Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body? Part III

This is the third of five blog-posts going back to an article which originally appeared online in La Habana Elegante – Revista de literatura y cultura cubana, caribeña, latinoamericana, y de estética. Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V

Ironically, the very visibility of the body could sometimes lead to unusual challenges by colonial authorities. In Nueva Granada in the 1670s the Jesuit Diego Ximenez was caught in the snares of the Inquisition tribunal as the distance between the nascent medical establishment, the common man and other religious colonial authorities, were brought to the fore.[1] These intriguing events also challenge our perceptions of personal boundaries and the bodies of colonial subjects. Briefly, the witness against the priest testified that one morning he was walking through the city behind his mules, wearing only a shirt.[2] The Jesuit called him over and began to discuss his genitals with him, explaining that there was something wrong with his penis and he could fix it by cutting off a small piece of skin. When the witness agreed to this procedure, without giving the details of how or when it was performed, one of his friends interpreted it as a circumcision, and gossip began spreading that the Jesuit had circumcised the fellow. Ximenes’s enemies in the convent seized upon this to accuse him of crypto-Judaism before the tribunal of the Inquisition. In his confession the Jesuit indicated that he had been trained as a surgeon. He described the scene leading up to the accusations, stating that when the unnamed fellow had walked by with his mules, the priest had noticed a defect in the man’s genitals. He stopped him and explained to him that he would never be able to have normal sexual relations unless he agreed to have a part of the prepuce removed, to which he agreed, and the small surgery was performed. Rather than a nefarious religious subterfuge, this was a question of sexual health according to the accused Jesuit. The sardonic suggestion from the Suprema in Spain when the case came to its attention was that perhaps the colonial tribunal should have examined the Jesuit to see if he himself was circumcised, before they went to the trouble and expense of a long process. Since Ximenes was eventually examined and the fiscal stated there was no sign of circumcision, the case was immediately dropped. The body of the witness became a public document in this series of events, the source of the accusation, while the Jesuit’s own body was the evidence sealing his innocence and proof of his Christianity.

Reading the body was an accepted form of obtaining evidence and in some cases, when used to determine proof of gender a happy outcome might result. Lisa Vollendor cites the case of Magdalena Munoz, a nun who spent 12 years in a Spanish convent. in 1612 Munoz experienced the emergence of his male genitalia after having strained mightily to carry a heavy load. He consulted with the local priest, his confessor, who with the concurrence of another priest physically examined him, pronounced him a man, perfectly formed, and sent him home to his father who was overjoyed to discover he had son.[3] Eleno/a de Cespedes would not have such luck. In 1587, a few decades before Magdalena’s case arose, the Inquisition struck down his claim that he was a hermaphrodite. The decision was based upon a physical examination that failed to reveal a penis and testicles, though he said he had suffered a type of cancer that had caused his member to atrophy and he had snipped it off bit by bit. In the 16th and early 17th century, physical exams came to play an important part in categorizing sex. Anatomy was a determining factor, Magdalena was a man because she had a penis, Eleno was a woman because he did not.

Similarly, in a case from the English colonies Thomasina/Thomas Hall, found him/herself dragged before the Virginia general court in the mid-17th century, charged with being a transvestite. The ambiguity of Thomas’s anatomy led the court to impose a strange and putative sentence that reflected its uncertainty about his sexuality and his gender. He was condemned to wear men’s clothing, so as to save women from his deceitful desires, but he also had to wear a woman’s headscarf and an apron.[4] In this case, as in Eleno’s there was no way the court would allow the individual to self-identify. There were profound social reasons that mandated these intersex individuals be defined as either male or female, and yet, that identity would be imposed upon them. Israel Burshatin argues that in Eleno’s case this was because by the time he came to trial, he no longer had the penis and testicles that he claimed he had had. Given the phallocentric nature of the gender hierarchy in Spain in the 17th century, this author argues that the penis made the man, thus Elano could not be a man.[5] Thomas Hall had a confusing body, according to the testimony and thus was relegated to a strange gender limbo, prominently portrayed through his dress. In the case of Juana, another intersexed individual who confounded the protomedico in early 19th century Guatemala, Martha Few suggests that the ambiguity of her/his body led to a complete denial of identity. Within the context of Atlantic world science, the doctor suggested that Juana la Larga as she was commonly known, was neither male nor female, and he did not accept that she/he might be a hermaphrodite, or a third sex. She/he was relegated to a strange non-existence that belied the excess of her/his physical make-up. [6]

