Constructing the perfect woman: gender and power in the reign of Isabel of Castilla

Constructing the perfect woman: gender and power in the reign of Isabel of Castilla

ROME, July 2010- The Vatican released a series of new disciplinary rules, which described the ordination of women as a “crime against the faith”. Living in Australian society post the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s, the position of the Roman Church appears outdated and sexist. From this modern viewpoint we could easily assume that the Catholic Church has always been a repressive institution for women.

Travel back in time more than 500 years to 1504, and we find ourselves located by the deathbed of Isabel la Católica (the Catholic queen) of Castilla. Castilla was the largest of the 5 kingdoms which made up the Iberian Peninsula, and the ancestor of modern day Spain.  This woman was the first of early modern Europe to rule as a sovereign queen, followed by other better known names in our culture such as Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. Yet none of these women achieved what Isabel did during her reign: the conquest of the Islamic Kingdom of Granada, the discovery of the Americas and the reformation of the Latin Church in Hispania half a century before the Council of Trent.

At the start of early modern Europe women held a lower status than their male counterparts. This subjugation of women originated in part due to the late medieval understanding of the human anatomy. Women were considered to be of a complexion that was both wet and cold, while men were linked to heat and dryness. Although a very strange and primitive idea of human structure to us, this ‘science’ actually resulted in women suffering their status. The idea of wet and cold implied changeability, and society considered women irrational and inconsistent accordingly. [1]

Of course, better understood by us is the role played by the church. The Latin Church (the ancestor of what we now call the Roman Catholic Church) reinforced the idea of female inferiority through their interpretation of Genesis 3: 12-16. Eve’s natural weakness as a woman allowed her to be tempted by the serpent, and through her sexuality, she in turn corrupted the purity of her partner Adam.  The female sex was not only weak and frail, but culpable and predisposed to evil. Against this misogynistic backdrop Isabel played out the great achievements of her life.

Fernando Gallego (1490-95)

Fernando Gallego, Madonna of the Catholic Kings (1490-95)

Although Isabel was married to Fernando, the king of the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon, she stilled ruled in her own right. The Florentine diplomat Francesco Guicciardi wrote that in all of the couple’s achievements “the queen’s glory was never considered to be secondary. Indeed, according to general consensus, the larger part of these achievements are to be attributed to her.” [2] The question we have to ask is, how did Isabel overcome the limitations of her gender in order to rule effectively?
Within the religiosity of the Latin Church the Virgin Mary served as the grand exception to the general assumptions made about women.  Where Eve had condemned humanity to damnation through original sin, the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the saviour of mankind. Obviously the focus on Mary’s virginity presents to us a notion of a pure, perfect woman. In other words, the Latin Church believed Mary to be the perfect woman.

Contemporaries of Isabel often compared the queen directly with the Virgin, making little difference between the two.  In one of his works, the poet ĺñigo de Mendoza spoke of the queen in these words:

High enlightened queen,

                        adorned

                        of very real greatness.

                        to remedy our ills

                        unequal

                        by the grace of the God come,

                        as when was lost

                        our life

                        by the fault of a woman,

                        God wanted to adorn us

                        and remake

                        by that manner and measure

                        that which caused our downfall. [3]

Anonymous Flemish Painter, Late 15th Century

La Virgen de la mosca, Anon. Late 15th Century

We find the most direct link between the Virgin and the queen however in artwork. In La Virgen de la mosca painted by an anonymous Flemish painter in the late 15th Century Isabel sits as a handmaiden of Mary. The striking thing about this image is the physical similarities between the two. Isabel and the Virgin both have blue-green eyes, a fair complexion and light wavy hair. This may all seem purely coincidental until we understand that in 15th Century Europe physical appearance demonstrated the qualities of the soul. [4]

So what does all this mean? Well, Isabel legitimised herself by being the perfect woman in the eyes of the Latin Church. To rule, Isabel had to be an exceptional woman, equal even to the Virgin herself. To this end, Isabel undertook an intentional campaign of propaganda to construct herself as an equally pious and pure woman as the Virgin. By manipulating the Church’s expectations, religion became for Isabel empowering rather than repressive. And so we realise that when examining women and the Church we can’t allow ourselves to make assumptions based on our 21st Century soapbox.

