In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women Writing in Early Modern Spain

  • Introduction
  • Early Modern Spain

Renaissance and Reformation Women Writing in Early Modern Spain
Lisa Vollendorf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0131


Women gained access to the written word in unprecedented numbers during the early modern period. They also exercised considerable political influence during Spain’s so-called Golden Age (1492–1700). One important contributing factor was the rise of the vernacular, which occurred during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs. Queen Isabella I of Castile (b. 1451–d. 1504) and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (b. 1452–d. 1516) married in 1469. The unification of two of the largest kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula initiated the foundation of the nation-state of Spain. Their state-building policies would come to have a lasting impact on Spain’s social, cultural, and political structures. Under the Catholic Monarchs, the first dictionary of the Spanish language was published by Antonio Nebrija (1492). The emphasis on a common vernacular language was accompanied by the cultural homogenization perpetrated through the persecution of religious heterodoxy. The monarchs’ request for a Spanish Inquisition was granted in 1478, after which local tribunals were established to extinguish heresy. Their financing of Christopher Columbus’s voyages led to the establishment of the Spanish Empire, which later would be expanded under the Habsburg Charles I of Spain (Charles V of Austria). The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was the first of several attempts to rid the nation of non-Catholics. While the Inquisition initially focused its efforts on Jewish individuals, it later broadened its focus to offenses such as blasphemy, bigamy, and sodomy, as well as to numerous religious heresies as practiced by women (e.g., sorcery and witchcraft), Protestants (e.g., Illuminists), and Moriscos, among other groups. As in the rest of Europe, the advent of Humanism, the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Reformation all had a significant impact on Spain and, for our purposes, on Spanish women. Yet, the nation’s unique ethno-religious history was unlike that of any other European nation. Moreover, undergirded by the rise of a transatlantic and trans-European empire and the linkage between the Inquisition and the state, the Spanish early modern period was unlike that of any other European nation. Any consideration of women’s writing in Spain’s early modern period must take into account all of these social, cultural, and political factors that influenced the rise and fall of the Spanish empire.

General Overviews

The foundational text that brought early-20th-century attention to early modern women’s writing was Serrano y Sanz 1975, cited under Women Writers. In considering women’s writing as a broad field of study, it is critical to include traditional, formal literary genres such as novels, plays, and poetry, as well as other, extraliterary texts that have made their way into the center of women’s literary studies. The latter category includes texts written by women (e.g., letters, convent foundational texts, political treatises, and essays) and those that purport to record women’s words (e.g., inquisitional and legal testimonies, biographies, and religious vitae). Two general histories of women are Garrido González, et al. 1997 and Morant, et al. 2005, with Cátedra and Rojo 2004 focusing on literacy and book ownership and Howe 2008 on women’s education. Women’s active roles as historical actors are explored by Fink De Backer 2010, Perry 1990, Poska 2005, Sánchez 1998, and Vollendorf 2005.

  • Cátedra, Pedro M., and Anastasio Rojo. Bibliotecas y lecturas de mujeres (Siglo XVI). Salamanca, Spain: Instituto de Historia del Libro y de la Lectura, 2004.

    Cátedra and Rojo present evidence about women’s libraries, book ownership, and interaction with the written word. Based primarily on wills and other inventories, the research presented here raises important questions about the extent to which women beyond those in the upper echelons were educated to read and/or write.

  • Fink De Backer, Stephanie. Widowhood in Early Modern Spain: Protectors, Proprietors, and Patrons. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    Fink De Backer is among the few historians of Spain whose attention has turned to widows and widowhood. This groundbreaking study explores the boundaries of patriarchy vis-à-vis the independent roles widows played in the social and economic engines of Castile.

  • Garrido González, Elisa, Pilar Folguera Crespo, Margarita Ortega López, and Cristina Segura Graiño, eds. Historia de las mujeres de España. Madrid: Síntesis, 1997.

    This book covers the middle ages through 1996, with two chapters focusing on women in the early modern period. A good, brief synthesis of women’s history.

  • Howe, Elizabeth Teresa. Education and Women in the Early Modern Hispanic World. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

    Howe examines women’s relationships to education and writing in the early modern period, focusing primarily on the well-known figures of Queen Isabel I, Saint Teresa, Juan Luis Vives, and Sor Juana.

  • Morant, Isabel, Margarita Ortega, Asunción Lavrin, and Pilar Pérez Cantó, eds. Historia de las mujeres en España y América Latina. Vol. II, El mundo moderno. Madrid: Cátedra, 2005.

    This multi-author volume covers Spain and the Americas in the early modern world. Contributors include some of the most important scholars of early modern and colonial women’s and gender studies. This book is required reading for anyone desiring a thorough introduction to methodological and historical considerations of early modern women’s studies in the Hispanic world.

  • Perry, Mary Elizabeth. Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    Perry’s book was among the first to map gender onto the Spanish early modern period in a comprehensive, satisfying manner. Her consideration of questions of class, power, authority, culture, religion, and economics helped fuel the next generation’s analyses of women and gender studies.

  • Poska, Allyson M. Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199265312.001.0001

    Poska’s work on peasant women in Galicia challenges many assumptions scholars have made for centuries about women’s powerlessness in the face of patriarchy. Few studies focus on the poor, and Poska’s ability to navigate the history of Galicia from a gendered standpoint provides a model for other scholars looking to expand and destabilize traditional historical methodologies.

  • Sánchez, Magdalena S. The Empress, the Queen, and the Nun: Women and Power at the Court of Philip III of Spain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    Sánchez explores the influential roles played by three powerful women in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

  • Vollendorf, Lisa. The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitional Spain. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.

    Focusing on texts written by and about women in Spain’s early modern period, The Lives of Women argues that the long 17th century (1580–1700) marked a significant period of growth for women’s access to writing in Spain. The book includes a list of known women writers, with short biographies.

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