Home > Early Christianity, History > Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain

Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain

Oxford University Press, USA | February 9, 2006 | ISBN-10: 0199265313 | 281 pages

While scholars have marvelled at how accused witches, mystical nuns, and aristocratic women understood and used their wealth, power, and authority to manipulate both men and institutions, most early modern women were not privileged by money or supernatural contacts. They led the routine and often difficult lives of peasant women and wives of soldiers and tradesmen. However, a lack of connections to the typical sources of authority did not mean that the majority of early modern women were completely disempowered. 

During the reign of Augustus (27 bce–14 ce), the Greek geographer Strabo made an astounding assertion about the gender norms of the native peoples of north-western Spain: ‘it is the custom among the Cantabrians for the husbands to give dowries to their wives, for the daughters to be left as heirs, and the brothers to be married off by their sisters. The custom involves, in fact, a sort of gynaecocracy.’

Strabo went on to note that the female members of the Callaıci (or Gallaecians), Astures, and Cantabri, ferocious tribes that had recently been conquered by Rome, were remarkably courageous, killing their children rather than allowing them to be taken captive by the Romans, and hard-working, giving birth while toiling in the fields.

Historians know little about gender norms in ancient Spain, but it appears that, far from characterizing tribal cultures, Strabo may have had his own reasons for portraying the people of north-western Spain in these highly gendered terms. Classicists have long since demonstrated that tribes ruled by women were a common trope in ancient literature and that the Greeks insulted conquered peoples by describing them as having been ruled by women. In fact, Strabo goes on to say that the power of women in these tribes ‘is not at all a mark of civilization’. Certainly, his depiction has not held up to historical scrutiny. There is no evidence of a truly matriarchal society in Iberia or anywhere else in the Western past, despite tenacious investigations by scholars from a variety of disciplines.

Nevertheless, Strabo’s words struck a chord with me as I completed my first book on the religious beliefs of early modern peasants in Galicia, the descendants of the Gallaecians whose customs he so provocatively described. Paging through tattered books in dank archives, I found early modern Galician husbands bringing dowries to their wives, parents choosing daughters as heirs, and mothers and sisters marrying off sons and brothers more than a millennium and a half after the Greek geographer made his remarkable observations. With every testament and dowry contract, I was coming to an understanding of Galician peasant women that had more in common with Strabo’s attempt at a cultural insult than with traditional portrayals of Spanish women.

In sharp contrast to Strabo’s vision of courageous, hard-working women in control of familial inheritance, scholars have formulated their understanding of gender in early modern Spain around the seemingly univocal depiction of women presented by the theological and prescriptive literature of the period, Golden Age drama, and modern anthropological studies. According to these sources, Spanish society viewed women as inherently weak, easily deceived by the devil, and prone to religious excess. They were vulnerable to sexual temptation and in need of constant protection. As a result, Spanish society demanded that women live according to an unyielding culture of honour based on strict chastity and modesty. Transgressions of the culture of honour, whether real or imagined, harmed not only the reputation of the woman involved, but also that of her family. In order to prevent humiliation, men had to supervise women carefully, even to the point of complete seclusion.

Early modern moralists promoted this highly sexualized and deeply distrustful view of Spanish women. Although Spanish defenders of women existed, the ideas of authors whose works echoed the conservative political and religious discourse of the period proved to be much more pervasive. Indeed, Spaniards composed two of the most frequently cited prescriptive texts of the early modern period, The Education of a Christian Woman by Juan Luis Vives (1523) and The Perfect Wife (1583) by Fray Luis de Leon. Fundamental to nearly all discussions of gender in Spanish society, these works provide vivid examples of this restrictive vision of women. According to Fray Luis, ‘woman is by nature weaker and more fragile than any other creature, and by inclination and habit frail and finicky’. According to both men, women were easily overcome by a desire to dominate, possessed by a tendency to anger, pride, and idleness, and having a propensity to sin and lust. As a result, the social and behavioral standards advocated by these authors were uncompromising. They emphasized complete female submission to male authority. Chastity was the highest virtue, and without it a woman faced social ostracization.

According to Vives, a girl who has lost her chastity will find through her own fault everything sad, unhappy, mournful, hateful, and hostile to her. What will be the sorrow of her relatives when they sense that they are all dishonored because of the base conduct of one girl? What will be their grief ? What tears will be shed by parents and those who nurtured her? . . . What hatred will this arouse in the members of your household! What will be the talk of neighbors, friends, and acquaintances in denunciation of this wicked girl, what derision! What gossip there will be among girls of her own age, what loathing her girl friends will have for her! How she will be avoided wherever she goes!