Returning to the body of Martina Parra, however, the corregidor viewed the case in early 19th century Nueva Granada as worthy of the attention of the audiencia and subsequently sent Parra to the vice-regal capital to be dealt with by the more sophisticated judicial and medical apparatus than that which was available in his rustic community. Still, there was an underlying current of collusion in the statement the corregidor sent to the chancellor of the audiencia, a willingness to become part of an exclusive club of modern, learned men, by offering this token of study. « You, sir, as a lover of the advancement of letters, will have the occasion to give the school of medicine and surgery a subject to be inspected by those learned men which might help spur the debates about the two sexes raised by some of the renown moderns.”[7] This was a pattern of behavior and attitude that historian Manuel Lucena touched upon in his discussion of the items welcomed into the gabinete del rey in Madrid, in the latter part of the 18th century. The ‘greatest attraction’ for the visitors to the Royal Cabinet was Pedro Antonio Cano, a living giant from New Granada who was put on display.[8] Thus, the baroque or irregular, the unfit, if we are speaking of an ordered world, the unusual, these were considered worthy of curiosity and study. However, enlightened medical men would consider them for their scientific merit, and not with the gawking awe of the common public. It was within this same spirit that in 1795 the governor of Panama, Antonio Narvaez y de la Torre wrote to the duke of Alcudia about Ana Maria Franco, a woman in Veragua who was reported to be 140 years old. Narvaez wrote that he thought this might be of interest to the court and sent along a detailed pseudo-scientific report about her state of health and activities. She apparently had a 90-year old daughter, walked several leagues daily to attend mass, and had the teeth of a 15-year old.[9] In the margins it was suggested that this news be placed in the gazette. Thus, in the same manner that Pedro Antonio Cano, the Colombian giant displayed in the theoretically Enlightened institution of the Royal Cabinet, became the focus of much public attention and fascination, cases of curiosities like Franco’s longevity and Martina Parra as hermaphrodite were viewed as worthy of the interest and judgement of scientific men. However, those professionals would approach evident anomalies with the method needed to categorize and classify and they told themselves and each other that they would avoid the vulgar, gullible and credulous gaze of the common folk. Part and parcel of this new gaze was the inclination to debunk or challenge these apparently ‘unnatural’ occurrences.

Before sending Martina off though, the corregidor did interrogate Juana Maria Martines to formulate some understanding of the complaint. When he took Martines’s testimony she relayed a story that delved into the intimate details of her life over the last year. She explained that in August or September her husband had died, and a few days later Martina Parra had come to live in her house as her companion. One day they had gone to Nemocon to sell a load of firewood, and in the afternoon, as they returned home to Suesca, Martines had gotten sleepy, since they had drunk some chicha. Suggesting to Parra that they should rest, they went off the road a bit and laid down to have a siesta. She then awakened to find that Martina had uncovered her buttocks and even while she scolded Parra for this act, they subsequently began to live together in mal estado, in a bad way. [10] This was possible she explained because Martina had the sexual parts of a woman, but when they sinned, or had sex, a member emerged from her, just like that of a man, and they cohabited as man and woman. But, she stated, Parra also menstruated. She testified that this was the truth, that she was over 40 years old and did not know how to sign her name.[11] The corregidor thus wrote to the audiencia on December 10th, explaining the case and that he was sending Martina Parra, “con titulo de mafrodita”, to Santa Fé de Bogotá, charged with having lived an impure life with Juana Martines. In this letter though, the corregidor also explained that he was suspicious that perhaps this Martina Parra was one and the same as Ygnacia, a woman who had come to his parish before he was corregidor, and who had “used women with an artifice that she had made, and that she wore it as though she were a man” (la qual usaba de las mugeres con un artificio que havia hecho y trahia puesto de varon).[12] In order to verify his suspicions he called various witnesses who had known Ygnacia so that they would have a look at Martina Parra to see if it was the same person. However, they all testified that it was not her, and some, including Martina, stated that Ygnacia had left Zipaquira and made her way to Bogotá. Thus, it appears that while Ygnacia made quite an impression upon the community she maintained her freedom although people gossiped about her. She was able to escape retribution, even when suspected of what amounted to female sodomy, but her notoriety remained.