[1] Albertus Magnus, quoted in Elizabeth A. Lehfledt, “Ruling Sexuality: The Political Legitimacy of Isabel of Castile.” Renaissance Quarterly, col. 53, no. 1 (2000): p. 40 

[2] Francesco Guicciardi, “Report from Spain, 1512-1531.” in The Black Legend: Anti-Spanish Attitudes in the Old World and the New. ed. Charles Gibson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 40

[3] ĺñigo de Mendoza, “Dechado a la muy escelente reina doña Isabel, nuestra soberana señora.” quoted in Greogry B. Kaplan, “In Search of Salvation: The Deification of Isabel la Católica in Converso Poetry.” Hispanic Review, vol. 66, no. 3 (1998): p 298

[4] Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, “Isabel la Católica vista por sus contemporáneos.” España Medieval, vol. 29 (2006): p. 233

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4 comments on “Constructing the perfect woman: gender and power in the reign of Isabel of Castilla

  1. merrynlynch says:

    Mossfield!

    This is a fascinating read.

    I like the link you make in the first paragraph with the current stance of the Catholic Church on the ordination of women- it really highlights the contemporary relevance of your research. It also shows the continuance of such outdated ideas around female inferiority!

    As a post-1789 historian, I appreciated your explanation of the ‘scientific’ reasons of why women were conceived as inferior to men. I also think that embedding pictures in your post was a great idea- it complements your analysis and allows the reader to examine the paintings for themself, perhaps even drawing their own conclusions.

    Great work!

  2. Jennifer McLaren says:

    I agree this is a fascinating read, and love the (depressing) distinction between the modern-day Catholic Church’s take on women and what a woman achieved in the 1500s. As I read the blog I was wondering how she managed to keep the Church on side – you answered that question really well when discussing her propaganda campaign, in particular the control she exerted over the way her image was used in art. This clearly has modern-day echoes in the PR campaigns politicians and others engage in, in order to control their image in the public mind.

    Interesting to note that Isabel was grandmother to Queen Mary – although I don’t suppose they ever met. From what I know of Mary, she lacked the subtlety and strategic mind Isabel clearly had. I wonder if Elizabeth I made any study of Isabel? There are certainly echoes of Isabel in the persona Elizabeth cultivated.

    Thank you for including the paintings – as Merryn said, I appreciated being able to look at them and decide whether I agreed with your interpretation (which I did).

    Great blog,
    Jennifer

    • Hey Jennifer,

      I haven’t done a great deal of study on Mary Tudor, but the one striking comparison between herself and the Virgin would have been the idea of Salvation. Like the Virgin saved humanity through the birth of the Christ, so too would Mary’s coronation be viewed as a salvation for English Catholics against the rise of the Protestants during the reign of Edward.

      In the case of Elizabeth I am far more confident to answer. In her own time, and since, Elizabeth has been referred to in terms such as Eliza Gloriana and the Virgin queen. You can see in the artwork from Elizabeth’s time this quasi-comparison, and clearly her choice to remain unmarried has direct links to the Virginity of Saint Mary.

      There is a striking difference between Isabel and Elizabeth however that I will point out. Around the issue of their sexuality, they both had a problem to overcome. Isabel was married, an acceptable state for a queen, but this also meant that she bore offspring. Her periods of pregnancy would have been the equivalent of waving big banners and shouting “look, I’m a woman, and the pain of my labor is a result of the sins of woman” (re; Genesis). On the flip-side her marriage saved her from controversy regarding her own sex life. Elizabeth on the other hand claimed to be the Virgin Queen. Virginity was the ultimate state of life in the Latin Church of the period. But the controversies regarding the Queen’s sexual life are well known. You see then that both used the Virgin imagery to legitimise their reigns against very different threats.

      A small linguistic note of interest too: In the Spanish language Elizabeth’s name is Isabel. Elizabeth in the Bible was the Cousin of the Virgin, and the mother of John the Baptist. Although standard female names in a Christian Europe, it is intriguing that the Catholic Queen and the Virgin Queen should both share a name.

  3. Nathan Stormont says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Though it has already been said, I just want to reiterate: this is a really fantastic read! It was very well written and easily comprehensible. One of my favourite blogs. It challenged my own perceptions of the Catholic Church as being almost strictly mysgonist.

    Cheers,
    Nathan

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