We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman

Barbara Mujica

Publication Year: 2009

In 1562, Teresa de Avila founded the Discalced Carmelites and launched a reform movement that would pit her against the Church hierarchy and the male officials of her own religious order. This new spirituality, which stressed interiority and a personal relationship with God, was considered dangerous and subversive. It provoked the suspicion of the Inquisition and the wrath of unreformed Carmelites, especially the Andalusian friars, who favored the lax practices of their traditional monasteries. The Inquisition investigated Teresa repeatedly, and the Carmelite General had her detained. But even during the most terrible periods of persecution, Teresa continued to fight for the reform using the weapon she wielded best: the pen. Teresa wrote hundreds, perhaps thousands, of letters to everyone from the King to prelates to mothers of novices.

Teresa's epistolary writing reveals how she used her political acumen to dodge inquisitors and negotiate the thorny issues of the reform, facing off the authorities--albeit with considerable tact--and reprimanding priests and nuns who failed to follow her orders. Her letters bring to light the different strategies she used--code names, secret routing--in order to communicate with nuns and male allies. They show how she manipulated language, varying her tone and rhetoric according to the recipient or slipping into deliberate vagueness in order to avoid divulging secrets. What emerges from her correspondence is a portrait of extraordinary courage, ability, and shrewdness.

In the sixteenth century, the word letrado (lettered) referred to the learned men of the Church. Teresa treated letrados with great respect and always insisted on her own lack of learning. The irony is that although women could not be letradas, Teresa was, as her correspondence shows, "lettered" in more ways than one.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (419.5 KB)

Table of Contents

pdf iconDownload PDF (411.8 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (445.9 KB)
pp. ix-xiii

I became fascinated with Saint Teresa when, during a time of personal difficulty, I felt drawn toward The Interior Castle. I had taught early modern Spanish literature for many years, but I had never examined the Castle in depth. I found in Teresa a superb guide whose spiritual wisdom, wit, and down-to-earth common sense ...

Sources and Abbreviations

pdf iconDownload PDF (439.9 KB)
pp. xiv

read more

Introduction: The Pen and the Sword

pdf iconDownload PDF (479.3 KB)
pp. 1-12

Teresa de Ávila and her followers were tough, determined managerial types who faced obstacles every bit as daunting as the glass ceiling faced by professional women today. The difference is that for women of Teresa’s generation, the glass ceiling was not invisible; it was patent and manifest, ...

read more

1. From Teresa de Ahumada to Saint Teresa

pdf iconDownload PDF (585.4 KB)
pp. 13-43

The woman who spearheaded the movement known as the Carmelite reform was an unlikely hero. Teresa Sánchez Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Ávila in 1515, the daughter of a converso silk and woolens merchant. Conversos, or New Christians, were Jews who had converted to Catholicism, often due to intense pressure from the crown. ...

read more

2. Teresa de Jesus: Woman of Letters

pdf iconDownload PDF (556.7 KB)
pp. 44-67

The wide variety of people with whom Teresa de Ávila corresponded makes her letters a goldmine of information. She takes the time to write a thank-you note to the mother of a novice for a gift of lard and quince jelly (Letters 1, 31 October 1574). With her brothers and sisters she shares gossip and family news. ...

read more

3. God's Warrior and Her Epistolary Weapons

pdf iconDownload PDF (597.7 KB)
pp. 68-102

The fluid nature of Teresa’s letters makes it impossible to classify them thematically. Teresa’s tendency to move from subject to subject creates the impression of spontaneity, even in letters that show clear political purpose. When writing to church officials, Teresa often inquires about their health, comments on her own, ...

read more

4. Correspondence and Correspondents

pdf iconDownload PDF (614.6 KB)
pp. 103-139

Of Saint Teresa’s approximately 450 extant letters, nearly half were directed to four recipients: to Gracián, 95 (21.1%); to María de San José, 62 (13.7%); to Lorenzo de Cepeda and to María Bautista, 18 each (8% total). By examining Teresa’s sustained communication with these four correspondents, ...

read more

5. Letter-Writing as Self-Representation

pdf iconDownload PDF (620.2 KB)
pp. 140-177

Teresa constantly had to vie with men who sought to limit her mobility, recast the reform according to their own visions, or destroy it altogether. Letter-writing enabled her to both claim and exert authority. Lisa Vollendorf argues that for early modern women, writing itself was an assertive act (Lives 60). ...

read more

6. Forging Sainthood: Teresa's Letters as Relics

pdf iconDownload PDF (549.6 KB)
pp. 178-202

Of the thousands of letters that Saint Teresa wrote, only about 230 authenticated autographs remain, some of which are not entirely in Teresa’s hand (Rodríguez Martínez and Egido 51). Illness and exhaustion frequently prevented her from writing her own letters. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (433.4 KB)
pp. 203-206

For generations, clerics and critics have found Teresa’s down-to-earth epistolary style somewhat embarrassing. The dynamic, multifaceted woman revealed in the epistolary writing is poles apart from the idealized figure promoted by Teresa’s seventeenth-century apologists. ...

Appendix: Seven Letters with Original Translations

pdf iconDownload PDF (551.8 KB)
pp. 207-238


pdf iconDownload PDF (533.6 KB)
pp. 239-258


pdf iconDownload PDF (513.2 KB)
pp. 259-268


pdf iconDownload PDF (468.5 KB)
pp. 269-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592583
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516312

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2009