[1] See Archivo Historico Nacional, España, Inquisiciones, Libro 1023 Relaciones de Causas Criminales de fe, Fls. 285r-288. 1680. Though the case was dismissed in 1680, the accusation had been made in 1676, so the Ximenes was transported to the Inquisition cells in Cartagena from Santa Fe de Bogotá.

[2] Nudity or partial nudity was one of the marks of barbarism that the conquistadors associated with indigenous and African populations and was railed against throughout the colonial period.Thus we can deduce the social level to which this witness belonged. For civility and barbarism and clothing see Adriana Maria Alzate Echeverri, Suciedad y Orden: Reformas sanitarias borbonicas en la Nueva Granada 1760-1810. Escuela de Ciencias Humana, Bogota :2007, p. 132.

[3]Vollendor, pp. 11-12.

[4] Elizabeth Reis, “Impossible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620-1960,” Journal of American History, September 2005, vol. 92, no. 2, pp. 418-419.

[5] Israel Burshatin, “Written on the Body Slave or Hermaphrodite in 16th century Spain” in Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson eds. Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, 1999, pp. 446-447, and Vollandor, p. 19. Behrend-Martinez would concur that manhood was written upon the body, according to the early modern evidence he uncovered in a number of court cases dealing with hermaphrodites, castrati, and impotent men. They measured masculinity against these non-masculine bodies, by subjecting them to examinations and feminizing them even more through this process. p.1076.

[6]Few, p. 165. The fact that a hermaphrodite would be a ‘monster of nature’ in the doctor’s opinion led to his refusal to accept its possibility, Few, p. 160.

[7] AGN, Colombia, Colonia, Criminales, Tomo 96, fl. 220r. “Vuestro Senor que amante del adelantamiento de las letras tendra esta ocacion de dar a la escuela fisico-medica, y quirurgica un sugeto que inspecionnado por los sabios la pudiera ser material de apurar el dubio de los dos sexos exitado por algunos de los celebres modernos. »

[8] See Manuel Lucena Giraldo, “Baroque Monsters in Enlightened Madrid: The First Collections of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History, in Jouve-Martín, José Ramón and Soulodre-La France, Renée, Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, La Consitución del Barroco Hispánico Problemas y Acercamientos, Vol. 33, No.1, (Otoño 2008) pp. 122-130, p. 128.

[9] Archivo General de Indias, (Hereafter AGI), Estado,51, N 4. Comandante General Panama sobre Ana Maria Franco. 1795.

[10] It is of note that this transgression of sexual norms would occur in the countryside, outside the traditional boundaries of the town, as also usually occurred when people were accosted by devils for example.

[11] AGN,Colonia, Criminales, Tomo 96, fl. 219r. Testimony taken in Zipaquira on 12 November 1803.

[12] Ibid., fl. 220r. For same-sex desire and masturbation in the colonial setting see Zeb Tortorici, “Masturbation, Salvation, and Desire: Connecting Sexuality and Religiosity in Colonial Mexico,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Sept. 2007, vol. 16, Issue 3, pp. 355-372.

Suggested citation: Renée Soulodre-La France, What is in a body?, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 23/02/2018,

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