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Critical Biography of Teresa de Cartagena

From Women in European History

by Asha Woodall
Cover of The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena [1]

Contents

Introduction

Teresa de Cartagena was, like many extraordinary women in European History, an anomaly in her time. Not only was she well educated, extremely pious, and deaf from a young age - each things that in and of themselves made her exceptional--she was also a groundbreaking author on the subject of equality between the sexes during her time in Spain. Unique in her ability to interpret Catholicism in the 15th century into a feminist and equal rights argument, Teresa was successful in changing the course of religious and academic discourse on the subject of biblical interpretation and beliefs because of that. We can understand Teresa as fitting into the larger picture of women and their contributions to European history through the common traits that they all embody. These were the women who were defining and changing views and widely held beliefs in a male dominated society. We know fairly little about the specific details of Teresa's life; however I think that the more important way to examine the life and work of Teresa de Cartagena is through the many identities that she embodied that led her towards a revolutionary argument that forwarded the goals of of spiritual equality of women and men. She wrote and saw herself not only under the identity of a woman, but also as a Spanish conversa- one who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism in pre-inquisition Spain- in a Catholic nation, as a disabled person, and as nun in a very hierarchical religious tradition. These identities are crucial because they show how she was able to defy the usual categorizations of women to instead be a unique individual. Teresa de Cartagena, while being very secure in her absolute devotion to God, was an incredible figure in the course of women influencing European history because of her ability to argue strongly for the possibility of absolute equality between all- women and men, Spanish and not, able-bodied and disabled, before God. What made Teresa so revolutionary was that she did not use her gender as her primary identify when making her argument for equality, but rather used her individual identities to defy gender norms. This was very atypical of that era.

Identity as a Writer

Teresa de Cartagena was able to write the immensely influential texts that she did much because of her situation in life. Because literacy for women was becoming more common in the middle ages, she was able to write her autobiographical tracts with little initial confrontation. As a nun, writing about the inspirations and insights that she had gained by her love of God was originally seen as natural and good. It was only once Grove of the Infirm was published that people, mainly men, began to say that it was impossible a woman could have produced such a work [1]. Like other women writers of her time, such as Hildegard of Bingen [2] , it was clear that she was very well educated and had much to say- the only question was how much of it would she be allowed to say. Like Hildegard, she was relatively free, but still able to be censured by the larger church structure once they disapproved of her ideas.[3]

She constructed her first text not as an argument about the intrinsic value of women as equal to men, but rather as a way to give advice and tell her own personal experience of dealing with a disability. This is very key because it was rare to write about physical suffering, as well as the revolutionary sentiment that it could be a blessing, not a curse. She believed the original painful disadvantage she had in life could be something wonderful once given up to the glory and direction of God, and she sought to share that belief with other disabled persons. It was her second text, Wonder at the Works of God, a response and defense of her first book, that brought up the controversial message of equality. This was only because she believed it was the God-given answer and truth. She memorably wrote

“People marvel at what I wrote in the treatise and I marvel at what, in fact, I kept quiet, but I do not marvel doubting nor do I insist on my wonder. For my experience makes me sure, and the God of Truth knows that I had no other master nor consulted with any other learned authority nor translated from other books, as some people with malicious wonder are wont to say. Rather, this alone is the truth: that God of all knowledge, Lord of all virtues, Father of mercy, God of every consolation, He who consoles us in all our tribulation, He alone consoled me, He alone taught me, He alone read [to] me” [4]

