Women's Spiritual Autobiography
in Early Modern Spain:
from Sacred Conversation
to Mistero Buffo

by James S. Amelang

In this brief essay I identify and comment on three stages in the evolution of women's autobiographical writing in early modern Spain, a practice with profound implications for early modern Catholic culture in general. I have undertaken this task with due hesitation, largely because religious history is far removed from my own research, which centers on urban history. If I have chosen to stray so far afield, it is because the subject is so important, and plays such a central role in early modern Spanish culture, that one simply cannot ignore it.

I should begin by making the obvious point that it would be a mistake to confuse all women's autobiographical writing in Spain with spiritual autobiography, which was only one genre of "self-writing". If one adopts a broad, flexible definition of autobiography1, women are readily found producing (and consuming) other literary forms, especially epistolary writing. Early modern Spanish women made numerous contributions to this textual tradition; see, for example, the lively correspondence (1533-40) between Estefania de Requesens and her mother, Hipòlita Roís de Liori2.Unfortunately, we know far less about this matter than you do in Italy, thanks to the numerous studies of female letters you have undertaken as of late3. One can also point to the existence of full-fledged memoirs, such as the short but highly precocious (ca. 1412) text by Leonor López de Córdoba4. Her memoir narrates the wrenching tale ­ quite literally "told", as she dictated it to a scribe ­ of the life of an Andalusian noblewoman shaped by three crucial deaths, those of her father, her brother, and her son. And then there is the truly extraordinary account of Catalina de Erauso (b. 1592), the so-called "monja alférez", a Basque nun who escaped from her convent in San Sebastián and wound up in the New World dressed as a man. After living there for years as a soldier of fortune, cloth retailer, and all-purpose adventurer, she returned to Spain to widespread public recognition, capped by a trip to Italy where she not only was named a Roman Citizen, but also received papal permission to continue in male dress. While many of its twists and turns test the reader's credulity, this singular text seems to have been a fairly faithful rendition of an equally singular life5.

These narratives chronicled exceptional cases: eventful and intriguing, to be sure, but exceptional nonetheless. There seems to be little doubt that when one considers the bulk of women's self-writing in early modern Spain, what comes to the fore is something rather different: spiritual lives, that is, religious diaries and above all autobiographies. Three stages marked the lengthy trajectory of women's autobiographical writing from the sixteenth to the later eighteenth century:

1. The inaugural period, centering largely if not exclusively around Teresa of Avila, a figure much better understood now thanks to the recent revolution in Teresian historiography. This revolution arguably began in Italy, with Rosa Rossi, author of one of the very first studies to address this history from an explicitly feminist perspective. Many of the other contributions to this remarkable revival of interest in Teresa ­ by Jodi Bilinkoff, Carol Slade, Gillian Ahlgren, Elizabeth Rhodes, and above all Alison Weber ­ are listed in the select bibliography at the end of this paper6.

2. There followed a long seventeenth century of diffusion, adaptation, and discussion of what one might call the Teresian model. This epoch of reception has been studied in broad terms by Isabelle Poutrin (author of the most widely-ranging analysis of early modern Spanish women's spiritual autobiography), Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau, and Sonja Herpoel, as well as through individual cases, as in the work of María Pilar Manero, Virgilio Pinto, Mary Giles, Sherry Velasco, Blanca Garí, and others.

3. A slow but definitive turn in a different direction ushered in a lengthy period of decadence, if not disappearance, not only of the Teresian model, but also of other, related traditions of female religious dicourse. However, virtually nothing is known about this profound change (more on this in a moment).

For me the fundamental question is: how was this last period reached? What were the deeper causes of this all-important if largely ignored transformation, from a truly resplendent sixteenth century of women's representation through personal writing ­ an exercise in self-fashioning that created the single most powerful exemplar for all of early modern Catholic Europe ­ to the desert of the eighteenth century? In the remainder of this essay I would like to revisit these three stages, and to venture a few elementary observations about each of them in turn.

