Women In the Inquisition: Spain and the New World.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. ix + 402 pp. $19.95 (pbk), $49 (cl). ISBN: 0-8018-5932-8 (pbk), 0-8018-5931-X (cl).
Fourteen compelling case studies of women persecuted by the Inquisition in Spain and the New World offer an enriching perspective on its marked changes over space and time. This book is a welcome antidote to reductionist treatments of the topic -- presentations of a uniformly macabre and sadistic institution with fixed objectives and predictable outcomes for its victims. As Giles's volume amply demonstrates, in the two-hundred years of its greatest activity, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Inquisition was, in fact, continually redefining its concerns and its targets (from crypto-Judaizing, to alumbradismo, to bigamy, to dangerous racial diversity and religious synchretism in the New World). At the same time, these intimate accounts of the daily lives of the persecuted offer vivid testimony to the diversity of reactions on the part of the accused -- to the stunningly wide range of responses they were capable of producing. Indeed, the testimonies of these victims reveal how the Inquisition was exploited not only by the State but by private citizens to promote the inevitable interpersonal power-politics that any social structure entails, "how inquisitorial trials could be used by other lay people for their own ends and how even family members turned against their own" (3).
Mary Giles has brought together an interesting group of scholars who present the lives of these women, commenting on their significance for the Inquisition in ways which are important to our understanding of its legacy. Of the case studies devoted to converso issues, there is that of Mari Sanchez, a fifteenth-century resident of Seville, who was implicated in attempts by an ambitious friar to gain control of a monastery by means of alliances with wealthy converso merchants. The child prophetess, Ines of Herrera del Duque, offers further insight into the Holy Office's converso concerns. At the age of twelve, this Extremaduran girl proclaimed that in March 1500 "the Messiah would come and redeem the conversos, carrying them, as in Exodus, to the Promised land"(42), while the Old Christians will fight and kill one another.
Under the category of cases considered potentially threatening to the Faith, Francisca Hernandez offers a complex as well as colorful example. By 1530 this woman of humble origins from Toledo was said to have extraordinary healing powers; so powerful were her gifts that well-known clerics (among her numerous followers) claimed that she had "rid them of sexual temptations with a single touch of her sash and righted their spiritual course with wisdom infused by the Holy Spirit" (75). Skeptical critics, however, attributed the clerical enthusiasm to her sexual prowess rather than to her divine inspiration. Beside the potential for salaciousness contained in Francisca's story (as well as its misogynistic note of skepticism), it is revelatory of what might be termed the socially real "beata solution." Unable to enter a convent because she lacked an education and perhaps also because of detractors, Francisca constructed a religious mode of living outside the convent as other women had done, living at home alone or in beaterios (communities of such like-minded women who dedicated themselves to God). As such they conformed to the basic type of the Beguines and other mulieres sanctae of previous centuries. Yet unlike the solitary life style such women conjure up, Francisca hosted a "spiritual court" in Valladolid that included influential clerics as well as nobles, which led to expressions of doubt by her detractors regarding her chastity. The fact that she claimed to experience ecstasies, to have stigmata, and to experience bleeding from her side; her "wearing ribbons and fancy hats and crimson skirts" (79); and the rumors that her father confessor spent the night in her room (on top of the bed) were clearly problematic issues.
Above all, Francisca (despite the unorthodox particularities of her dress and and habits) serves as a paradigm of sorts - as a representative of the female paradox of her time: "Francisca lived in times that were heady with the lure of opportunities for women to escape the confines of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, and obscurity into the limelight of spiritual fame. The religious climate fostered a rush to sanctity among women from all social classes, but women from the lower classes may have had the edge in attracting attention because their gifts might seem to redound more splendidly to God's glory than those of highborn women" (95). Francisca, it seems, was neither saint nor slut, but an exemplum of the undeniable social and moral complexities of her day.
Maria de Cazalla appeared before an inquisitorial tribunal in 1532, accused of alumbradismo, the view shared by the Erasmians that the rites of the church are without value as external performance. By way of illustrating her unorthodox belief, she claimed that "when she was in the so-called carnal act with her husband, she felt all divine, more united with God than at the highest level of prayer" (102). Beyond the fascination this case offers for Maria's sensual approach to matters of the faith, it is noteworthy because it raises the issue of torture, to which she was subjected. "Only two to three percent of all procesos included torture" (113), despite all the macabre associations projected by the so-called black legend. Surprisingly, her forthright belief in her cause stood her in good stead, for despite undergoing torture, she was absolved by the Holy Office, though as penance she was ordered to stand before the altar on Sundays and holidays with a lighted candle by which she would recite the Pater Noster and Ave Maria seven times (115).
