Women Writers of Early Modern Spain: Sophia's Daughters / Edition 1

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This fascinating collection is the first to gather together a wide variety of works by Spanish women writers of the Golden Age. In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, the cloister was a refuge for women with intellectual aspirations. A few of these women produced biographies of founding sisters, histories of their orders, and even poetry and theater. Most of these writings were never published, and only now are researchers beginning to unearth and transcribe them. Bárbara Mujica provides an ample introduction to the volume in English, placing early modern Spanish women's writing within the broader context of Europe of the time. The remaining text is in Spanish, and for each of the selections Mujica offers an introduction with biographical and critical information."Expanding the accepted canon, Bárbara Mujica includes works that were unknown and unstudied until recent years as she guides us on this insightful excursion through Spanish literary history."-Joan Cammarata, Manhattan College

Author Biography: Bárbara Mujica is professor of Spanish at Georgetown University. She has published and lectured widely on early modern Spanish literature, and among her books are eight anthologies of Spanish and Spanish American literature. Her latest novel, Frida, is an international bestseller that has been translated into ten languages.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300092578
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2003
  • Series: Yale Language Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Women Writers of Early Modern Spain

By Barbara Mujica

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09257-1


UNTIL VERY RECENTLY we knew little about the daily life of women in medieval and early modern Europe. Although in the past thirty years dozens of studies have provided relevant new information, our grasp of women's history remains sketchy. One difficulty is that most of the documents from which specialists draw conclusions-moral treatises, legal documents, municipal and church records, literary pieces, and illustrations-were created by men, although more texts by women are emerging. Another is that researchers sometimes offer radically conflicting interpretations of the available data. For example, Robert Fossier argues that in spite of the misogyny of the clergy, women enjoyed exceptional power and freedom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries at all levels of society, whereas most other scholars conclude that women in fact lost ground owing to their increased numbers, which diminished their value, and to the hostility of the Church. From the records on hand it appears that the feminization of Wisdom, the adoration of Mary, and even the identification of Jesus with motherhood did not translate into a positive attitude toward women, nor did the idealization of the lady in courtly and Neoplatonist literature. Treatises from the late Middle Ages insist on women's physical, moral, and spiritual weakness. The following text from the Liber Decem Capitulorum, by Marbod of Rennes (c. 1035-1123), is typical:

Countless are the traps which the scheming enemy has set throughout the world's paths and plains; but among them the greatest-and the one scarcely anybody can evade-is woman. Woman the unhappy source, evil root, and corrupt offshoot, who brings to birth every sort of outrage throughout the world.... Her sex is envious, capricious, irascible, avaricious, as well as intemperate with drink and voracious in the stomach.... Armed with these vices, woman subverts the world.

In a similar vein, Walter Map (1140-1209), archdeacon of Oxford, wrote to a friend: "The very best woman (who is rarer than the phoenix) cannot be loved without the bitterness of fear, anxiety, and frequent misfortune. Wicked women, however-who swarm so abundantly that no place is free from their wickedness-sting sharply when they are loved." Andreas Capellanes, associated with the French court in the twelfth century, wrote in De Amore, "The female sex is ... disposed to every evil. Every woman fearlessly commits every major sin in the world on a slender pretext." Jean Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris, argued that women are "easily seduced, and determined seducers." However, Gerson did admire certain outstanding women, among them the writer Christine de Pizan and Joan of Arc.

Some scholars caution that this antifeminist material was generally written by celibate clergy, men who had a particular interest in demonizing what they had renounced. Yet it is an oversimplification to attribute medieval misogyny to sour grapes. Theologians had inherited a glut of writing that depicted woman as the daughter of Eve, the prototypical sinner who disobeyed God and brought disaster upon the human race. If woman suffered excruciating pain during childbirth and sometimes died of hemorrhages, this was the price she paid for her evil, libidinous nature. Only Mary, conceived without sin, was exempt from punishment. Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine supplied medieval writers with an arsenal of arguments to use against women. Classical sources provided misogynist views as well. Mythology provided the example of Pandora who, like Eve, unleashed evil on the human race. Aristotle taught that woman was an imperfect creature, the result of a flawed conception. Greek psychology held that the four elements (earth, fire, air, and water) were expressed in human beings as "humors" (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm). Men, who shared the principles of earth and fire, were dry and hot; women, who shared the principles of air and water, were damp and cold, which made them flighty and phlegmatic. Furthermore, woman was thought to be controlled by her uterus, hysteria in Greek, and, therefore, by nature hysterical. Such views would continue to resonate in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas and well into the early modern period.

