Rina Walthaus
University of Groningen, The Netherlands

In the period that marks the transition from late medieval times to pre-modern society, ancient mythology, legend and history were for the artist as a horn of plenty, from which stories could be taken up either as aesthetic adornments for the artistic creation or as attractive sources of moral instruction. The didactic and convincing power of classical myth and legend was also exploited in the numerous Spanish treatises of the fifteenth and sixteenth century written to defend woman against the attacks made on her by misogynists and/or to teach her virtuous behaviour, convenient and useful to the patriarchal society of that time. In this article I shall study the use and interpretation of the classical material in these works from the point of view of gender, considering it to be one of the literary mechanisms that – used consciously or unconsciously by the authors – can illustrate the social and cultural construction of gender, in this case, the social and cultural construction of femininity.

The well-known debate about woman – present in various European countries during the later Middle Ages – gains actuality in Castile during the fifteenth century.1 In that period there appear some famous misogynist texts: the Coplas de maldezir de mugeres of the Catalan poet Pedro Torrellas, the very popular Reprobación del amor mundano or Corbacho of Alfonso Martínez de Toledo (1438) 2and at the end of the century the Repetición de amores (1496–97) of Luis de Lucena. These are works in the traditional misogynist vein, rooted in biblical, classical and ecclesiastical sources, such as Genesis, Solomon, St. Paul, Aristotle, Juvenal, the Church Fathers. On the other hand, there is a large series of fifteenth-century defences of the female sex, which, of course, have their precedents in the literary tradition as well, in writers like Plutarch, St. Jerome (Adversus Jovinianum), Boccaccio (De claris mulieribus). The titles emphasize the positive view: Tratado en defenssa de virtuossas mugeres (Diego de Valera, before 1445), Libro de las mujeres ilustres (Alonso de Cartagena, lost, first half of the fifteenth century), Libro de las virtuosas e claras mugeres (Don Alvaro de Luna, 1446), Triunfo de las donas (Juan Rodríguez del Padrón, before 1445). El Jardín de nobles donzellas of Fray Martín de Córdoba, written about 1468 and printed twice in the sixteenth century, is addressed to the sixteen-year-old princess Isabel, the future Catholic Queen. Although this latter work cannot be seen dissociated from the debate on woman, its main purpose is a more political one: to prove that women are fit to rule (this in the context of Isabel's claims to the throne). Besides, it is a sort of mixture of an ‘advice to princes’ and a work on female education.3 In this framework there appears the echo of the ‘pro-feminist’ tradition of that time; the praise of woman can, of course, support and justify feminine rule. In some of these defences the author proclaims a (partial) equality of woman to man; sometimes he goes even further, as Juan Rodríguez del Padrón does, proclaiming the superiority of woman.

The debate finds an echo in other genres of Spanish literature of that time: in poetry (Torrellas, Urríes, Suero de Ribera, Castillejo), in the sentimental novel (Juan de Flores, Grisel y Mirabella; Diego de San Pedro, Cárcel de amor) and in drama (Juan del Encina, Egloga de tres pastores). In fifteenth-century Spain, the list of defences of woman is notably long; according to Ornstein this so-called ‘literatura profeminista’ is more numerous than the ‘literatura antifeminista’.4 But it is dangerous and misleading to use these terms and even erroneous to make such an artificial bipartition.5 Anyhow, it is important to keep in mind that in fifteenth-century Spain there is, in general, a new flourishing of courtly love literature, a ‘troubadour revival’, with its traditional idealization and cult of woman.6 Apart from other cultural, ideological and socioeconomic reasons that can help to explain the frequency of these defences, there even may have been, in the first half of the century, a very concrete stimulus for this debate as a literary game: according to some critics (Matulka, Oñate, Ornstein), the queen herself – María, first wife of king John II of Castile – asked and impelled writers to take up the defence of woman against the misogynous imputations of the Spanish Corbacho7. And the Coplas de maldezir of the poet Torrellas might also have provoked these reactions. Valera, in the exordium of his treatise, explicitly takes up the gauntlet against the new wave of misogyny in his time: “aquestos començadores de nueva seta que rotamente les plase en general de todas las mugeres maldesir”.

