To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” (Aris­totle, Meta­physics 1011b25)

Medieval Women’s Writers

Since 1950 there has been an effort on the part of critics to reval­orize mar­ginal writers of the Middle Ages, pre­dom­i­nantly women authors. These writers con­tended with a misog­ynist society and strove to make their voices heard. Their voices were repeatedly silenced during their own time but later recovered by scholars who explored the­ories of mar­ginal writings and pon­dered com­plex­ities of these women writers’ lit­erary man­i­fes­ta­tions. Among these female intel­lec­tuals, you may know much about Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) from Germany, Christine of Pizan (1364–1430) from Italy, and Margery Kempe (ca.1373–1438) from England. Yet Spanish women were neglected in the studies of European medieval female authors. They were not included in some of the major studies, such as Chris­tiane Klapisch-Zuber’s edited volume A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages, Eliz­abeth Alvilda Petroff’s Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mys­ticism, and Jane Chance’s The Lit­erary Sub­ver­sions of Medieval Women. If any Spanish woman is men­tioned, it is typ­i­cally Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), who belonged to the later period of the Renais­sance or Spanish Golden Age. Thus, I would like to call your attention to the women’s lit­erary pro­duction of the Spanish medieval period, par­tic­u­larly Leonor López de Córdoba (ca. 1362–1420), Con­stanza de Castilla (ca. 1395–1478), Teresa de Cartagena (ca. 1425–?), and Isabel de Villena (1430–1490).

Teresa de Carta­gena’s Life and Works

In this analysis I will focus on Teresa de Cartagena’s life and works. First, she belonged to a Jewish/converso family, and her works were marked by their minority status. Second, she com­posed two trea­tises, Arboleda de los enfermos (ca. 1475) and Admi­raçión operum Dey (ca. 1477),[1] which revealed remarkable eru­dition. Third, she was the first Castilian woman to write with an author’s con­sciousness. Fourth, she was con­sidered the first Castilian woman to explicitly defend woman’s right to write. Finally, she was the only known medieval author, male or female, to write from the per­spective of an impaired person; her first treatise pro­vided a pow­erful inter­pre­tation of her physical deafness that extended to all those who suf­fered from bodily and spir­itual illness. As a writer of minor lit­er­ature, she reached the level of eru­dition to be rec­og­nized as the first European woman author(iz)ing mul­ti­faceted mar­ginal dis­courses. She was triply mar­gin­alized for being a woman, a Jewish convert, and a person with disability. 

Multi-layered Dis­courses

I will address some ques­tions that will help us to unfold multi-layered dis­courses of Cartagena. First, why did she write? The author explained in Arboleda that she was writing as a means of auto-consolation, based on her suf­fering from deafness, so that it could help to console others who had similar ill­nesses or impair­ments. Second, what kind of lit­erate prac­tices did she use? Using the cap­tatio benev­o­lentiae or topic of modesty, the Castilian author explains, ratio­nalizes, and jus­tifies in detail her afflicted life. Deafness allows her to metaphor­i­cally examine the double meanings of her illness: physical deafness as well as spir­itual deafness. Cartagena inter­prets her suf­fering through the tra­di­tional ideas of the Church Fathers; she cites the sermons of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Ramon Llull, and Pedro de Luna, among others, with quo­ta­tions from the Sacred Scrip­tures, and she includes rites of the Eucharist and images of imi­tatio Christi and Christus medicus.

Her second treatise, Admi­raçión, is an apologia of the first work, Arboleda. In the intro­duction to Admi­raçión, Cartagena describes how divine impo­sition helped her to overcome female weakness with God’s help and ulti­mately to compose her first work. The nun also explains that she decided to write Admi­raçión because she was asked by Doña Juana de Mendoza, wife of the poet Gómez Man­rique, in order to defend herself from the “pru­dentes varones” who ques­tioned her authorship of Arboleda, accusing her of pla­gia­rizing male author­ities and of the­o­logical het­erodoxy. In this treatise she employs the trope of irony to argue that men marvel at an insignif­icant work written by a woman because, by nature, erudite works were written only by male authors. Referring to the botanical images of corteza (bark) and meollo(pith), Cartagena insists, however, that man and woman com­plement each other in their roles. She recalls the figure of Judith, who used a sword to kill Holofernes and van­quished enemies, and draws a par­allel between her pen and Judith’s sword to val­idate her skill­fulness in writing. In the final image, she com­pares herself to the blind man of Jericho in the Gospels. This last ref­erence involves an insightful dis­course, as she defends herself by speaking out from her three mar­gin­alized posi­tions: judeo­con­versa, woman, and impaired.

