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Recent studies on women and early modern religion in Spanish.

The study of women's religious experience in early modern Spain has not, until quite recently, attracted much attention from Spanish scholars. For the first generation of post-Franco academicians, the Catholicism of Spain's "Golden Age" may have seemed too deeply implicated in the conservative social agenda associated with the Franco years. For different reasons, the field of women's studies was (in comparison to the United States and Italy) slow to gain a foothold in Spanish universities. Although the feminist movement in Spain had a profound impact on politics, journalism, and the arts in the 1970s, it was not until the mid-1980s that a group of social historians from the Complutense University of Madrid began to publish the proceedings of a series of conferences on women and history, women and law, and women and labor. In the last decade, however, gender-oriented studies have gained academic respectability while the historians of religion have become more familiar with sociological models of analysis. At the same time, the accessibility of convent and municipal archives has greatly expanded. The result has been a cluster of important studies on women's religious experience from the late-fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The topics of investigation include the conditions of women's monastic life before and after the Council of Trent; the phenomenon of lay holy women or beatas; and the careers of "living saints," women who during their life were renowned for holiness or extraordinary spiritual gifts. Although not necessarily written from an explicitly feminist perspective, these studies reflect an interest in determining the contours of women's self-actualization through their religious lives.

With two books and a number of essays, Angela Munoz Fernandez, professor of history at the Complutense University of Madrid, has become one of the leaders in this new field of gender and sanctity, when "sanctity" is understood as "the pursuit of holiness" as well as the fortunes of candidates for sainthood. It has generally been assumed that the reign of the "Catholic Kings," Ferdinand and Isabel, was particularly receptive to female religious leadership. Munoz Fernandez argues that "holy women" were nonetheless carefully regulated. Raptures and charismata were insufficient proof of holiness; signs of humility, discretion, and obedience to clerical authority were essential to ensure the diffusion of their influence and to protect them from suspicion of heresy.

In "Madre y maestra, autora de doctrina. Isabel de la Cruz y el alumbradismo Toldano del primer tercio del siglo XVI" ("Mother and Teacher, Author of Doctrine. Isabel de la Cruz and Toledo Alumbradismo in the First Third of the Sixteenth Century"), Munoz Fernandez examines the figure of Isabel de la Cruz, the acknowledged leader of a short-lived evangelical sect known as alumbradismo (Illuminism), which originated in a number of towns clustered around Toledo in 1519 and was repressed by the Inquisition in 1529. Previous studies, sometimes characterized by confessional polemic, have been concerned with defining the doctrine of the sect and determining its affiliation with contemporary religious reform movements. Munoz Fernandez elects to reconstruct the character of Isabel's leadership - not an easy task, since her inquisitorial testimony has been lost, and her role must be reconstructed on the basis of the trial summary and the testimonies of other witnesses. Nonetheless, she presents a convincing portrait of a woman who, unlike contemporary "living saints," was neither a visionary nor a charismatic, but a teacher of scripture. The conclusion drawn is that this model of feminine pedagogical authority was not viable; it was the mystics and visionaries who succeeded in finding a public voice after 1529.

In Beatas y santas neocastellanas: ambivalencias de la religion y politicas correctoras del poder (ss. XIV-XVI) (Beatas and Saints in New-Castile: Religious Ambivalence and Political Control) Munoz Fernandez focuses on the phenomenon of beatas, lay women who sought a life of holiness outside marriage and the convent. The social status, domestic arrangements, and religious practices of the beatas varied considerably. The designation included women who, without professing monastic vows observed in their own homes some form of religious life, temporarily or permanently, alone or in the company of others. While some supported themselves with their own labor, others were wealthy enough to purchase homes and sponsor their own charitable projects. Some lived solitary, contemplative lives, while others dedicated themselves to an active apostolate among the poor and sick. The origins of the movement, the number of beaterios or communities of beatas, as well as their organizational structure are difficult to determine, given the absence of institutional histories. Much of what is known about beatas comes either from hagiographies of the founding mothers of beaterios or from trial records of those who ran afoul of the Inquisition.

