Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain

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Early modern Spain has long been viewed as having a culture obsessed with honor, where a man resorted to violence when his or his wife’s honor was threatened, especially through sexual disgrace. This book—the first to closely examine honor and interpersonal violence in the era—overturns this idea, arguing that the way Spanish men and women actually behaved was very different from the behavior depicted in dueling manuals, law books, and “honor plays” of the period.

Drawing on criminal and other records to assess the character of violence among non-elite Spaniards, historian Scott K. Taylor finds that appealing to honor was a rhetorical strategy, and that insults, gestures, and violence were all part of a varied repertoire that allowed both men and women to decide how to dispute issues of truth and reputation.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of World History

"Enormously valuable. . . . It is a thought-provoking reexamination of the stereotypical view of Spanish honor. . . . Taylor''s adept study and interdisciplinary approach will be of interest to students of early modern Spanish and European history, literature, anthropology, gender, and society."—Jodi Campbell, Journal of World History

— Jodi Campbell

Helen Nader
"Taylor has removed one of the serious obstacles to seeing sixteenth-century Mediterranean societies as they really were, rather than as social scientists have supposed."—Helen Nader, University of Arizona
James S. Amelang
“Refusing to accept the prevailing view of theatre as mirroring reality, Taylor heads for the archives. These tell a different story, showing early modern Spanish society and culture in a new and much more credible light.”—James S. Amelang, Universidad Autónoma, Madrid
Ruth MacKay
“Taylor not only corrects much that is wrong in Spanish historiography, he provides an illuminating example of how to read contemporary sources not as autonomous norms but as living rhetoric embedded in daily practice.”—Ruth MacKay, author of “Lazy Improvident People:” Myth and Reality in the Writing of Spanish History
Thomas Cohen
“Farewell Spanish honor's famous iron code! Taylor proves how supple, pragmatic, and varied was honor's application by the commoners who invoked its prestigious strictures to navigate their daily lives.”—Thomas Cohen, author of Love and Death in Renaissance Italy
Journal of World History - Jodi Campbell
"Enormously valuable. . . . It is a thought-provoking reexamination of the stereotypical view of Spanish honor. . . . Taylor's adept study and interdisciplinary approach will be of interest to students of early modern Spanish and European history, literature, anthropology, gender, and society."—Jodi Campbell, Journal of World History
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300126853
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/11/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,046,451
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott K. Taylor is associate professor of history at Siena College. He lives in Albany, NY.

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Read an Excerpt

Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain



Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12685-3

Chapter One


You are in danger, honor ... there is not an hour for you which is not critical; in your tomb you live: since woman gives you breath in her you are treading always in your grave.

THESE MUSINGS FORM PART OF A soliloquy by Don Gutierre Alfonso Solís in The Physician of His Honor (El médico de su honra), written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca around 1635. Gutierre finds himself tormented by suspicions that his wife, Doña Mencía de Acuña, is conducting an affair with Prince Enrique, the king's brother, who previously had courted Mencía before she married Gutierre. Gutierre utters these words after discovering a dagger in his house with a design matching Prince Enrique's sword. Gutierre suspects, correctly, that Enrique has been courting Mencía again and forgot the dagger while making a clandestine visit to their house. Gutierre further suspects, wrongly, that Mencía has acquiesced to Enrique's advances and is having sex with the prince. Unable to avenge himself against a prince, Gutierre instead concocts a scheme that will simultaneously avenge his dishonor and keep the disgraceful affair a secret. He coercesa surgeon to bleed Mencía to death, then disguises the homicide as a terrible medical accident: Mencía was unwell, a surgeon bled her, and afterward her bandages loosened and she died. Ironically, after the murder, King Pedro pieces together the truth with the surgeon's help and punishes Gutierre by ordering him to marry Doña Leonor, a woman whom Gutierre had courted before he married Mencía but cast aside on suspicions of infidelity. With this new wife whom he does not trust, Gutierre will relive the torment of suspicion and jealousy all over again.

