“¿Qué Demandamos de las Mugeres?”: Forming the Debate about Women in Late Medieval Spain (with a Baroque Response)

  • Julian Weiss
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This study explores the debate over women in Spain during the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period by drawing on the insights of Pierre Bourdieu. It analyzes the ideological process whereby noblemen defined, accumulated, and fought over their cultural and symbolic capital as courtiers and men of letters. While marginalizing women, the debate also recognized them as essential to the production of masculine courtly identity and culture. An appendix offers a bibliography of primary texts from Castile and Aragon.


Cultural Capital Fifteenth Century Symbolic Capital Early Modern Period Female Literacy 
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  1. 1.
    Both Mena’s text and Hernán Núñez’s commentary are quoted from the second, revised version of the humanist scholar’s edition: Las trezientas del famosissimo poeta Juan de Mena con glosa (Granada: Juan Varela, 1505), fols. 3r-v.Varro’s actual definition is: “Mundus ornatus muliebris dictus a munditia” [Mundus is a woman’s toilet set, named from munditia, ‘neatness’], De lingua latina, 5.129; text and translation quoted from Varro: On the Latin Language, ed. and trans. Roland G. Kent, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938). For the etymological problems of the term and the relations between its three main semantic fields (‘earth’, the ‘universe’ in general, and the adjective ‘clean’), see A. Ernout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine: Histoire des mots, 4th ed. (Paris: Klincksieck, 1985), which reviews various hypotheses and concludes that there is no clear etymology [“pas d’étymologie claire”]. Equally speculative is the Oxford Latin Dictionary, ed. P. G. W. Clare (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), where a parallel is drawn between mundus and the (much wider) semantic range of the Greek κόσμοζ, the etymon of the English ‘cosmetic’: order, behavior, form, government, ornament—especially of women, but also of men, horses, speech—honor, ruler, universe, earth.Google Scholar
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  16. 20.
    The account in this essay by necessity simplifies the complexity of Bourdieu’s thought. It is based on Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Nice, and on various essays anthologized in Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Gina Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991). I have also learned from the critical engagement with Bourdieu’s work in Toril Moi, “Appropriating Bourdieu: Feminist Theory and Pierre Bourdieu’s Sociology of Culture,” in What Is a Woman? And Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 264–99 [originally published in New Literary History 22 (1991): 1017–49]; John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 42–72. My interest in Bourdieu was first sparked by Mark D. Johnston’s path-breaking essay “Cultural Studies on the Gaya Ciencia,” in Poetry at Court in Trastamaran Spain, ed. Gerli and Weiss, pp. 235–53.Google Scholar
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    E. Michael Gerli, “La Religión de Amor y el antifeminismo en las letras castellanas del siglo XV,” Hispanic Review 49 (1981): 65–96. The most recent overview, with ample bibliography, on Martinez de Toledo is by Sara Mañero, “El arcipreste de Talavera” de Alfonso Martínez de Toledo (Toledo: Institute Provincial de Investigaciones y Estudios Toledanos, 1997). For an acute queer reading, see Catherine Brown, “Queer Representation in the Arçipreste de Talavera, or, The Maldezir de mugeres Is a Drag,” in Queer Iberia, pp. 73–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cancionero de Juan Alfonso de Baena, ed. José María Azáceta, Clásicos Hispánicos, 3 vols. (Madrid: CSIC, 1966), 1:5.Google Scholar
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    Barbara F. Weissberger, “Resisting Readers and Writers in the Sentimental Romances and the Problem of Female Literacy,” in Studies on the Sentimental Romance, ed. E. Michael Gerli and Joseph Gwara (London: Tamesis, 1997), pp. 173–90. Praise of women’s role in cultural production is most pronounced in Rodriguez del Padrón’s Triunfo de las donas; see Muriel Tapia, Antifeminismo, p. 339, and Francisco López Estrada, “Las mujeres escritoras en la Edad Media castellana,” in La condición de la mujer en la Edad Media: actas del coloquio celebrado en la Casa de Velázquez, del 5 al 7 de noviembre de 1984, ed. Yves-René Fonquerne and Alfonso Esteban (Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 1986), pp. 9–38 (at pp. 18–19). For an important, though little-known, defense of female literacy, see the epistles by the two anonymous noblewomen included in La obra literaria de Fernando de la Torre, ed. Maria Jesus Díez Garretas (Valladolid: Universidad, 1983), pp. 128–49.Google Scholar
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    See Diego de San Pedro, Obras completas, 2: Cárcel de amor, ed. Keith Whinnom (Madrid: Castalia, 1971), p. 175.Google Scholar
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    Zayas argued that women’s lack of literary achievement was the result of social exclusion, and was not biologically determined; but challenging contemporary humoral theory, she adds that women may in fact be more suited to intellectual pursuits since they are “quizá más agudas por ser de natural más frío, por consistir en humedad el entendimiento, como se ve en las respuestas de repente y en los engaños de pensado, que todo lo que se hace con maña, aunque no sea virtud, es ingenio” [perhaps more acute since they are colder by nature, and since the understanding consists of the moist humor, as one can see in the sudden replies and calculated deceits; for everything that is done with cunning, although it may not be virtue, is wit]. Quoted from Tres novelas amorosas y ejemplares y tres desengaños amorosos, ed. Alicia Redondo Goicoechea (Madrid: Castalia, 1989), p. 48. Zayas thus unequivocally aligns herself with those who rejected the view, expressed in the major treatises on wit, that women lacked the physiological requisites for learning. For the variable range of opinions on the relation between gender and wit in the Spanish Golden Age, see Sharon D. Voros, “Fashioning Feminine Wit in María de Zayas, Ana Caro, and Leonor de la Cueva,” in Stoll and Smith, ed., Gender, Identity, and Representation, pp. 156–77. For the medical view that the coldness of women precluded mental acuity, see Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 32, 35.Google Scholar
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    These qualities were given their most eloquent expression throughout Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. For a concise summary, see Peter Burke, The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s “Cortegiano” (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), pp. 19–38. They are hardly a Renaissance invention: similar lists of abilities have been described for the medieval courtier by C. Stephen Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals 939–1210 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), pp. 127–75.Google Scholar
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© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

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