Luisa De Carvajal's Counter-Reformation Journey to Selfhood (1566-1614)

By Rhodes, Elizabeth | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Luisa De Carvajal's Counter-Reformation Journey to Selfhood (1566-1614)


Rhodes, Elizabeth, Renaissance Quarterly


Over the last fifty years, the usefulness of the terms "Reformation and Counter Reformation has been examined by historians, who point to the over-simplification inherent in the words' explicit binary opposition.(1) The need to reconsider these two denominators in reference to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain is particularly acute, as that country is traditionally assumed to have been the bastion of the Counter Reformation, the very picture of an empire on the defensive from the "heretic" affront, and more reactive than active in its religious agenda. The substantial amount of information now available about the fruitful Catholic reform in Spain during the late fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries has led to new understandings of how the Catholic internal reform was carried out before and after Protestantism.(2) The first period is of particular importance in Hispanic studies because it fostered the careers of prominent religious leaders such as Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of Avila, Luis of Granada, and John of the Cross, among others, individuals greatly influenced by early Catholic reform ideals who were accepted as exemplary figures during the Counter Reformation.

Although the continuum suggested by recent research would seem to argue in favor of releasing the Reformation/Counter Reformation dichotomy, such a move may debilitate the study of women during the course of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Historically, women's voices have broken the prescriptive silence in which they have been normatively enclosed during precisely such periods as the one described by the term "Counter Reformation," when the dominant group's cause was under threat and marshaling all pertinent evidence in its own support. For example, JoAnn McNamara has shown a direct correlation between the authority attributed to women's religious voices in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe and a desire on the part of ecclesiastical authorities to set forth as many arguments as possible against the Cathar heresy and the Great Schism. Similarly, early modern Spanish women's writings are relatively rare in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a period when Spanish Catholicism was generating its own reform movement more than responding to external pressure to change. By contrast, an impressive number of female religious writers' life stories and works were published and avidly read from the 1580s through the mid-seventeenth century, when Catholicism was fortifying itself against the Protestant offense. Although several factors produced this contrast, one of them was surely an interest in convening female voices as testimony for the Catholic cause, which was under severe stress and in great need.(3)

Among the most remarkable individuals whose stories point to the conceptual importance of the Counter Reformation is Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza, who lived from 1566 to 1614. Few figures of seventeenth-century Spain can vie with Carvajal's case of high drama and disturbing, zealous piety, documented in a rich panorama of autobiographical and historical texts by and about her. Singular Catholic missionary, expert Latinist, student of Protestant and Catholic theologies, and prolific writer, Carvajal accomplished all of her impressive life's work in the post-Tridentine period, an age whose constraining mandates may have limited her formal self-expression but actually fomented her activist vocation. Carvajal's story challenges scholars of women's history, who have documented the increasing restriction of women's public activities during these years, to acknowledge important nuances of presence and power.(4)

Carvajal was born into wealth and privilege in Jaraicejo, a small town in the province of Caceres, in the western region of Extremadura. Only six when both of her parents died, she was separated from her brothers and sent to live with a maternal aunt, Maria Chacon, governess of Philip II's children in Madrid. …

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