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The Catholic Historical Review 92.2 (2006) 288-289
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Beata. "A woman in religious dress, who, outside of a community, and in a private home, professes celibacy, and lives honestly and quietly ['con recogimiento'], occupying herself in prayer and charitable works."*
Beatas, the Spanish equivalent of the beguines of northern Europe, represent one of the most interesting spiritual phenomena of early modern Spain. Living solely or in groups, beatas hailed from diverse backgrounds, both noble and plebeian. Some were young women, who, lacking the wherewithal to enter a convent, struck out on their own. Others were wealthy widows like María of Austria, who, following the death of her husband, Emperor Ferdinand II, moved into a Madrid convent, dressed as a nun, and devoted herself to prayer and good works. The majority of beatas were wholly orthodox in their religious beliefs, living quiet, seemingly uneventful lives. Others were visionaries whose notoriety brought gifts and endowments to beatarios (communities of beatas) seeking to become a full-fledged convent. Still other beatas, starting early in the sixteenth century, embraced new spiritual movements that emphasized inner piety and mental prayer. Beatas consequently figured prominently among the alumbradas, or enlightened ones, prosecuted vigorously by the Spanish Inquisition during the 1520's and 1530's.
Among the more activist beatas was Francisca de Avila, also known as Francisca de los Apóstoles, a resident of Toledo who, starting around 1570, experienced certain visions that brought her to the attention of various clergymen connected to Bartolomé de Carranza, the Toledan archbishop whose own attempts at spiritual reform had led to his arrest on charges of heresy by the Inquisition in 1547 and subsequent imprisonment and trial in Rome. The exact nature of Francisca's connection with Carranza remains unknown, but the archbishop figured centrally in her visions as a kind of savior figure who would, upon his release from prison, rescue the Toledan church from depravity and [End Page 288] corruption. Francisca's followers understood these visions as divinely inspired, but their anticlerical, somewhat Erasmian tone led others to label her an alumbrada, and ultimately to her arrest by the Holy Office in 1575.
Although Francisca is not exactly an unknown figure in the spiritual history of sixteenth-century Spain, this book offers the first in-depth study of her activities and beliefs, together with translations of some of her letters as well as the proceedings of her inquisitorial trial. The author's introduction, focused primarily on gender concerns, also provides useful information about other beatas who attracted inquisitorial attention, together with a discussion of some of the thorny theological issues that Francisca's visions raised. On the other hand, the author provides only minimal information about Francisca's social and spiritual milieu in Toledo. Little is said about Carranza's ideas and the way in which they may have influenced not only Francisca's visions but the new, reformed convent that Francisca, together with her sister, sought to establish. Also left unexplored is the exact nature of her connections to clergy who helped keep the archbishop's reforming spirit alive, not to mention the network of other individuals who nurtured and, for a time at least, protected her from inquisitorial arrest. In an appendix, the author identifies Pedro González de Mendoza as one of Francisca's chief "protectors," but curiously fails to mention that this cathedral canon and hospital administrator was an important carrancista well known for his support of Teresa de Avila as well as the mystic Juan de la Cruz. Such omissions are regrettable, and contribute to a somewhat superficial understanding of Francisca as a historical actor. Otherwise, the volume makes an important contribution to the growing body of literature currently available on beatas in both Spain and the wider Hispanic world.
Richard L. Kagan