The obvious starting-point is Teresa, as the figure, the founding symbol in early modern Spain (and beyond) of the woman as writer, indeed as author of the self. This emphasis on her singularity is not to deny the existence of precursors nor precedents for her aspirations; among the latter one would find, for example, María de Santo Domingo, or the beatas studied by Angela Muñoz, Jodi Bilinkoff, Isabel Barbeito, Ronald Surtz, and others. But in the end, I would choose to underline Teresa's impressive originality, and in particular the way in which the novel aspects of her writing effected a radical break with the past7. The truly revolutionary quality of her enterprise can be seen not only in its contents, but also in its forms, that is, in the choice of literary vehicles used to extend her message. Autobiography ­ understood in the broad sense ­ stood at very center of Teresa's project, and her use of it transformed it in a definitive way. Teresa cultivated three types of personal writing. The most famous, and certainly the most innovative and complex, was her Vida (the first of several versions was begun in 1562 and finished three years later). Less well known is the second autobiographical form she turned to, a sort of memoir known as the Libro de las fundaciones, which focuses mainly on the travels and travails involved in founding new houses of Discalced Carmelite nuns, mostly in Castile. Finally, she was also the author of a massive epistolary, a highly revealing corpus still to be explored in its entirety8. One should also note that Teresa wrote other autobiographical texts which have not survived; there are references to different drafts of her spiritual autobiography, while portions of it and the Libro de las fundaciones may well have drawn on earlier spiritual diaries, as well as accounts, most of which have presumably been lost9. How should one judge the results of this experiment? On first sight, Teresa seems to have enjoyed remarkable success in transforming instruments designed for clerical control of female religiosity not only into vehicles for self-expression, but also into tools for promoting a broader project of devotional reform. The circulation of her writings, first in manuscript and then through print, wound up tying autobiography to activism. The publication of her Obras completas beginning in 1588 established a linkage between spirit and script that eventually received the full blessing of the Church, when Teresa, depicted iconographically with pen in hand, was promoted to sainthood in 1622. The longterm result contributed to the accomodation within Catholicism of much of the same broad impulse toward more intensive and above all individualistic forms of devotional life that had given rise to Reformed movements in the rest of Europe. (Hence the close parallels, as well as personal and institutional connections, between Teresa's reformed Carmelites and the Jesuits, even if the former predictably betrayed little of the latter's interest in explicitly political questions.) Above all, Teresa took a major step toward opening a specific, well-defined space for the exercise of a limited but incontestably female religiosity within the Counterreformation Church, an institution many of whose deeper instincts led precisely in the opposite direction.

The post-Teresian period was marked by four major tendencies or characteristics:

a. Most visible was the direct imitation of Teresa's example. The Carmelite nucleus was the most obvious hotbed of mimetism, but one soon saw its diffusion outward toward other orders ­ Franciscans and Recollect Augustinians, for example ­ as well as beyond convent walls to terciaries and beatas living either in isolation or in communities. We still know very little about the specific processes by which the Teresian message circulated and took hold, but there can be no doubt as to the power of its attraction, both inside and outside Spain.

b. It is of course necessary to recognize that during this long seventeenth century of the spirit the Teresian model was not the only source of inspiration for women's spiritual autobiography. Other traditions inspired female religious self-writing; note, for example, the almost exclusively Dominican frame of reference, and above all the centrality of Catherine of Siena as an exemplary figure, within the spiritual autobiography dictated by the Catalan visionary Anna Domenge. It would be equally mistaken to present these different models of exemplarity in opposition to each other; Domenge herself fused the Dominican tradition she knew so well with more recent Carmelite innovations, with the result that one section of her life was devoted to some avisos de Santa Teresa10. At the same time, María de San José [Salazar], an intimate follower of Teresa and perhaps her most self-consciously "literary" successor, showed explicit awareness of non-Carmelite lines of female religiosity, and cited the lives and writings of Catherine of Siena, Angela da Foligno, and saints Elizabeth of Hungary and Bridget of Sweden11.

