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The Handless Maiden: Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain

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Overview

In 1502, a decade of increasing tension between Muslims and Christians in Spain culminated in a royal decree that Muslims in Castile wanting to remain had to convert to Christianity. Mary Elizabeth Perry uses this event as the starting point for a remarkable exploration of how Moriscos, converted Muslims and their descendants, responded to their increasing disempowerment in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Spain. Stepping beyond traditional histories that have emphasized armed conflict from the view of victors, The Handless Maiden focuses on Morisco women. Perry argues that these women's lives offer vital new insights on the experiences of Moriscos in general, and on how the politics of religion both empowers and oppresses.

Drawing on archival documents, legends, and literature, Perry shows that the Moriscas carried out active resistance to cultural oppression through everyday rituals and acts. For example, they taught their children Arabic language and Islamic prayers, dietary practices, and the observation of Islamic holy days. Thus the home, not the battlefield, became the major forum for Morisco-Christian interaction. Moriscas' experiences further reveal how the Morisco presence provided a vital counter-identity for a centralizing state in early modern Spain. For readers of the twenty-first century, The Handless Maiden raises urgent questions of how we choose to use difference and historical memory.

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Editorial Reviews

Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
The Handless Maiden is a fascinating and well-written book that offers a new perspective on the Moriscos of Spain and their struggle to find a place in a society that, at least among the upper echelons, was not in favor of what we would nowadays call multiculturalism.
American Historical Review - Maureen Flynn
Spain's experiment in compulsory spirituality is analyzed by Perry with grace, precision, and cultural sensitivity. Her study stands out above all for its clear and concise exposition of the political pressures that the Morisco population faced with regard to the perpetuation of its medieval Andalusian heritage. . . . [The Handless Maiden] reveals a rich world of private experiences that has until now escaped the attention of traditional political historians.
Medieval Encounters - Barbara Weissberger
Clearly written and offering heretofore unexamined evidence, [The Handless Maiden] should elicit interest in a fascinating people and culture, too little known outside of Hispanism.
English Historical Review - Helen Rawlings
The Handless Maiden turns the tables on the traditional history of the encounter between Christians and Moslems in southern Spain.
Renaissance Quarterly - Debra Blumenthal
Mary Elizabeth Perry's work has considerably enriched our understanding of how gender possibly can inform our evaluation of Morisco identities.
Reviews in Religion and Theology - Mary Coleman
A book of compelling interest. . . . [T]his book is an insightful and worthwhile exploration of the intersection of religion and politics in early modern Spain.
Saudi Aramco World - Robert W. Lebling
This is a rare, sympathetic look into the lives of the Moriscos—those Muslims and their descendants who remained in Spain after the completion of the Spanish Christian reconquest in 1492 and who were then forcibly baptized. . . . Perry is the first author to devote a book to Morisco women, and she succeeds by letting them speak for themselves.
"Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations vor J. Dadson

The Handless Maiden is a fascinating and well-written book that offers a new perspective on the Moriscos of Spain and their struggle to find a place in a society that, at least among the upper echelons, was not in favor of what we would nowadays call multiculturalism.
From the Publisher

"Spain's experiment in compulsory spirituality is analyzed by Perry with grace, precision, and cultural sensitivity. Her study stands out above all for its clear and concise exposition of the political pressures that the Morisco population faced with regard to the perpetuation of its medieval Andalusian heritage. . . . [The Handless Maiden] reveals a rich world of private experiences that has until now escaped the attention of traditional political historians."--Maureen Flynn, American Historical Review

"The Handless Maiden is a fascinating and well-written book that offers a new perspective on the Moriscos of Spain and their struggle to find a place in a society that, at least among the upper echelons, was not in favor of what we would nowadays call multiculturalism."--Trevor J. Dadson,Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

"Clearly written and offering heretofore unexamined evidence, [The Handless Maiden] should elicit interest in a fascinating people and culture, too little known outside of Hispanism."--Barbara Weissberger, Medieval Encounters