Gutierre's gruesome behavior, and the dilemma that prompted it, has exercised a hold on the viewers and readers of The Physician of His Honor for centuries, representing a code of honor, suffused with sex and violence, that has both fascinated and repelled. The Physician of His Honor was not alone in portraying the bloody demands of honor: the stage of Spain's "Golden Age" featured an entire genre of plays whose plot focused on a protagonist trying to protect or avenge his honor, the honor plays, spearheaded by Calderón and Lope Félix de Vega Carpio (known as Lope de Vega). The Physician of His Honor also falls into a smaller, even more gripping subset within the honor plays: the wife-murder plays. These dramas all feature a husband who feels compelled by honor to kill his wife. The theme first came to prominence in Lope de Vega's Punishment without Vengeance (El castigo sin venganza), written in 1631, and Calderón wrote two other wife-murder plays in addition to The Physician of His Honor: Secret Insult, Secret Vengeance (A secreto agravio, secreta venganza), also written around 1635, and The Painter of His Dishonor (El pintor de su deshonra), written in the 1640s. For more than one hundred years, critics seized on the honor plays, and specifically the wife-murder plays, as especially telling products of Castilian culture whose themes helped to mark Spain as a uniquely violent, honor-obsessed country quite different from the rest of early modern Europe.

While the plots and themes of the honor plays varied, they shared three salient features. First, as Gutierre complains, the honor of men was dependent on the behavior of the women in their lives: their daughters, sisters, and especially wives. Second, the honor of women, and therefore men, depended entirely on sexual behavior. The faintest suspicion of sexual infidelity, or the bad behavior of another man toward a woman, threatened her honor. Men had to control the sexuality of their wives and women kin in order to preserve their own male honor, so adultery was the most serious threat to both male and female honor. Third, the only appropriate response to dishonorable behavior was violence. Men could protect or restore their honor only through murderous revenge. The wife-murder plays took this logic to its appalling conclusion, with the husbands deciding to kill not only the men who stole their wives' honor but their own wives as well.

Literary critics and historians have long struggled to explain the prominence of honor in Golden Age culture. A central question has been whether the honor code was based on chivalric values of the medieval aristocracy that gradually spread to the rest of society, or whether the honor code existed in the plays as an elaborate mask for other social matters, such as limpieza de sangre, or "purity of blood." Those who have argued that Spanish honor derived from the nobility point to the long struggle during the Middle Ages as the Christians in the north of Spain strove to "reconquer" the south from the Muslims who had first occupied the peninsula in 711. The disproportionate importance that the military aristocracy gained during the centuries of warfare gave chivalry an even greater prominence in Spain than in the rest of Europe, and it eventually crept down the class system until, by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, everyone could relate to the themes of the honor plays.

Others have suspected that, as the Reconquest wound down in the late Middle Ages, the seemingly straightforward honor of knights and their ladies took a different turn. By far the most common belief is that honor was truly a way of coping with the overwhelming importance to Spanish society of purity of blood. As the Christians gained control over all of Spain during the Middle Ages, the more or less tolerant attitudes that had prevailed toward Jews and Muslims during the centuries of Islamic ascendancy disappeared. Jewish heritage in particular troubled Christian Spaniards as conversos, or converts from Judaism and their descendants, entered Christian society beginning with a series of forced conversions in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Prior to conversion, these Jews had been restricted from the pinnacles of status and power no matter how wealthy some of them had been, but now, as Christians, they were eligible to marry into the ranks of the nobility, even as many "Old Christians" suspected that the "New Christians" were secretly holding on to their old Jewish religion. Eventually these tensions led to the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the idea that Jews were a separate people and could never truly convert to Christianity because of the impurity of their blood. Meanwhile, according to this line of thought, honor came to hinge not on chivalry or virtues but on the possession of a "pure," non-Jewish lineage. Thus, according to influential critics such as Melveena McKendrick, the honor plays represented the idea that outward appearances had come to trump morality in Golden Age Castile: Don Gutierre was driven to kill Mencía, despite her innocence, by the mere appearance of impropriety and the barbarous opinion of his peers that only violence could wash away his disgrace. Men's honor depended on women's behavior because a wife could introduce another man's blood into her husband's lineage, betraying him through adultery. Therefore, honor plays dramatized anxieties about Jewish blood entering Old Christian families. Since limpieza de sangre was a concern unique to Spain, anxiety over honor became more heightened in Spanish culture and society than elsewhere in Europe. Regardless of which side one takes in this debate, almost all historians agree that honor was central to Spanish culture, and that honor was a code that everyone carried in the forefront of their minds and that guided their behavior. As the historian Bartolomé Bennassar put it, "If there was one passion capable of defining the conduct of the Spanish people, it was the passion of honor."

