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Remembering the Forgotten Women Writers of 17th-Century Spain

A show in Madrid highlights female authors who penned histories, biographies, poetry, novels, scripts and more

“Wise and Valiant: Women and Writing in the Golden Age of Spain” spotlights Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (left) and Catalina de Erauso (right), among others. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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An ongoing exhibition at Madrid’s Instituto Cervantes explores the lives and work of around 30 female authors, playwrights and printers whose stories were nearly lost to history.

Titled “Wise and Valiant: Women and Writing in the Golden Age of Spain,” the show centers on individuals active shortly after the institute’s namesake, Miguel de Cervantes, wrote his seminal 1605 work, Don Quixote. Though this so-called “Golden Age” is widely associated with men like Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Francisco de Quevedo, hundreds of women not only wrote, but published their work, during the period.

For the most part, women in 17th-century Spain were illiterate and relegated largely to domestic tasks. But a select few forged their own paths, often by joining convents that allowed for “relative intellectual freedom,” writes Lauren Ford for Hyperallergic.

“Wise and Valiant” explores these women’s lives through a display of more than 40 documents, including poetry, diaries, plays, novels and travelogues. The exhibition, which opened in March but had to take a three-month hiatus amid the Covid-19 pandemic, reopened on June 18 and is on view until September 5. Selected materials are also available online.

According to Bibliophile, the institute’s director, Luis García Montero, said during a press conference that the show “invites us to reflect on women” and “helps us to recover our memory and dynamite the canon.”

Sor Juana Ines book
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1615-1695), First Volume Poems, 1725 (Courtesy of the National Library of Spain)

The exhibition borrows its name from the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun born near Mexico City in 1648. She contributed significantly to intellectual life in Spain’s colonies and is one of the best-known writers featured in the display.

But as “Wise and Valiant” demonstrates, Sor Juana was far from alone. The exhibition also, for instance, explores the work of playwright and poet Ana Caro, who was one of the earliest writers to pursue her craft not as a hobby, but as a profession.

Per Sam Jones of the Guardian, the show includes records of a payment made to Caro in 1638—a full two years before England’s first female professional playwright, Aphra Behn, was even born.

Caro’s work highlighted female characters who actively shaped their destinies by following their dreams or seeking revenge.

In Courage, Betrayal and a Woman Scorned, the protagonist “dresses as a man and crosses Europe to defend her rights and to find her place in society after her reputation’s been taken from her,” curator Ana M. Rodríguez-Rodríguez tells the Guardian.

Another featured writer did just that in real life. Born in the late 1500s, Catalina de Erauso wrote a posthumously published autobiography that starts with a daring escape from a convent in San Sebastián. To mask this fugitive status, Erauso dressed as a man, eventually traveling to the Americas and serving as a soldier.

At the beginning of the autobiography, the author uses feminine descriptors, but when presenting as male, shifts to masculine adjectives.

Rodríguez-Rodríguez tells the Guardian that Erauso—whose book was only published in 1820—was “someone we’d doubtless call transgender today.”

The exhibition website elaborates that “Catalina does not fit in the conventional norms which categorically divide male and female genders and offers a complex identity model that makes both live together in a fluid and non-binary way.”

Teresa de Jesús
Santa Teresa de Jesús (1515-1582), The books of Mother Teresa de Jesus, founder of the monasteries of nuns and discalced Carmelite friars of the first rule, 1588 (Courtesy of the National Library of Spain)

Erauso’s adventures included a meeting with Pope Urban VIII, who granted the writer permission to continue presenting as a man. “Wise and Valient” pairs Erauso’s biography with additional materials that verify its account of time in prison and life as a soldier participating in Spanish colonial wars in South America, per Hyperallergic.

The exhibition also emphasizes its subjects’ persistence amid trying circumstances, including, in some cases, getting into trouble for their work. This was especially true for women writing in convents: Sor Juana, for one, gave up her intellectual life in 1694 by signing a penitential document stating “Yo, la peor de todas,” or “I, the worst of all women.” The next year, she died of the plague.

Sor Juana was fluent in Latin, Spanish and Najuatl, a language spoken by Indigenous peoples of Mexico such as the Aztecs. Her literary, scientific and mathematical pursuits frequently got her in trouble with the church. Madrid poet Marcela de San Féliz, daughter of male playwright Lope de Vega, also entered a convent, according to Hyperallergic. She produced a large body of literary work but later destroyed it at the behest of her male confessor.

Recognition of these writers’ “almost subversive” work is long overdue, Rodríguez-Rodríguez tells the Guardian, as only with their stories included can scholars see a full history of Spain’s Golden Age.

As Sor Juana once wrote, “I do not study to know more, but to ignore less.”

Wise and Valiant: Women and Writing in the Spanish Golden Age” is on view at the Instituto Cervantes in Madrid through September 5, 2020. A digital version of the show is available via the institutes website.

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