"The Handless Maiden turns the tables on the traditional history of the encounter between Christians and Moslems in southern Spain."--Helen Rawlings, English Historical Review

"Mary Elizabeth Perry's work has considerably enriched our understanding of how gender possibly can inform our evaluation of Morisco identities."--Debra Blumenthal, Renaissance Quarterly

"A book of compelling interest. . . . [T]his book is an insightful and worthwhile exploration of the intersection of religion and politics in early modern Spain."--Mary Coleman, Reviews in Religion and Theology

"This is a rare, sympathetic look into the lives of the Moriscos--those Muslims and their descendants who remained in Spain after the completion of the Spanish Christian reconquest in 1492 and who were then forcibly baptized. . . . Perry is the first author to devote a book to Morisco women, and she succeeds by letting them speak for themselves."--Robert W. Lebling, Saudi Aramco World

American Historical Review
Spain's experiment in compulsory spirituality is analyzed by Perry with grace, precision, and cultural sensitivity. Her study stands out above all for its clear and concise exposition of the political pressures that the Morisco population faced with regard to the perpetuation of its medieval Andalusian heritage. . . . [The Handless Maiden] reveals a rich world of private experiences that has until now escaped the attention of traditional political historians.
— Maureen Flynn
Medieval Encounters
Clearly written and offering heretofore unexamined evidence, [The Handless Maiden] should elicit interest in a fascinating people and culture, too little known outside of Hispanism.
— Barbara Weissberger
English Historical Review
The Handless Maiden turns the tables on the traditional history of the encounter between Christians and Moslems in southern Spain.
— Helen Rawlings
Renaissance Quarterly
Mary Elizabeth Perry's work has considerably enriched our understanding of how gender possibly can inform our evaluation of Morisco identities.
— Debra Blumenthal
Reviews in Religion and Theology
A book of compelling interest. . . . [T]his book is an insightful and worthwhile exploration of the intersection of religion and politics in early modern Spain.
— Mary Coleman
Saudi Aramco World
This is a rare, sympathetic look into the lives of the Moriscos—those Muslims and their descendants who remained in Spain after the completion of the Spanish Christian reconquest in 1492 and who were then forcibly baptized. . . . Perry is the first author to devote a book to Morisco women, and she succeeds by letting them speak for themselves.
— Robert W. Lebling
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Mary Elizabeth Perry is the author of two prize winning books, "Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville" (Princeton) and "Crime and Society in Early Modern Seville". She is Research Associate at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Adjunct Professor of History at Occidental College.

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Read an Excerpt

The Handless Maiden

Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain
By Mary Elizabeth Perry

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.




Introduction

FROM THE SHADOWS

TWENTY-FOUR SHIPS that crowded into the port of Seville in late November 1570 brought human cargo-some 5,000 women, children, and men. Moriscos, that is, Muslims or their descendants who had been baptized, came as defeated rebels from the Kingdom of Granada. Two years earlier Moriscos had revolted against Christian rule, their rebellion spreading quickly from the Alpujarra Mountains near Granada throughout much of Andalucia. After his armies had finally subdued the rebels, Philip II had ordered the dispersion of some 50,000 Moriscos of Granada throughout the Kingdom of Castile. Now bowing to royal directive, the Count of Priego officially received into the city and lands of Seville 4,300 uprooted Moriscos whom the ships brought into port this November day. The remaining 700 Moriscos traveled on to other regions nearby.

Officials in Seville and in most of the cities and towns ordered to receive Moriscos acquiesced only reluctantly. They would have to find housing for the newcomers and jobs or charitable programs to feed them, tasks that could be of frustrating immensity. Officials had to try to keep the newcomers under some form of surveillance, for they were reputed to be spies of the Turks and had fought for two years against the king's armies. Despite royalattempts to outlaw their religion and culture, Moriscos remained suspect as false converts. Many Catholics believed that these people continued to practice Islam, to speak and pray in Arabic, and to carry out their own rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Rather than fellow subjects of the same king, the Moriscos of Granada seemed to be suspicious foreigners and internal enemies.

