“Deceitful Sects”: The Debate about Women in the Age of Isabel the Catholic

  • Barbara F. Weissberger
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the debate about women during the reign of Isabel the Catholic of Spain (1475–1504), queenship shaped the debate as much as cultural circumstances did. Isabel’s unprecedented female sovereignty complicated the ways in which her queenly power used, and was used by, religious, ethnic, and sexual discourses of the time. The often intertwined antisemitic, misogynist, and homophobic discourses of debate literature patronized by or addressed to Isabel articulate anxieties about the queen’s profoundly patriarchal agenda.


Gender Ideology Fifteenth Century Mystical Experience Patriarchal Society Binary Opposition 
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  1. 2.
    On the life and work of Torrellas, see Pedro Bach y Rita, ed., The Works of Pere Torroella, a Catalan Writer of the Fifteenth Century (New York: Instituto de las Españas, 1930). He wrote Coplas sometime between 1440 and 1460. The “debate about women” can be said to actually begin with a prose treatise written by a member of the Castilian monarch Juan II’s court, the royal chaplain Alfonso Martinez de Toledo. His Arcipreste de Talavera o Corbacho, completed in 1438, was published three times during the reign of Isabel the Catholic. See the edition by E. Michael Gerli (Madrid: Cátedra, 1992). For elucidation of aspects of Martinez de Toledo’s gender ideology, see the recent studies by Catherine Brown, “Queer Representation in the Arcipreste de Talavera, or The Maldezir de mugeres Is a Drag,” in Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, eds. Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 73–103, and Michael Solomon, The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain: The “Arcipreste de Talavera” and the “Spill” Cambridge Studies in Latin American and Iberian Literature 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For a bibliography of selected debate texts in fifteenth-century Spain and of scholarship about the debate, see Julian Weiss’s essay in this collection. The “classic” studies are by Barbara Matulka, The Novels of Juan de Flores and Their European Diffusion: A Study in Comparative Literature (1931; repr. Geneva: Slatkine, 1974); Jacob Ornstein, “La misoginia y el profeminismo en la literatura castellana,” Revis ta de Filología Hispánica 3 (1941): 219–32; and the survey by Maria Pilar de Oñate, El feminismo en la literatura española (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1938). For more recent approaches to the misogynist discourse, see Maria Jesús Lacarra, “Algunos datos para la historia de la misoginia en la Edad Media,” Studia in honorem Profesor Martín de Riquer, 2 vols., ed. Carlos Alvar (Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 1986), vol. 1, pp. 339–61; Harriet Goldberg, “Sexual Humor in Misogynist Medieval Exempla,” Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols, ed. Beth Miller (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 67–83; and María-Milagros Rivera, “El cuerpo femenino y la querella de las mujeres (corona de Aragon, siglo XV),” in Historia de las mujeres en Occidente, 2 vols., eds. Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, trans. Marco Aurelio Galmarini and Cristina Garcia Ohlrich (Madrid: Taurus, 1992) vol. II, pp. 593–605.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For a summary of participants in the poetic debate in Castile and Aragon, and in Naples, see Miguel Angel Pérez Priego, ed., Poesía femenina en los cancioneros (Madrid: Castalia, 1989), pp. 33–36.Google Scholar
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    Introduction to Louise Fradenburg, Women and Sovereignty (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992), p. 1.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Although he does not deal with gender, Julio Rodríguez-Puértolas provides a concise overview of anti-Semitism in fifteenth-century Spain in “Jews and Conversos in Fifteenth-Century Castilian Cancioneros: Texts and Contexts,” in Poetry at Court, eds. Gerli and Weiss, pp. 187–97. The literature on the Jews and conversos in medieval Spain is vast. For a brief introduction, see Scarlett Freund and Teófilo F. Ruiz, “Jews, Conversos, and the Inquisition in Spain, 1301–1492: The Ambiguities of History,” in Jewish-Christian Encounters over the Centuries, eds. Marvin Perry and Frederick Schweitzer (New York: Peter Lang, 1994), pp. 169–95. Essential recent studies include: Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquistition: A Historical Revision (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), B. Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain (New York: Random House, 1995), and Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    An essential book for the conflation of various stigmatizing discourses in medieval Iberia (although its focus is fourteenth-century Aragon rather than fifteenth-century Castile) is David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996). See especially the discussion of the linkages made among, lepers, Muslims, Jews, and sodomites, and of town ordinances aimed at preventing contagion by Jews in chapter 4.Google Scholar
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    See Nirenberg, Communities of Violence, chapter 5. Also useful is Louise Mirrer’s study of the feminization and devaluation of racial otherness in medieval Iberia, Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996). For a broad European overview of the conflation of sexuality, race, and religion in the represention of those who pollute the body politic, see Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), and Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
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  9. 12.
