- The Handless Maiden: Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain
Long before it became fashionable, Mary Elizabeth Perry was focusing attention on marginalized groups in history. In this eagerly-awaited monograph, Perry examines the experiences of Morisco women and their efforts to preserve a distinct cultural identity under increasing pressures to assimilate.
For centuries Mudejars (unbaptized Muslims living under Christian rule) had been valued and protected subjects. As scholars such as Robert I. Burns, S.J., John Boswell, Mark Meyerson, David Nirenberg, and Brian Catlos have amply demonstrated, over the course of the Reconquest, policies were formulated not just to uproot and dispossess conquered Muslim populations, but to encourage many to remain. By the sixteenth century, however, the fabric knitting these communities together was beginning to unravel and, in the wake of forcible baptisms, ultimately culminated in the expulsion of the Moriscos between 1609 and 1614.
Perry shifts our focus from the more traditional narrative of Christian reconquest as played out on the battlefield or in the directives of royal and ecclesiastical officials to champion the efforts of Morisco women to protect both family and culture. What makes Perry's book a particularly compelling read is that each of the seven chapters has as its focal point the experiences of individual Moriscas. In the first chapter, Perry introduces the mythic figure of Carcayona, who, due to her devotion to Islam, suffered numerous torments (including having both of her hands cut off) but, in the end, emerged triumphant. Though Perry admits that "we do not know precisely how much impact [Carcayona's story] had on Moriscos of Golden Age Spain," she argues that it "could have played an important role in supporting Morisco resistance as well as accommodation" (35). In chapter 2 Perry moves on to relate the "real-life" travails of Madalena, a Morisca hauled before inquisitors in Seville in 1609. Perry notes how Madalena's seemingly "innocent" desire to continue to bathe in the "Moorish" fashion was read by the Inquisition as an act of defiance. She argues that while Moriscas struggled only to retain their identities, "people in power attempted to transform into a badge of shame those identifications that less powerful people held for themselves and sought to preserve as honor" (38).
Over the course of the sixteenth century, as tensions escalated and Morisco "homes were invaded," Perry contends that Moriscos, "most notably the women," became more politicized and consciously resisted "the obliteration of their culture." Echoing an observation made by Bernard Vicent, Perry maintains that women "were the guardians of Muslim culture." Citing the Inquisition dossier for Leonor de Morales, "whose husband had testified against her that she had persuaded him to follow Muslim practices," Perry emphasizes how inquisitors, in "countless" cases, "found Moriscas guilty of preserving Muslim practices in their homes, influencing others to follow Islam." While she acknowledges later that [End Page 874] "inquisitors seemed to put words into the mouths of prisoners, whose testimonies and confessions became little more than exercises in ventriloquism" (84), she insists that "the Christian report that labeled Morisco women as the most 'obstinate' in resisting Christianization reflected more than a biased view against them" (82).
Successfully having transformed "their private rituals" into "deviant acts," Perry argues that the Inquisition ultimately "widened the chasm of difference between Moriscos and Christians." Inasmuch as the auto de fe rituals and ceremonies of penance exposed Moriscos to "public scorn" and "included no steps to reintegrate the penitent into society," these acts of public penance "indelibly mark[ed] them and their families." Though Perry acknowledges that other forces were at work here which also embittered the Moriscos (land seizures, higher taxes, a decline in the silk trade, humiliating sumptuary laws) she argues that "the devastating effect that [the Inquisition's] measures had on Morisco homes and families," led them to conclude "that they had exhausted all peaceful methods of resistance and...