Writings of Women Religious in the Early Modern Period

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A review of Embodying the Bride: Performances of the Song of Songs in Early Modern and Colonial Hispanic Convent Writing, by Teresa A. Hancock-Parmer.

In her dissertation, Teresa Hancock-Parmer examines the influence of the biblical Song of Songs in the writings of women religious in Spain and the New World. By focusing in particular on eight writers—the Carmelite Teresa of Avila (Spain, 1515–1582), the Augustinian Mariana de San Joseph (Spain, 1568–1638), the Clarist Gertrudis de San Ildefonso (Ecuador, 1652–1709), the Augustinian María de San José (Mexico, 1656–1719), the Clarist Jerónima Nava y Saavedra (Colombia, 1669–1727), the Clarist Francisca Josefa de Castillo (Colombia, 1671–1742), the Conceptionist María de Jesús de Agreda (Spain, 1602–1665) and the Dominican María Anna de Agueda (Mexico, 1695–1756)—Hancock-Parmer effectively demonstrates the presence of the Song of Songs in both prose and verse writings by women religious from a variety of geographical locations, time periods, and religious orders.

Hancock-Parmer’s thesis finds its place among previous studies on the literary production of women religious, notably Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau’s Untold Sisters (1989), Alison Weber’s Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (1990), and Jodi Bilinkoff’s Related Lives (2005), among many others. Entering a field that is established enough to be taken seriously but young enough to have room for new contributions, Hancock-Parmer’s work is a useful addition to existing scholarship on nun’s writing in the Early Modern period. Embodying the Bride also situates itself in another intellectual field, that of Performance Studies. Using the work of Judith Butler, Diana Taylor, and other Performance Studies scholars, Hancock-Parmer reads the writings of the abovementioned authors as “performances” of the Song of Songs in which “nuns sought to emulate the bride in word, action, and disposition” (p. v). As such, Hancock-Parmer bridges two disciplines that have not previously seen much association, while outlining a transatlantic literary tradition that takes the Song of Songs as its prototext.

Chapter One takes as its object Teresa of Avila’s Meditations on the Song of Songs (1566, 1572–75), and it demonstrates that the important influence of the Song of Songs in Teresa’s Meditations is also present in her longer and better known Interior Castle (1577). Hancock-Parmer suggests that the method of spiritual ascent to unity with God described in both texts is dependent on the Song of Songs, and it is also a sort of “script to guide future nuns seeking transformation into God’s beloved” (p. 44). As such, Teresa’s writing on the Song of Songs is not just a written reflection but also a performance guide for women religious who wish to become like her and like the bride described in the biblical text.

Chapter Two deals with the writings of the lesser-known Mariana de San Joseph and in particular with the important influence Teresa of Avila had on Mariana, who saw Teresa as a sort of spiritual mother despite the fact that the two belonged to different religious orders. Like Teresa, Mariana composed a commentary on the Song of Songs, but Mariana’s “script” differed from the one that Teresa had written before her: where Teresa emphasized the Song of Songs and her commentary upon it as a guide for mystical spiritual ascension, Mariana’s use of the biblical text was more “down to earth,” focusing on daily convent life and practice, and offered a model for cloistered women religious to cultivate “humility, self-renunciation, and desire to labor for God” (p. 110). A different sort of script, then, but a script nonetheless, Mariana’s Song of Songs commentary both followed the model of Teresa of Avila and adapted it.

In Chapter Three, Hancock-Parmer examines a group of texts from the New World that draw in significant ways upon the Song of Songs. The writers discussed in this section are Gertrudis de San Ildefonso (Ecuador), María de San José (Mexico), Jerónima Nava y Saavedra (Colombia), and Francisca Josefa de Castillo (Colombia). The case of Gertrudis de San Ildefonso is an intriguing one in the context of this study, as the extant version of her writings is found in a text entitled La perla mística escondida en la concha de la humildad (The Mystical Pearl Hidden in the Shell of Humility), which was compiled by Gertrudis’s confessor, the Carmelite friar Martín de la Cruz, and contains Martín’s transcription of the Life Gertrudis had written together with his own commentary on her autobiographical account. As such, the question of authorship is complicated, but in an interesting way: the text draws heavily upon language from the Song of Songs, such that “Gertrudis performed her identity as God’s beloved bride” (pp. 150–51), but to what extent her adoption of that role was her own doing or a collaborative effort is uncertain. Such uncertainty is not unusual in the writings of women religious of this era, as nuns often wrote at the order of and under the supervision of a male superior, and Gertrudis’s “performance” may have been self-motivated or perhaps more subject to command. The autobiographical writings of María de San José are available to us in more unadulterated form: her Autobiografía is available in a modern edition, and Hancock-Parmer draws upon it to demonstrate how María used the Song of Songs in her writing to mark “her designated path of Imitatio Christi” (p. 158). The autobiographical writings of Jerónima Nava y Saavedra are infused with the lexicon of the Song of Songs and also its syntax: Hancock-Parmer calls attention to a passage in which Jerónima imagines Jesus saying “Jerónima es mi corazón y yo soy el corazón de Jerónima”, recalling the phrase “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song, 2:16). Hancock-Parmer also points out that a high degree of physicality characterizes Jerónima’s writings, as she suffered from physical distress: “Jerónima physically lived Song episodes and suffered both literal and physical love-sickness” (p. 168). Finally, the writings of Francisca Josefa de Castillo also incorporated the Song of Songs, but as Hancock-Parmer points out, Francisca’s use of the biblical text differed in important ways, including the fact that “in contrast to Gertrudis and María, who mentioned only a handful of emblematic Song references in their writings, Francisca alluded to verses from throughout the love poem, and often quoted them directly in Latin” (p. 170). As such, the prototext would seem to be considerably more present in Francisca’s writings than in that of her New World contemporaries, and this perhaps suggests a relationship to the Song of Songs based more upon direct reading of the biblical poem and less upon hearing it read aloud.