c. Not all this self-writing took place in convents or beateríos. There were other, alternative foci where life-writing ­ biographical, autobiographical, and ultimately hagiographical ­ was wielded as an instrument of collective as well as individual spiritual reform. The most visible of these non-monastic settings was the court in Madrid. There one could find public renown extending to lay holy women such as Mariana de Jesús, who enjoyed important political contacts, including female members of the royal family, or to nuns such as Luisa de Carrión, a visionary widely celebrated in Castile until her imprisonment by the Inquisition in 1634 (she was absolved in 1648, twelve years after her death). The best known of these cases ­ and the one that most clearly involved personal writing ­ was without doubt that of sor María de Agreda, whose role as political as well as spiritual correspondent and counselor of Philip iv made her a truly exceptional figure in early modern Europe. In fact, Spain appears to have been the European country most willing to confer on select charismatic women a high degree of visibility and the broadest possibilities of public protagonism, and in this context autobiography played a central role, especially within the politics of religious reputation12.

d. Such situations were admittedly unusual. Unusual enough, in fact, to distract attention from the many obstacles in the path of a pilgrim's progress for women. A closer look at the Carmelite reform, for example, reveals that the post-Teresian era was a highly conflictual period, and that when it came to a close the possibilities for the exercise of female spiritual charisma had been substantially reduced. In some respects, the battle lines had been drawn in clashes over the figure of Teresa herself immediately before and after her death. Her subsequent canonization should not lead us to overlook the basic fact that the publication of her writings was a far from foregone conclusion13, and that polemic continued to surround her, as could be seen in the controversy over her sharing the status of co-patron saint with Santiago, or St James14. What I am suggesting, in other words, is that underneath the outward cover of seeming prosperity for Teresa and her reform lay a deep sense of unease, perhaps even anguish. These sentiments ­ which did not prevent the occasional expression of a certain beatific euphoria ­ derived largely from what might now be seen as the political and economic defeat of the Carmelite reform in Spain, a defeat that was to a certain extent masked by the geographic diversion of the movement away from the Iberian peninsula and toward a committed missionary effort in France and the Low Countries in particular15. Were one to look for instances of the pessimism that resulted from this new context, one would head straight for one of the relatively few ­ and ironically, much less well known ­ male autobiographies among the Carmelites, the Peregrinación de Anastasio of Jerónimo Gracián de Dantisco, a close follower (and erstwhile confessor) of Teresa and surely one of the thoroughly defeated figures of sixteenth-century Spanish history. In this memoir, written in dialogue form and completed in 1609, Gracián defends his record against the numerous opponents within the Carmelite order who managed to have him expelled in 159216.The ex-monk was not wrong in seeing his personal loss as signalling a broader victory for the enemies of reform, who effectively marshalled their forces to neutralize the proposals for radical change inherent in the Teresian project. The overall consequence was a symbolic victory for the iconic figure of the foundress of a movement that slowly grounded to a halt, stymied by a combination of conservative opposition within and beyond the Carmelite order, and the deepening poverty of imperial Spain which put an end to experiments of all kinds.

Which brings us to the third and final phase. What should we call it: defeat? failure? exhaustion? It is difficult to characterize this situation, thanks largely to our ignorance concerning the reaction of female autobiographers to these changing conditions. That we lack a repertory and studies of women's writings for the eighteenth century similar to those for the two preceding centuries surely is no accident. Not only has the existing historiography shown a notable reluctance to assess the Teresian movement in political and institutional terms; in regard to literary output itself, there appears to have been a major falling-off beginning in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. Thus, in what is the closest we have to a bibliographic register ­ the appendix to Isabelle Poutrin's study of early modern Spanish women's spiritual autobiographies ­ one finds listed 113 authors from the early 1500s to 175017. Of these women, only 24 lived in the eighteenth century, and only 8 beyond 172018. That autobiographical production itself dropped seems to be beyond doubt; the question, as ever, is why this happened.

One senses right away that this is largely a question of a change in climate. Certainly there were many instances beginning in the early seventeenth century of hardened attitudes toward female charismatics of all sorts. One was the Inquisition's decision in the 1620s to launch an offensive against lay holy women in the larger cities of Castile, particularly Seville and Madrid. Another eloquent sign of a change in mood was that in 1685, two years after the publication of the writings (including the «book of her admirable life and doctrine, written in her own hand») of a noted Barcelonan mystic, Hipólita de Rocabertí ­ an edition moreover sponsored by her well-placed nephew, the archbishop of Valencia and general of the Dominican order Joan Tomàs de Rocabertí ­ the Inquisition placed several of her large folio volumes on the Index of Forbidden Books19.