In the sixteenth century, the debate over woman is still present8 and the praise of woman continues to be a topic as well. In the second half of the century, Juan de Espinosa published a Diálogo en laude de las mugeres (1580), subtitled Ginaecepaenos (the praise of women). Another humanist, Juan Pérez de Moya, famous for his mythographical work Philosophia secreta (1585), published an extensive work on famous women, the Varia historia de sanctas e illustres mugeres en todo género de virtudes (1583).9 Besides, many moralists and clergymen abandoned the traditional misogynist attacks on woman and, neither scorning her nor idealizing her, they wrote treatises in a paternalistic tone to educate her, still based, of course, upon the traditional view of woman as an inferior being. The socioeconomic changes of the period, the transition from a more medieval economy to a precapitalist society, the division of labour between the sexes, the ideological principles of Humanism (with its emphasis on education) and the Counter-reformation: all these were factors that made it necessary to redefine and reconsider woman and her place in society, and to teach her her proper role as a chaste, virtuous and useful member in the purely patriarchal social order. To this category of didactic-moralistic literature belong Institutio feminae christianae of Juan Luis Vives (1524; the Castilian translation is from 1528), La perfecta casada (1583) of Fray Luis de León, and Vida política de todos los estados de mugeres (1599) of Juan de la Cerda.

In most of these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works on behalf of woman – to defend her against misogynist imputations or to educate her recognizing her value for society or combining both elements – we find numerous allusions to illustrious women from antiquity, the Scriptures, saints' lives and history. These references are sometimes included to prove and to convince the reader of the truth of the argument and sometimes to serve as a model for the reader, to be either followed or avoided. It is the examples from classical mythology and classical legend/history that have my special interest here: how do the authors introduce and present this material in their treatises written about and for women? First, I shall show in what ways the classical (and other) examples as a whole are incorporated in the works and, next, I shall focus on some of them, to show how differently the authors can present and interpret this material within the framework of their specific ideas on gender.

In the fifteenth-century defences of woman we usually find a whole section dedicated to famous women from the past.10 Such a catalogue serves as an amplificatio, as rhetorical evidence in the argumentation that woman, by Nature, is good, virtuous etc. or even superior to man. This kind of catalogue has its classical and medieval precedents and turns out to be a ‘topos’ of the genre. In some works stories of different origin are placed together, connected by a certain virtue or quality; in others the examples are systematically arranged in three or four categories: famous women from pagan antiquity; the Biblical tradition (Old and New Testament) and later Christian women or saints; finally (and generally less numerous), illustrious women from a more recent era (queens and noblewomen of national history etc.). Diego de Valera's very short and scholastic treatise Tratado en defenssa de virtuossas mugeres11 includes a list of almost forty names (twenty-two refer to pagan antiquity) and he adds their respective stories in a series of notes as extensive as the text of the treatise itself. Don Alvaro de Luna's Libro de las virtuosas e claras mugeres12 as a whole forms a catalogue of outstanding women, as an imitation of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus; the second book – the most extensive – is dedicated to the great ladies of pagan antiquity. The author of Jardín de nobles donzellas13 dedicates two parts of his book to a rather positive explanation of the creation of woman and to rules on feminine conduct; in the third part he supports his statements by giving a series of famous examples. And to illustrate the popularity of this theme: in the late fifteenth-century sentimental novel Cárcel de amor – a real bestseller at that time – the protagonist pronounces a defence of woman without forgetting to add a list of famous virtuous women14; the same is true for Juan del Encina's pastoral drama Egloga de tres pastores, where a short defence of woman is supported by an enumeration of fourteen classical names.15

Espinosa's sixteenth-century dialogue in praise of woman, Diálogo en laude de las mugeres (1580)16, does not contain a systematic catalogue, but the author presents repeatedly a dazzling accumulation of references to, mostly, classical heroes and heroines, recording them very briefly. The Varia historia de sanctas e illustres mugeres, published three years later by Juan Pérez de Moya17, forms an extensive catalogue in the tradition of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus. In a previous study18 I have already drawn attention to this work of Pérez de Moya, which has hardly been studied by scholars writing on the theme of woman in Renaissance Spain. The onomastic index added by the author (‘Tabla de las mvgeres que este libro contiene’) includes the names of some 600 women or groups of women. Ancient pagan and biblical women, saints and women from more recent history pass in review. Their stories – described in distinct chapters of one or more pages each – are arranged in the three sections into which the book is divided: I) virgins and chaste women (183 ‘artículos’ arranged in five chapters); II) female warriors, queens, etc. (86 chapters); III) women made famous by their learning and wisdom (57 chapters).

