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Essays in Medieval Studies 18 (2001) 43-52

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How Portuguese Damas Scandalized the Court of Enrique IV of Castile

Nancy F. Marino
Michigan State University

Almost a year after becoming King of Castile in 1454, Enrique IV married for the second time. 1 His new bride was Juana, the fifteen-year-old sister of King Alfonso V of Portugal. Little is known about Juana's life before she wed the Castilian king, but Portuguese historian E. Sanceau maintains that, unlike other female members of her family, Juana was never attracted either to austerity nor religious contemplation. 2 Generally described as lively and dark-haired, Juana took with her to Castile an entourage that included her personal attendant, a housekeeper, an assortment of servants, and twelve "doncellas" or young, unmarried women who would be her companions. It was understood that these maidens, daughters of Portuguese noblemen, would marry into Castilian noble houses.

Juana and her train were met in Badajoz, near the Portuguese border, by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia and the Bishop of Avila, who served as their escorts to Cordoba, where Enrique was awaiting his new queen. The celebrations there were extravagant, with the opulent feasts and jousts that were the usual entertainment at royal weddings. But the festivities had an unexpected attraction: the newly-arrived Portuguese ladies astonished the Castilians with their startling dress, unconventional cosmetics, and disquieting behavior. The boldness of their appearance charmed many free-thinking courtiers at the same time that it scandalized the conservative contingent. Enrique's chroniclers mention the entrance of the portuguesas in their histories, but one in particular, Alonso de Palencia, chose to seize the occasion to condemn them and their activities. He focuses on their physical appearance and dress as well as their conduct in public.

Palencia begins by making a comment on the general behavior of Juana's companions: [End Page 43]

el séquito de la Reina, compuesto de jóvenes de noble linaje y deslumbradora belleza, pero más inclinadas a las seducciones de lo que a doncellas convenía; que nunca se vio en parte alguna reunión de ellas que así careciese de toda útil enseñanza. Ninguna ocupación honesta les recomendaba; ociosamente y por do quier se entregaban a solitarios coloquios con sus respectivos galanes. 3
(The Queen's entourage, composed of young women of noble lineage and striking beauty, but more inclined toward seduction than appropriate for maidens; for never did one see anywhere a gathering of them that so lacked any useful learning. They took part in no honest pastimes; leisurely and in any place they engaged in solitary colloquy with their respective suitors.) 4

He goes on to mention that the "dishonesty" of the ladies' dress incited the audacity of the young Castilians present, referring specifically to the necklines of these garments, which "descubrían el seno hasta más allá del estómago" ('bared their chests down past their stomachs').

This description of the portuguesas daring décolletage might be exaggerated, but nevertheless seems to indicate that the necklines they wore differed greatly from the accustomed Castilian model. In the first half of the century in Spain, most necklines of women's garments were rounded, baring the collarbone to the shoulder. Another popular design was a high collar, which covered the chest and rose up behind the neck, sometimes to absurd heights. 5 Castilian fashions in the mid-fifteenth century were only somewhat influenced by clothing trends that were popular in other parts of Europe. The Burgundian court, in particular, was the paragon of style at the time. In Spain, however, while men's fashions often imitated the attire of the court at Burgundy, in the early part of the century women's clothing remained independent and more natively Castilian. By the mid-1400s the imported v-shaped neckline had come into style. However, no description or illustration of the garments in either contemporary texts or historical studies reveal anything but the most modest of v-necks.

In his book on Portuguese dress of the...