But this was not just a case of repression. A deeper change was taking place in the Catholic world, involving the gradual consolidation of a new model of spirituality, one that was ­ to use Weberian terminology ­ less ecstatic and more rational, and arguably more susceptible to control from above. The longterm result was that religious women and their autobiographies dropped out of sight. Enlightened (male) authority saw these texts, along with their producers and consumers, as increasingly extravagant, irrational, and beyond the limits of good taste. The focus of their objections was not possible heterodoxy, as in the past, but rather breach of decorum, and the sheer embarrassment to which these texts and the now traditional approach to religion upon which they were based gave rise. Women's spiritual autobiographies were merely one of the casualties in the major shift in religious temperament that accompanied the general, European-wide "decline of enthusiasm" in which Spain may actually have played a rather precocious role20.The final result was, in Adriano Prosperi's words, the «complessiva perdita di senso della santità visionaria, la crisi e la scomparsa di quella grammatica di gesti che regolava come in una danza sacra le movenze delle mistiche»21.

These scattered reflections are best brought to an end not by venturing any firm conclusions, but rather posing one or two final questions. As the title of this essay suggests, I believe there is something mysterious ­ not referring to the occult, but to something unaddressed or unanswered ­ in the trajectory outlined above. The mystery has to do with our lack of familiarity with the second and above all third stages of this story. Our ignorance derives in large measure from choices made within existing historiographic traditions, above all, the tendency within the study of eighteenth-century women's history to privilege the relation between women and Enlightenment culture. Such a focus has by and large ignored the evolution during the same period of ecstatic forms of religious discourse and iconography, now subjected to systematic devaluation by ecclesiastical and lay authorities. The point deserves underlining. In Spanish historiography the silence regarding this sea-change is absolute; I simply know of no analysis of female religious discourse in the eighteenth century, as all studies of this question stop sometime in the previous century22.

The causes and consequences of this historiographic choice are open to debate. Much recent women's history, particularly in the United States, has placed overwhelming emphasis on the diverse forms ­ writing included ­ of "empowerment" of women. While this is certainly an appropriate interpretative option, one wonders if an exclusive focus on empowerment does justice to the historical record. Any reading of the history of women's self-expression that does not consider experiences of disempowerment ­ and in this specific case, a disempowerment closely linked to (once again, as Weber put it) disenchantment ­ surely must be seen as incomplete.

This particular reservation has implications for the study of women's autobiography. We have grown accustomed as of late to conceiving of such writing as a special source, one that opens up the recondite world of women to our inspection. Moreover, given its undeniable role in expanding the expressive possibilities of women, we also favor it by presenting its past as a success story, a sort of long march from Teresa de Avila to Thérèse de Lisieux. I suspect that this notion of autobiography or private writing as a victorious field of dreams would benefit from challenge from other, less triumphalistic interpretations. It would be going too far in the opposite direction to cast the rise of early modern spiritual autobiography as a sort of consolation prize for women; it clearly did serve as an instrument of self-affirmation, both individual and collective. But at some point, between a century or so of florescence and the recovery of new breath (under very different circumstances) in the nineteenth century, the train of this particular history was derailed. It is hard to imagine what Teresa herself would have made of this. She had quite a sense of humor, and it would be a rewarding exercise to reread her as a writer endowed with a profound sense of human and divine comedy. All the same, she may have seen this as a story that began well but finished badly, of high hopes that ended ­ at least for a long while ­ in irrelevance. A model of being through writing was with great hardship created and diffused. It then disappeared from view, although not forever. It is a sad, strange tale, a mistero non troppo buffo.

Select Bibliography

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id. (ed.), Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World, Baltimore 1999.

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huerga a., Santa Catalina de Siena en la historia de la espiritualidad hispana, in "Teología espiritual", 1968, pp. 391-419.

kaminsky a. k., johnson e. d., To Restore Honor and Fortune: "The Autobiography of Leonor López de Córdoba", in D. C. Stanton (ed.), The Female Autograph: Theory and Practice of Autobiography from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, Chicago 1984, pp. 70-80.

keitt a. w., "Inventing the Sacred": Religious Enthusiasm and Imposture in Mid-Seventeenth-Century Madrid, Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley 1998.

lehfeldt e. a., Discipline, Vocation and Patronage: Spanish Religious Women in a Tridentine Microclimate, in "Sixteenth Century Journal", 30 (4), Winter 1999, pp. 1009-30.

