to heaven from purgatory.  And so she’s astonished, she says, “Oh, black women can go to heaven as well.” And so it’s an affirming passage, as are other passages, that everyone does. Purgatorial piety, death is a great equalizing force and everyone goes to heaven. And so,  she, you know, that’s a really important component of the constituency that she is talking to in her visions. 

The other part of that is that in the convent, and this has to do with the environment—she’s living in the city of Lima. Over 50% of Lima’s population is of people of African descent. So the convents and in this case, the convent of Santa Clara is a reflection of the larger demographic. It’s  like a sample of the larger demography of Lima. And in the convents of Lima, nuns had servants and slaves. And the ratio between women of survival status and women who are nuns either of the black or the white veil can be one to one, or even two servants or slaves per every nun. So nuns are pampered, used to being waited on, and the servile class is quite large in these convents. So you have these communities of laboring women, but you have communities of this servile class, that’s also very, very devout and pious. They are not just laboring beings. And so for someone like Ursula, she is then a model for other young women of color to emulate and to either aspire to become a donada or to maaybe receive the gift of God to become a visionary herself. And, that’s why I think that Ursula, you know, still resonates with people today in the barrio, the neighborhood, where the convent is. People of very humble backgrounds would go into the convent, and they used to have her portrait there, and they would pray to her to intercede on their behalf, maybe not for purgatory, but to help them with a prayer that they want answered. So, those are some of my thoughts about that. Did you have any follow-up questions?  

I have one other broader answer to your question about purgatory. I think beyond the social aspects of who mystics and visionaries of  Ursula saw purgatory, and where they saw them, in the kinds of sins, they, they saw them, the purgatorial fire that they were experiencing, I would say that thinking about purgatory, it was a way of understanding broader conceptual ideas of blackness, of spiritual whiteness, and purity. You see that in the work of scholars,  like Larissa Brewer-García and Erin Rowe, and purgatory as a colonial base—colonial in the sense that Catholicism spread around the world. I’ve already talked about that, but it spread around the world, so certain notions of humanity in relationship to the beyond, but that at the same time, cues and notions of the relationship between humanity to the beyond and, and sin and salvation were adapted in specific ways, by specific people in different colonial contexts and women are at the foreground of this—women of color, Spanish women., it doesn’t matter. They’re the ones who are taking this universalized notion and reconfiguring it in very creatively, they’re very creatively reconfiguring and reconceptualizing it in these colonial settings. And so Ursula is, she’s dealing with the cards that she has been dealt and those help configure her concerns. It configures who she talks to, how she saves people, et cetera, but she’s also part of a larger, you know, colonial world. She, like other female visionaries, are very actively participating in this, this very rich, colonial world of purgatory.  

Well, thank you for inviting me to share some of my thoughts, and for the general audience, I think that understanding purgatory purgatorial priority the participation of women in those intersex sorial activities is a good window into the early modern world, understanding the early modern world.