The other sixteenth-century works I have mentioned (Institutio feminae christianae / Formación de la mujer cristiana of Juan Luis Vives, La perfecta casada of Fray Luis de León and Vida política de todos los estados de mugeres of Juan de la Cerda19) are of a different sort. Their aim is, more directly, female education by means of an exposition (sometimes a series of precepts) on correct feminine behaviour. In this kind of work feminine conduct is usually treated according to the well-known stages in the female career: virgins, married women, widows, nuns. These educational works – prolific also in other countries during the period – have their precedents in a long history of letters and advice to women.20 In the relatively short treatises of Vives21 and Fray Luis, the references to outstanding women, when they appear, are completely integrated in the didactic discourse. Vives sometimes tells the exemplary stories in detail, sometimes he refers briefly to them; on another occasion (Formación, 1034) he includes a lengthy quotation of St. Jerome (Adversus Jovinianum), that provides a series of Greek examples of female chastity. The treatise on the married woman written by Fray Luis de León shows the least interest in illustrious examples. The work is a commentary and explication of Solomon's Proverbs. The author mentions other ancient and Christian authorities (mainly St. Paul) to support his ideas on feminine conduct. The references to outstanding female models, however, are very scarce and hardly interesting in the context of this study. As far as the use of classical material is concerned, Fray Luis' treatise contrasts with those of his contemporaries, Juan de Espinosa, in whose work, as we have seen, classical examples abound, and Juan de la Cerda. In his Vida política de todos los estados de mugeres this humanist cites Juan Luis Vives as one of his primary sources (fol. 18v), but he is not as concise as Vives: the Vida política consists of more than 600 folios. In the five parts into which the book is divided, La Cerda treats female conduct in the traditional stages (virgins, nuns, married women and widows) finishing with the theme of woman in general. Besides a series of norms and precepts we find descriptions of good and bad behaviour and, above all, an extremely rich collection of references to famous examples of the past. Biblical women, later Christian women and saints, examples from recent history, they all abound, but – with the exception of the second part, which is concerned with the nun – it is the classical material that predominates. Sometimes the stories are briefly referred to, at other times the author uses several pages to tell them in detail. The educational intention almost seems to be a pretext to introduce all kinds of stories. In this respect La Cerda's work is the reverse of Espinosa's Diálogo en laude: while the second is a praise and enumeration of outstanding women showing a strong tendency to educational precepts, the work of La Cerda is an educational work in origin, that inclines to be a collection of references to famous women.

Now let us consider in more detail how these writers present the classical examples in connection with their specific goal, that is, to defend woman and/or to educate and to control female behaviour according to the needs of a Christian social order. The outstanding women mentioned in these works are, sometimes, hardly known, and sometimes well known to all. During their long history of transmission, some of these women have almost become symbols of a certain virtue, like Lucretia, Virginia, Artemisia, Penelope, Minerva, etc.; others have become symbols of vice, like Circe, Clytemnestra. In the works I am considering here many – or most – of the ancient women are introduced to propagate and praise female virginity, chastity and conjugal fidelity, since these are the virtues most honoured and most required in woman, as they were the basis of a well-ordered patriarchal family life and a well-controlled hereditary policy. The purely edifying works always stress, of course, the importance of sexual purity – both physical and social – as the essence of woman. But in the ‘defences’ too the praise of the female sex is based mainly on a long list of examples of female purity, chastity and conjugal fidelity.22 This is also stressed by Fray Martín de Córdoba to his future queen, whose political claims he tries to defend: it is striking that three-quarters of the almost fifty examplary stories that he adduces, are stories of triumphant chastity or conjugal fidelity. The Renaissance works, too, from Vives (1524) to La Cerda (1599), emphasize the same virtue as the very essence of woman.