But it is not just the honor plays, and the critics and historians who study them, that have encouraged the belief in honor as a unique and defining element of Spanish culture. The anthropology of the Mediterranean has also lent force to this idea. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, the emergence of the Mediterranean basin as a subspecialty in anthropology grew hand in hand with an increasing emphasis on honor and shame as the value system that united the lands north and south of the Mediterranean Sea into one coherent area. By the 1970s, anthropologists such as Julian Pitt-Rivers, J. G. Peristiany, and Jane Schneider had identified two overarching traits that defined the Mediterranean and differentiated it from northern Europe: the first was an underdeveloped political economy, and the second was an emphasis on a family-centered morality that tore apart any larger sense of community. The honor code undergirded this moral system, and it placed highly different demands on the behavior of men and women, with a special emphasis on female sexual purity, family loyalty, and the physical segregation of men and women. The tendency has been to use the second trait to explain the first: the focus on family, sex, revenge, and feuding has helped prevent Mediterranean cultures from coalescing into modern, industrialized, and politically and socially mature societies like those in northern Europe. Honor helped lock Mediterranean residents in a pattern of class and political structures that kept them "backward." So as the anthropology of the Mediterranean flourished, the idea of an honor code, centered on sexual purity, formed one of the field's most coherent focal points-it is what made the Mediterranean area "Mediterranean." Furthermore, anthropologists assumed that the twentieth-century manifestation of the honor code was a relic of premodern society, which enabled historians to assume that honor and shame were central to the culture of early modern Spain-without much thought given to how accurately the twentieth century can illuminate the seventeenth. In short, the study of sexuality, sex roles, conduct, and identity in early modern Spain takes the honor code, illustrated by the honor plays and theorized by anthropologists, as a starting point.

It is not just modern scholars who view honor as important-honor gripped the imagination of early modern Castilians themselves, reaching a peak in the early seventeenth century. The honor plays emerged during this period, and other literature, ranging from the dueling and fencing manuals that attained their widest reach around 1600 to court documents such as a memorandum written in 1638 by the chief minister of Spain, the Count-Duke of Olivares, contemplating the best way to stop duels among noblemen at court, confirms that honor and violence were in the forefront of Castilian minds. Anxiety about honor coincided with Spain's era of great literary output known as the Golden Age, lasting roughly from 1500 to 1650. Drama was not the only genre affected. Confessor's manuals, which focused on how to lead a virtuous Christian life, and other conduct books that gave advice on correct behavior to different categories of people such as gentlemen, married women, and adolescent girls addressed honor and shame as part of their moralizing projects. The Golden Age also saw the flowering of Castilian jurisprudence, and lawmakers and commentators squarely addressed the legal approaches to violence, honor, and the duel. Castilians themselves saw honor as central to their culture, for better or for worse.

But what if our understanding of the honor code is mistaken? Since the 1980s the pillars that upheld our view of honor in Spain have begun to crumble. For example, anthropologists have reconsidered their own tradition of Mediterranean studies. Previous work had naively exoticized both Muslims and southern Europeans, presenting them as premodern and without history or agency. A new generation of anthropologists also asserts that the earlier focus on sexual behavior, supposedly the key to honor and shame in the Mediterranean, may say more about the anxieties of anthropologists than it does about their subjects.

