Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman

Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman

by Barbara Mujica


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In 1562, Teresa de Avila founded the Discalced Carmelites and launched a reform movement that would pit her against the Church hierarchy and the male officials of her own religious order. This new spirituality, which stressed interiority and a personal relationship with God, was considered dangerous and subversive. It provoked the suspicion of the Inquisition and the wrath of unreformed Carmelites, especially the Andalusian friars, who favored the lax practices of their traditional monasteries. The Inquisition investigated Teresa repeatedly, and the Carmelite General had her detained. But even during the most terrible periods of persecution, Teresa continued to fight for the reform using the weapon she wielded best: the pen. Teresa wrote hundreds, perhaps thousands, of letters to everyone from the King to prelates to mothers of novices.

Teresa's epistolary writing reveals how she used her political acumen to dodge inquisitors and negotiate the thorny issues of the reform, facing off the authorities--albeit with considerable tact--and reprimanding priests and nuns who failed to follow her orders. Her letters bring to light the different strategies she used--code names, secret routing--in order to communicate with nuns and male allies. They show how she manipulated language, varying her tone and rhetoric according to the recipient or slipping into deliberate vagueness in order to avoid divulging secrets. What emerges from her correspondence is a portrait of extraordinary courage, ability, and shrewdness.

In the sixteenth century, the word letrado (lettered) referred to the learned men of the Church. Teresa treated letrados with great respect and always insisted on her own lack of learning. The irony is that although women could not be letradas, Teresa was, as her correspondence shows, "lettered" in more ways than one.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826516312
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 3.80(d)

About the Author

Barbara Mujica is a Professor of Spanish at Georgetown University and President Emerita of the Association for Hispanic Classical Theater (AHCT). She is specialist in Early Modern Spanish literature who has written extensively on mysticism, the pastoral novel, and seventeenth-century theater. She is also a best-selling novelist whose most recent work is Sister Teresa, based on the life of Teresa of Avila.

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Teresa de Ávila

Lettered Woman

By Bárbara Mujica, Christopher Wilson

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2009 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-9258-3


From Teresa de Ahumada to Saint Teresa

The woman who spearheaded the movement known as the Carmelite reform was an unlikely hero. Teresa Sánchez Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Ávila in 1515, the daughter of a converso silk and woolens merchant. Conversos, or New Christians, were Jews who had converted to Catholicism, often due to intense pressure from the crown. Teresa's Jewish ancestry is of more than anecdotal interest. The position of conversos in early sixteenth-century Spain made it likely that many of them would become proficient at filing petitions, managing legal documents, and writing letters.

Learning to Write: Converso Spain

In spite of portrayals of medieval Spain as a tolerant society in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in harmony, anti-Semitism has deep roots on the peninsula. Periods of peaceful cohabitation, cultural intermingling, cross-fertilization, and interethnic cooperation did exist from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, as María Rosa Menocal has demonstrated, and these phenomena contributed to the creation of a rich, vibrant intellectual climate in medieval Spain. However, Joseph Pérez argues that true open-mindedness did not exist: "Tolerance presupposes an absence of discrimination against minorities and respect for the points of view of others. In the Iberia of the eighth century to the fifteenth, such tolerance was nowhere to be found" (1). Similarly, Kamen writes, "The communities of Christians, Jews, and Muslims never lived together on equal terms; so-called convivencia was always a relationship among unequals" (Spanish Inquisition 4). Rather, the three predominant cultures coexisted, each as a separate community. In spite of periods of peaceful convivencia, or coexistence, Jonathan Ray notes that scholars in the field of Jewish studies have challenged the idealized view of Spain as a multicultural utopia, "pointing out the persecutions against Jewish populations under the Muslim Almoravid and Almohad dynasties of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the widespread Christian pogroms and forced conversions of Jews in 1391, and the cycle of forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitorial harassment of Jewish and Muslim communities throughout the late medieval and early modern periods" ("Beyond Tolerance" 2). Ray challenges oversimplifications that portray medieval Spain as either a period of tolerance or persecution for Jews, arguing that most studies are based on attitudes of non-Jews toward Jews.