Despite this hostility, some officials such as Priego could not help but be moved to pity as he looked upon the Moriscos who had just arrived aboard the twenty-four ships, "so shattered and poor and robbed and ill," in Priego's words, "that there was great compassion." Apparently attempting to explain to Philip II his reactions to those who had so recently battled against the king's armies, Priego described the passengers as weak and starving. Some appeared to be dying and suffering great need, he reported. Since they were not able to beg alms to sustain themselves, Priego decided to dispose of them as quickly as possible, placing the able-bodied with masters and the ill in hospitals. The count directed the residents of the city who received the Moriscos to treat them well and to keep spouses together as well as children with their parents. He noted the obligation to baptize children of two years and younger, and especially to teach the Christian faith to the newcomers.

It would be easy to move quickly past Priego's report, with its odd mixture of conquest and compassion, to simply conclude that the count was providing yet one more example of the wages of war and rebellion. Yet to dismiss the report panders to traditional views of history as the centuries-long story of victors and vanquished, always written by the victors. Moreover, to ignore this document would be to lose sight of a significant scene in a morality play far more complex than the usual Reconquest drama of Good Christians against Bad Muslims. In fact, Christians held many different attitudes about Moriscos, perhaps because Moriscos varied widely in their responses to Christianization. What follows is a story of Christians wrestling with their consciences while developing political power, and of Moriscos refusing to remain victims, finding impressive strength even in defeat.

From Muslims to Moriscos

The arrival of thousands of Moriscos in the city of Seville in 1570 signaled the beginning of a new chapter in the complex and deeply rooted Christian-Muslim relationships of the Iberian Peninsula. During the previous eight centuries, people of the two faiths had lived through periods of comparative harmony and through times of overt violence as Christians sought to wrest control of the various Iberian kingdoms from Muslim domination. This Reconquest reached a climax in 1492 with the surrender of the last Muslim ruler in Granada-indeed, the last on Iberian soil. Probably none of the Moriscos who entered the port of Seville in November 1570 was old enough to remember the entry of Ferdinand and Isabel into the city of Granada to accept that surrender. They may have heard a grandparent or great-grandparent tell of this event, however, and of the guarantee that the Catholic Kings made in the document of capitulation that their new Muslim subjects would be free to practice their own faith and live according to its law. Handed down over the generations, Morisco memories also told of the increasing zeal of some Church leaders, such as Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, to convert Muslims and to reclaim those Christians who had earlier converted to Islam.

To those raised on such memories, it would not seem strange that the Muslims of Granada rose in rebellion against their Christian rulers late in 1499. From the Albaicín quarter of Granada, the rebellion spread into much of Andalucia, and it would not be quelled by Christian forces until 1501. Mass conversions of Moriscos and great fires to burn their Arabic writings on Islam quickly followed. And in 1502 came a royal decree that any Muslim who wanted to remain in the Kingdom of Castile would have to convert to Christianity. Some twenty years later Charles V extended this decree of expulsion to Muslims in all of his Spanish kingdoms, and Church leaders validated the forcible baptism of thousands of Muslims during the Germanía Revolt. A royal pragmatic of 1567 forbade any use of the Arabic language and all Morisco customs. Not surprisingly, then, Moriscos on the ships in the port of Seville in 1570 knew of increasing oppression against not only the faith of Islam but their Hispano-Muslim culture as well.

As his soldiers finally defeated Morisco rebels in 1570, Philip II attempted to shatter the rebellious Morisco community from Granada. Authorities dispersed these people throughout Castile, isolating individual family units in new locations under tighter surveillance by Christian authorities. Yet the relocated Moriscos would develop a variety of strategies for survival and resistance against their rulers. And because of their very success, even when surrounded by Old Christian neighbors-that is, those without Jewish or Muslim forebears-this relocation would be merely the first step of a much more extensive diaspora. Within forty years of their arrival in Seville, these Moriscos and some 300,000 others would be formally expelled from the Spanish kingdoms.