It is interesting, then, to compare how certain classical myths and legends are presented and interpreted by the authors according to the gender-specific goal they display in their work. Within the bounds of this article a few examples will suffice. An ever-cited symbol of chastity is Lucretia, whose story has an implied political significance, since her violation by Tarquin provoked a revolution and the expulsion of the kings from Rome. But it is for her chastity that Lucretia is presented in nearly all the works of our corpus. The main sources of her story are Livy, Ovid and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and various ancient Christian writers who have praised her. But it was St. Augustine who cast some doubt on her behaviour, asking in connection with her suicide: “si adulterata, cur laudata; si pudica, cur occisa?” (De civitate Dei, I, chapter XIX) and from that moment she could be seen in another, more sceptical, light: perhaps she had felt guilty, so perhaps she had liked the rape. Thus Lucretia could be regarded as a whore as well, as she had given herself to Tarquin.23 This bitter scepticism is absent from the works considered here. But although the authors of our corpus generally present Lucretia as a stock example of chastity – “onrra de la generación romana” as Diego de Valera unequivocally calls her (Tratado, 67) – some of them do cope with the problematic side of the story, raised by St. Augustine. Don Alvaro de Luna raises the question, but he states that Lucretia's virtue is unequalled and remains beyond dispute; he glorifies her in over-excited terms (Libro, 79–84). Fray Martín also praises Lucretia (Jardín, 257, 286) and teaches his princess that woman can only reach fame by chastity; if she is not chaste, history simply will not remember her. And it is only by chastity that a woman can equal or even excel the political fame of a man: so Lucretia equals Brutus. Referring to St. Augustine, Fray Martín does raise the problem of suicide in cases of rape, and solves the problem by saying that if God inspires the virgin, there is no question of sin, but only of merit and martyrdom (ibid., 257). This applies to the stories of some virgin saints as well as to that of the pagan Lucretia. Vives, too, is cautious when discussing the suicide of the chaste Roman matron. He does not want to propagate the imitation of this act, so he tells us, but only the imitation of “la robusta firmeza del propósito”, as the reader has to be convinced that nothing is left to a woman once she has lost her purity (Formación, 1010). Half a century later, Pérez de Moya still copes with the problematic question24 in order to solve it, as the other authors did, in favour of female chastity: he states that, although according to St. Augustine Lucretia cannot be called chaste, her story nevertheless proves to what extent a woman should prize this virtue (Varia historia, fol. 150v). Equally positive, although more critical, are the opinions of Espinosa and La Cerda on Lucretia. Philalethes, the defender of woman in Espinosa's dialogue, praises Lucretia's chastity, but not without stating that she was less prudent than other women and should have killed the aggressor immediately, thus avoiding a suicide25 (Diálogo, 252). For La Cerda, who mentions Lucretia several times and dedicates various pages to her story, the Roman matron was completely innocent and the suicide unnecessary. He asserts that Lucretia should not have regarded the rape as a loss of honour, as she was taken by force (Vida política, fol. 67r–v). Besides, in a chapter entitled “De quan loable cosa es en la donzella, y en toda muger, ser amiga del trabajo y virtuosos exercicios; y de quanto vituperio y oprobio es la ociosidad” Lucretia is introduced in order to teach women the virtues of domestic application (ibid., fol. 81r–v). But La Cerda also interprets the story as a warning to married men: they do not have to praise their wives in public, as this can provoke the desire of others: even the great chastity of Lucretia could not free her from this danger (ibid., fol. 367r–368r).

A similar story of chastity, violence and political tyranny as that of Lucretia is the legend of Virginia and they often appear associated with each other (at the beginning of his chapter on Virginia, Livy had already introduced the comparison with the story of Lucretia). As far as I know, the virtuous Virginia is normally seen in a positive light in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature. Here, however, the authors have to cope with the problem of a daughter murdered by the father for the sake of honour and virginal purity. Don Alvaro de Luna's comment on this story expresses his emotional identification with father and daughter26; at the end of his chapter about Virginia, he projects the ideal of purity completely on the maiden herself.27 Fray Martín, who takes up the legend to explain the etymology of the word ‘virgin / virginity’ (which he derives from the father's name ‘Verginius’; the daughter's name is not mentioned), solves the problem of the murder by identifying himself with Virginia as a willing victim. When Verginius tells his daughter he is going to kill her, Fray Martin adds: “E pienso que la moça fue contenta & respondía al espíritu del padre, que si él no lo fiziera, que ella misma por sus manos se matara, antes que perdiera la corona de su virginidad” (Jardín, 256). Vives briefly provides the example of the pure Virginia in his chapter on virginity, citing it among stories about other girls who lost their purity through lust and in some case became pregnant; for Vives, these examples show how detestable the loss of virginity is in woman and therefore it is no wonder that fathers and brothers kill the girls in question (Formación, 1009). In Espinosa's work Virginia is only referred to in the context of this question (parents who kill a child; Diálogo, 133). It is remarkable that Pérez de Moya does not include the story of Virginia in his extensive catalogue of famous women. La Cerda gives the story (after that of Lucretia) to illustrate that chastity is the very essence of woman, and having lost it, she would be an object of public shame (Vida política, fol. 67v).