It is clear from this passage, as in her writing style, that she did not see herself to be particularly insightful or gifted in her own right. She thought rather that the gift of writing was a gift that God had arbitrarily bestowed upon her, and that could be given to any other person as well. Not just men, and not just extremely pious and disabled nuns could be writers. The beauty of her idea was that equality was the inherent quality that all of mankind possessed, and it was just up to the discretion of God to hand down the different virtues and personalities to each individual as seen fit. She brought up the now well-known issue of gender-discriminating education, and pinned that as one of the only reasons women were not as respected and prolific thinkers as men. She wrote to prove this point, that “by men teaching each other and learning, acquired knowledge came into the hands of its present male practitioners; but were we to inquire further, we would find that knowledge as well as the ingenuity and grace to teach and learn all descended and descend from one Fount, for God alone is the Lord of all knowledge” [5] Along with this strong argument, she also reinforced the growing sentiment that women throughout religious history were reflective, strong, able to do what men often could not. The example she refers to of Judith killing the King that is written about in the Bible [6] is her strongest illustration. This supports what Judith Gardiner in Writing and Sexual Difference proposes- that women writers “tend to approach texts differently from men" [7]. Teresa clearly approached her text differently from a man, because she is constantly referring to her difference from men as one of the reasons she was able to understand the ideals of equality. Without being in a society that constantly recognized men as superior to women, she would not have needed to come up with the then novel idea that equality is imposed from God himself. Also, she recognizes her difference as a necessity to prove herself and her ideas even more strongly than a man would have to with the same work. Finally, by adding her disability into the mix, it is vital to recognize that since Teresa could not hear, written words were one of her only means of communication; and in this she communicated very effectively.

Identity as a Disabled Person

Deaf early into her womanhood, Teresa did not believe that the disability was a hindrance that God has given her, but rather a way to more fully appreciate his glory. [8] Because she was deaf once she had already confirmed her allegiance to God, she had to wrestle with the contradictory ideas that she was at once serving and being punished by her glorious benefactor. She readily admitted to much grief and suffering because of her deafness. This was another way in which she was significant in history- she clearly presented her torturous description of a disability with few reservations. [9] But what is more important than her self-purported suffering is how she spoke in Grove of the Infirm of how her disability actually handed down many virtues that are hard to attain in the more traditional means, such as patience, forgiveness, temperance, justice, and prudence. [10] Teresa was given yet another disadvantage at life when she became deaf. In a world in which women were valued for little less than their ability to produce children, physical defects came at a very high price. However, because of her situation within a convent already, she used this disability as her jumping off point to much higher minded religious and feminist discourse. In this first work Teresa introduces the issue of disability and religion in a novel way that made many skeptical that her exalted positions could be those of a lowly and deaf woman. Cut off from the speaking world, it is possible that Teresa drew her strength inward. All she was able to hear was the voice of God, sometimes speaking to her as if he were right beside her. From this source of inspiration came her novel arguments about equality.

Picture of El Monasterio de Santa Clara in Burgos, Spain where Teresa spent her time as a nun from [2]

Identity as a Catholic Nun

In addition to her disability, Teresa's religious conviction was strong from a fairly young age. She thus devoted her entire life to a fervent brand of Catholicism. Was this because she felt so strongly the religious fervor that she speaks of so often? Or was it due to her awareness that as a conversa (note 8), she would always be more heavily inspected than those who had grown up with the religion. Since this was the age before the ruthless hunting of Jews, Conversos in Catholic Spain faired relatively well, if always still somewhat suspect in their devoutness. Her family did not suffer for money as they were confirmed as righteous and well-educated Catholics, and so we know that her nunnery was not forced due to lack of a dowry. [11] Thus, while Teresa was revolutionary in her new religious ideas about equality, it was in a very quiet way. She never once disrespected the church hierarchy or went against the orders of her superiors, but she strongly and stoically, stood her ground on the issue of equality before the most important superior in her life- God. Because of her disability, she was able to focus more wholly on the written, not spoken word of religious instruction. She was very literate like many women were taught to be in order to become able to truly understand the texts they devoted their lives to worshiping [12]. Unlike many of her peers, Teresa chose the convent as her situation in life, and so was yet another relative anomaly of the time. Her religious identity is most clearly demonstrated in her absolute prostration to God and her belief in her unworthiness before him. Much like Teresa of Avila, many of the dreams and visions that lead Teresa towards her views of sexual and all types of equality before God come from her strong sense of Catholic mysticism,[13]. However, it was also her strong religious knowledge that led her to her unique interpretation of the Bible. “It was the language of the Bible, and the examples of pious women who preceded them, which were used most often by women to subvert or directly oppose secular philosophy.” [14] Thus, by using the Bible, she not only opposed secular philosophy, but she came up with an entirely new form of thought concerning secular philosophy- that God handed down all human traits equally. As a nun is where we find Teresa's closest relationship to her identity as religious woman. Living in a convent in 15th century Spain, there were many gender norms that Teresa frequently confronted, but also had to live with as a member of the then thought of “subordinate” sex.[15] However, she was much freer than many other women in her time because she did not have a husband (other than her commitment to God), she did not have to run a household, and she did not have to raise children. While these burdens were lifted, she was limited to one way of life, and that was the religious life. Teresa de Cartagena used her removal from many traditional female gender roles to fight against them, with the force of God behind her. It was easier for her to see the possibility of complete equality between men and women before God because she was surrounded by a completely holy environment. Even though this was also a nearly completely feminine environment, it was the words of God that led her to her ultimate conclusions.