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manero sorolla m. p., Ana de Jesús cronista de la fundación del primer Carmen descalzo de París, in "Bulletin Hispanique", 95, 1993, pp. 647-72.

id., Ana de Jesús y Juan de la Cruz: perfil de una relación a examen, in "Boletín de la Biblioteca de Menéndez Pelayo", 70, 1994, pp. 5-53.

id., Visionarias reales en la España áurea, in A. Redondo (ed.), Images de la femme en Espagne aux xvie et xviie siècles. Des traditions aux renouvellements et àl'emergence d'images nouvelles, Paris 1994, pp. 305-18.

márquez villanueva f., Espiritualidad y literatura en el siglo xvi, Madrid 1968.

id., La vocación literaria de Santa Teresa, in "Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica", 32, 1983, pp. 355-79.

moriones i., Ana de Jesús y la herencia teresiana, Rome 1968.

muñoz fernández a., Beatas y santas neocastellanas: Ambivalencia de la religión y políticas correctoras del poder, ss. xvi-xvii, Madrid 1994.

id., Acciones e intenciones de mujeres en la vida religiosa de los siglos xv y xvi, Madrid 1995.

id. (ed.), La escritura feminina: De leer a escribir ii, Madrid 2000.

palacios alcalde m., Las beatas ante la Inquisición, in "Hispania Sacra", 40, 1988, pp. 107-31.

perry m. e., Beatas and the Inquisition in Early Modern Seville, in S. Haliczer (ed. and trans.), Inquisition and Society in Early Modern Europe, London 1987, pp. 147-68.

id., Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville, Princeton 1990.

pinto crespo v., La difusión de la literatura espiritual en el Madrid del siglo xvii. Los textos de María Bautista, in "Edad de Oro", 12, 1993, pp. 243-55.

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poutrin i., Juana Rodríguez, una autora mística olvidada (Burgos, siglo xvii), in L. Charnon-Deutsch (ed.), Estudios sobre escritoras hispánicas en honor de Georgina Sabat-Rivers, Madrid 1992, pp. 268-83.

id., Le voile et la plume: Autobiographie et sainteté féminine dans l'Espagne Moderne, Madrid 1995.

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id., Luisa de Carvajal's Counter-Reformation Journey to Selfhood (1566-1614), in "Renaissance Quarterly", 51, 1998, pp. 887-911.

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Notes

1. As I do in my The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe, Stanford 1998; see pp. 12-6 for a justification of this approach.

2. E. de Requesens, Cartes íntimes d'una dama catalana del segle xvi: Epistolari a la seva mare la Comtessa de Palamós, ed. M. Guisado, Barcelona 1987.

3. While preparing this essay I have had much on my mind Adriano Prosperi's Lettere spirituali, in L. Scaraffia and G. Zarri (eds.), Donne e fede: Santità e vita religiosa in Italia, Bari-Roma 1994, pp. 227-51. See also the exemplary collection edited by Gabriella Zarri, Per lettera. La scrittura epistolare femminile tra archivio e tipografia, secoli xv-xvii, Roma 1999.

4. Ironically, this text is much more readily available in Italian than in Spanish; see L. López de Córdoba, Memorie, ed. and trans. L. Vozzo Mendia, Parma 1992. For a recent Spanish edition, see Las memorias de Leonor López de Córdoba, ed. R. Ayerbe-Chaux, Journal of Hispanic Philology, 2, 1977-78, pp. 11-33.

5. I have consulted an easily accessible version: C. de Erauso, Historia de la monja alférez escrita por ella misma, ed. J. Munárriz, Madrid 1986. For a more scholarly edition, see C. de Erauso, Vida i sucesos de la Monja Alférez: Autobiografía atribuida a Doña Catalina de Erauso, ed. R. de Vallbona, Tempe az, 1992. For biographical background, see J. I. Tellechea Idígoras, Doña Catalina de Erauso: la monja alférez, San Sebastián-Donostia 1992; for a recent study, see S. Velasco, The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire, and Catalina de Erauso, Austin 2000.