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Munoz Fernandez argues, official attitudes toward beatas were characterized by ambivalence. Although their asceticism and charitable works might be appreciated, their physical mobility and reformist agenda sometimes proved threatening to local municipalities and church authorities. By the seventeenth century, most beaterios had either been dispersed or absorbed into monastic orders.

Why did so many women choose to become beatas, despite family opposition and social disapproval, rather than enter a convent? Munoz Fernandez rejects an economic explanation, since the movement attracted not only women of modest means but also those who could clearly afford a convent dowry. Instead, she suggests that these communities were attractive to women who sought an alternative to marriage and cloister, and more importantly, an alternative to patriarchal control.

In the second section of the book, "?Hubo santas en Castilla?" ("Were There Any Saints in Castile?") Munoz Fernandez looks at the beatas who, though never officially canonized, were venerated by their contemporaries for their exceptional holiness. Following the methodology of the sociologist Pierre Delooz, she recognizes that the sanctity of these women is "constructed," that is, the records of their lives reflect the values their hagiographers deemed worthy examples for imitation or remembrance. Concentrating on four beatas from the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries who lived in Toledo, Munoz Fernandez observes that their careers follow a trajectory leading from physical freedom to enclosure. Maria Garcia refused to join her sister in a Franciscan convent and devoted herself to begging alms for prisoners. When Peter the Cruel came to power (according to her hagiographer, the king "pursued maidens and noble ladies and women of all rank") she withdrew to a hermitage. She ended her days as the leader of a community of beatas associated with the newly-formed Jeronimite order. Maria de Toledo (1439-1505) embarked upon a life of evangelical charity after the death of her husband: she worked in hospitals and prisons, gave food to the poor, ransomed captives, and provided orphans with dowries. She abandoned her charitable work, however, to live as an emparedada, or recluse given to austere penitential practices. This phase of her career was also marked by visions and prophecies. Summoned to the royal court in Segovia, she prophesied the fall of Granada and (according to her hagiographer) was instrumental in persuading Ferdinand and Isabel to establish the Holy Office of the Inquisition. After a brief return to charitable work in Toledo, she founded a community of Franciscan tertiaries. In 1484, she and her companions became cloistered nuns of the Order of Saint Clare. From the point of view of their hagiographers, their rejection of a life of apostolic charity and political prophecy for incorporation into regular monastic life represented the perfection of the saintly model. We cannot know whether the women shared this view.

Not all beatas dedicated themselves to works of charity. Maria de Ajofin (d. 1489) preferred to practice an apostolate among the dead, communicating the suffering of souls in purgatory to their anxious relatives. Through her visions she denounced the corruption of the clergy and relayed the Virgins pleas for radical reform. Such reformist invective against the Church was not new in Spain, but it was unusual coming from the mouth of a woman. Munoz Fernandez attributes Maria's success and survival to three factors: her ascetic practices, the fact that she only related her visions through her confessor, and "the language of her body," or her stigmata and ecstasies (129). She fails to discuss, however, the erratic history of these corporeal signs as confirmation of female sanctity. Ecstatic trances and stigmata could all too easily be read as signs of hypocrisy or possession. She does points out, however, the crucial role of Maria's confessor in authorizing his penitential daughter as an exception to the general rule of female ignorance and deception. It would have been worth noting, as well, that it was not the "corporeal language" of the woman's body in itself, but its legitimization by male clerics that assured her acceptance.

The fourth "beata," Juana de la Cruz, is the most famous of the group, the only one promoted for official canonization. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was said, she pronounced sermons on exalted doctrine to the nobles who visited her community of beatas. After 1509, however, she left preaching for a life of enclosure, accepting the consolation of her guardian angel, who assured her that she could continue to help her fellow Christians "within the convent with approved words and without through devout letters" (cited on page 137). Juana, to a surprising degree, managed to appropriate spiritual roles that were officially the exclusive prerogative of the clergy: preaching, explanation of theological mysteries, and scriptural exegesis (in fact, in some of her sermons, she was said to supply "missing" fragments of scripture). Once again, Munoz Fernandez attributes this success to the beata's ability to demonstrate self-abnegation and obedience to her superiors.