Let us now consider some stories about women of a different kind, like Dido and Semiramis, both famous and powerful queens. How are they presented in these treatises written on and for women? According to Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Heroides, Dido, queen of Carthage, was the passionate lover of Aeneas and she perished in love. According to the ancient historian Justin (Epitoma Historiarum Philippicarum), however – and many eclesiastical writers after him – Dido was the perfectly chaste queen-widow, who committed suicide to avoid a second marriage, forced upon her by a neighbour king. Both versions are recorded in Spanish literature of the Middle Ages and Golden Age. In sixteenth-century Spain, however, many writers (poets, dramatists) emphasize the truth of the ‘historical’ version of Justin and set up for the defence of Dido's chastity against the ‘poetic calumny’ of Virgil (this point even provoked a literary debate in the academies of Madrid and Valencia).28 The topic frequently appears in the works under discussion, where Justin's version is usually chosen to praise Dido as a model of female chastity. This is what we find in Don Alvaro de Luna's Libro (153–154). In Triunfo de las donas, Rodríguez del Padrón refers more clearly to the debate and introduces Dido's example to illustrate the effect of poetic calumny by male authors. He defends the queen: she never saw Aeneas, but, on the contrary, preferred to die chaste (248). For Pérez de Moya, too, Dido forms a unique example of chastity and widowhood (Varia historia, fol. 10r), but she had not been spared by the despisers (Virgil and other poets). Here the author adduces the frequently used ‘historical’ argument that there is a distance of more than 370 years between the fall of Troy (departure of Aeneas) and the foundation of Carthage by Dido. Then follows, in detail, the Dido story according to Justin (ibid., fols. 10r–11r). Espinosa, too, defends Dido's chaste widowhood and explicitly rejects the calumny of the ‘false’ Virgil (Diálogo, 274). On the other hand, La Cerda uses precisely Virgil's authority (“aquel noble poeta Virgilio”, Vida política, fol. 35r) to praise Dido's chastity because she initially swears not to give herself to Aeneas (so at this moment the author does not include the rest of the story). In the part of his book dedicated to the widow he evokes the Virgilian Dido as an example to show that a second marriage can give much trouble (ibid., fol. 426v–427r) and a few pages later the perfectly chaste Justinian Dido is introduced. In the fifth book, however, Virgil's Dido appears again, but now to set an example of the bad effects that sensual love can have on society (ibid., fol. 523r). And, as it was thought to be very bad for woman to spend her time in idleness (“mujer ociosa es un saco de lujuria”, ibid., fol. 88r.), the queen of Carthage is presented also as an example of domestic application and diligence, spinning and weaving (ibid., fol. 81v). There is hardly any reference to Dido's political importance. Even Fray Martín, in his instructions to the future Catholic Queen, does not exploit this aspect; although he briefly observes that Dido founded Carthage and another town, Dido is not introduced as an example of female rule, but as an example of chaste widowhood (Jardín, 261). It is no less noteworthy, on the other hand, that Vives, in his chapters on the ideal = chaste widow (book III of Formación) does not mention Dido, perhaps apprehensive of the ambivalence of her image.

A quite different, but no less ambivalent character is Semiramis, the famous queen of Assyria, noted for her political talents and strength, but no less for her sinful conduct, as the murderess of her husband, as a lascivious female and the incestuous lover of her son. According to Ruth Kelso, the reading of a lady in the Renaissance was to be limited to “reading lives of chaste virgins and renowned ladies who lived virtuously but not the lives of Aspasia, Cleopatra, Semiramis ...”.29 The stories of these women, however, are not always silenced in the works we consider here. Juan Rodríguez del Padrón introduces Semiramis as an example of female rule and conquest, comparable to Alexander the Great (Triunfo, 246). For him she was a loving mother betrayed by her son and a victim of poetic slander (ibid., 249), just like Dido, Circe and Calypso. Fray Martín uses Semiramis, together with Judith and the Amazons, as evidence for his future queen that woman, if she surmounts her ‘natural weakness’, can be extraordinarily strong (Jardín, 246–247). He presents Semiramis as a very positive example of female strength and power and he does not mention any crime or sexual vice attributed to her (he says, for instance, “murió Nino” and not that he was murdered by Semiramis). The same is true for Pérez de Moya, who gives even more details about the Assyrian queen. He includes her story in the second part of his Varia historia (fol. 257v–259r), dedicated to “valientes y de gouierno”. He describes her political strength, her military conquests and praises her “hazañas” y “grandes cosas”. She is also recorded as the inventor of a new type of large ship, a reason for the author to give her a place also in the third part of his book, among the learned women (fol. 324v). Pérez de Moya silences the vices attributed to Semiramis; he only indicates that there are sources telling of other aspects of Semiramis' life, about which he has chosen not to speak.30

In Espinosa's dialogue, on the contrary, Semiramis – who is evoked several times – is completely rejected because of her vices (“disolutión”, “vergonçosos vitios”; Diálogo, 76, 117, 242–243, 258) and she shares this destiny with Pasife, Clytemnestra, Messalina and Sappho and some others. She is one of the examples used to show that bad women do exist. Her positive political significance is not considered in Espinosa, who criticises the fact that she usurped power by treachery and through murdering her husband. Juan de la Cerda, finally, is more ambiguous: he takes up the story of Semiramis as an example of female power (Vida política, fols. 333r–334r) and expresses amazement that she could, by means of murder and deceit, overthrow a strong king and usurp royal power without any protest from the people: “Qué no alcanzara quien esto alcanzó?”. La Cerda does not mention Semiramis' sexual exorbitance.