Fray Luis went further, stating that ‘a woman’s chastity . . . is the basis upon which the whole edifice [of the perfect wife] is founded and, in short, it is the very being and substance of the wife, because, if she does not possess this, she is no longer a married woman but a perfidious harlot and the dirtiest mud, and the most foul-smelling and repulsive dirt’. According to this discourse, sexual purity was the defining characteristic of a Spanish woman; the loss of it meant the loss of her very humanity.

Since women were feeble by nature, they were to be subordinated in marriage in order to protect both their own virtue and male honour. According to Vives, within marriage, women were to submit completely to the will of their husbands: ‘Not only the tradition and institutions of our ancestors but all laws, human and divine, and nature itself, proclaim that a woman must be subject to a man and obey him.’ Marriage was so important to the control of women that Vives praised the widows of antiquity and myth who committed suicide at the death of their husbands.

This negative view of women was perpetuated by portrayals of women in early modern Spanish drama. Pedro Caldero´n de la Barca’s The Surgeon of His Honour (1629) is probably the most famous of the Golden Age plays in which a man restores his honour by killing his wife over her rumoured infidelity. In the play, prior to Don˜a Mencı´a’s marriage to Don Gutierre, the King’s brother, Prince Enrique, had eagerly pursued her. When Prince Enrique attempts to rekindle his relationship with Don˜a Mencı´a, she steadfastly rejects him. However, Don Gutierre believes that he has found evidence of their encounters and is gradually overcome by rage and jealousy. Finally, in order to restore the perceived loss of honour from her supposed intimacies with Prince Enrique, Don Gutierre has Don˜a Mencı´a murdered by a bloodletter. In his final speech before carrying out the murder, Don Gutierre lays out the social imperative that he faced according to the most stringent application of the Spanish code of honour. ‘I am the surgeon of my honour j called upon to bleed my wife to death j If honour’s life’s to be restored. j For honour asks of us this price: j That precious blood be sacrificed.’ The message was clear. For all concerned, a woman with a compromised reputation was better off dead.

In addition to the texts of early modern elites, scholarly work on gender in early modern Spain has been deeply influenced by the research of Mediterranean anthropologists, whose descriptions of the Spanish honour code have become almost sacrosanct. Although the notion dates back to the  mid 1960s, the work of Julian Pitt-Rivers in particular encouraged scholars to view gender relations in Spanish society through a paradigm of honour and shame in which women derived their honour from their chastity and men derived theirs from the maintenance of the chastity of the women in their care. This set of social norms helped men ensure the paternity of their children and thus the continuation of their lineage. In fieldwork in one village after another, anthropologists found concerns about honour integral to a broad array of interpersonal interactions.

When one juxtaposed the anthropological research with early modern texts, the social and sexual subordination of Spanish women seemed complete. This construction of gender roles based on sexual honour has become so central to the historical research on gender in early modern Spain and its American colonies that the historians Lyman Johnson and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera recently claimed that, in colonial Latin America, ‘The culture of honor provided a bedrock set of values that organized their society and their individual lives.’

However, many scholars, myself included, are less convinced by the pervasiveness of that culture of honour. In fact, the neatly packaged set of social norms that seemed to clearly express the gender expectations of early modern Spanish society have recently undergone significant revision as scholars have reconsidered the relationship between the texts, early modern society, and the theoretical construct of honour.

Rather than being descriptive of broader social norms, most scholars now read early modern theological and moral texts as reflective of the centralizing impetus of the Spanish monarchy and the unifying programme of the Catholic Reformation, both of which relied on the rhetoric of social discipline to consolidate authority among Iberian and conquered populations.15 Promoting the dangers of women and female sexuality helped to reinforce the hierarchy that both secular and ecclesiastical authorities saw as the ‘natural order’ of society—God, Man, and Woman. As Mary Elizabeth Perry has pointed out, this anti-female discourse presented a framework for the implementation of a variety of ‘order-restoring’ measures that increased central authority at the expense of individual autonomy and local culture.