Munoz Fernandez's regional approach has the advantage of revealing the variety of models of sanctity that were operative within the same period and locality. At the same time, she makes a convincing case for certain constants in this form of lay religiosity - the beatas' demonstrated subordination to clerical approval, and a life-pattern leading from solitary contemplation or apostolic activity to communal enclosure. The cluster method, however, sacrifices the detailed analysis of rhetorical strategies or symbolic visionary language, or more detailed accounts of the confessor/penitent relationship that one finds in single case studies, such as Ronald Surtz's book on Juana de la Cruz, The Guitar of God. Gender, Power, and Authority in the Visionary World of Mother Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534) (1990). Also omitted from Munoz Fernandez's study is an account of other variables that might have had a profound impact on a beata's success or failure as a holy woman, such as the internal politics of monastic orders and cathedral chapters, as well as the influence of noble or religious patronage. (See, for example, Jodi Bilinkoff, "Charisma and Controversy: The Case of Maria de Santo Domingo." Archivo Dominicano 10 [1989]: 56-66.) How the beatas' reformist agenda intersected with that of the royal family or the famously pro-beata Cardinal Cisneros similarly receives scanty attention. Admittedly, documents providing unmediated access to the religiosity of these women are scare. Nonetheless, Munoz Fernandez has not been entirely successful in her effort to give voice to this "muted group." Her contention that the beatas were motivated, in their religious practices, by a desire to seek freedom from patriarchal control remains asserted rather than demonstrated.

In Acciones e intenciones de mujeres. Vida religiosa de las madrilenas (ss. XV-XVI) (Women's Actions and Intentions: Women's Religious Life in Madrid), Munoz Fernandez focuses her investigation on the nuns and beatas who lived in Madrid and its surroundings at the turn of the sixteenth century. In the first chapter, she delineates the extent to which, before the Council of Trent, convents in Madrid were financed by and served the dynastic interests of elite families. Patronage served, first of all, as a kind of pre-paid insurance for unmarriageable or widowed family members; patronage contracts frequently reserved a certain number of places in the convent for female relatives or aged family retainers. Convent patronage also acquired a propagandistic value; ornate funeral chapels in particular promoted the family's prestige and perpetuated the memory of illustrious forebears.

Not all patronage was linked exclusively to dynastic interests, however. The widowed Beatriz Galindo (d. 1534), lady-in-waiting to Isabel I, founded two convents and a hospital. She reserved spaces in the convents for widows and daughters of impoverished nobles. She also essentially invented a new vocation for poor women - professional nursing. "Decent" women - of no less than forty-five years of age - were offered food, shelter in lodgings annexed to a hospital, and a small salary; in exchange, they provided spiritual consolation and nursing care for the patients. The hospital served as an institution through which Beatriz promoted other charitable acts: assistance for prisoners, impoverished gentlemen and women, orphans without dowries, and travelers in distress. She entrusted 3,000 fanegas of wheat to the hospital for distribution to the poor in case of famine. This brief account of a remarkable woman suggets a number of questions regarding these forerunners of the Sisters of Charity. Was there any opposition to the nurse-beatas? Were women involved in the administration of the hospital? What criteria were used to prioritize assistance to different needy groups? Did charitable institutions survive the death of their founding benefactors? Munoz Fernandez nonetheless deserves credit for calling attention to an aspect of women's public life in early modern Spain that has been little appreciated heretofore.

The last chapter treats the religious bonds between three women - Isabel de Baena, a Clarisan nun known for raptures and miraculous inedia; Isabel de Aragon, the unhappily-married Duchess of the Infantado and devotee of the nun; and Isabel de Ortiz, Aragon's servant and the spiritual mediator between her mistress and the nun. When Ortiz attempted to gain permission to publish a guidebook on mental prayer, she was denounced to the Inquisition. Munoz Fernandez presents Ortiz as an example of a woman who forged an informal spiritual magisterium, but does little more with this intriguing cross-class friendship.

