Book Review the Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross Essay

Laura de Mello e Souza’s doctoral dissertation began a study on sorcery in colonial Brazil during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The years prior to the time when she began writing her dissertation many works in historiography had been published. With nothing focusing on Brazil, de Mello e Souza knew there was an abundance of information from the Portuguese Inquisition. Delving deeper into her research contained within the Devassas, a new issue surfaced for de Mello e Souza, the emergence of the colonials living religion.

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Merging together with folkloric European reminiscence were new contributions from both African and indigenous cultures. The formation of Brazilian culture is directly attributed to the newly formed colonial sorcery and religiosity. The final product of colonial calundu took three hundred years to evolve from the traditional European sabbat. Once she concluded her doctoral dissertation in quickly was published in 1986, and The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil quickly became the basis of any future investigation into Brazilian sorcery and witchcraft.

Being able to only work with the documents from Visitations, ecclesiastical inquiries, and trials of accused Brazilians that de Mello e Souza found in the National Archives at Lisbon’s Torre do Tombo, she was able only to obtain one version of the actual events that occurred. This clearly limits her ability to fully understand the meanings and the cultural significance of the practices of the indigenous population and African slaves that were brought to colonial Brazil.

Although she was successful on her path led to the colonial calundu, only being able to obtain records from the Portuguese point of view severely restricts the influence Europeans had on indigenous and African cultures. At first glance the through the book, the study seems as if it revolves around the social structure that was formed between the colony of Brazil and its mother country of Portugal. The book transfers from a vast array of descriptions of the New World, from paradise, hell and ultimately purgatory for its inhabitants.

Examining the book further it becomes and anthropological study of the fusion of three influences into popular religion and the constant fluid movement that this process followed. No practice would eventually replace the one another; they would become more hybrid and encompass aspects of multiple influences. Here again we fall upon the bias notion that European religion was the main influence upon these other culture and religiosity, de Mello e Souza fails to completely investigate the origins of practices and ideals of the indigenous and Africans peoples.

Additional research into the rituals and practices of natives and Africans must be taken to fully comprehend the fusion of these three influences distinct cultures into one newly formed popular culture in Brazil. Focusing on the stories of individuals that were prosecuted by the courts in the last chapter of her book, de Mello e Souza bring forth a voice to those who could not otherwise express their thoughts. This method of reconstructing the lives of these individuals shed light on the process these trails took place: from the initial accusation to the eventual trial that would decide the future for each individual.

From these readings one can gain insight from firsthand accounts. After a close reading of each one of these trails, one can see that these individuals had no representation and often were tortured into confession to fit the accusation. Many individuals did not survive the entirety of the trial locked up in the Inquisition dungeons and died during the process that often lasted years. In one case mentioned within this section the accused was driven to insanity while awaiting his trial.

These reports, although very insightful, are still marred because these individuals were tortured into confessing to what they were accused for. This brings light more into the process that the accuser faced during the Inquisition, rather than the actual testimonials of the individuals. Without a true voice for these individuals, one cannot fully comprehend the true nature of their practices and beliefs. After reading this book and analyzing it from various points of view, Laura e Mello e Souza succeeded in proving her thesis that colonial witchcraft was both an complex collage and the genesis of a new synthesis. She provided substantial primary source evidence to back up her claim. In her Preface to the first edition de Mello e Souza acknowledges that she has not gone through all the records of Brazilian trials involving sorcery from the Inquisition. This reinforces the notion that history is never definitive and is ever changing. Laura de Mello e Souza accounts for what some might call, incomplete research by acknowledging this.

Nevertheless, her research remained bias to European views and structure. We cannot get a full representation of the evolution of popular religion in Brazil, if we do not account for the changes that both the indigenous and African ideas that were altered by the influences of the Europeans themselves. The representations painted by the Inquisitorial documentation reveals the fears and the fantasies of Church authorities, rather than the actual practices of their victims. At times de Mello e Souza treats the accounts described by the accuser as if they had occurred exactly as they had portrayed.

The overall contribution of this book is in the literary world is great. It not only opened the doors for future investigations into Brazils religiosity, sorcery and witchcraft, but it serves as a great foundation for those who are pursuing a similar topic or want to delve in deeper into other questions that have been left unanswered by this book. My final assessment of this book is that it focused more on how Europeans perceived popular religion in Brazil, rather than the actual religious practices by the individuals living in the colonies.

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