In addition, revisionist studies of the Spanish stage reveal that while the honor plays of Lope and Calderón loom large in the landscape of Golden Age literature today, they constituted only a small, unrepresentative fraction of the output of the two playwrights and, when first staged, vanished quickly from the scene. To put things further in perspective, while Lope and Calder? are now seen as the preeminent Golden Age dramatists, they were only two among many successful writers, most of whom are now forgotten but whose own plots and themes would have resonated in the minds of Golden Age audiences. Honor plays as a genre did not gain their place in the canon of Spanish literature until scholars seized on them during the nineteenth century. Moreover, modern critics have discovered that the importance of wife murder in a few Golden Age plays came about not because honor held a unique place in Spanish culture but rather because of the internal developments of the Spanish stage-wife murder was a good way to sew together a number of other themes that had become popular at the time, like the woman in a bad marriage, the immoral woman who needs to be punished, or the insolvable marital conflict that tragically ends in violence. Set in this context, the honor plays do not make such a definitive statement about early modern Spanish culture.

As to the Golden Age writers of moralist tracts and anti-dueling manuals, we of course cannot say that they were "wrong" about their own culture. But we can make a different observation-that such works provide models of how their authors believed honor was meant to work in early modern society. Whether attacking or praising the honor code, each work represents how someone imagined honor in an idealized form. By taking pen to paper, writers grasped for a simplifying system to explain human behavior, and they found one-or created one-in the honor code. In doing so, they took something-lived experience-that was fleeting and ambiguous, contingent on choice, and condensed it into something intelligible and fixed, pouring the values they hoped to encourage into these models. These authors represented elite culture: "elite" not in the sense that they lived entirely differently than most Spaniards but in the sense that writing, leading as it often does to abstraction, promotes a different understanding of behavior and motivation than what animates most people-especially non-elite, premodern people-in everyday situations. For all their insightful observation of their own culture, these writers may not have been able to explain fully how honor truly worked, even though each one supposed, or at least hoped, that the model he offered for inspection was a mirror of real behavior. In terms of the limitations of attempting to describe in writing the behavior and thought of an entire society, contemporary authors were no different from modern anthropologists and literary critics hoping to find a simple key to understanding Spain. We can use contemporary printed sources to help us understand the thinking of early modern Castilians, but we should be wary of assuming that written models of honor were exact replicas of experience.

Thus the scaffolding that presented a uniquely honor-besotted Spain, more Mediterranean than European in its concern for male control over female sexuality, seems to have collapsed. Yet surely honor must have held some importance in Golden Age Castile-surely the contemporary commentators, at least, could not have been so misguided about their own world?

Fortunately, in the search for insights into the actual workings of honor in early modern Spain, there remains one more source to be exploited: criminal court cases. These cases record the statements of the participants in, and witnesses to, violent confrontations as they tried to explain to the authorities what happened. Participants attempted to justify their actions, and witnesses imposed their own sense of order on what they had observed. When the words and deeds of real people are compared to the abstracted contemporary models of honor, the results are bracing. Indeed, they force us to reconsider not only honor and its role in Castilian society but also Spain's place in the cultural geography of Europe and the Mediterranean. Honor was not a trap that forced early modern Spaniards to act in certain tragic and bloodthirsty ways. Instead it was a tool, used equally by men and women to manage relations with their neighbors and maintain their place in the community. While honor has long been thought to be crucial to Spain's unique character, research in other parts of Europe reveal a system of honor and violence similar to that in Castile. Spain might have been part of a broader Mediterranean civilization, but it was also fully European.


Excerpted from Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain by SCOTT K. TAYLOR Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1

2 The Duel and the Rhetoric of Honor 17

3 Honor and the Law 65

4 Men 100

5 Women 157

6 Adultery and Violence 194

7 Conclusion 226

Notes 233

Bibliography 281

Index 297

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