A Contradictory Subject: Reform, Resistance, and Holy Women in Early Modern Spain
Haverford College. Department of History
Place of Publication
The History Department Senior Thesis Prize
Table of Contents
In 1517, Martin Luther, a German priest, nailed a document to the door of All Saints Church. This document, entitled Ninety-Five Theses, laid out corruption within the Catholic Church, and caused an immediate uproar across Europe. Luther and his fellow reformers suggested massive changes in the structure and practice of the clergy, leading to a schism from the Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation. In response, the Church instituted a variety of reforms of its own, referred to as the Counter-Reformation. The impacts of the Counter-Reformation were broad and far-reaching; this thesis deals primarily with their effects on holy women in sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain. In this era, holy women were subject to increasingly harsh regulations: their already limited ability to move throughout Spain was further restricted, and their ability to preach publicly curtailed. Prior to the Counter-Reformation, mystics and beatas, or laywomen who shared their holy visions, were tolerated, but in the late 1500s and early 1600s, these women were persecuted more intensely, and enclosure within a convent became the only respectable option for holy women. Even when safely enclosed, holy women were subject to surveillance by their confessors and fellow nuns. In addition to this external surveillance, they were encouraged to closely monitor their own internal thoughts for signs of sin. If a holy woman gained enough power to influence to threaten the male authority of the Catholic Church, she was reprimanded, and in serious cases, sent to the Inquisition. Holy women not only faced restrictions, but combated them. Their resistance becomes clear in multiple arenas: namely the convent, recogimiento (convent for penitent women), galera (women's prison), and vida (a nun's autobiography). In these arenas, holy women both conformed to patriarchal expectations and subverted them. I argue that while holy women participated in and at times initiated the discipline of women who broke gender norms, they also repeatedly demonstrated their impulse to care for other women. This thesis tracks these contradictory impulses to punish and protect through Inquisition records, artwork, and the correspondence and autobiographies of nuns themselves.