In mid-15h century Castile, orthodox Christian beliefs and behavior dominated all aspects of Church and State. A woman writing for a reader beyond the confines of convent or home was considered subversive. And if she attested to the truth of her personal isolation and spiritual awakening as a deaf person it was literally unheard of. Teresa de Cartagena engaged in just such authorship. Writing as a deaf nun, Teresa challenged the patristic silencing of women by becoming the only known individual to write from an impaired person’s perspective (pre-modern era) and the first Castillian woman to explicitly defend the rights of women to write.
Baptized Catholic, Teresa (ca.1425-?) was born into a prominent converso family, with her rabbi grandfather having converted the entire family to Christianity in 1390, a year before the Seville Jewish massacre. As a young woman, Teresa took up the veil of the Franciscan order and later transferred to the Cistercian order where she anticipated becoming abbess. Unfortunately, leading up to her ascension to Mother Superior, she suffered an adult onset of hearing loss. Forsaken in her deafness, she spent twenty years in cloistered silence before emerging, probably in her early fifties, to write her first treatise.
Beyond her two texts, Grove of the Infirm [Arboleda de los enfermos (1475-76)] and Wonder at the Works of God [Admiracion operum Dey (1477-78)], little evidence exists regarding Teresa’s life. One of the few extant documents, dated 1449, the year of the Toledan Rebellion (a precursor to the Inquisition), underlined the potential risks for “New Christians,” even those who were nuns. Teresa’s uncle, Alonso de Cartagena, (Bishop of Burgos) petitioned Pope Nicholas V for a dispensation to move his niece out of the Franciscan St. Clare order due to the fact she “could no longer remain there comfortably with peace of mind. . . .” He also asked that following her relocation and upon reaching the age of 25, she be considered for rank of abbess―at that time a very powerful position meant to benefit both family and convent.
The Pope’s involvement in her transfer to the Cistercian order in Burgos, highlighted the enduring and daunting influence of the de Cartagena family. After her grandfather had converted to Christianity in 1390, he rose quickly within the Catholic hierarchy, transforming himself from chief rabbi to bishop of Burgos within a few years. His sons were also learned men (letrados), holding strategic positions like bishops and royal guards. Raised in this powerful and erudite atmosphere, Teresa studied theology, philosophy, and Latin; she even attended the University of Salamanca where one of her uncles taught―an unusual allowance for a woman. Although she wrote her texts in the vernacular to engage a larger audience, her proficiency with Latin, Church Father discourses, and scripture, identified her as part of an affluent class.
With such auspicious beginnings, Teresa’s hearing loss devastated her, banishing her forever from ecclesiastical prominence. It is unknown whether the loss occurred suddenly or incrementally. Either way, her affliction bridled her as a burden to both nunnery and family. The societal view of the deaf had never progressed beyond Aristotle’s belief that they were incapable of learning. The deaf were ostracized, considered ineligible for salvation, and deaf mutes considered non-persons under the law. It took another 100 years before a Benedictine friar began teaching the deaf.
After spending 20 years of imposed silence with God as her only companion, Teresa miraculously re-formed herself to pen her first instructive treatise. Grove of the Infirm, atypically combined several common literary genres―autobiography, consolation, and sermon. By refusing to quietly live out her life in exile, she knew she opened herself up to accusations of heresy. Some of the more famous religious female authors who preceded her had legitimized their writing through visions, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Catherine of Siena. Like these saintly women Teresa attributed her understanding to God, but unlike them she never wore the cloak of mystic.
As a protective shroud, Teresa employed various literary techniques to help abate negative reactions. For example in both Grove and Wonder, she gently invites readership by directing her texts to “virtuous lady.” The esteemed lady was Senora Juana de Mendoza, wife of a well-known poet and a noblewoman in waiting to infanta Isabel (the eldest child of the Catholic Monarchs)―making Juana an ideal legitimate reader.
Using the Catholic theme of suffering for her point of entry, Teresa’s opening paragraph of Grove brings her readers face-to-face with her terrible anguish as a deaf person. A previously untold tale.
Long ago, virtuous lady, the cloud of temporal and human sadness covered the borders of my life and with a thick whirlwind of anguished sufferings carried me off to an island called the ‘scorn of mankind and outcast of the people’ (Oprobrium hominum et abiecio plebis) where I have lived for so many years…
She speaks up for other outcasts and shares their misery of abandonment:
[W]orldly pleasures despise us, health forsakes us, friends forget us, relatives get angry, and even one’s own mother gets annoyed with her sickly daughter….
Without station, family, or friends, Teresa struggled to find her place in the world. For although she experienced post-lingual deafness, her frustration with trying to verbalize led her to forego speech altogether. “And where hearing fails, what good is speech? One is left dead and completely isolated. Thus,. . you can well believe how very lonely I am. . . .” Acting to avoid the dangerous marriage of solitude and idleness, and being unable to “rid herself of solitude,” she wrote to drive away the idleness.
In writing Grove, Teresa makes herself an example, first in her suffering and second in her acquiring enough understanding to be able to thank God for imposing her silence. She proclaims.
