- Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe
Spanish royal biographies continue to be a thriving cottage industry for historians of early modern Spain: numerous biographies on Isabel, Ferdinand, Charles V, and the four Philips have appeared in recent years in both English and Spanish. In the case of all of these monarchs, the political narrative of Spain and its empire is inevitably the controlling plotline that shapes the texts. The importance of their lives is tightly bound to the central roles they played as rulers of one of Europe's most powerful empires.
With Juana the Mad, however, we are presented with a royal life that plays only a tragic and tangential role in the political drama of imperial Spain. The daughter and sole surviving heir of Isabel and Ferdinand, the Catholic Kings of Castile and Aragon, Juana (1479–1555), suffered the sad fate of losing her husband, Philip the Handsome, in 1506, when she was only twenty-seven. By that point, she had also apparently begun to lose her mind, or psychological stability. This, at least, was the principal reason used by her father, and then son, Charles V, to justify their decision to deprive her of her potential right to rule the Spanish kingdoms. This charge also led them to keep her confined in a palace in the town of Tordesillas, in central Castile, for almost fifty years, from 1509 until her death in 1555.
Deprived of her husband and throne, and excluded from the main political narrative of Spanish history, Juana's madness, or the fascination with a "mad" queen, has ironically kept her from being excluded from Spanish history. Indeed, she has been the subject of numerous biographies over the past century, including a lengthy recent book by the senior Spanish historian, Manuel Fernández Álvarez, Juana la Loca: La Cautiva de Tordesillas (1994) .
A century of historical attention notwithstanding, the contention of the author of this new biography of Juana is that she remains "little understood." Presumably to correct this problem, the author reconstructs in a traditional narrative Juana's early years in the court of her mother, her marriage and strained [End Page 543] relationship with her husband — including his attempts to claim the throne of Castile — and, above all else, her relationship with her father, son, and the household that served as her caretakers, guards, and primary interlocutors with the world during the long decades in Tordesillas. At the same time, the author seeks to provide fresh insights into Juana's presumed madness by invoking the idea of Foucault that madness is a "socially constructed discursive category" (9).
From this point of view, Juana's madness is presented largely as a fiction created by a series of patriarchal figures — her husband, father, and son — who sought to control her and ultimately take her kingdoms by claiming she was mad. Moreover, in the long and well-documented chapter on the royal household at Tordesillas, the author presents the Denia family that was appointed by the monarchs to watch over Juana as complicit in this strategy.
In short, this is a portrait of Juana as victim, a woman whose admittedly extreme behavior was largely the result of the men and women around her driving her a bit crazy. More specifically, Juana is seen as perhaps engaging in ascetic practices like extreme fasting as a way of pressuring her handlers to give her more freedom, although the author acknowledges that no documents exist to support this view: "Although no one recorded the queen's specific wishes in 1515, she may have sought greater freedom of movement, including more frequent visits to the neighboring convent of Saint Claire, as well as increased opportunities for contact with her subjects" (108). There are numerous similar "may haves" in this text, that read into Juana's behavior many motives, desires, and perceptions that are impossible to document since surviving letters are quite...