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Reviewed by:
  • The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitorial Spain
  • Barbara F. Weissberger (bio)
Lisa Vollendorf . The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitorial Spain. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2005. 266 pp. ISBN 0-8265-1481-2, $39.95.

The major advances in the study of women writers in Spain's early modern period have involved the recuperation of uniquely gifted individual women, from Saint Teresa of Avila to María de Zayas. This ambitious and original book is a call for something quite different: a synthetic understanding of the full spectrum of women's textual production. Vollendorf presents a chorus of dozens of women's voices from Spain's long seventeenth century (1580– 1700). Making connections is one of her main goals, as she discusses not only the well-studied relationships among Spanish nuns, but also those of educated and resourceful secular women who mentored, taught, and advised other women, in what she terms "educational networks." Other kinds of connections that come into play in her complex study are those between women and their husbands, daughters, sons, and confessors, as well as between women and institutions, especially the ever-present Holy Office of the Inquisition.

To capture the many voices of early modern women included in her study, Vollendorf has had to handle a wide array of sources. She skillfully moves among women-authored fiction, drama, moral and religious treatises, advice manuals, Inquisitional trial records, and life writing of nuns and other female religious. It is noteworthy that she avoids a naive reflectionism in her handling of these, openly acknowledging that access to the experiences of historical women is vexed by the filters that stand between their lives and the various discourses—many of them prescribed by men—on which they must rely to tell their stories. That difficulty is most vividly present in the chapters based on Inquisitional records, such as the discussion in Chapter 2 of the accused Judaizer, Bernarda Manuel. Vollendorf identifies Manuel's strategy of self-defense before the Inquisition: presenting herself as an exemplary Christian wife and mother who was victimized by an unstable and abusive husband. But her intelligent analysis of Manuel's brief memorial or autobiographical statement does not attempt to resolve the many questions that [End Page 357] Manuel's account raises: "If Manuel's husband did indeed threaten violence . . . ," "If she was a practicing Jew . . ." (42), and such imponderables as "whether conversos' confessions reflected the truth of their religious beliefs or merely parroted what the Inquisition wanted to hear . . ." (33). The fact is that whether strategic or sincere, Manuel's self-defense failed; she was sentenced to life imprisonment for her Judaizing practices. Her self-fashioning as an early modern victim of domestic violence, while certainly of interest to modern feminists who are rarely afforded insights into the private lives of non-elite early modern women, was apparently of no interest to her Inquisitors. The real puzzle, as Vollendorf acknowledges, is how she could have so badly miscalculated her situation.

The difficulty of getting beyond the formulaic, strategic, coercive nature of Inquisitional statements and confessions is also evident in the startling cases of two hermaphrodites: the nun Magdalena Muñoz, and the mulatto hermaphrodite Eleno/a de Céspedes (Chapter 1). The case of Eleno/a is better documented. Born a woman, Elena identified as a man after a penis emerged from her body, and he eventually lived as a man and married a woman. Eleno's insistent claim to masculinity was met with the Inquisition's determination to define him as feminine; he was eventually convicted of "scorn for the sacrament of marriage." Vollendorf considers the Inquisition's obsessive interest in the evidence of Eleno's body, rather than the public and private performances of gender that he insisted on, to be a sign of its belief in an inherently stable identity.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with literary texts by some of the few women who were successful published authors in seventeenth-century Spain. The best-known of these is María de Zayas, whose plays and novellas have in the last twenty years been added to the canon of early modern Spanish literature. Also treated...


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pp. 357-359
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