Politics and religion clearly intertwine in early modern Spain, but not merely in the close collaboration of Crown and Church. It is true that the centralizing monarchy sought the support of the Church, and that this partnership increased the power of the Church. Yet the story of the Moriscos reveals a politics of religion that embraces far more than this collaboration. It demonstrates the significance of religion for a minority group hoping to survive but also to preserve its own identity. It tells of a fledgling state attempting to unify many diverse subject groups against a religious minority that became a convenient common enemy. And it reveals the use of religion to legitimize opposition and the many ways that an apparently powerless minority could use religion to develop its own forms of power.

As religious minorities, Jews and Muslims shared similar experiences of oppression and resistance in this period, but they differed as well. Both groups had faced expulsion from the Spanish kingdoms unless they converted to Christianity, and both Judeo-conversos and Moriscos lived in early modern Spain as minorities suspected of being false converts. Yet Judeo-conversos often enjoyed a higher socioeconomic status than Moriscos. Frequently Judeo-conversos engaged in commerce or professions that brought in some wealth, but Moriscos were more likely to be agricultural laborers, artisans, itinerant merchants, or silk weavers. Judeo-conversos tended to have fluency in more languages and to be more highly educated, although this advantage declined with the passage of purity of blood statutes, which prohibited their entry into some universities.

Armed rebellion was less an option for Judeo-conversos than for Moriscos. From their own history of armed action against Christians beginning in the eighth century, Moriscos knew a Muslim tradition of countless battles during the Reconquest and their rebellions during the sixteenth century. In contrast, Judeo-conversos had a longer tradition of living peacefully within, or even assimilating into, Christian societies. Moreover, Judeo-conversos could not count on groups of their own people from other parts of the world to rally to their side in battle against Hispanic Christian rulers; in contrast, Moriscos were sharply aware of Muslims in nearby North Africa and the Ottoman Empire who held out the promise of armed assistance for them.

Assumptions and Approaches

To begin to consider the story of the Moriscos, we need to look at some assumptions and approaches that we might use. Although most histories are written from the standpoint of victors who had the power to write and preserve reports of the past, this book will explore the story of the Moriscos from their own viewpoint. This is not to argue that all Moriscos were the same, for these people varied widely by generation, class, place of origin, and length and location of residence in Iberia. Examples of Moriscos in various parts of Spain reveal the diversity of minority strategies for accommodation, resistance, and developing power. Not intended to be a definitive study of Moriscos, this book offers a different perspective to a growing body of scholarship throughout the world.

Much of this study focuses on women's experiences, which I believe deepens our understanding of all Moriscos. We can see these women as representative of all Moriscos who were disempowered and made into "others" in early modern Spain. Marginalized as members of an ethnic minority, Morisco women were still further disempowered by patriarchal assumptions of their own culture. Yet their presence in early modern Spain raises many questions essential to an understanding of the Morisco story. How did Moriscos survive in an increasingly hostile environment, and how did they attempt to preserve their culture? How did traditional gender roles change in the context of oppression? What insights can the lives of these women provide in a study of minority strategies for surviving among hostile and suspicious neighbors? How did women lead and energize resistance against oppression? How did they transform the home into a space of resistance?

As we explore these questions, we see that Moriscas' lives reveal the complexities of cultural accommodation and resistance to oppression that traditional historical interpretations often overlook. Through their experiences, we become aware of the political significance of everyday rituals and the active roles of ordinary people in making history. Overshadowed by armed rebellions and political decrees, Moriscos found strength in their own legends, such as that of the Handless Maiden, Carcayona. Quietly many of these people devised what anthropologist James Scott calls "weapons of the weak." Avoiding overt confrontation, Morisco women and men sought to preserve their identities and their culture. Within their homes, they observed Islamic fasts and donned clean clothing on Fridays. Men such as Luis de Berrio of Baeza wrote copies of the Qur'an in his home and women such as Isabel de Silva of Jaén carried copies of Arabic writings between households, hiding them beneath their skirts.