In general, Munoz Fernandez might be described as belonging to the "cautiously optimistic school" of women's history, affirming that the Christian religion, in spite of its well-rehearsed limitations on action and expression, offered women important opportunities for self-actualization and influence. She concludes, however, that the authority exercised by nuns and beatas, whether expressed in terms of spiritual teaching, public charity, or charismatic holiness, was never free of obstacles or regulation by the masculine authority of the Church. To her credit, she has brought together, from archival as well as previously-studied sources, evidence of women's agency in the religious sphere based on a broader sample than had been available before. However, her panoramic approach and brief treatment of case histories do not always fully support her hypotheses.

The precarious fortunes of religious archives in Malaga give some indication of the difficulties of reconstructing local monastic histories. The library of the Episcopal Palace was burned during the Civil War in the 1930s; the documents remaining in the convents - constitutions, books of customs, chronicles, and hagiographies - were zealously guarded by nuns. It was not until the late 1980s that three Cistercian convents, encouraged by their vicar general, opened their archives to a young historian, Maria Carmen Gomez Garcia. In her 1995 book, Mujer y clausura. Conventos Cistercienses en la Malaga Moderna (Woman and Cloister. Cistercian Convents in Modern Malaga), Gomez Garcia offers a clear and accessible account of Cistercian convent life based on documents from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

These three centuries of Cistercian history are treated synchronically, organized into chapters on rules and constitutions, convent offices, liturgical observance, daily life, architecture, census data, and economic structure. The picture that emerges is one of an institution that was extreme neither in its laxity nor austerity. The Cistercian convents of Malaga were strictly enclosed and the nuns devoted two hours daily to contemplative prayer. But unlike the nuns of other contemplative orders, such as the Discalced Carmelites (the order reformed by Teresa of Avila [1515-1582]), the Cistercians appear to have had more extensive and varied contacts with the laity. Although forbidden private possessions, some nuns retained control over large incomes, bought and sold slaves, financed art projects for their convents, and, on occasion, indulged in small luxuries, such as ice during the summer. In addition to choir nuns and freilas (lay sisters who took informal vows and did not recite the Divine Office), the Cistercian community included female servants who tended to elderly or infirm nuns, and slaves. The convents also provide a retreat for mourning widows, women seeking annulments of marriages, illegitimate daughters of local noblemen, and girls as young as four years of age who resided with relatives in their cells. Although there is little evidence of forced vocations, it appears that the convents served, to some extent, as "warehouses" for excess or displaced women of the Malaga elites.

Life among the Cistercians was sometimes contentious. Conflicts revolved around class divisions, disparity in wealth, disagreements over the admission of novices, proposed changes in customs or rules, allegations of mismanagement of economic resources, and charges of abuse of authority. A few nuns were expelled, others left on their own accord; abbesses were deposed while others resigned. It is interesting that the nuns frequently called upon the cabildo or town council to resolve these disputes. Gomez Garcia notes that documentation on these matters is scarce, given the communities' reluctance to preserve the memories of these unpleasant episodes. Nonetheless, further analysis of disputes and litigation, as well as cases of expulsion or voluntary separation from the community would be valuable in determining not only the social tensions inherent in monastic life, but also the degree of self-determination in vocations after the Council of Trent.