    By way of comparison, we might consider the well-studied case of Elizabeth I of England. Although she ascended the throne of England eighty-three years after Isabel was crowned queen of Castile, the resistance to Elizabeth’s rule was even more pronounced than in Spain. As Montrose has noted: “As the anomalous ruler of a society that was pervasively patriarchal in its organization and distribution of authority, the unmarried woman at the society’s symbolic center embodied a challenge to the homology between hierarchies of rule and of gender” (“The Elizabethan Subject,” p. 309). Leah Marcus notes that “further weakening her claim was the fact that her father Henry VIII had declared her a bastard. To counter all of this Elizabeth and her male writing subjects fostered what one scholar calls ‘the myth of her own androgyny,’ variously representing her as man and woman, queen and king, mother and firstborn son” (see Marcus, “Shakespeare’s Comic Heroines, Elizabeth I, and the Political Uses of Androgeny,” in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1986), p. 137. Almost immediately upon her coronation, she began to formulate strategies to resist her subjects’ pressure that she fulfill her destiny of marrying and bearing an heir. For example, before Parliament in 1559 she claimed that she was already married: “I am already bounde unto an Husband, which is the Kingdom of England.” To the urging that she produce an heir, she replied in the same speech that she already had children, namely “every one of you, and as many as are English” (qtd. in Montrose, “The Elizabethan Subject,” p. 309). For analyses of several other royal speeches, see Allison Heisch, “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Feminist Review 4 (1980): 45–56. Her best-known self-representation and one of the most effective in affirming her absolute authority over her subjects while diffusing male anxieties about female power was as the “virgin queen.” Thus, by transferring her wifely and maternal duties from her natural to her political body, she manipulated traditional gender roles to her advantage; by promoting a cult of virginity, she transvalued her failure to ensure dynastic continuity (as well as countering the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary). As this essay shows, Isabel followed a different path to affirm her absolute power.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    By comparison, most critics ascribe considerable agency to Elizabeth I in the fashioning of her image. See, for example, Marcus’s “Shakespeare’s Comic Heroines”; Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1994); and Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Histories of Isabel’s life and reign throughout the five hundred years since her death have often been hagiographical, perpetuating one of the modes of her contemporary fashioning that I discuss in this essay. By far the best modern biography of Isabel is by Tarsicio de Azcona, Isabel la Católica: Estudio crítico de su vida y su reinado, 3rd ed. (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1993). In English, the 1992 biography by Peggy Liss, Isabel, the Queen: Life and Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), is useful, although it is overly reliant on the highly partisan chronicles that the queen herself commissioned.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    This more material form of misogyny is detectable in works like Grisel y Mirabella by Juan de Flores and the anonymous “Pleyto del manto,” both of which I discuss below (see notes 49 and 57 for editions of these works). It is also evident in Carajicomedia, ed. Alvaro Alonso (Archidona, Málaga: Ediciones Aljibe, 1995), and in Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina, ed. Dorothy S. Severin (Madrid: Cátedra, 1988); in the latter, see especially the servant’s description of their highborn mistress Melibea in act 9. At the same time, when dividing participants in the debate about women in Spain into pro and anti camps, it is important to keep in mind that in Spain as in the rest of Europe, contributors to the debate exulted in their ability to argue both