Yet most historical documents make no mention of the power of such covert resistance and leave many Moriscos voiceless in the shadows. Morisco women do not appear at all in many documents that focus on royal decrees, armed rebellions, and military concerns about Morisco aid to the Turks. In other sources, such as local and Inquisition records, Morisca voices can be heard only indirectly. Such evidence must be read "against the grain," with special attention to questions of power relationships, euphemisms, silences, and formulaic expressions. Most Moriscas neither read nor wrote, yet they had a rich oral tradition, some of which was captured through transcription. During the sixteenth century Morisco women and men hid some of these writings because Christian officials ordered the burning of documents in Arabic and Aljamía, a Castilian dialect written in Arabic script. Although we do not know how many Moriscos owned or read these books and papers, the discovery two and three centuries later of hundreds of the hidden writings provides a valuable source of information about Morisco beliefs and traditions.

Additional information comes from material culture, such as the veil. By tradition, many Muslim women customarily concealed the face in public, but Christian authorities had banned the veil. Viewing it as a symbol of Muslim culture, they assumed it was further evidence of Moriscos' clinging to their former religion. Yet non-Muslim women had covered themselves, as well, perhaps enjoying the anonymity and allure of the veil. Christian officials had to pass laws many times prohibiting any woman from concealing her face. Figure 1, which presents a German traveler's drawing of a Morisca from Granada in the early sixteenth century, illustrates how these women at that time covered themselves when they went outside their homes. Most Westerners of the present time assume that prohibitions against the veil would have been an important means of liberating Muslim women from a very male-centered culture, but it is far more likely that for Moriscas in sixteenth-century Spain these prohibitions attacked a culture that they strongly wished to preserve. In many ways, the veil symbolized their identity as women, for their culture used the veil as a major marker that defined gender. Moriscas who accepted this gender prescription, even as a strategy for maintaining their own cultural identity, present one more example of the many ways that women themselves have helped to perpetuate very patriarchal traditions.

And yet the veil could have meant more than the seclusion of women, their objectification, and the wrapping of their bodies to prevent anyone other than the male owner from viewing them. Concealing themselves provided anonymity for women and some protection from unwanted attention. Behind their veils, they were able to withdraw and assume a mask that let the masked one see without becoming open to the other's gaze. Paradoxically, women who covered their faces accepted the female identity of Muslim culture; but at the same time, they could construct their own identity, subverting their oppression and transforming it into a strategy for protection and a base for liberation. A convention that symbolized their conformity to their own male-dominated culture, the veil also became a symbol of resistance against those who would attack their cultural identity.

Tradition has veiled Moriscas-not only through Muslim costume, but also through histories that discount or completely overlook the lives of these women. In fact, a veil of phallocentric assumptions has covered most women of the past with unquestioned assertions that they have been mere pawns or passive victims, exotic ornaments perhaps, but in the background far behind the "real" actors in history-men with military might and political power. It is true that some historians have noted the existence of a very few women, but usually because they acted either as treacherous Jezebels or as "manly women."

History has obscured Moriscas not only with sexist attitudes, but also with racist assumptions that the lives of minority people have little effect on the drama of the past. At most, this history has assumed, minority people play a few supporting roles or, occasionally, a role as victims or rebels. Their struggles and triumphs are so marginalized by many historians that we may not even be aware of their presence in an "invisible invisibility." As minority women, then, Moriscas are twice veiled-once for their gender and again for their ethnicity. And, paradoxically, these women who had been veiled by their male-dominated culture serve as a metaphor for Morisco men who became increasingly disempowered in the sixteenth century and turned all the more often to hiding themselves behind a veil of apparent assimilation.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Handless Maiden by Mary Elizabeth Perry Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. 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


List of Illustrations     ix
Foreword     xi
Acknowledgments     xv
Brief Chronology of the Moriscos     xvii
Abbreviations     xix
Introduction: From the Shadows     1
Memories, Myths, and the Handless Maiden     19
Madalena's Bath     38
Dangerous Domesticity     65
With Stones and Roasting Spits     88
Patience and Perseverance     109
The Castigation of Carcayona     133
Warehouse Children, Mixed Legacies, and Contested Identities     157
Bibliography     181
Index     197
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