Gender and Sanctity in Counter-Reformation Europe (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a fall 1998 semester seminar led by Alison P. Weber.

The dramatic decline in the percentage of female canonized saints during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would appear to support the thesis that the early modern period reinforced patriarchy and the subordination of women in religious as well as secular life. Nonetheless, significant numbers of "holy women" in Catholic Europe continued to exert influence as mystics, visionaries, ascetics, monastic reformers, and even as political advisors. As a way of refining the scholarly feminist paradigm, this seminar explored the phenomenon of holy women, those who achieved lasting reknown as well as those who either were denounced to the Inquisition for pretense of sanctity or who faded into the recesses of local history. The diverse fortunes of successful and failed saints served as a point of departure for addressing the following questions: Is it possible to define a Counter-Reformation model for female sanctity? How did holy women and their male superiors negotiate relationships of power and intimacy? What was the extent of male control over female religious writing? What were the implications of class and gender for the construction of sanctity? Under what conditions was the Church willing to concede extraordinary spiritual authority to women? Teresa of Avila (1515–1582; canonized in 1622) and Cecilia Ferrazzi (1609–1684; denounced for pretense of sanctity in 1684) served as principal case studies; further examples from Portuguese, Spanish, French, or Italian sources were selected on the basis of the linguistic abilities and interests of the participants. Seminar discussions were conducted in English.

Director: Alison P. Weber is Associate Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Teresa de Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (1990). She has published numerous articles on early modern Spanish literature and religious history and edited the "Feminist Topics" issue of The Journal of Hispanic Philology (1989).