sides of the ‘woman’ question. Part of the popularity of the debate was due to the opportunity it gave participants to display their command of the rhetorical techniques of argumentation, e.g., appeals to authority, the use of exempla and anecdote, analogy, invective, and puns (Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540–1640 [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985], pp. 32–39). This helps explain the frequent retractions by late medieval Castilian antifeminist writers (Torrellas produced two). The best-known of these is the palinode at the end of the printed versions of Martinez de Toledo’s Arcipreste de Talavera o Corbacho, which appeared, significantly, in 1498, 1499, and 1500, that is, in the final years of Isabel’s reign. In his 1970 edition of the work, Gonzalez Muela was still puzzled by the retraction (see the edition cited in note 2 above, pp. 10–11). More directly relevant to my discussion are two palinodes, one in prose and one in verse, by Torrellas himself. Such seeming about-faces are properly understood in the context of a court culture that encouraged display, competition, wordplay, and irony. For an interpretation of Martinez de Toledo’s retraction along these lines, see Marina Scordilis Brownlee, “Hermeneutics of Reading in the Corbacho,” in Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 216–33. See Catherine Brown, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998) for an important recent study of Martínez de Toledo.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    Susan Schibanoff points out the similar overlap among racial, gender, and religious discourses in Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” in “Worlds Apart: Orientalism, Antifeminism, and Heresy in Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale’,” Exemplaria 8.1 (1996): 59–96. For medieval Spain, in addition to Mirrer, Women, Jews, and Muslims, see Rodríguez Puértolas, ed., Poesía crítica y satírica del siglo XV (Madrid: Castalia, 1981), which focuses specifically on anti-Semitism in fifteenth-century satirical verse. For a broader European view, see Rubin, Gentile Tales.Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    Pérez Priego, Poesía femenina, pp. 137–8; vv. 68–76. I have chosen to quote Torrellas from this accessible edition of medieval Spanish verse debate texts. The most complete and careful edition of the fifteenth-century cancioneros that gathered together the work of Torrellas, Montoro, and some seven hundred other court poets of the second half of the fifteenth century is that of Brian Dutton and Jineen Krogstad, eds., El cancionero del siglo XV, c. 1360–1520, Biblioteca del Siglo XV, Maior, vol. 6 (Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 1990–91). All translations of Spanish poetry into English are my own.Google Scholar
  17. 25.
    Diego de Valera, Tratado en defensa de las virtuosas mujeres, vol. 1 of Prosistas castellanos del siglo XV, ed. Mario Penna (Madrid: Atlas, 1955), pp. 55–76. The quotation is on p. 55.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    No texts overtly criticizing Isabel directly survive. At least two bawdy texts, both anonymous, aim ironic barbs at the queen: “Pleyto del manto,” discussed below, and Carajicomedia (see my essay cited in note 6). Both were probably written (and very likely circulated) during Isabel’s reign, but they remained unpublished until well after her death. For a comparison with the Elizabethan case, see Julia M. Walker, ed., Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    For an overview of the scholarly reevaluation, see Seidenspinner Núñez, “Inflecting the Converso Voice: A Commentary on Recent Theories,” La Corónica 25.1 (1996): 6–18.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    See E. Michael Gerli, “Antón de Montoro and the Wages of Eloquence: Poverty, Patronage, and Poetry in Fifteenth-Century Castile,” Romance Philology 48 (1994–95): 1–13. Also useful on Montoro and the self-denigration of converso courtiers is Francisco Márquez Villanueva, “Jewish ‘Fools’ of the Spanish Fifteenth Century,” Hispanic Review 50 (1982): 385–409.Google Scholar
  21. 31.