6. The striking preponderance of foreign scholars here should not lead one to conclude that there is little work by Spaniards on Teresa. Spanish studies have by and large undertaken the highly valuable task of editing texts and documents, as in Enrique Llamas Martínez's collection concerning Teresa and the Inquisition, or have focused on specific questions such as literary style, as in Victor García de la Concha's Arte literario. See also the studies by Márquez Villanueva, Criado del Val, and Checa, among others, listed in the bibliography. For a broader critical appreciation of recent Spanish studies of early modern women's religious history, see Weber, Recent Studies.

7. There are, of course, contrary points of view, for example the insistence in Garí de Aguilera, Vidas espirituales, p. 688, that Teresa represented more of a mid-point in an already established tradition than the point of departure of a new one. Still, my vote is for the essential novelty of Teresa's undertaking, especially in terms of scope and effect.

8. The most detailed edition is Santa Teresa de Jesús, Obras completas, iii, Epistolario, memoriales, dichos, eds. Fr. Efren de la Madre de Dios, ocd and Fr. Otger Steggink, O. Carm., Madrid 1959.

9. On the latter, see Alvarez Vázquez, Trabajos. This is probably a good juncture to recall the broader argument that attributes the more frequent recourse to keeping spiritual diaries among early modern Protestants than among Catholic women to the fact that oral confession made written diaries less necessary for the latter. See, for example, E. Botonaki, Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen's Spiritual Diaries: Self-Examination, Covenanting, and Account Keeping, in "Sixteenth Century Journal", 30 (1), 1999, pp. 3-21. Needless to say, early modern Spain is not utterly lacking in women's spiritual diaries and similar such texts; see, for example, Maria Angela Astorch's extremely interesting annual Cuentas de espíritu, covering the years 1626 to 1656, in Mi camino interior: Relatos autobiográficos, cuentas de espíritu, opúsculos espirituales, cartas, ed. L. Iriarte, ofm Cap, Madrid 1985, pp. 79-576.

10. Biblioteca Universitària, Barcelona-Ms. 1038; see also the excellent studies by Blanca Garí listed in this essay.

11. See Herpoel, A la zaga de Teresa, pp. 127 and 157-67, as well as Weber, On the Margins. There seems to have been nothing unusual about this; after all, Teresa herself had a vision of St. Dominic, as reported in chapter 40 of her Vida.

12. Interesting background material may be found in Bilinkoff, Saint for a City; García Barriuso, La monja de Carrión; and Cueto, Quimeras y sueños.

13. This contemporary debate is examined in: Llamas Martínez, Teresa de Jesús, which includes most of the major texts; Weber, Teresa of Avila, pp. 158-65, and her Three Lives; and Ahlgren, Teresa of Avila, pp. 113-44.

14. This is the subject of a doctoral dissertation recently started by Erin Rowe of Johns Hopkins University.

15. For a study of female monasticism in a political key with important implications for the Spanish case, see J. G. Sperling, Convents and the Body Politic in Renaissance Venice, Chicago 1999.

16. Fr. Jerónimo Gracián de la Madre de Dios, Peregrinación de Anastasio, ed. G. M. Bertini, Barcelona 1966.

17. Poutrin's checklist is admittedly incomplete; it does not include, for example, most of the Catalan autobiographers briefly noted in my Los usos de la autobiografía.

18. See the graph on p. 352 of her Voile et la plume for a more precise chronological breakdown.

19. Details in my Usos de la autobiografía, pp. 193-5, and in Poutrin, Voile et la plume, p. 309. A list of her writings may be found in Serrano y Sanz, Apuntes, vol. ii, pp. 150-61. For the earlier crackdown by the Inquisition, see Palacios, Beatas; Perry, Beatas; and Keitt, among others.

20. For this see Andrew Keitt's work in progress based upon his recent dissertation, and more generally, A. J. Schutte, Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750, Baltimore 2001.

21. Prosperi, Lettere spirituali, p. 239.

22. Thus see Poutrin, Voile et la plume, pp. 278-9 for brief mention of «l'effacement relatif du mysticisme féminin à partir du dernier tiers du xviie siècle et plus encore au début du XVIIIe siècle».