- Wisdom and Her Lovers in Medieval and Early Modern Hispanic Literature
Female personifications of Wisdom and of other intellective faculties are common in the rhetorical tradition of the Middles Ages and the early modern period. Allegorical figures such as Lady Wisdom, or Sapientia, who makes her first appearance in the Books of Solomon, reappear in various forms of Hispanic writing, from early translations of the Bible in the Castile of Alfonso X in the thirteenth century, to the mythology surrounding Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the seventeenth century. But because of the ubiquitous nature of these feminine personifications, the deeper meanings they had for readers and writers of the time may be underappreciated by modern critics. In this way, Emily C. Francomano's Wisdom and Her Lovers in Medieval and Early Modern Hispanic Literature provides a valuable and important contribution to medieval and early modern studies by shedding light on the dynamic tensions that lie underneath this tradition of feminine personification. Francomano uses reception theory and close readings to reveal the anxieties and dangers involved when Hispanic writers, following tradition, employed such feminine personification allegories.
The author begins by discussing personifications of Wisdom in the biblical Books of Solomon. Here, the female body represents abstract concepts, but at the same time this body remains concrete, a surface upon which to inscribe those concepts. Francomano argues that the use of a female figure is not a coincidence based on the grammatical gender of words. Rather, the use of the female body as a container coincides with Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of substance and matter, where matter is made pregnant by form. Furthermore, medieval and early modern manuals on ars memoriae encourage the use of feminine personifications, since strong emotional reactions to such figures will help one remember abstract ideas, even if there always exists the danger of confusing the abstract with carnal bodies. This duality can be found at work in the Books of Solomon. Wisdom calls out to young men in the streets to follow her on the path to knowledge and social integration. However, since she is also beautiful and represents the good wife, she is hard to distinguish from the similarly seductive Strange Woman, who, dressed as a prostitute, leads young men to fornication and ultimately death. Indeed, Solomon himself is a prime of example of masculine anxiety concerning women, for he himself was vulnerable to the temptations of the Strange Woman.
The reception of these biblical personifications of Wisdom in medieval Castile is discussed in the second chapter of the book. Although Solomon played a key role [End Page 224] in Alfonso X's project of tranlatio studii, the feminine personifications of Wisdom proved problematic for writers and translators educated in the Iberian Christian tradition. In the General Estoria, for example, sapientia is translated as "el saber", thus defusing the heterosexual erotic charge found in the original. Nevertheless, while the seeker of knowledge no longer looks toward a female guide to wisdom, the biblical role of Wisdom as a good wife remains. In the biblia romanceada, MS Escortai I.I. 6, however, Wisdom is consistently translated in masculine terms. This erasure of the feminine Wisdom personification had partially to do with the way it conflicted with Christological exegesis that relates Wisdom with Christ. In any case, Francomano stresses that the translators of both works were well aware of the gender transformations they were enacting; the vernacular audience of the time, which considered women to be anathema to knowledge and wisdom, would have had a much easier time imagining Wisdom as male, even if this did involve taking liberties with the exact words of the Bible.
In ch. 3, Francomano does a close reading of Alfonso de la Torre's Vision deleytable in order to better understand the way in which it employs feminine personification allegories. The hero of this work, El Entendimiento, undertakes an educational journey wherein he learns the trivium and quadrivium, each personified by...