Tropic of sins – morals, sexuality and the inquisition in Brazil

Dalton Paula, Bamburrô.


Commentary on the book by Ronaldo Vainfas

Published for the first time in the late 1980s, a period in which Nova História, notably from the mid-XNUMXs onwards, became the object of great academic and editorial interest in Brazil, tropic of sins it became an obligatory reference among works anchored in approaches in the field of mentalities and, one could even say, trends in the New Cultural History that emerged as the “heir” of mentalities at the time.

Originally a doctoral thesis defended at USP in 1988, it is a pioneering study of everyday moralities and sexuality in Portuguese America, from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, based on vast documentation, which includes Jesuit correspondence, moral treatises, chronicles, royal and ecclesiastical legislation. , and especially inquisitorial sources.

More than three decades later, the notion of mentalities, contested in different ways, has fallen into disuse in the vocabulary of historians. But studies on the mental remain with renewed vigor, even if under different labels. Properly interacting with the varied universe of debates about possibilities of approaching culture at the time the book was written, Ronaldo Vainfas incorporates both reflections on Brazil from a local tradition represented by classics and Big house and slave quarters, by Gilberto Freyre, and methodological perspectives of works that are part of what is conventionally called the European History of Mentalities, particularly those by Phillipe Ariès, Jean Delumeau, Jean-Louis Flandrin and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Conceptions by Michel Foucault inspire several discussions and even the structure of the book.

Vainfas' analyzes also dialogue, repeatedly, with ideas related to dealing with inquisitorial sources, to understand the imaginary, proposed in pioneering research in Brazil by Luiz Mott and Laura de Mello e Souza. The work illustrates how a more flexible combination of approaches – safeguarding their differences and oppositions – can enrich research, a proposition also supported by the author elsewhere.

In line with the first discussions about the excessive ambiguity and imprecision of the conception of mentalities, the association with this field is already accompanied by reservations, with the author pointing out the need to link collective ways of thinking and feeling with sociocultural stratifications and conflicts, as a way to overcome these shortcomings. His interpretation of “moral crimes” – which many times, less than conscious deviations in relation to the ethical rules of Catholicism, were an expression of syncretic religious beliefs or simply the irreverence of popular culture – is made in relation to the background of the great transformations of the modern era, with colonialism, slavery, patriarchy and misogyny characteristic of the investigated context.

Among the qualities that most stand out in the set of merits of the work is its exquisite narrative. The reader is sent back to the atmosphere of colonial Brazil, to the practices and beliefs of its inhabitants and to the agents of the disciplinary and moralizing project that the State and the Church sought to implement, in the Iberian Peninsula and overseas. From an erudite text, with an impeccable style, emerge the profiles and trajectories of those who were the preferred targets of such a project, for being deprived of the immunities and privileges of the powerful and, on the other hand, not being included in the groups treated with relative disinterest by the officials of the Counter-Reformation.

They are predominantly men – but women have also suffered persecution –, Portuguese and Brazilian-born, white and mestizos, Old Christians dedicated to crafts and petty commerce, accused of committing bigamy, questioning the primacy of clerical chastity, maintaining homoerotic or other relationships. just advocate sexual freedom. Despite the very modest number of those who were effectively convicted, compared to those sentenced in the metropolises or other colonies, the residents experienced the shattering of affective and community solidarity, the blaming of consciences and, in some cases, public humiliation and punishment in the galleys and in the banishments. Despite such interference, Vainfas concludes that the fate of Portuguese America would indeed be that of the Tropic of Sins.

This conclusion is presented after a careful examination of the behaviors associated with marriage, conjugality, desires and the use of the body in colonial society, seeking to “unravel popular rules where, for many authors, the most absolute sexual chaos prevailed”. The analysis highlights the complexity, even the contradictory character, of these attitudes, their representations and the treatment given them by the Holy Office. Perhaps the example in which this is most clearly manifested is that of female homoeroticism. Although it was initially qualified in a homologous way to sodomy practiced between men, the sodomy foeminarum was treated by the inquisitors with a certain lack of interest, which is expressed in the few inquiries made in the interrogations and in the uniformity of the tone and content of the records about sexual acts between women. In the mid-XNUMXth century, it was excluded from inquisitorial jurisdiction. Vainfas explains these facts through his connection with the misogynistic environment and the phallocentrism of the period. Bigamy also illustrates this complexity, as it indicates, at the same time, the social valuation of marriage and the transgression of its sacramental meaning.

Comprehensive and thought-provoking, the book hints at objects and problems to be explored in other studies. This is the case, for example, of a more detailed comparative analysis of heterodox moralities in Brazil and modern Portugal. If we take documentation such as the inquisitorial processes dealing with Molinosm as a reference – a kind of heretical deviation involving acts linked to sexuality with a mystical component, practiced mainly inside convents, but also outside them –, moral riots that took place in the metropolis were sometimes much more extreme than those of the colony.

These questions it raises only attest to the richness of the research and contribute to making reading more interesting. Result of innovative research and intelligent interpretation, tropic of sins remains mandatory in an increasingly prolific field of cultural history studies.

*Lígia Bellini is a retired full professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). She is the author, among other books, of The great fulcrum: representation of the body and medical culture in Renaissance Portugal (Ed. Unifesp).


Ronaldo Vainfas. Tropic of sins: morals, sexuality and the inquisition in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 446 pages.


See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives