Latin American Studies Nuns and Convents in Colonial Latin America
Mónica Díaz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0249


Soon after European settlements were established in Latin America, the Catholic Church became the most important colonial institution, extending its power to all aspects of life. Prevalent views on gender among the new settlers and religious authorities, and an environment of religious fervor, fostered the rapid creation of female convents in the urban centers of Mexico and Peru in the mid-16th century, spreading to other areas of the continent later during the colony. Female cloisters were already common in the Iberian Peninsula since the Middle Ages, yet they became more popular after the religious revival of the Counter-Reformation (1545–1648). The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (b. 1515–d. 1582) became the model for many women to follow in the Hispanic world. Her reform of the Carmelite order brought even more popularity to the already widespread practice of life in the convent for women of all social classes. Nuns followed a religious rule that emulated the life of the saints and Jesus; they kept a strict schedule that included prayer, spiritual exercises, and physical penitence. The reformed orders would also harvest their food, make their clothes, and take care of housekeeping, while the unreformed cloisters allowed servants and slaves to perform those chores. The nuns who entered the latter convents had to provide a dowry, while nuns in reformed convents lived out of charity. Choosing conventual life was common during this time period. However, their choice was not always informed by religious devotion; many times it responded to social circumstances. The convent became a solution for the increasing number of women of European descent who could not find suitable husbands in the postconquest years in Latin America. Religious and gendered views of the time encouraged the protection of women from the dangers of the world. Women were considered weak and more prone to sin, therefore their enclosure and close supervision by male religious authorities was not only deemed ideal but also necessary; at the same time women were seen as simpleminded and therefore more likely to receive spiritual favors from God. Nuns’ prayers were considered beneficial for those whom they interceded for. Ultimately it became a matter of social and spiritual status for a city to be able to establish a convent. However, convents were not monolithic institutions, and significant differences existed between them depending on the place where they were established, the rule they followed, and the political and economic circumstances of the times.

General Overviews

The study of convents and nuns became popular at the end of the 1980s, thanks to the work of feminist scholars who found that convents provided nuns with certain autonomy, and also gave them access to libraries and musical culture. These elements fostered an education that most women in that time period could not attain outside of the convent. The scholarship dedicated to cloisters and nuns in colonial Latin America has been an interdisciplinary endeavor that began with the work of Mexican historian Josefina Muriel. The first general overview of convents in Mexico is Muriel 1995, which is a descriptive work in Spanish surveying all the conventual foundations that took place in New Spain (today Mexico) from the 16th to the late 19th century. A more comprehensive overview of the meaning of religious life and life in the convent can be found in several publications by another pioneer in the field, historian Asunción Lavrin. Lavrin 1983 and Lavrin 1986 are two chapters that appeared in edited volumes that provide a good general overview of the topic. Gonzalbo Aizpuru 1987 is a chapter that focuses primarily on the educational purpose that convents in New Spain fulfilled. Ramos Medina 1995 provides a general overview of the state of the field as it was in the early 1990s when academics gathered to share ideas during one of the first international congresses dedicated to religious women in the Hispanic world. Lavrin 2008 is a monograph that, while its main focus is on Colonial Mexico, it offers an in-depth view of life in the convent in general. Socolow 2000 is another chapter dedicated to religious women included in a monograph on women in colonial Latin America written by historian Susan Socolow. It offers a general overview of the possibilities that religious culture afforded women during that time. Chowning 2008 is an essay that reviews, in a general way, the scholarship dedicated to convents and religious women in Mexico.

  • Chowning, Margaret. “Convents and Nuns: New Approaches to the Study of Female Religious Institutions in Colonial Mexico.” History Compass 6.5 (September 2008): 1279–1303.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2008.00546.x

    An overview of the scholarship on Mexican convents. It identifies the trends from the late 1990s to the time the article was written, although with a heavy focus on historical works: (1) scholarship by historians on religious women who are not nuns, (2) works by historians who study 16th–18th-century convents, and (3) studies on nun’s spirituality and community. It also notes the way conventual culture changed over time.

  • Gonzalbo Aizpuru, Pilar. “La vida de perfección.” In Las mujeres en la Nueva España: Educación y vida cotidiana. By Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, 213–252. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1987.

    This chapter explains that convents in New Spain were not only places for women to become nuns but were also places where girls could receive an education. It also describes the convents that were founded in Mexico and how the order that established them and the religious rule they followed made each convent unique. The most observant convents did not accept girls for education purposes as did the larger ones.

  • Lavrin, Asunción. “Women and Religion in Spanish America.” In The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods. Vol. 2 of Women and Religion in America. Edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, 42–78. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

    Within a book dedicated to women and religion in the Americas, this chapter offers a general synthesis of the Spanish American context. It explains the key role that religion played in the colonization of the new territories, and the ways in which religious institutions and practices were transplanted from Europe. It also explains the reasons why women would enter a convent and the importance these places had in colonial society.

  • Lavrin, Asunción. “Female Religious.” In Cities and Society in Colonial Latin America. Edited by Louisa Shell Hoberman and Susan Migden Socolow, 165–195. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

    This chapter focuses specifically on convents within the context of new established cities in colonial Latin America. It explores the complexities of founding a convent and explains the roles that different actors had in the process of establishing one. It also touches on the reasons why women chose life in the convent and provides examples of women from different social backgrounds and the options they had when choosing religious life.

  • Lavrin, Asunción. Brides of Christ: Conventual Life in Colonial Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780804787512

    This is the most complete overview of life in the convent during colonial times. Lavrin’s primary sources come from colonial Mexico, yet her detailed study is applicable to any cloister in the Hispanic world. She devotes chapters to the spiritual meaning of religious life, to daily life, to governance and relationships with male authorities, and to sexuality. There is also a chapter about the convents that were founded for indigenous women.

  • Muriel, Josefina. Conventos de monjas en la Nueva España. Mexico: Jus, 1995.

    Originally published in 1946, this is an encyclopedic book that provides general information about the conventual foundations in New Spain, beginning with the first foundation in 1540 and ending with the last convent that closed its doors in the 19th century. The book is organized by religious order; it details their characteristics, their origins, and the specificities of each of the order’s foundations in the different cities of colonial Mexico.

  • Ramos Medina, Manuel, ed. El monacato femenino en el imperio español: Monasterios, beaterios, recogimientos y colegios. Proceedings of a conference held in Mexico City, 29–31 March 1995. Mexico City: Centro de Estudios de Historia de México, 1995.

    A volume that stemmed from an international congress organized in honor of Josefina Muriel’s work on women and religious culture. The six keynote presentations are included in the first part of the volume: one by Muriel about her fifty years writing the history of women. The rest of the chapters are divided in thematic sections focusing on conventual economy, foundations, case studies, education and culture, and life in the convent.

  • Socolow, Susan. “The Brides of Christ and Other Religious Women.” In The Women of Colonial Latin America. By Susan Socolow, 90–111. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511840074

    The author’s descriptive style makes it a good source for undergraduate teaching. It provides a general description of the kind of life women experienced within the convent during colonial times, and the reasons why religious life was such a prevalent option for women during this period. Socolow provides an overview of the social context that explains why religiosity was important and why cloisters became symbols of power for elite families.

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