- The Inquisition of Francisca: A Sixteenth-Century Visionary on Trial.
Theology professor Gillian Ahlgren's translation and interpretation of the letters, vows, and inquisitorial trial of Spanish beata, or religious lay woman, Francisca de los Apóstoles (1539–after 1578) cast these texts as manifestations of the female voice for reform in early modern Toledo. Published under the University of Chicago's The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series, the book portrays Francisca in the role of foundress of a beaterio (community of beatas) and defendant before the Spanish Inquisition. She represents a defiant call to change within the local Catholic hierarchy.
The term visionary in the book's subtitle has a double meaning. First, it indicates that Francisca received and communicated what she understood to be divine visions, and second, it intimates that these revelations convey a forward-looking religious criticism. Most of Francisca's visions pertained directly to beaterios: her visions dictated that the communities she and her sister Isabel were to initiate would be "altars of sacrifice on behalf of human sin" (14), redeeming the offenses of the religious leaders of Toledo and serving as examples of piety for secular citizens. Because the visions frequently occurred in front of an audience, and then were further publicly disseminated and were, moreover, widely interpreted as a challenge to church authority, Francisca was tried and sentenced by the Inquisition.
In contextualizing Francisca's documents, Ahlgren reduces much history and interpretation into a rather dense synopsis. She situates Francisca's visions and trial in a sixteenth-century Toledo both impoverished by the relocation of Phillip II's court to Madrid, and troubled by unstable local religious leadership, as the converso bishop of the city himself underwent a twenty-year inquisitorial process. Toledo's [End Page 546] poverty often drove women of the lower social classes to prostitution as a means of self-support. Beaterios like Francisca's provided such women with physical sanctuary, but because they lay outside direct Church jurisdiction, and the beaterios were increasingly subject to Church censure in Francisca's time. Though the book's introduction provides readers with essential information regarding Francisca's historical environment, students looking for a more comprehensive and less dense analysis of this context will want to consult Ahlgren's article in the collection Women in the Inquisition, edited by Mary Giles.
From Francisca's documents and political-economic context, Ahlgren arrives at three main conclusions. First, the political message Francisca's visions delivered was in conflict with other vested interests. Second, her stubbornly expressed belief in the soundness of her visions was deemed impertinent and prideful. And finally, the publicity that her visions achieved was condemned as a woman's subversive appropriation of civic discourse. For her apparent "pertinacious affirmation of certainty about the veracity of her revelatory experiences of God" (23), Francisca was condemned to one hundred lashes and three years' banishment from Toledo. As Ahlgren comments, though Francisca initially defended herself vigorously, her efficacy was limited by restrictions on what women in general, and women outside structures of authority specifically, could articulate.
The original translations comprising the bulk of the book were made from unpublished documents housed at the National Historical Archive in Madrid and others from Francisca's beaterio. Ahlgren makes clear that she has excerpted from the trial transcript, selecting "materials in Francisca's own voice" (36). It is not clear, however, whether all Francisca's extant correspondence is included, or just a selection. The translations themselves are quite readable and seeded with helpful bracketed explanations to identify and situate the selections, and the footnotes provide information on the subtleties of the case presented against Francisca. As the translations encompass a variety of texts over a span of four years, appendices C (cast of characters) and D (chronology of the trial) will aid the student in tracking and identifying the documents and the individuals...