Thus we see that queen Semiramis is highly praised by some of our authors for her intelligence and strength, whereas she is at the same time rejected by others because of her wickedness. Let us have a final look, then, at the presence of the goddess Minerva/Pallas, untainted embodiment of female wisdom and military prowess. For most of our authors Minerva simply offers an extraordinary case of superior intelligence that deserves praise, without provoking further consequences with regard to the intellectual or political possibilities of the female sex as a whole. Valera includes Minerva between the pagan models of virginity and enumerates her inventions in a corresponding note (Tratado, 66). Don Alvaro de Luna dedicates two chapters to Minerva, praising the great knowledge and intelligence of this ‘noble virgin’ who was able to invent and achieve things that wise men could not achieve (chapter XXXIV)31, as well as her military prowess as Minerva Belona (chapter XXXIX). As inventor of several techniques and instruments the goddess is also recorded by Espinosa (Diálogo, 165) and Pérez de Moya (Varia historia, fols. 317r and 324r). Vives, on the other hand, states in his chapter on virginity that Minerva was venerated for three qualities: virginity, fortitude and wisdom, and he insists on the close connection of wisdom and virginity.32 Both Vives and La Cerda record that Minerva was thus unattainable for Cupid's arrows, for, as La Cerda's Cupid explains: “en viendo me venir, luego huye y no se dexa ver, ni la puedo alcançar” (Vida política, fol 19r; cf. Formación, 1053). La Cerda mentions the goddess as the inventor of the feminine practices of spinning and weaving (fol. 81v), but it is striking that in his chapter dedicated to women endowed with great wisdom and knowledge (fols. 590r–595r; a chapter in which the author shows a special interest in the sibyls) Minerva is absent. Nor does Pallas appear among the militant women presented in the next chapter. More interesting, however, is the evocation of Minerva in the fifteenth-century works of Rodríguez del Padrón and Fray Martín, who both go further in their interpretation of this example. Rodríguez del Padrón – the more progressive – mentions Minerva in his “razón” 20 to prove the intellectual capacities of the female sex; he accuses man's envy for having suppressed the intellectual and scientific activities of women:

¿Quién falló las sciençias sinon Minerva (...)? Onde claro paresçe en las donas esforçarse más la prudençia. E si algunas caresçen de las sciençias, esto es por enbidia que los onbres ovieron de su grand sotileza; por el su presto consejo et responder en proviso, non solamente el estudio de las liberales artes, mas de todas las sciençias, les defendiendo.
(Triunfo, 230).

Fray Martín, addressing himself to his princess Isabel, also draws certain conclusions from Minerva's example. After summing up several inventions we owe to this goddess, he explicitly asks why women in his own age do not dedicate themselves to study:

... pero aquí ay vna quistión marauillosa; pues que enel antiguo siglo mugeres fallaron tantas industrias & artes, especialmente las letras; ¿por qué agora, eneste nuestro siglo, las henbras no se dan al estudio de artes liberales & de otras ciencias, antes paresce como le sea deuedado?
(Jardín, 243)

He then tells a mythological story to explain this phenomenon. Fray Martín's position with regard to the question of female knowledge and study turns out to be less far-reaching than that of Rodríguez del Padrón: Fray Martín accepts the exclusion of common women from intellectual activities and careers, although he insists on study for women of the highest social level, like his reader, princess Isabel.33

Our comparative analysis shows that the same classical story, in the same kind of work, sometimes even in the same work, can be used to teach very different things. Even Circe and Calypso, usually examples of negative female power, witchcraft and vice, can become models of feminine hospitality (Rodríguez del Padrón, Triunfo, 248) or examples of domestic application and diligence (La Cerda, Vida política, fol. 81v). The use of classical examples in the works considered here turns out to be ‘gendered’ in context-specific ways, based less on fixed ideas of the myths/legends than on the shifting needs of particular authors and audiences. The authors take up, silence or change what they want, and their selection, interpretation and presentation are all conditioned by their specific purpose and by their own ideas about femininity and the role of woman in society. In these treatises, classical myth or legend is very much like a chameleon: it takes the colour of the textual environment, of the qualities the author intends to propagate or to reject in woman. For this reason, the material forms an interesting field for research on gender construction as well as for research on the creative reception of classical myth and legend in late medieval and Renaissance times.