The Cistercian convents also produced their share of "living saints." Convent archives chronicle the lives of nuns whose extraordinary favors included the gift of prophecy, visions, levitations, and ecstasies. There is no indication that these prodigies ever attracted the attention of the Inquisition. However, Gomez Garcia does refer to an incident in which a "wise and experienced" priest discretely put an end to a certain nun's visions of her deceased uncle, who appeared to say mass for her privately in the chapel. But other nuns enjoyed widespread veneration, attracting great crowds of relic-seekers after their death. Perhaps out of fear of offending those who had given her access to their archives, Gomez Garcia treats this material gingerly and cursorily. The reader is left with little notion of the extent of these forms of religiosity, or the internal mechanisms used for policing or promoting such behaviors. Although Gomez Garcia's synthetic approach has the advantage of representing the continuity of convent culture, the absence of chronological markers is sometimes frustrating. One is also left wondering, for example, if attitudes toward charismata changed appreciably over the three centuries studied, or how the decrees of the Council of Trent affected interactions with the outside world. Though descriptive rather than analytical (and written without any apparent awareness of gender studies), Mujer y clausura provides a useful basis for anyone interested in women's monastic culture during this period.

The last ten years have also witnessed the publication of several important editions of women's religious writing of the Golden Age. Notable examples of recovered works by Renaissance and Baroque writers include Literatura Conventual Femenina: Sor Marcela de San Felix, hija de Lope de Vega. Obra Completa (1988) edited by Electa Arenal and Georgina Sabat-Rivers; Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works (1989) edited by Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau, with translations by Amanda Powell; Antologia poetica de escritoras de los siglos XVI y XVII (1989) edited by Ana Navarro; and Tras el espejo la musa escribe. Lirica feminina de los Siglos de Oro (1993) edited by Julian Olivares and Elizabeth S. Boyce. Scholarly forays into convents continue to yield new riches. Concepcion Torres Sanchez has recently published her discovery of a collection of letters written by the Discalced Carmelite Ana de Jesus (1545-1621), a controversial follower of St. Teresa. Ana was one of Teresa's most learned and strong-willed disciples. She assisted John of the Cross, the mystical poet and future saint, in preparing Teresa's works for publication and led a "nuns' rebellion" against a Carmelite general who attempted to modify Teresa's constitutions for the reformed convents. Ana was punished for her part in the rebellion with three years in reclusion; afterwards, however, she led Discalced foundations in France and Flanders. Many of her extant letters date from this period (1602-1610), and treat the day-to-day trials of administering to the needs of the new convents. In spite of aristocratic patronage, the communities suffered from inadequate food and housing. Some letters also give a detailed account of Ana's sufferings from what appears to be arthritis. Surprisingly, Ana appears not embrace illness in the spirit of imitatio Christi. As Torres comments, "It is rather rare to find a nun from the seventeenth century who complains of her corporeal suffering with so little resignation" (25). Other letters offer glimpses of Ana's deep affection for one of her sisters, Beatriz de la Concepcion, to whom she confesses, "We must be bewitched with each other, for the days when I can't speak with you, I cannot bear to live" (25). Torres sensibly cautions against reading too much into these lines, since this intimate tone is not uncommon in the correspondence of Teresa's followers.

The letters to the Augustinian friar Diego de Guevara portray a different kind of friendship. There is little deference to male authority here. Ana offers the friar straightforward advice on monastic administration as well as spiritual counsel and consolation. Also revealing are Ana's frequent comments on the politics of the Spanish regency in Flanders, especially during the Twelve Years Truce (1609-1621). As Torres observes, the Discalced Carmelites in Flanders found their greatest supporters in the Spanish regents, Isabel Clara Eugenia and the Archduke Alberto, who hoped to consolidate their support among the French and Flemish aristocracy by forging close ties between noble families and the Discalced convents. Although the collection of fifty-three letters is relatively small in comparison with the voluminous correspondence of Teresa de Jesus or Ana de San Bartolome, it represents a resource rich in concrete detail regarding the material conditions of convents as well as the affective lives and political-religious roles of seventeenth-century nuns.

It is encouraging and gratifying to see this renewed interest in early modern religious history in Spain accompanied by a receptivity to sociological and gender-based modes of analysis. These studies enhance our appreciation of the extent and variety of religious roles to which women aspired - as patrons, apostolic care-givers, nuns, teachers, prophets, monastic reformers, and visionaries. They also extend our awareness of the complex factors that inhibited or permitted women's self-actualization within a society predicated on their subordination.

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Author:Weber, Alison
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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