    On the ubiquity of sacrilegious language in the poetry of Isabel’s reign, see Maria Rosa Lida de Malkiel, “La hipérbole sagrada en la poesía castellana del siglo XV,” Estudios sobre la literatura española del siglo XV (Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, 1977), pp. 291–309.Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    For Montoro’s poetry I have used the edition by Marithelma Costa, Poesía completa (Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Press, 1990). For the quotation, see p. 333.Google Scholar
  23. 38.
    Marithelma Costa analyzes how the formal and rhetorical virtuosity of the poem contributes to the authority of Montoro’s protest in “Discurso de la fiesta y protesta política en la producción poética de Antón de Montoro,” Estudios en homenaje a Enrique Ruiz-Fornells, eds. Juan Fernández Jiménez, José Labrador Herraiz, and L. Teresa Valdivieso (Erie, Penn.: Associación de licenciados y Doctores Españoles en los Estados Unidos, 1990), pp. 115–22.Google Scholar
  24. 41.
    Montoro repeats the insult, applying it collectively to the conversos in a poem written on the occasion of the pogroms that occurred in Córdoba in 1473 (Costa, Poesía completa, p. 29, v. 188: “pobres, cornudos y putos” [poor, cuckolded, and faggots]). Costa believes that Montoro wrote the panegyric I am discussing here around the same time (p. 391). See Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemitism (Philadelphia, Pa.: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983), and Rubin, Gentile Tales.Google Scholar
  25. 42.
    Daniel Boyarin, “‘This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel’: Circumcision and the Erotic Life of God and Israel,” Critical Inquiry 18.3 (1992): 474–505. Boyarin cites midrashic and rabbinic texts to support his gendered interpretation of circumcision. According to midrash, circumcision makes the male Jew open to receive the divine speech and vision of God (one text calls circumcised men “daughters”). As Boyarin points out, such a gender paradox is not unusual “for the mystical experience au fond, when experienced erotically, often involves (perhaps only in the West) gender paradox. The mystical experience is interpreted as a penetration by the divine word or spirit into the body and soul of the adept … an image of sexuality in which the mystic is figured as the female partner” (pp. 494–5).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 46.
    Rodríguez-Puértolas, following Kenneth Scholberg in Sátira e invectiva en la España medieval (Madrid: Gredos, 1971), links the fires of Christmas in Montoro’s poem and the fires of the Inquisition, but Costa (Poesía completa, pp. 202–4) places the poem a few years before the institution of the Inquisition. She deems it a response to the Andalusian pogroms of 1473–4.Google Scholar
  27. 47.
    Carolyn Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  28. 49.
    Juan de Flores, Grisel y Mirabella, ed. Pablo Alcázar López and José A. González Nuñez (Granada: Editorial Don Quixote, 1983). For biographical information on Flores, see Joseph Gwara, “The Identity of Juan de Flores: The Evidence of the Crónica incompleta de los Reyes Católicos,” Journal of Hispanic Philology 11 (1987): 103–30, 205–22; Carmen Parrilla, “Un cronista olvidado: Juan de Flores, autor de la Crónica incompleta de los Reyes Católicos,” in The Age of the Catholic Monarchs, 1414–1516: Literary Studies in Memory of Keith Whinnom, eds. Alan Deyermond and Ian Macpherson (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1989), pp. 123–33; see also Lillian von der Walde Moheno, Amor e ilegalidad: ‘Grisel y Mirabella’, de Juan de Flores (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, 1996) for a summary of the recent findings about Flores’s life and works. According to Parrilla, Flores was also for a time rector of Spain’s most prestigious university, at Salamanca. The theories of love taught at Salamanca have been shown to have been influential on many Isabelline works (see Pedro Cátedra, Amor y pedagogía en la Edad Media (Estudios de doctrina amorosa y practica literaria) [Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 1989]).Google Scholar
  29. 51.