Late medieval fiction reflects this bias. The Libro de los enganos e los sayamientos de las mujeres (1253) contains racy tales of wicked, wily women, although some critics believe the work reveals the anonymous author's underlying admiration of them. Perhaps the most famous example is Le Roman de la Rose, by Jean de Meun (1240-1305), which was grafted onto Guillaume de Lorris's earlier allegory about a lover's quest for the "rose," a symbol of female sexuality. Here, Genius describes woman as "a very irritable animal" and exhorts men to protect themselves from women "if you love your bodies and souls." Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" includes a compendium of misogynist commonplaces. The bawdy stories in Boccaccio's Decameron perpetuate the image of the libidinous, deceitful female, and his Il Corbaccio is a long diatribe against women.

The most famous example of misogyny in late medieval Spanish writing is El Corbacho, by Alfonso Martinez de Toledo, El Arcipreste de Talavera (1398-1470). The Arcipreste starts out by enumerating the evils that women cast on the world and how, for love of women, men break all the commandments. Then he discusses women's countless flaws: They are deceitful, self-serving, arrogant, greedy, and selfish. They are gossips, hypocrites, and cheats. Furthermore, they are jealous, inconstant, disobedient, and dishonest. How are we to take this terrible condemnation? At the end, the author implies that it was all a joke, repudiates his book ("conviene que al fuego e vivas llamas pongan el libro que compuse"), and concludes with a lament for those who are deprived of female company ("Ay del que duerme solo!"). But can this brief epilogue undo the pages of vitriol?

Medieval writers also produced a limited number of responses to misogyny. Boccaccio wrote a catalogue of famous and admirable women, but his point is clearly that such women are the exception. A more convincing rebuttal is Le Livre de la cite des dames by Christine de Pizan (1365?-1430?), in which the author systematically demolishes conventional misogynist arguments. A number of treatises written in defense of women appeared in Spain during the fifteenth century, among them El triunfo de las donas (1443), by the Galician Juan Rodriguez de la Camara, in which the author argues for the superiority of women; El libro de las virtuosas y claras mujeres (1446), by Alvaro de Luna, a conventional catalogue of heroines from antiquity; Tratado en defensa de mujeres (c.1440), by Mosen Diego de Valera, in which the author attacks detractors of women; and Jardin de las nobles doncellas (1500), by Fray Martin Alonso de Cordoba, an argument in favor of the right of the Infanta Isabella to the throne of Castile and of queens and princesses to education.

It is not clear to what extent the theorists' diatribe reflected real attitudes toward women. In medieval Spain, three cultures existed side by side-Christian, Moslem, and Jewish-but, especially in cities, the lives of women from the diverse groups seem not to have differed much from each other except in Andalusia, where the large concentrations of Moors ensured the imposition of Islamic laws and customs. The Moorish presence influenced family life and the roles of women in many parts of Spain, but particularly in the south, the Spanish upper classes kept their women secluded. Houses were built onto an interior patio so that women could not show themselves at the window. It was considered revolutionary when nobles began to build houses facing the street in sixteenth-century Seville. The use of the veil, or mantilla, was also a remnant of Arabic culture. But, J. H. Elliott remarks, "the strongest reminder of the Moorish past was to be found in the extreme inequality between the sexes, which was much greater than in contemporary northern Europe." For example, market regulations in twelfth-century Seville specified that "women should be forbidden to do their washing in the gardens, for these are dens for fornication," and that "women should not sit by the river bank in the summer if men appear there." Many other rules designed to keep women out of public places and, in particular, to keep Moorish women away from Christians, indicate that women were afforded little leeway. In both Enrique de Villena's social pyramid, published in Catalan in 1434, and its Islamized version, women are at the very bottom, under hermits (Villena) and idlers (Islamic version).