Much like the struggle that Teresa of Avila faced [16], while she still had to be subservient to the male hierarchy of the church and the state- Teresa de Cartagena did not have to take on the role of mother, wife, or housekeeper which was typical of women in this time in Spanish society. In “Duties of the Bourgeois Housewife[17], we are told about how the main concerns of a wife in the middle ages are her duty to her husband and then to her household. A woman’s duty to God “goes without saying”[18] but is not what she chooses to write about. This passage highlights the fact that Teresa was writing in a time when other women such as Christine de Pisan were also confronting and discussing ideas about gendered equality. We are given insight to the grand difference in situation between Teresa and most women of her time in Spain. Her only duty is to God, and she can spend all her time debating and dissecting that duty. She was also free to identify with other roles that she thought it possible for women to have, such as that of an author which strongly diverged from the stereotypical vision of a good Spanish woman.

Spanish Identity

The sacred environment Teresa existed in stretched further than just the convent in which she lived, but also to the larger nation of Spain during the fifteenth century. One of the most important aspects in understanding and analyzing the life of Teresa de Cartagena is understanding it through her status as an inhabitant of Spain. During 15th century Spain, the entire country was organized around its strong Catholic beliefs and traditions-beliefs that were most importantly not of the Islamic or Jewish tradition. [19] Spain was unique in Western Europe because of the need for it to constantly justify its majority religion. Spain was also unique in this time because it was very isolated from the rest of Europe concerning the changing ideas on religion, on women, and on general thought. While the renaissance was beginning to flourish in Italy and philosophers were beginning to uncover the foundations of rights and freedoms, Spain remained in a stagnant ideal of a devoted Catholic nation. Teresa de Cartagena is not only notable because she is the first Spanish woman to advocate ideals of equality of the sexes before God; even though that was in and of itself notable, but also because she was a conversa. She was a member of Spanish society that had previously been persecuted for her family’s Judaism, but like the general population of Spain, she too was one who gave up part of her individuality to conform to Spanish norms. [20] But, while renouncing Judaism, she did not renounce religion as a whole. Instead she dove into her converted religion with vigor.

Her controversial and new ideas became a problem when Teresa’s writings became public. Her belief in the arbitrary power of God to in turn confer equality between all was thus two-pronged in its effect on the Spanish; not only was she a woman writing about equality, she also was writing about equality period. Because Spanish society had been so isolated from the ideas of modernizing women’s position, the fact that a Spanish woman had come up with these shockingly religious based doctrines was even more easily condemned. She was a pioneer for her age, and even while not believing herself worthy of equality of intellect with men, she did think it was possible. The misogynistic Spanish community could not understand that. As stated by Castro in The Structure of Spanish History- “The Spaniard wants a system of justice based on value judgments, not on firm and rationally deduced principles.” [21] However despite judgment, the intense faith that was inspired by the Spanish tradition of Catholicism and isolationism fostered her ability to truly study and advance the issue of equality.


