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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 125-126

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Perfect Wives, Other Woman:
Adultery and Inquisition in Early Modern Spain

Perfect Wives, Other Woman: Adultery and Inquisition in Early Modern Spain. By Georgina Dopico Black (Durham, Duke University Press, 2001) 307 pp. $59.95 cloth $19.95 paper

Perfect Wives, Other Woman is a study about the efficacy of signs in early modern Spanish culture. In the highly conflictive society of the time, the female body, Black writes, became a motive for discourse about cultural anxieties of all sorts. In four chapters, the author introduces her methodology and discusses three well-known works of literature about women from the Spanish Golden Age. In Black's analysis, Luis de León, descendant of Jews and imprisoned by the Inquisition for his interpretation of Scripture, wrote La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife) (Salamanca, 1583) not simply as prescriptive literature for women but also as a manual about the interpretation of texts, thus responding obliquely to the Inquisition's indictment of León's reading of the Song of Songs. Calderón de la Barca's famous play, El médico de su honra (The Surgeon of His Honor) (Madrid, 1637), may on the surface be about the honor code leading to the tragic murder of a wife wrongly suspected of adultery, but it is really covert criticism of the purity of blood laws and the inquisitorial, persecuting mind-set of his day. Finally, Juana Inés de la Cruz, writing her play Los empeños de una casa (The House of Trials) (Seville, 1692) from a Mexican convent, used the device of a cross-dressing male as a "productive site of negotiation and resistance" (xix) to conventional gender roles and patriarchal hierarchy.

Black's interests and methodology are firmly aligned with literature and postmodernist cultural studies. The author explains that despite the book's subtitle, her work is not meant to be a historical narrative about actual cases of adultery or of the Inquisition. Rather, it is an invitation to follow the literary consequences of the persecutory nature of the Inquisition, which sought to control and integrate the body of the Other (female, heretical, or American), or failing that, to punish it. The "inquisitorial hermeneutic" may be seen at work everywhere, in the mentalités, anxieties, and even epistemology of the period (12).

Fair enough. Many hispanists in the past have lobbied for the all-pervasive influence of the Inquisition on Spanish intellectual life. Black takes this influence to new heights, even though many historians today, most notably Kamen, are at pains to show how limited the Inquisition's influence on Spanish society was. 1 However, Black is on shaky ground when she argues that because the "Inquisition directly concerned itself with matters of wifely fidelity," people came to expect honor plays to exhibit "inquisitorial-styled examination and persecution" of wayward wives (114-115). Black may disingenuously claim that she is not interested in history, but if her literary argument is to be based on a presumption of historical/social fact, she needs to pay attention to the work of historians. The Inquisition was primarily interested in controlling male [End Page 125] sexuality when it contravened Church law. The vast majority of those who were tried for bigamy and denying the sinfulness of fornication were men, and solicitation in the confessional and sodomy were exclusively male crimes. All other sex crimes, whatever their nature, were tried in other courts.

Such quibbles about historical reality, though, are at the periphery of the book's purpose, which is to show how Golden Age Spaniards' stereotypical obsessions with sex, gender, religion, and race are not what they appeared to be. In Black's supple, theoretically astute prose, León, Calderón, and de la Cruz were successful co-conspirators in a discourse of resistance against abstract forces of conformity imposed on the literary bodies of perfect wives and other women.


Sara T. Nalle
William Paterson University


1. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (London, 1997). Black...


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