- Chariots of Ladies: Francesc Eiximenis and the Court Culture of Medieval and Early Modern Iberia by Núria Silleras-Fernández
The "chariots" named in the title of this fascinating book are the many iterations of Francesc Eiximenis's Llibre de les dones. First composed at the end of the fourteenth century, when it circulated in manuscript copies, the Llibre was reworked by the author as the basis for another treatise, the Scala Dei. Both the Llibre and the Scala Dei proved to be popular and were printed in the incunable period, with additional editions of the Scala Dei appearing in the sixteenth century. The Llibre was translated into Spanish and printed in the fifteenth century, and then again in the sixteenth, when it came to be known as the Carro de las donas. Silleras-Fernández holds Eiximenis's treatises and their afterlives as mirrors of the evolution of court culture and ideals for women's behavior in Iberia by leading readers through a deeply historicized account of the works' geneses and their physical and verbal transformations. Copious archival evidence and the author's incisive interpretations of the treatises elucidate the networks of relationships forged amongst the work, its author, translators, and their respective intended readers, within the courtly and religious environments of Valencia in the late fourteenth century, fifteenth-century Castile, and sixteenth-century Portugal. Throughout, Silleras-Fernández never lets readers forget the significance of the books as material objects that reflected the status of their patronesses and readers, as well as the impact that material supports in the form of parchment, paper, bindings, print, and illustration exerted on reception. This clear-sighted analysis of the many lives of Eiximenis's work on women, shows that they are "intertexts in a much larger grid of cultural practices" that "can [End Page 222] help us understand the discursive strategies that developed… regarding gender roles and the place of women in society and politics" over two centuries in which many women came to cultural and political prominence in the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (5).
Chariots of Ladies is divided into two parts: "Genesis" and "Afterlife". In "Genesis", Silleras Fernández examines and explains the cultural milieu in which Eiximenis composed the Llibre de las donas and then the Scala Dei, situating their creation within the devotional practices and political currents of the Crown of Aragon in the final decades of the fourteenth century. In the first chapter, "A Return to Piety: Eiximenis and the Culture of the Late Medieval Catalan Court", the author presents Eiximenis's works as representing a cultural shift away from the earlier protohumanist trends in the Crown of Aragon. As a Franciscan and a reformer, Eiximenis was concerned to counter what he considered the overly worldly culture of the court and he saw an opportunity to do so when Martí I and María de Luna ascended to the throne. The two chapters that follow revolve around the two women to whom Eiximenis dedicated Llibre and the Scala Dei, Sanxa Ximenis d'Arenós and María de Luna. Importantly, as Silleras-Fernández stresses, both books were presented to their patronesses at signal points in their lives that challenged gender orthodoxy.
According to his dedication, Eiximenis composed the Llibre for Sanxa Ximenis d'Arenós, Countess of Prades, who had requested he write "a devout treatise for her [spiritual] health and for the direction of her life" (59). Sanxa's biography leads Silleras-Fernández to call her an "anti-Griselda": after twenty-one years of marriage to Joan d'Aragó, she abandoned her husband and lived on her own dotal lands for a decade before retiring to a convent for twenty years (77). As extraordinary as Sanxa's life and rejection of traditional marriage may seem at first, Silleras-Fernández shows, citing archival evidence of other married women's independent lives, that she was in fact "not at all unique" for her time...