By examining the writings of medieval Sephardim themselves, Ray shows that during periods when Spanish authorities adopted a laissez-faire policy toward intercultural intermingling, Jewish moralists themselves argued for greater Jewish isolation because they feared that contact with non-Jews, particularly Christians, was leading to acculturation, moral laxity, and conversions to Christianity. The lure of social and economic advancement, the practice of taking Christian lovers, and the predilection for taking legal complaints to Christian—and even ecclesiastical—courts threatened to undermine the integrity of Jewish communities, argued these Jewish thinkers, who complained that Jews were putting their personal advancement above their loyalty to their own group. Ray points out that "Christian legislation aimed at regulating Jewish dress was only loosely enforced, and decrees such as the one issued at the Castilian Cortes of 1268 that prohibited Jews from assuming Christian names reflects Jewish interests in acculturation and integration as much as it does a Christian campaign to exclude them" ("Beyond Tolerance" 10). In response to this tendency, Jewish leaders chided the members of their communities for adopting Christian garb and customs, and for settling outside of established juderías (Jewish neighborhoods), even acquiring lands in rural areas. Ray points out that medieval Sephardim do not comprise a fixed, monolithic group, but rather a fluid one that varies from place to place and from one set of circumstances to another. Jews were part of a rich, complex, cultural weave that was influenced by autochthonous as well as external pressures. Ray concludes that "if ... Spanish Jews continually pursued associations and social positions that closely resembled those of their Christian counterparts, then perhaps we have to revise our notion of convivencia as merely a measurement of tolerance" ("Beyond Tolerance" 13). The tension within Sephardic communities between the forces of assimilation and cultural preservation is a significant factor in Teresa's family history and helps to explain the Sánchez-Cepeda conversion to Christianity.

Convivencia might be affected by countless variables. In general, as long as the economy was strong and Christians, Muslims, and Jews did not have to compete with each other, they could live side by side, but downward swings brought persecutions. Similarly, political conflicts, epidemics, and other upheavals produced waves of resentment and hostility among the groups. Early in the fourteenth century the Black Death ushered in a period of hardship, and Christians began to see the plague as punishment for permitting "deicide people" to live among them. Virulent anti-Semitism spread from France throughout Spain. Although many Jews were poor, the stereotype of the rich Jewish moneylender intensified antagonism. Some monarchs did protect Jews: Pedro I of Castile (1334–1369) was dubbed "King of the Jews" by his illegitimate half-brother, Henry of Trastámara, who manipulated Spanish anti-Semitism for his own political advantage. When the nobles of Castile revolted against King Pedro, they accused him of surrounding himself with Jews and Moors; their rebellion unleashed a series of abuses, including massacres.

Several clerics were influential in instigating anti-Semitic violence. Vicente Ferrer (1350–1419) was a charismatic Dominican preacher from Valencia whose fiery sermons helped unleash forced conversions and massacres of Jews during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In 1378, inflation and high prices caused widespread deprivation; Fernand Martínez, the archdeacon of Ecija, in Andalusia, preached a string of anti-Semitic sermons that led to anti-Jewish rioting, the demolition of synagogues, and mass murders. The violence, rooted largely in class resentment, swelled to engulf the rest of Spain. As a result, thousands of Jews asked to be baptized. By the end of the period of terror, only about one hundred thousand Jews remained in Spain, about half the original population (Pérez 12).

Twenty years after the massacres, civil authorities, dissatisfied with the rate of conversion, urged measures that would force the remaining Spanish Jews to accept Christianity. Jews were confined to ghettos, outside of which they were banned from practicing certain professions, such as doctor, chemist, druggist, tailor, butcher, cobbler, or tax collector. To make them easily identifiable, they were forced to allow their hair and beards to grow long and to wear red disks sewn to their clothing. Certainly, there were periods of respite. In the early fifteenth century, between 1419 and 1422, King Juan II of Castile and Alfonso V of Aragon repealed many of the discriminatory policies adopted by their predecessors. But the intense campaign for conversion had succeeded in destroying Spain's vibrant medieval Jewish communities.

