Monstrous Births in Mexican History

Among the works housed in the rare book collection of the, located within a former Dominican monastery in Oaxaca City is an edition of the eminent naturalist Francisco Hernández’s tract treating the natural history of New Spain, Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus. Platarum Animalium (1651). A single handwritten page and drawing (the verso of which is pictured below), evidently taken from a longer manuscript, has been inserted into Hernández’€™s work, following his discussion of a calf born with two heads. The manuscript’s text announces that in the town of Santa Catharine Quijenee, in the bishopric of Oaxaca on 14 June 1741,

Doía Pasquala Chaves, legitimate wife of Don Manuel de Aguilar, indios caciques and residents of the said town, gave birth (having started to labour at eight the night before) to a dead girl that had two heads that were perfect in every way, and between them was something like a little arm… [1]

The manuscript’s author wrote that he had elected to insert it into the pages of Hernández’s text next to the latter’€™s description of a €œsimilar monster although a calf. Beside the image of the monstrous baby, a further notation reads: €œAt present, there is in this monastery a chicken with four wings and as many feet, two on each side.

As well as associating the two-headed infant, naturalistically, to the birth of a two-headed cow and a four-winged chicken, the author used distinctive language to describe the newborn. He declared that the baby’s body was €œperfect in all its elements (except for the heads). Once its internal organs were examined, these too were declared €œcabales” (without defect). For eighteenth-century writers, the term perfect” carried multiple meanings: high moral virtue, beauty, the quality of being well-formed, agility, superiority, and also “complete or fulfilled in its line. Whatever the meaning, however, the connotations of the term were positive.

I am using this source, along with many descriptions of monstrous newborns published in the contemporary Gazeta de México to decipher how New Spaniards in the era of Mexico’€™s Enlightenment, understood monstrosity. What are the reasons for the seemingly positive connotations with which this author and his contemporaries associated monstrous productions? How did their understandings compare to those generated in other contexts? How did local concerns and influences shape their perceptions?

End note
[1] There is a community called Santa Catarina Quiane just south of Oaxaca City. Penélope Orozco Sánchez, the library’s curator told me that the library had no means of further tracing the larger manuscript from which this pageis extracted, or its author.

. She can be reached at njaffary@alcor.concordia.ca

Suggestions for further reading

Martha Few, Atlantic World Monsters: Monstrous Births and the Politics of €¨Pregnancy in Colonial Guatemala,” in Gender and Religion in the Atlantic World (1600-1800), ed. Lisa Vollendorf and Dana Kostroun, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), pp. 205-222.

—- “‘That Monster of Nature’: Gender, Sexuality, and the Medicalization€ of a ‘Hermaphrodite’ in Late Colonial Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 54:1 (Winter 2007), pp. 159-176.

Virginia Guedea, €œLa medicina en las gacetas de México, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 5: 2 (Summer, 1989), pp. 175-199.


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