Scholars have also reassessed the place of prescriptive literature in early modern culture and the pervasiveness of the patriarchal and often misogynist ideas espoused by those authors. First, these men did not write their works for broad consumption and implementation. Both Vives and Fray Luis composed their texts for particular women to address issues specific to those women’s classes and circumstances. As humanists and clerics, they conceptualized their works within paradigms that had little to do with actual women. Instead, their sources were the great thinkers and clerics of antiquity and early Christianity, part of a long tradition of scholarly and religious treatises that were decidedly anti-feminine in both tone and content. They did not base their discussions on Spanish social norms or even Spanish law. Moreover, Vives left Spain as a young man and never returned. He composed The Education of a Christian Woman for Catherine of Aragon as a guidebook for her young daughter, Mary Tudor, both of whom lived in England.18 Fray Luis’s reputation as a scholar and theologian was tarnished by his notorious run-ins with the Inquisition. As a result, there is little to indicate that the authors’ misogyny necessarily reflected broader anti-female sentiment in Spanish society.

Certainly some women, particularly aristocratic women, were not only held to these expectations but willingly subscribed to them and cultivated them within their social circles. However, the fact that some men and women willingly embraced these restrictive notions of female behaviour does not indicate that the Spanish population or even the Castilian aristocracy generally accepted such notions. This gap between prescriptive literature and individual behaviour was not a uniquely Spanish phenomenon. Feminist historians have revealed similar discrepancies between the prescriptive literature of the period and women’slives across the continent and in England. The exact reasons for this gap are difficult to unravel. It is not clear whether few people actually knew about the prescriptions or whether they were common knowledge but largely ignored by the populace.

Whatever the case, with increasing frequency historians have exposed significant differences between the ideal woman championed by men like Vives and Fray Luis and the lives of actual Spanish women. As we will see, recent research reveals that although sexual purity might have been applauded by clerics, intellectuals, and the male members of aristocratic families, for many women it was only haphazardly pursued. In fact, even the archetype of the macho Spanish male who would rather kill his wife than suffer a loss of honour seems to have been more prevalent in literature than in reality. While the murder of Don˜a Mencıa still leaves audiences shocked, in reality such harsh acts, while not unknown, seem to have been rare. As I will explore in more detail later, the Castilian legal system provided women and their families with a variety of mechanisms to restore their impugned reputations, none of which involved murder. Indeed, the violent responses to transgressions of male honour depicted on stage and in literature may have been popular exactly because they presented the extreme consequences of inflexible sexual standards. They fed early modern imaginations much like Hollywood movies feed modern minds with unrealistic and often unappealing portrayals of sex and violence in American society.

Historians’ understanding of the role of honour in Spanish society is further complicated by the issue of class. To whatever degree they found an audience, early modern prescriptive literature and drama spoke almost exclusively to and about aristocratic Spanish women. Despite the fact that 75–80 per cent of early modern Spaniards were peasants and that Spanish society was rigidly divided along class lines, we know little or nothing about the gender norms of the Spanish peasantry. For more than three decades, scholars have painstakingly teased out the distinguishing features of Europe’s diverse agricultural communities. Their work has revealed the complex interplay of family structures, land tenure, and labour systems under which the majority of the European population lived. Nevertheless, the scholarly assumption has generally been that Spanish peasant families, like their upper-class counterparts, were patriarchal, hierarchical, and structured around the maintenance of female honour. In addition, cultural misogyny and a lack of rights and resources severely limited peasant women’s social and economic opportunities. These assumptions fail to acknowledge not only the significantly different social and economic conditions facing peasant women in Spain and across Europe, but also the varying kinship structures and traditions among European ethnic groups and the ways that those structures affected gender relations. Quite unwittingly, historians have introjected the classist views of peasant society expressed by their early modern counterparts. A striking example is the way that modern scholars, like early modern intellectuals, frequently describe powerful women in peasant culture (witches, healers, holy women) as marginalized from the rest of society and as aberrations in need of repression by patriarchal authorities—a view of peasant women which, as we will see, was not necessarily held by peasants themselves.

Finally, for more than a decade, the honor and shame paradigm has come under intense scrutiny by some scholars, especially feminist anthropologists who have described it as the product of Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism and anthropological androcentrism. These critics emphasize the fact that during the 1960s, mainly English-speaking anthropologists used this framework to explain what they viewed as the deviant sexual norms of Mediterranean societies. Moreover, many scholars have fallen into the same error when discussing northern European women. In her research on early modern English women, Laura Gowing has also noted that scholars have tended to ignore more complex understandings of honor employed by early modern people.

Although many anthropologists have moved beyond such an essentializing description of social behavior, for the most part historians have remained narrowly focused on honor based on female chastity, ignoring the other possible social and cultural norms that might have structured gender relations. Early modern Spain was not a unified society, but instead a patchwork of many social classes and regional cultures. Honor may have been only one of many factors that defined the actions and interactions of Spanish men and women.

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