Biography 24.3 (2001) 634-639
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During Spanish America's colonial era, religious chroniclers frequently argued that the true wealth of those regions was not the silver that so many sought in the mines of Potosí and Zacatecas, but rather the rich veins of Christian faith and devotion to be found in the American soils. In our own time, Latin American scholars are finding the history of the colonial-era church to be a mine that rewards those willing to dig deeply. In Women's Spiritual Autobiography in Colonial Spanish America, literary scholar Kristine Ibsen unearths just such riches, introducing her readers to the spiritual writings of eight black-veiled nuns, several of whom were virtually unknown until very recently. Ibsen also processes the raw ores, revealing just how enriching the study of colonial-era religious history has become.
The focal point of this monograph is "women's personal narrative," a literature "rooted in the hagiographic tradition of vitae, in which, at the request of a confessor, nuns wrote about their spiritual lives" (vii). Ibsen's octet of writing nuns includes four women from New Spain, two from vice-regal Peru, and two from Nueva Granada (Colombia). Of these eight writers, three remain unpublished and a fourth only partially published, a fact that required Ibsen to do extensive archival work in the United States and Mexico. She supplements her reading of twelve unpublished manuscripts and ten published autobiographies with other colonial-era publications, including biographies and collective biographies, confessional manuals, and funeral sermons. By informing this original research with an admirable knowledge of recent trends in literary theory, semiotics, gender studies, and Early Modern Spanish literature, she has produced a valuable work of synthesis.
Ibsen engages her writing subjects with reference to two primary questions. First, she examines how the expectations of these writers' intended audience(s) shaped their texts. Because writing nuns performed for two audiences simultaneously--female peers in the convent and male confessors--their literature displayed a "double-voiced discourse." Second, she attempts to identify the discursive strategies by which these writing nuns attempted "to accommodate these conflicting demands" (vii). The "conflicting demands" to which Ibsen refers would appear from the context to be those placed on writing nuns by the two aforementioned audiences, namely female peers and male confessor(s). Yet when she adds, "This study examines the influence of the reader as representative of the dominant culture in the narrative construction of self" (my emphasis), Ibsen reveals that her primary objective is to show how male confessors, not female peers, shaped individual writers' self-representation. Indeed, if the reader finds any shortcoming in this otherwise [End Page 634] insightful work, it may be the author's failure to adequately treat this second group as addressee.
In an Introduction entitled "Multiple Heroines," Ibsen describes the social and ideological world in which Spanish American women wrote their personal stories. Here she explains how the physical movements of nuns and lay sisters were increasingly restricted in Europe from the thirteenth century on, and how the generally repressive climate of Counter-Reformation Spain affected women's efforts to express "personal religious experience" (2-3). The female religious usually wrote her personal narratives in two stages. First, she gave an account of visionary experiences in letters or notebooks, with little or no chronological framework. Later, at the insistence of her confessor(s) she might prepare a penitential confession (confesión general) in the form of a retrospective life story. While such self-writings do not qualify as autobiography in the modern sense, notes Ibsen, they do reflect "an 'autobiographical impulse' where truth is secondary to the ideal self that the writing subject wishes to present" (11). This "ideal self," of course, was one codified in a long tradition of religious vitae, iconographic representations, and pastoral manuals like Juan Luis Vives' Instrucción de la mujer cristiana (1524). Women who internalized such gender notions "risk[ed...