The shifting role of visions is dramatized by Fransisca de los Ap6stoles, who endured inquisitorial questioning in Seville during a four-year trial that culminatied in her condemnation. Ascertaining whether a visionary experience is true or false became, during the sixteenth century, a major concern, especially given the increasing numbers of such visionaries. If a woman was deemed to be a true visionary, she could wield great power, which could potentially undermine -- rather than enhance -- the authority of church officials. A contemporary of Teresa of Avila, who herself underwent inquisitorial scrutiny from 1575 to 1576, Francisca was a less articulate and less well-connected version of Teresa. She sought the laudable goal of reform, specifically to offer a safe haven for destitute women. To this end, Fransisca sought to become a fund-raiser, securing, she thought, an endowment from Luisa de Aguilera. When, it seems, Luisa encountered financial problems and had to retract her promise of financial support, rather than admitting her fiscal insolvency, she instead chose to save face by accusing Francisca of being endemoniada.
While women such as Francisca did not commit their experiences to pen and paper, Ana Domengue transcribed hers in a 167-folio of first- and third-person accounts compiled at the request of her confessor. An additional feature which makes Domengue interesting is her record of "bilocations" -- sitings of her by individuals who believed that they had spoken directly to her while she was, in fact, not present. This "Dominican St. Teresa" had visions that were profoundly relevant to her immediate earthly anxieties. When she was struggling to convince the bishop of Perpignan to allow mass to be held at her convent, for example, she saw numerous visions in which God decried the decadence of the clergy What is impressive about Domengue is her self-created authority, her ability "to present herself as both helpless and submissive (in that she was only repeating what God had told her) yet simultaneously important (she was repeating God's own words and had been chosen as God's messenger)" (143). Along similar lines, Ma ria de Jesus de Agreda was not only educated, she was well connected -- to the point where she developed a close friendship with Felipe IV, in spite of her claims to levitation, three years of bilocation, and having been transported to New Mexico by angels.
The third section of this intriguing anthology deals with inquisitorial issues in the New World. The first case study is of Beatriz de Robles, a Moorish visionary condemned at the age of forty-eight as an iluminada. During the seventeenth century Illuminism had gained currency in Andalusia. Beatriz's identity as both Moorish and alumbrada is highly significant, presenting "a paradox that is almost a contradiction in terms, providing a window into early modern Spain, where lines often blurred and different interests met and clashed and somehow mixed together" (173). As such, Beatriz offers a striking case of religious synchretism, the possibility for merging apparently conflicting beliefs.
Beyond the danger of visions as the interior space of resistance by which a female can sway the masses, yet another cause for inquisitorial concern was bigamy. It constituted a violation of canon law and an offense to civil society, and it was persecuted both in Spain and the New World vigorously. Abandoned women, finding themselves in a difficult situation, often tried to obtain an official dispensation to remarry -- as opposed to men, who frequently offered tales of deception, without attempting to obtain a dispensation. It is interesting to note, however, that only half of the women (but nearly all of the men) accused of bigamy were found guilty.
Other issues of female sex and gender are considered as, for example, in the case of Marina de San Miguel, who was brought before the Mexican Inquisition for bigamy, blasphemy, superstition, and witchcraft. She confessed to engaging in the "shameful" act of masturbation, as well as giving thanks to God for her private parts, which (pace Freud's notion of "penis envy") she judged to be "so beautiful."
Slavery is yet another fascinating topic of the New World Inquisition, as Europeans found themselves outnumbered three to one in Mexico, and slaves in league with Indians planned to murder all the Spaniards in the city of Tlatelolco in 1537. Relations among whites and blacks, the existence of African slaves, mestizos, and mulattos posed another key set of racial issues in the New World, as: "in white supremacist patriarchy, that relationship which most threatened to disrupt, challenge, and dismantle white power [and] its concomitant social order was the legalized union between a white man and a black woman" (240).
Yet another challenge to the Holy Office came in the form of oratorios -- private rituals held in homes by lay people. Frequently these oratorios were designed for the purpose of love magic -- to effect a particular liaison. There was at times a fine line drawn between oratorios and hechicerlas, yet the practitioners of this private altar tradition often went unchallenged simply because of the volume of cases of the New World Inquisition, whose jurisdiction extended over the Caribbean, Mexico, the Phillipines, and Central America.
These case studies provide fascinating and very instructive reading. Women in the Inquisition is an important contribution to several areas of early modern studies.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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