The legal systems of the northern as well as the Mediterranean countries limited the rights of women within both the family and the public sphere. Women were usually treated as wards of male family members-fathers, husbands, brothers, even sons. In the late medieval period, women throughout Europe acquired greater freedom to administer their own property, especially if they were single. In Spain, where Roman law and local laws called fueros prevailed, the behavior of women was strictly codified. However, Castilian law and custom did protect women's inheritance rights. Although the codes limited the amount a bridegroom could give his bride to one-tenth of his own estate, sometimes she received as much as half the property in land and livestock. In Valencia a widow might expect to take half her husband's estate. Even in Aragon, where Roman law and patria potestas (the power of the father) held great authority, a landholder could divide his property among both his daughters and sons. In the rest of Europe laws of primogeniture, which stipulated that only the eldest son could inherit, began to take hold in the late Middle Ages. However, in Spain women held on to their inheritance rights for a much longer period.

In general, James Casey observes, marriage was considered a partnership between a man and a woman. However, this was not the case with respect to sexual matters, where the law was particularly rigid with respect to women. The Fuero juzgo, legal codes established by the Visigoths and still in force in early modern Spain, stipulated strict controls on women's sexual conduct. A father who discovered his daughter having sexual relations in his house was entitled to kill both her and her lover. A widow, always suspect, was punished if she remarried within a year of her husband's death, having to forfeit half her property to her children. But in cases of interethnic relations, the law came down harder on the man than the woman. If a Christian virgin slept with a Moor, she might lose half her property. If a married woman had sex with a Moor, she was to be turned over to her husband, who could either burn her to death or set her free. In either case the Moor was to be stoned to death. In contrast, a young bachelor was not only allowed but even expected to keep a barrangana, or mistress, until he was ready for marriage. The Fuero juzgo did offer protection against rape, condemning the rapist to servitude to his victim. Abduction could be punished by flogging, enslavement, or death, but in the frontier towns growing up in the wake of the Reconquest, abduction often went unpunished.

A good source of information on the welfare of women is demographic data. However, although medieval censuses from Aragon exist, the first comprehensive survey of Castile was not made until 1534, making it difficult to draw conclusions about earlier periods. Demographic data for the rest of medieval Europe is also scanty. The available statistics indicate that between 1250 and 1500 women appear to have about the same life expectancy as men of the same social class and geographic location, except that the mortality rate of women of child-bearing age (twenty to forty) is much higher than for males. On the other hand, women who survived childbirth generally lived longer than their male contemporaries.

Around the thirteenth century the Church began to impose the "Christian model" of marriage-a long-term monogamous relationship into which both parties entered freely. In reality, however, in all of Europe, including Spain, matrimony was primarily a means of acquiring or maintaining power and property. Young men and women alike were subject to the will of their elders, who married them off to the benefit of the family, sometimes while they were still children. Women who resisted marriage were often subject to corporal punishment by their male relatives, a practice that continued well into the early modern period, as the text of Ana de San Bartolome shows. Those who married against their parents' wishes were punished as well. They could be disinherited, and their nuptials were considered invalid.

The Church and the law gave husbands almost unlimited power over their wives, but court records from thirteenth-century France show that women sometimes brought their husbands to court for excessive brutality, requesting separation or even divorce. This, concludes Claudia Opitz, "shows that women did not bow to the yoke of marriage as willingly as theologians and moralists could have wished." Although patriarchal power could be extremely oppressive, "the absolute power of husbands, stressed again and again by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities, was more the ideal of a male-dominated society than a reality." Still, men enjoyed considerably more freedom than women. Although the Church authorized sexual activity exclusively within marriage, men and women were not held to the same norms. The main purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate heirs. Therefore, female sexuality had to be controlled, and a woman's body had to be reserved for her husband. Married women were closely supervised. Virginity was of primary importance for unmarried girls, who were sometimes kept in convents to ensure their purity. Even widows of marriageable age were subject to familial oversight. In Spain, an adulterous husband was not punished, but the Fuero juzgo did not even allow a wife charged with infidelity to counter her husband's allegation by accusing him of the same crime. On the other hand, a wronged husband could put his wife and her lover to death, upon which he was awarded his wife's dowry and her lover's possessions. Lower-class women enjoyed more sexual liberty than their upper-class sisters had, however, and, especially in rural areas, premarital relations between engaged couples were accepted as normal, provided the pair eventually wed.

If upper-class women had less sexual latitude than peasants, some gained considerable economic power through marriage or inheritance.


Excerpted from Women Writers of Early Modern Spain by Barbara Mujica Copyright © 2004 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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