Conclusion

The life of Teresa de Cartagena was most notably and famously described within the contexts of her two major texts. However, the many different identities that she at once possessed and discussed were what made her such an influential part of women’s European History as a whole, because she used each of them to strengthen her belief in equality before God while also defying the notion that the most notable part of her existence was her gender. She participated in defying gender roles, interacting with men on an intellectual level, shedding light on the disabled, and being an equal in the eyes of God- the most important authority that existed in Medieval Spain. She was aware of the opportunity she had been given and had worked for in her lifetime, and she was not complacent to simply ignore it. She took full advantage of her ability to influence and discuss religious and social ideology of the time - and even within the confines of Catholic Spain- she did not give up. Teresa was not just a deaf nun with a propensity to have religious revelations, she was also revolutionary leader in the women’s rights and equality movement. And most likely, she did not even know it.

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Notes

  1. Writings of Teresa de Cartagena (14). Many people doubted the authorship of the work purely because Teresa was a disabled woman with little contact with higher religious and academic authorities, and she wrote Wonder at the Works of God in a response to such doubters.
  2. Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. In this text, we are able to read some of Hildegard’s work, to compare to Teresa in its complexity and novelty.
  3. (Dronke 154-155). Even Hildegard, with all her power and notable acquaintance, could not refuse or get around the larger church hierarchy, and did not always get her way.
  4. Wonder at the Works of God (de Cartagena 102-103) This is her strongest and clearest defense of her previous texts.
  5. Wonder at the Works of God (de Cartagena 99). Here she offers a direct and controversial theory- that it was purely because of the system, not nature, that men were educated and women were not.
  6. “Wonder at the Works of God” (de Cartagena 93) She cites the Bible to strengthen the argument that strong women have done jobs men could not throughout history-she herself is one of those examples now.
  7. On Female Identity and Writing in Women (1980. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.) (pg. 187) It is important to recognize that just because Teresa wrote on the same level as men, she did not write like a man at all
  8. “I now realize the great good in my misfortune and the mercy God has shown me in making me suffer for so long” (41) in The Writings of Teresa De Cartagena Grove of the Infirm
  9. Grove of the Infirm (46). She consistently refers to her disability as her "pain", "torture", or "suffering"
  10. Grove of the Infirm (80-85). Within these pages she details the virtues and graces that her disability has provided her with.
  11. The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena (4). We learn about the well-to-do status of her family in the introduction.
  12. (123 Wiesner) Learning to read was often considered a part of religious instruction
  13. (168) Many extremely pious women verging into mysticism, such as Joan of arc, are discussed in Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Ed. Renate Bridenthal, Claudia Koonz, and Susan Stuard. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
  14. (180 Weisner). She used the Bible as a tool for her cause.
  15. (16) Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. London: Routledge, 1995. It was the norm at this time to see women as weak and subservient to all men.
  16. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by herself. Trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books, 1957. Saint Teresa of Avila was another Spanish nun during a similar time period who also faced much adversity because of her ideas and published works.
  17. De Pisan, Christine. “Duties of the Bourgeois Housewife” from Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. London: Routledge, 1995. As another well known writer from a similar time period, Christine de Pisan offers an alternative to the life that Teresa has chosen to lead.
  18. (31) in Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe by Wiesner, Mary E. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This illustrates the point that for most, religion was a mandate, but not a big priority- nothing like the duties of running a household.
  19. Castro, Americo. The Structure of Spanish History. Trans. Edmund L King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954. The tenuous relationship between the different religions in Spain had a large impact on Spanish society in this time.
  20. (Castro 621). In Spain during this time, there was a large conversion of traditional Jews to Catholicism, even though it was hard to judge the extent of their sincerity to the new religion always.
  21. (Castro 624). A characterization of the Spaniard Teresa was arguing against.

Additional Information

Conversos in Catholic Spain

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