1. See Barbara Matulka, The Novels of Juan de Flores and Their European Diffusion (1931; Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1974) part I, chapter I; María del Pilar Oñate, El feminismo en la literatura española (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1938) chapter III; Jacob Ornstein, “La misoginia y el profeminismo en la literatura castellana”, Revista de Filología Hispánica 3 (1941): 219–233; E. Michael Gerli, “La ‘religión de Amor’ y el antifeminismo en las letras castellanas del siglo XV”, Hispanic Review 49 (1981): 65–86; Antony van Beysterveldt, “Revisión de los debates feministas del siglo XV y las novelas de Juan de Flores”, Hispania 64 (1981): 1–13; Agustín Boyer, Estudio descriptivo del ‘Libro de las virtuosas e claras mugeres’ de Don Alvaro de Luna: fuentes, género y ubicación en el debate (University of California, 1988); Rina Walthaus, “‘Gender’, revalorización y marginalización: La defensa de la mujer en el siglo XV”, Actas do IV Congresso da Associaçâo Hispânica de Literatura Medieval (Lisboa, 1991), ed. Aires A. Nascimento & Cristina Almeida Ribeiro (Lisbon: Eds. Cosmos, 1993), vol. IV, 269–274.

2. The second title was given by the public, who saw in it an echo of the misogynous work of the same title (Corbaccio) of Boccaccio (ca. 1365).

3. Cf. the introductory study of Harriet Goldberg in Jardín de Nobles Donzellas, Fray Martín de Córdoba: A Critical Edition and Study (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University, 1974).

4. Ornstein, “La misoginia y el profeminismo” 221.

5. For this problem see Van Beysterveldt, “Revisión de los debates” and Walthaus, “‘Gender’, revalorización y marginalización”.

6. Roger Boase, The Troubadour Revival. A Study of Social Change and Traditionalism in Late Medieval Spain (London/Henley/Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). For Van Beysterveldt, it is this idolatry that provokes the many attacks on love and woman from the clergy (“Revisión de los debates” 10).

7. Valera's Tratado en defenssa de virtuossas mugeres and Rodríguez del Padrón's Triunfo de las donas are dedicated to this queen. Alonso de Cartagena is said to have written a Libro de las mujeres ilustres “por encargo de la reina Doña María”: cf. Matulka, The Novels of Juan de Flores 15.

8. Cf. for instance Castiglione, Il cortegiano (1528, Castilian translation 1534; the discussion about the moral and intellectual capacities of woman is in the Third Book) and the Diálogo de mujeres (1544), a long poem of nearly 4000 lines written by Cristóbal de Castillejo.

9. In the prologue of this work there is still the attack against the “maldizientes” (despisers of woman); the author explains that virtue has always been persecuted and slandered and that we can see this very clearly in what happens to woman.

10. The Triunfo de las donas of Juan Rodríguez del Padrón does not offer a systematic catalogue of illustrious women, but here as well the author, proclaiming the superiority of woman, supports several of his arguments (fifty “razones”) with famous examples (Triunfo de las donas, in Juan Rodríguez del Padrón: Obras completas, ed. César Hernández Alonso (Madrid: Ed. Nacional, 1982) 211–258.

11. Diego de Valera, Tratado en defenssa de virtuossas mugeres, in Prosistas castellanos del siglo XV, ed. Mario Penna (Madrid: Atlas, 1959) 55–76.

12. Don Alvaro de Luna, Libro de las claras e virtuosas mugeres, ed. Manuel Castillo (Valencia: Ed. Prometeo, 1917).

13. Jardín de nobles donzellas, Fray Martín de Córdoba, ed. Harriet Goldberg, as in note 3.

14. Diego de San Pedro, Cárcel de amor, ed. Keith Whinnom (Madrid: Castalia, 1971) 166–171.

15. Juan del Encina, Egloga de tres pastores: Fileno, Zambardo y Cardonio in Juan del Encina: Teatro (Segunda producción dramática), ed. Rosalie Gimeno (Madrid: Alhambra, 1977) 278.

16. Juan de Espinosa, Diálogo en laude de las mugeres, ed. José López Romero (Granada: Eds. Ubago, 1990).

17. Juan Pérez de Moya, Varia historia de sanctas e illvstres mvgeres en todo género de virtudes (Madrid: Francisco Sánchez, 1583). I have used the copy of the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid.

18. See Rina Walthaus, La nieve que arde o abrasa. Dido en Lucretia in het Spaanse drama van de 16de en 17de eeuw (Dido and Lucretia in the Spanish Drama of the 16th and 17th century; Leyden: University of Leyden, 1988) 32–33. Juan Pérez de Moya dedicated his Varia historia to “la S.C.R.M. de la Emperatriz doña María Infanta de España” and claims to fill a gap: “Y assí despues de auer impreso, de veynte y siete años a esta parte, algunos libros de materias diuersas, pertenecientes a varones, me paresció ser cosa digna, escriuir algo, que perteneciesse a mugeres. Mouiéndome a ello, ver quan pocos libros ay manuales, fuera de los de deuoción, en que virtuosamente se puedan exercittar.”

