- Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia
In Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain, Allyson Poska examines gendered aspects of power — legal, domestic, and economic — in the peasant communities of early modern Galicia in northwest Spain. Though Poska does not go as far as other historians and anthropologists, who have described some of the peasant societies of Northern Spain as matriarchal, this work uncovers the many means by which Galician women controlled their own lives, property, and families despite what Galician men were doing — which was usually leaving Galicia.
Uncovering the daily lives of peasant women four hundred years ago is a difficult task. In general, the women Poska proposes to study left few records of their own struggles, fears, personal victories, and so on. So one of the most impressive characteristics of Poska's scholarship is her use of a variety of means to attack this darkness: contemporary literature, ethnography, folklore, and folksongs supplement her extensive documentary sources, which come from notarial, ecclesiastical, and municipal archives. Poska also makes thorough use of a large number of recent local studies from different corners of Galicia, synthesizing and contextualizing them in dialogue with her own studies. Finally, the author deftly places the women of Galicia into the wider context of the women of early modern Portugal and Spain. Even though Poska is primarily concerned with Galicia, her frequent comparisons of Galician women's lives to those of Castilian, Cantabrian, Portuguese, and other Iberian peasant women provides the reader with a broad and nuanced understanding of all Iberian women.
Considering that male emigration had such a great impact on the women of Galicia, Poska begins her focus on women with a chapter on Galician peasant men. Indeed, throughout the book men never leave the background of the author's discussion, providing the book with a richer depiction of peasant life than had men been ignored. Poska constantly reminds the reader that a woman's prospects for survival were best guaranteed by her ability to create and manage a beneficial relationship with a man: a priest, a lover, or, less often, a husband. Poska demonstrates that marriage was often a worse economic proposition for a woman than illegitimate cohabitation and living as a single mother. Female relationships were also very much a necessity. But here too, Poska does not neglect focusing on the subtleties of female bonding, especially that often strained relationship between mother and daughters-in-law.
That women in early modern Spain had many legal means to assert themselves is one of the most important arguments made throughout Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain. This is a long overdue corrective to the easily held assumption that Iberian women were bound by traditions similar to other European women. The model is often the English tradition of coverture, which provided women with few avenues to litigate in courts and control property and enter contracts. Poska demonstrates that Galician women in particular, and Iberian [End Page 562] women in general, used several unique institutions and customs giving them proprietary and legal rights. Women of even meager means drew up wills, entered contracts, inherited and managed estates, bought and sold land, dowered their daughters, and litigated in courts in their own name.
Poska also incorporates revised views of the importance of the honor code and the impact of the Counter-Reformation in her work. She argues convincingly that both have been overstated by earlier historians, who took the ubiquitous presence of honor in Golden Age literature as an indication of its importance. However, as Poska shows, evidence that honor determined how women lived their lives is scanty at the local level; and it appears that the rhetoric of the Counter-Reformation was primarily that. There is little evidence that the Church was able to change a certain relative sense of sexual liberty among Galician peasants during the early modern period.
Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain will be useful for any...