During the fifteenth century, Spaniards began to distinguish between practicing Jews and conversos, many of which now occupied positions formerly held by Jews. Conversos became scribes and notaries, counselors and doctors. Many, like Teresa's father, became successful merchants, making a fortune in the silk and woolens trade. Spain's Jewish communities had always placed a high premium on education, and conversos from educated families frequently entered the church, where they could devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. However, in spite of their rapid integration into Spanish society, the conversos remained suspect. Although the church instructed Old Christians to accept them as equals—and many educated, upper-class Spaniards actually did—resentment grew among the less enlightened. As New Christians began to achieve rank and wealth, moving into positions previously closed to them, such as alguacil, regidor, or church official, many people saw them as interlopers and made them scapegoats for whatever evil befell society. An uprising in 1449 in Toledo led to the promulgation of the statutes of limpieza de sangre, the doctrine that excluded conversos and moriscos (converted Muslims) from public offices and benefices. Religious orders soon began insisting on limpieza de sangre as well. The Hieronymites, native to Spain and much favored among the aristocracy, began the practice in 1486, and the Franciscans and Dominicans quickly followed suit.

In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, uniting two powerful realms. At first, the new king and queen made no move against the Jewish and converso populations. In fact, certain prominent conversos had aided in the marriage arrangements. However, once they had solidified their position, the Catholic Monarchs, as they came to be known, adopted fervently anti-Semitic policies. A chief agent in the implementation of their agenda was Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, an Observant Franciscan friar who became the queen's confessor. Diarmaid MacCulloch observes: "In his austere, focused piety and his determination to proclaim his vision of Christian faith to the people of the Spanish kingdoms, he was much more like Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin than his Spanish contemporary Pope Alexander VI" (59).6 In many ways, Ximénez de Cisneros incarnates the paradoxes characteristic of Spanish religious thought of the period. On the one hand, he was a practitioner of the devotio moderna, which he imparted to the queen and her court, and he was a member of a rigorous order that stressed austerity, piety, and withdrawal from the world. On the other, his activism impelled him into the center of power, and he used his authority to ruthlessly impose these new ideas on other clerics and to rid Spain of "heresy," brutally persecuting Jews and conversos. On the one hand, he founded the University of Alcalá, established a humanistic curriculum, and funded the printing of some of his favorite mystics, such as Catherine of Siena. On the other, he had thousands of non-Christian books and manuscripts burned.

The initial impetus behind the crown's anti-Semitic policies was political. Unlike France, Spain had no strong centralized government, which allowed nobles to constantly challenge the authority of the king. In order to unite their two kingdoms into an integrated state and rule effectively, the Catholic king and queen took measures to reduce the power of the nobility. They established the Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood), a combination of permanent police force, rural constabulary, and judicial tribunal whose purpose it was to assert royal jurisdiction and contain aristocratic power.

Defiant nobles were not the only threat to the monarchy, however. Jews still lived in Spain, although in reduced numbers, and they were suspected of encouraging conversos to practice their ancient religious rites in secret. The Catholic Monarchs believed the creation of a new, cohesive Spanish identity required the country to adhere to one faith, and they saw the continued existence of Jews in Spain as a menace to national unity. As Barbara Weissberger puts it, "This national self-concept was disseminated in therapeutic terms, as a purification of the body politic, a purging of alien and contaminating agents that had resided in Spain for centuries. Those threatening aliens were primarily the Jews and Muslims" (Isabel xiii). In 1477, Ferdinand and Isabella visited Seville, a city afflicted with widespread unrest. Certain leaders, among them the head of the local Dominican monastery, attributed the city's ills to the Jews, whom they accused of stirring up conversos and causing them to revert. B. Netanyahu stresses that, in fact, only a small minority of Sevillian conversos were actually guilty of Judaizing, and those who led the campaign against them were motivated by greed and resentment more than true religious zeal—a situation recognized by many honorable Sevillian Christians who strove to quiet the anti-converso fervor (807–8).