19. Juan Luis Vives, Formación de la mujer cristiana, in Juan Luis Vives: Obras completas, ed. Lorenzo Riber (Madrid: Aguilar, 1947); Fray Luis de León, La perfecta casada, ed. Félix García & Federico Sainz de Robles (Madrid: Aguilar, 1987); Juan de la Cerda, Libro intitulado vida política de todos los estados de mugeres (Alcalá de Henares: Iuan Gracian, 1599; I have used the copies of the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid and the University Library of Leyden).

20. Cf. the still very useful inventory in Alice A. Hentsch, De la littérature didactique du Moyen Age s'adressant spécialement aux femmes (1903; Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1975).

21. Vives explains the brevity of his treatise in his dedication to Catherine of Spain, at that time Queen of England: only few norms are needed with regard to female conduct, he states, since woman should only be concerned about her chastity and with a good exposition of this virtue she will be sufficiently instructed.

22. In the text of Valera we even observe clearly how ‘gendered’ the very notion of ‘virtue’ can be: in connection with woman, the concept loses its moral universality and is defined in terms of (or is identified with) chastity. See for this Walthaus, “‘Gender’, revalorización y marginalización”.

23. Cf. Walthaus, La nieve que arde o abrasa, chapter II.

24. Pérez de Moya opens his third chapter on chastity with a general remark that recalls the warnings of Fray Martín and Vives: “Advierto a los lectores que no es lícito matarse nadie por la honra, ni por la castidad (...) porque las mugeres que aquí nombramos que lo hizieron, fueron gentiles sin lumbre de fe, y perdieron el alma por ganar fama, y si se lee de algunas sanctas que lo ayan hecho, sera por inspiración de Dios, por lo que él se sabe. Y estos exemplos son de admirar, y no de emitar” (Varia historia, fol. 148v).

25. “... por que deste modo, aunque [Lucretia] pusiera en peligro la vida, no se pudiera dezir que buscava ni se dava ella misma la muerte y defendiera ansí más prudente y hazañosamente su pudicitia” (Diálogo, 252).

26. “Non ay, çierta mente, cosa mas dina de misericordia, que contenplar el padre, armado con yra contra la casta fiia, e mirar la fiia, que acataua al padre yrado, con piadosos oios, llena su cara de onesta castidat, e segund creo, rrogando, que por el peccado de otro, non mudase la piadad [sic] de padre en tan grand crueldad” (Libro, 111).

27. “... mucho es de ensalçar, por grandes loanças, esta noble donzella, la qual muy virtuosa mente resistio al dicho apio claudio, menospreçiando sus rrogarias, e falagos, e dones, e amenazas, e guardando, sobre todo, su castidad, e en fin, resçibiendo muerte por ella con virtuosa paçiençia” (Libro, 111).

28. Cf. María Rosa Lida de Malkiel, Dido en la literatura española. Su retrato y defensa (London: Támesis Books, 1974) and Walthaus, La nieve que arde o abrasa, in particular chapters II and IV.

29. The Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956) 43.

30. “Iustino en el primero libro de la abreuiación, y Beroso en el libro .5. y Valerio Máximo en el .9. y Sabelico en el .1. y .4. y .5. y Bocacio en el de mugeres illustres, y Trogo Pompeyo en el lib. 1 dizen de Semíramis otras cosas, de que no es mi intento tratar” (Varia historia, fol. 259r).

31. “E assi, por su alto ingenio, e virtudes, e grand sabidoria, con rrazon deue ser fecha mençion espeçial della, pues saco e fallo, lo que muchos altos varones non podieron sacar, nin fallar” (Libro, 153).

32. “... fingíase [Minerva] haber nacido del cerebro de Júpiter, que ellos juzgaban ser el máximo y principal y padre de los dioses y de los hombres, de donde nada podía nacer que no fuese puro, casto, sabio, grande y maravilloso. Y de tal manera creían andar conjugadas la sabiduría y la virginidad, que a la virginidad y a la sabiduría consagraron el mismo número septenario” (Formación, 1007).

33. “Pues [las mujeres] no han de entrar en consejo, no han menester ciencia para ello, ca los consejeros han de ser philósophos morales & theólogos, otramente no podrían bien aconsejar esto. Pero entiéndese de las particulares mugeres & no delas claras, como son princesas & reinas, alas quales no es vedado estudiar en sabiduría. (...) comprehendieron alas escuras & pleueyas hembras, mas no alas altas dueñas como es nuestra señora, la Princesa, por lo qual deue captar algunas oras del día en que estudie & oya tales cosas que sean propias al regimiento del reyno” (Jardín, 244).

This article, ‘Classical myth and legend in late medieval and renaissance ideas of gender: the use of classical examples in Spanish treatises for women’, has been published in:
Crítica Hispánica (Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA), Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 1996, pp. 361–374.

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