Honor in the Past: The Case of Mexico

Although at times honor is associated with bygone eras, lately it has also been very much in the news. Headlines scream when husbands, fathers, or even brothers, kill their female relatives for breaking their honor code. The logic behind these heinous acts is often related to disobedience of moral strictures such as staying out, associating with male non-relatives, wearing makeup or marrying without permission.

Yet, these breaches in decorum are very much related to a much older idea: honor codes. The beliefs that shape the underpinning for the concept of honor in all these aspects or situations were developed within particular contexts and periods. History can shed light on honor by providing foundational frameworks of the way in which it was operationalized in the past. Unlike contemporary psychological studies that use live subjects’ responses to certain situations, historians base their studies on people’s actions as described in archival records. This approach provides a window to the ways in which populations lived and acted upon ideas in the past, rather than how they were supposed to act. It permits a contrast between what was understood to be true and what was actually done. In this article, I will show the ways in which historical evidence can be used to provide a foundation for an understanding of honor. Using a court case taken from Mexican archives, I will illustrate how honor was lived rather than idealized. As such, I will provide an unvarnished, un-romanticized version of honor.

One of the major challenges for historians researching people who lived centuries ago is that they are limited in their sources of information. We can only take evidence from what people produced. Most history is constructed using written sources, although more contemporary work can be done with interviews. Some historians have branched out into areas such as material history (using objects), but, nevertheless, the vast archives produced by different bureaucracies remain a major starting place for the majority of historical endeavors. This inclination toward the written word poses certain challenges when studying elites. However, it is even more difficult when investigating people of the lower classes. These are the people who represented the majority of the population, but who did not tend to leave diaries, newspaper articles or memorandums containing their thoughts or social observations.

Social historians use various methods to analyze and use documents. One of the most important is to read across the grain; that is to say, to read the documents for details not central to their purpose. For example, in the court cases that I use for my work, I do not concentrate on the crimes and the question of guilt or innocence but rather the small details that reveal the mindset of the people who produced these documents. By compiling information from several documents, historians can detect patterns of behavior. In this way, they can measure plebeian thought by examining their actions and particularly patterns in their conduct. Historians such as Shoemaker (2004), Spierenberg (2004), and Gallant (2001) have pioneered this methodology for lower-class European men. In this article I will use these methods but apply them to concepts of honor for both men and women in early modern Mexico.

What Honor Meant for Mexicans: Honor and honra

Historians define honor as a framework that guided the way people behaved. It also provided them with guidelines as to how to present themselves to the world, in other words, their self-identity. In addition, honor ranked everyone within social hierarchies and so along with a sense of self, people within honor societies operated within a sense of their place relative to that of others within a social ranking system. It was formally described in treatises but, more importantly, it was acted out by people in the past. As Miller (1993) states “It was your very being.” Honor was an intangible quality that people had and defended. Because honor was elusive, it had to be confirmed by the reaction of others. It led Mexicans to devise ways of judging their relative positions in relation to others. It also meant that people had to act in ways that acknowledged their inferiority or superiority. In addition, it also justified punishment of those who did not follow the rules of honor because their infringement put in jeopardy the honor of those associated with them.

There were two fundamental parts that defined honor: status and virtue (Seed, 1988). In Spanish, there are, in fact, two separate words for honor: honor and honra. Although technically separate, the two aspects were interconnected. Many Mexicans assumed that individuals without status were inherently without virtue. Therefore, without the first (status), it was harder to lay claim to the second (virtue). Honor corresponded to birth within a family of lineage. Men and women born into noble or wealthy families could take for granted that they possessed this type of honor. Members of the elite jockeyed for position and fought over gradations of rank, but they did so within their small elite group (Cañeque, 2004). Those individuals born into high-ranking families showed their status (and thus their honor) by dressing magnificently, riding in horse-drawn carriages, and taking up a place of privilege wherever they went. This aspect of honor was very much associated and represented by the external trappings of wealth.

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