Empowered by Writing 

How will her works be read? Cartagena’s deafness gives her the oppor­tunity to invent herself as a female writer in an auto­bi­o­graphical text. The most sig­nif­icant fact is that from the moment she chose a pen to write her name in Arboleda—we can call it the act of writing—she changed herself and changed how the society sees her. She is not just an afflicted woman but an author. In Admi­raçión, she is no longer the subject/I defined by the misog­ynist society, but rather a new subject/I empowered by her writing. The views of Aris­totle and Thomas Aquinas, which held women to be phys­i­cally and intel­lec­tually inferior to men, had a pro­found influence in the Middle Ages. With the growth of the ver­nacular lan­guage, women found empow­erment in the written word, as exem­plified by auto­bi­o­graphic accounts. In the reli­gious context, since women were denied the authority to preach in the Church, fem­inine forms of reli­gious and mys­tical practice can be dis­cerned with the rise of ver­nacular lan­guage. But the Church demanded exclu­sively female signs of expression of the divine in order for women not to be con­sidered heretics, and this threat greatly influ­enced women writers such as Margery Kempe, Guglielma of Milan, and Mar­guerite Porete. The emer­gence of women writers in the ver­nacular on the one hand, and the misog­ynist tra­dition on the other, helped lead to the querelle des femmes. Although Teresa de Cartagena does not refer to any of the writers who par­tic­i­pated in the debate on women, her act of defending the right of women to write should be con­sidered a sig­nif­icant con­tri­bution to the querelle.

The Castilian writer acquires apolo­getic dis­courses to con­struct female self-identity from the margins of a misog­ynist society, which may imply that she creates a minor literature—not in a sense of a lit­er­ature of a minor lan­guage, but rather a cre­ation of lit­er­ature written by a minority indi­vidual exer­cising an available lan­guage.[2] The major lan­guage or tra­di­tional dis­courses available at the time shaped Cartagena’s life expe­ri­ences, as the pow­erful influence of the tra­di­tional dis­courses was a recurrent problem that women writers faced. With few women writers to model and with no fem­inine dis­course available, women writers like this Castilian nun had to care­fully appro­priate tra­di­tional patri­archal dis­courses. The insti­tution of the medieval Church dom­i­nated expres­sions and ideas, and women writers inter­nalized tra­di­tional prac­tices in order to reflect on woman’s body and its symbols.

To under­stand the com­mu­nicative variety inherent in medieval lan­guage, one should rec­ognize several socio-cultural rules that stand out in the nar­ra­tives of medieval writers, including in Cartagena’s writings. One of the prin­cipal com­po­nents of medieval lan­guage is rep­re­sented in reli­gious rites, such as the images of the Eucharist and imi­tatioChristi. Several women writers were able to obtain the authority to take up the pen because of the vivid mystic expe­ri­ences they had. Figures such as Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, and Catherine of Siena, among others, have shown through their expe­ri­ences what this empow­erment meant in reli­gious and social terms. Unlike them, Cartagena did not man­ifest any mystic expe­ri­ences, but rather knew how to appro­priate mys­tical dis­course. Cartagena explicitly appealed to imi­tatio Christi and images of Christus medicus, through which she came to con­ceive of her ailment as a mix of the bitter sen­sation of pain with the sweet sen­sation of pleasure. The author searched for a way to under­stand her suf­fering and give voice to it within a reli­gious dis­course. She exhibited certain com­po­nents of her social and his­torical system when she declared in Arboleda that her suf­fering as a deaf person rep­re­sented a means by which to approach the divine. This nun wanted to show that illness was not an indi­vidual choice, but rather a divine blessing granted to a favored one.

Secret of Her Writing

In this way, the Castilian writer obtained the authority to trans­gress the limits placed on women—which nor­mally required them to remain in the oral realm—by becoming an author. As Alan Dey­ermond affirmed, Cartagena’s deafness was “the secret of her cre­ativity.”[3] The truth of her secret, in fact, is that she had the proper knowledge to express her reli­gious understanding/acceptance of God’s gift (her deafness) and to realize how her illness helped her to acknowledge a new meaning of her life. This under­standing or rev­e­lation took place only through the author’s accep­tance of this gift.[4]Teresa de Cartagena inter­weaved multi-layered dis­courses of religion, women and dis­ability, and by doing so, she was author(iz)ing a new space for woman’s selfhood. Cartagena’s self-defense evinced her awareness of social trans­gression and mul­ti­faceted self-identity.


  1. In this study I will use the Spanish edition of Lewis Joseph Hutton, Teresa de Cartagena Arboleda de los enfermos y Admi­raçión operum Dey (Madrid: Real Academia Española Anejo XVI, 1967); and the English trans­lation by Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez, The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena (Cam­bridge: Brewer, 1998). Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez and Yonsoo Kim pro­posed pos­sible dates for the com­po­sition of the two trea­tises and important infor­mation about the nun’s life in “His­tori­cizing Teresa: Reflec­tions on New Doc­u­ments Regarding Sor Teresa de Cartagena,” La Corónica, 32, no. 2, 2004: 140.[]
  2. See Gilles Deleuze et al., “What Is a Minor Lit­er­ature?” Mis­sis­sippi Review, vol. 11, no. 3, 1983, pp. 13–33.[]
  3. Alan Dey­ermond, “‘El con­vento de dolençias’: The Works of Teresa de Cartagena,” Journal of His­panic Phi­losophy 1, 1976: 28.[]
  4. See Marian David, “Cor­re­spon­dence of Theory of Truth,” The Stanford Ency­clo­pedia of Phi­losophy (Fall 2016), ed. Edward N. Zalta, URL = <https://​plato​.stanford​.edu/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​f​a​l​l​2​0​1​6​/​e​n​t​r​i​e​s​/​t​r​u​t​h​-​c​o​r​r​e​s​p​o​n​d​e​n​c​e​/​&gt;.[]