    For the view that Flores uses the rigidity and harshness of the King toward his only daughter and heir to comment on Isabel’s harsh punishment of her rebellious subjects, see Patricia E. Grieve, Desire and Death in Spanish Sentimental Romance (1440–1550), (Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1987); von der Walde, Amor e ilegalidad; and Marina Brownlee, The Severed Word: Ovid’s “Heroides” and the “Novela sentimental” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Given the plasticity of gender that marks sovereignty, it is entirely possible that both the King and Queen of Scotland are used to represent aspects of Flores’s royal employer. The more literal possibility, that the King of Scotland is a counterpart of Fernando, is less likely, since Flores intentionally marginalizes the king in his chronicle of the Catholic Monarchs’ reign. In treating Grisel, I have chosen to focus on Flores’s less conventionalized, more complex characterization of the queen.Google Scholar
  30. 52.
    For fine feminist analyses of this archetypal character, see chapter 3 on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde of David Aers’s Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing, 1360–1430 (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), and Roberta Krueger on Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s highly influential Le Roman de Troie in Women Readers and the Ideology of Gender in Old French Verse Romance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 4–7.Google Scholar
  31. 53.
    Matulka, The Novels of Juan de Flores, defends Flores as staunchly profeminine, and her view prevailed until fairly recently. Cf. Antony van Beysterveldt, “Revisión de los debates feministas del siglo XV y las novelas de Juan de Flores,” Hispania 64 (1981): 1–13; Barbara F. Weissberger, “Authority Figures in Siervo libre de Amor and Grisel y Mirabella,” in “Revista de estudios hispánicos [Puerto Rico] 9 (1982 [1984]): 255–62; and von der Walde, Amor e ilegalidad.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 57.
    “Pleyto del Manto,” Cancionero de obras de burlas provocantes a risa, eds. Pablo Jauralde Pou and Juan Alfredo Bellón Cazabán (Madrid: Akal, 1974), pp. 47–67.Google Scholar
  33. 58.
    Marcial Rubio Arquez, “El ‘Pleito del manto’: un caso de parodia en el Cancionero General,” in Actas del IX Simposio de la Sociedad Española de Literatura General y Comparada (18–20 November 1992), 2 vols., vol. 2 (Zaragoza: University of Zaragoza, 1992), pp. 237–50.Google Scholar
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    On Aristotelian reproductive theory, see Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, trans. Matthew Adamson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988 [1985]), esp. p. 59.Google Scholar
  35. 61.
    See Louise O. Vasvari, “El hijo del molinero: para la polisemia popular del Libro del Arcipreste,” in Erotismo en las letras hispánicas, eds. Luce López-Baralt and Francisco Márquez Villanueva (Mexico: Colegio de México, 1995), pp. 461–77, for the Spanish context, specifically the Libro de Buen Amor.Google Scholar
  36. 62.
    On the growth of royal absolutism in the fifteenth century and the strategies used to justify it, see José Manuel Nieto Soria, Fundamentos ideológicos del poder real en Castilla (s. XIII–XVI) (Madrid: Eudema, 1988), pp. 135–36 and passim.Google Scholar
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    On the litigious atmosphere of early modern Spain, see Richard L. Kagan, Lawsuits and Litigants in Castile, 1500–1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  38. 68.
    Palencia singles out the powerful converso Álvaro de Luna, Juan II’s favorite, as the one who introduced “el vicio nefando” [the nefarious vice] into Castile (Weissberger, “Discourse of Effeminacy,” p. 304). For the discourses of sodomy and anti-Semitism in Juan II’s chroniclers, see Hutcheson, “Desperately Seeking Sodom.” On the Inquisition’s persecution of sodomites, see Rafael Carrasco, Inquisición y represión sexual en Valencia: Historia de los sodomitas (1565–1785) (Barcelona: Laertes S.A. de Ediciones, 1985).Google Scholar
  39. 69.
    Libro llamado El Alboraique, in Nicolás López Martínez, Los judaizantes castellanos y la Inquisición en tiempo de Isabel la Católica (Burgos: Seminario Metropolitano de Burgos, 1954), pp. 391–404.Google Scholar

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© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

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