With bit and bridle my sovereign Lord constrained the jaws of my vanities to benefit my spiritual well-being. . . .What I used to call my crucifixion, I now call my resurrection.
She cautions other sufferers―as well as the healthy for at some point in life everyone becomes impaired―against the great spiritual danger of not giving thanks to God for one’s infirmity. Invoking the biblical figure of Job, she instructs how “patience” reigns supreme among all virtues in helping the afflicted accept God’s grace when He forces one from worldly pleasures to eternal health.
As Grove became available to readers, apparently an ardent backlash took form. Certainly in this Catholic stronghold, it was not her praise of God that riled the letrados, but the mere fact that a deaf woman would appropriate the mantle of authority. Critics questioned her capacity to write―a deaf woman―and the authenticity of her text―did she really write it herself? Two years later in Wonder at the Works of God, Teresa answered her attackers.
Many times, virtuous lady, I have been informed that some prudent men and also discreet women have marveled at a treatise that, with divine grace directing my weak womanly understanding, was written by my hand. And since it is a brief work of little substance, I am amazed, for it is hard to believe that prudent men would marvel so at such an insignificant thing.
Teresa expertly applies the humility topos―my weak womanly understanding, work of little substance, etc. This literary theme was commonly used in her day and especially useful for a woman overstepping her boundaries.
She modestly points out that things we rarely see cause us wonder and hence men marvel when a woman writes a treatise because it is only customary for men to do so. Lest her readers forget, she reminds them it is only men who have been given the opportunity for education and putting pen to paper. After humbly stretching the borders of her readers’ minds, she hands them solid Christian doctrine―all knowledge, ingenuity, and grace to teach descend from God alone. Procuring agreement on God’s preeminence, she advances her theory one step further.
God’s divine greatness can readily. . . give perfection and ability to female understanding just as to male, for the sufficiency that men have they did not acquire on their own but because God gave it to them.
For supporting evidence she turns to the Old Testament story of Judith slaying Holofernes. Explaining that in Judith’s victory in beheading Holofernes, “supreme skill and grace transcended natural male forces, since what a great army of armed men could not accomplish was achieved by the ingenuity and grace of a lone woman.”
As with Judith, or Teresa, “God gives graciously to whomever He pleases” and therefore it is not right to judge the ability of someone’s intellect. Here Teresa warns against judging her deafness as making her feeble-minded and further reasons away the biased belief of the deaf as sinful. “[I]f God’s grace superabounds where sin, a defect of our soul, is abundant, why cannot grace superabound where other defects and physical sufferings are abundant, since these are not sins?”
Certain of her own ability as a deaf person and of God’s blessing of her womanly understanding, she daringly undermines St. Thomas Aquinas’ biblical teaching of Genesis 2:18. In parroting Aristotle’s misogynistic and mis-informed assertion that women are “accidental”―the male seed always intends to produce another male―Aquinas assigned women’s “helpmate” role in Genesis exclusively to one of procreation, finding men better suited to helping one another in all other tasks. Wading into this fortress of female diminishment, Teresa advances a new exegesis.
We read in Genesis how woman is the helpmeet of man, for after God had formed man from the mud of the earth and had breathed in him the spirit of life, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself’ [Genesis 2:18]. And one could argue here whether the helped or the helper has the greater strength, and you clearly see what reason would respond.
Having raised the argument, she graciously drops it, saying that these disputes are for vain arrogance and merely divert her intention, which “is not to offend the superior and honorable condition of prudent men nor to favor women, but rather to praise the omnipotence and greatness of God.” Appearing to let the controversy pass, several pages later, she cleverly posits that “the Lord is, . . .our helpmeet in both opportunities and tribulations.” Making God the helpmeet of both men and women, she places women’s helping men on the same level as God, and by implication gives the quality of greater strength to the helper, as reason dictates.
One of Teresa’s most intriguing statements comes near the end of Wonder.
People marvel at what I wrote in the treatise and I marvel at what, in fact, I kept quiet. . . .
We can only imagine what she “kept quiet”! As it was, she transgressed the patristic proscription against female speech and destabilized the hierarchical equilibrium. The fact both her works were copied into manuscript for a museum in 1481 may suggest she received some limited recognition for her avant-garde efforts; it is unknown if she was alive at the time for there is no record of her date of death or any actions following publication of Wonder. She was forgotten for centuries, with only minor mentions of her works. Not until late 20th century, did biographers begin to pull together all available documentation to acknowledge Teresa for her unique contribution to Spanish literature and the impaired.
It is astounding that a devoted Christian nun, who was deaf and cut off from social intercourse, had the consciousness to challenge the rigid sovereignty of medieval Spain. With Judith-like courage, Teresa brought attention to, and rebelled against, hundreds of years of embedded bias against women and the deaf. With great philosophical artistry and holding God’s grace and blessings supreme and determinant, she raised women up to be the rivals of men, and exposed the unjust prejudice and scorn heaped on those who suffer physically, and especially the deaf.
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2 thoughts on “THE DEAF NUN WHO WROTE – TERESA DE CARTAGENA”
justine i love your attention to detail as well as your supreme artistry. thank you
ive re read this and am inspired again.
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