In the end, the forces of anti-Semitism prevailed. Bolstered by myths of Jewish ritual murders of Christian children and other tales of Jewish cruelty, preachers rallied the masses to the anti-Jewish cause. Convinced that the Inquisition was the solution, Ferdinand and Isabella appealed to Pope Sixtus IV, who issued a bull on 1 November 1478, investing the monarchs with power to appoint inquisitors in all parts of Castile. Two years later, Ferdinand and Isabella appointed two Dominicans as inquisitors for their entire realm, which included parts of Andalusia. Kamen stresses that figures suggesting massive executions by the Inquisition are exaggerations. Although thousands of people passed through the hands of inquisitors, most were "rehabilitated" or "reconciled" to the faith, often by paying a fee. Kamen notes, for example, that although more than eight thousand cases may have been brought before the tribunals in Toledo during the period from 1481 to 1530, "the overwhelming majority of these were not in fact brought to trial; they were disciplined as a result of the edicts of grace, and had to undergo various penalties and penances, but escaped with their lives" (Spanish Inquisition 59). Kamen points out that most executions took place during the early years, and even those were sporadic. He concludes, "Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition" (60). The Spanish Inquisition was a lumbering bureaucracy, not an efficient killing machine like the ones perfected in the twentieth century by Nazis and Stalinists. Nevertheless, its inefficiency would have been of small comfort to Spain's Jews and conversos, who lived in constant fear of being hauled in and thrown on the rack. The use of surveillance by relatives and neighbors, torture, shame, and public punishment made the Inquisition a constant and dreaded menace.

The Inquisition was not a Spanish invention. Motivated by politics, the German king and Roman emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) took a decisive step toward the establishment of the Inquisition when, legislating for northern Italy, he declared death by fire for impenitent members of certain religious sects. In 1231 Pope Gregory IX adopted the imperial legislation and within the next few years established the procedures of the medieval Inquisition. The institution soon spread throughout Italy and to France, Germany, and Aragon. By the time Ferdinand and Isabella decided to implement the Inquisition in Spain, its cruel methods were already well established. Joseph Pérez argues that the Catholic Monarchs turned to the Inquisition not to propagate violence and anti-Semitism, but to eliminate them: "It was their belief that the Inquisition would force the conversos to become definitively assimilated," he writes. "Once all the New Christians had renounced Judaism, there would be nothing to distinguish them from other members of society. Anti-Semitism would disappear along with the reasons that had occasioned it" (21). However, the Inquisition soon began to spread its grip across Castile and Andalusia, wreaking both violence and anti-Semitism. The first auto de fe (literally "act of faith") took place in Seville on 6 February 1481. An auto de fe was a forced procession of penitent or impenitent "heretics" that ended with the public execution of the unrepentant. The excesses of the Spanish Inquisition led the pope to complain to the Catholic Monarchs in a letter dated 29 January 1482. However, Ferdinand and Isabella continued to push on with their projects until inquisitional tribunals were established all over Spain.

In order to eradicate every trace of Judaizing among conversos, the king and queen thought it necessary to distance them from the pernicious influence of practicing Jews. The most efficient way to accomplish this goal was simply to remove the Jews. In 1482, Jews were expelled from parts of Andalusia and then, the following year, from the dioceses of Seville, Córdoba, and Cádiz. Attempts to eliminate Jews from other parts of Spain followed, although not all were successful. In its attempt to rid itself of this unwanted minority, Spain was hardly alone. England had expelled its Jews two hundred years earlier, in 1290. Around the same time as the Andalusian expulsions, Jews were also driven out of parts of France and Italy.


Excerpted from Teresa de Ávila by Bárbara Mujica, Christopher Wilson. Copyright © 2009 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Sources and Abbreviations, xiv,
Introduction: The Pen and the Sword, 1,
1 From Teresa de Ahumada to Saint Teresa, 13,
2 Teresa de Jesús: Woman of Letters, 44,
3 God's Warrior and Her Epistolary Weapons, 68,
4 Correspondence and Correspondents, 103,
5 Letter-Writing as Self-Representation, 140,
6 Forging Sainthood: Teresa's Letters as Relics, 178,
Conclusion, 203,
Appendix: Seven Letters with Original Translations, 207,
Notes, 239,
Bibliography, 259,
Index, 269,

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