Chapter Four is dedicated to the examination of nun’s writings from both sides of the Atlantic, namely María de Jesús de Agreda (Spain) and María Anna de Agueda (Mexico). Both women “mediated the Song of Songs through the figure of the Virgin Mary” (p. 185), thus marking yet another distinction between the texts treated in Embodying the Bride, which all share the same principal source of inspiration but take different approaches to its usage. The “script” for spiritual perfection offered by María de Jesús de Agreda is based upon a dual character of sorts, as she “appropriated the the Song bride and transformed her into her perfect embodiment, the Virgin, whom the reader was to imitate” (p. 200). Thus María de Jesús de Agreda proposes that women religious perform a marianized version of the song bride.  María Anna de Agueda’s usage of the Song of Songs is in fact influenced by that of her Spanish predecessor, as Hancock-Parmer writes: “Agreda’s text informs Agueda’s treatise, both in terminology and in their portrayal of the Virgin Mary as a mediating figure in the Song drama” (p. 203). Borrowing important ideas from Agreda’s writings, Agueda too proposed the Virgin Mary as a “co-protagonist” in the imitative role women religious were to perform for spiritual betterment.

Embodying the Bride is a most valuable addition to the existing scholarship on the writings of women religious during the Early Modern period. Its focus on the Song of Songs as an inspirational text for women writing in convents on both sides of the Atlantic lends it a particular interest, as little if any detailed scholarly attention has been given to this topic. This work is also especially innovative for its incorporation of Performance Studies and the notion of nuns’ writings as performances. Although this aspect of the study could be enhanced, it represents nonetheless an innovative pairing of disciplines that is to be encouraged.

Daniel J. Hanna
Assistant Professor, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Lake Forest College
hanna@lakeforest.edu

Primary Sources
– Ágreda, María de Jesús de. City of God, the Divine History and Life of the Virgin Mother of God Manifested to Mary of Agreda for the Encouragement of Men. Trans. Fiscar Marison. 4 vols. Washington, NJ: Ave Maria Institute, 1971.
– Águeda de San Ignacio, María Anna. Devociones varias. Puebla, 1791.
– Águeda de San Ignacio, María Anna. Maravillas del divino amor, selladas con el sello de la verdad. Mexico, 1758.
– Francisca Josefa de la Concepción de Castillo. Afectos espirituales. Obras completas de la madre Francisca Josefa de la Concepción de Castillo. Ed. Darío Achury
Valenzuela. Vol 2. Bogotá: Talleres Gráficos del Banco de la República, 1968.
– Francisca Josefa de la Concepción de Castillo.  Su vida. Ed. Ángela Inés Robledo. Caracas: Fundación Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2007.
– Gertrudis de San Ildefonso. La perla mística. La palabra oculta: monjas escritoras en la Hispanoamérica colonial. Ed. Iride Rossi de Fiori. Salta, Argentina: Biblioteca de Textos Universitarios, 2008, pp. 397–438.
– Jerónima Nava y Saavedra. Autobiografía de una monja venerable. Ed. Ángela Inés Robledo. Cali: Centro Editorial U del Valle, 1994.
– Mariana de San Joseph. Vida de la venerable M. Mariana de S. Joseph, fundadora de la recolección de las Monjas Augustinas, priora del Real Convento de la Encarnación: hallada en unos papeles escritos de su mano: sus virtudes observadas por sus hijas: dedicadas al Rey nuestro señor. Madrid, 1645.
– Teresa de Jesús. Obras completas. Ed. Alberto Barrientos, et al. Madrid: Editorial de Espiritualidad, 1984.

Dissertation Information
Indiana University. 2014. 266 pp. Advisor: Kathleen A. Myers.

Image: Saint Teresa of Ávila’s Vision of the Holy Spirit, by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1612–1614. From Wikipedia.

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