Teresa de Cartagena

Teresa de Cartagena

Teresa de Cartagena (b. c. 1425) was a Spanish author and nun who fell deaf between 1453-1459, which influenced her two known works "Arboleda de los enfermos" (Grove of the Infirm) and "Admiraçión operum Dey" (Wonder at the Works of God). The latter work represents what many critics consider as the first feminist tract written by a Spanish woman.

Few documents exist regarding Teresa’s life. In Francisco Cantera Burgos’ history of the Santa María family, the author confirms Teresa’s identity as a "conversa" (a Christian of Spanish Jewish heritage) and as a member of the Santa María-Cartagena family, the most powerful converso family in late-medieval Spain. Her grandfather, Rabbi Selomó ha-Levi, converted to Christianity around 1390, and was baptized as Pablo de Santa María, becoming bishop of Burgos in 1412. Cantera Burgos discovered that Teresa was the daughter of Pedro de Cartagena after finding her named in the will of a later bishop of Burgos, Alonso de Cartagena, Pedro’s brother and Teresa’s uncle. Before becoming deaf, Teresa entered the Franciscan Monasterio de Santa Clara in Burgos around 1440. Later, in 1449, she transferred to the Cistercian Monasterio de Las Huelgas in Burgos, where she became deaf. The transfer likely occurred, as Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez and Yonsoo Kim point out, because of family political strategy and hostility of the "converso"-outing Franciscans. Cartagena wrote her first work "Arboleda de los enfermos" in reaction to the solitude of her deafness. Approximately one to two years later, she penned a defense of her first essay called "Admiraçión operum Dey" after mostly male critics claimed that a woman could not have possibly been the author of such an eloquent and well-reasoned work. Both of her writings have come down to modern readers through a single manuscript completed by the copyist Pero López del Trigo in 1481.

Not only important as Spain’s first feminist writer, Teresa also contributes to an overall European canon of Medieval feminist authors including Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan. Both "Arboleda" and "Admiraçión" are semi-autobiographical works that provide an authentic written voice of the Medieval female, a true rarity among works of the Middle Ages.

"Arboleda de los enfermos"

Teresa’s first essay examines the effect of her deafness on her life and its spiritual development. After being devastated by the initial onset of the illness, Teresa meditates in the silent prison of her deafness and ultimately concludes that God has afflicted her in order to separate her from the distractions of everyday noise. After much reflection in the prison of echoing sounds within the cloisters of her ears, Teresa reasons that her soul would have been purer if she had never been exposed to speech at all, which makes one turn to the outside material world and forget the inner spiritual world. The copyist, Pero López, indicates that her work was addressed to Juana de Mendoza, wife of Gómez Manrique, a poet and prominent political figure of the time, but within "Arboleda", she addresses a “"virtuosa señora"” (virtuous lady) who may be Juana de Mendoza and suggests a female audience at large. In contrast, the genre Teresa employs, the "libro de consolaciones" (book of consolations), was primarily authored by men and addressed to a masculine audience. In order to strategically humble herself before male readers, the author reiterates the weakness of her intellect or “"la baxeza e grosería de mi mugeril yngenio"” [the lowliness and grossness of my womanly intellect] .

"Admiraçión operum Dey"

Despite her strategies to disarm the male reader in "Arboleda", men still rejected Teresa’s work as plagiarized. In response to this male criticism, she composes "Admiraçión operum Dey", making the argument that if God created men who could write, then he could just as well have created women who could write, and while men have been writing for centuries, it does not make it any more natural for them to write, but rather it seems natural because men have been writing for such a long time. In addition, simply because women have not traditionally written like men, it does not mean that female writing is any less natural. Cleverly, Teresa argues that if God bestows a gift upon men then he can just as well bestow the same gift upon women. The following passage illustrates how Teresa viewed her relationship with God and the authorship of her writing:

People marvel at what I wrote in the treatise and I marvel at what, in fact, I kept quiet, but I do not marvel doubting nor do I insist on my wonder. For my experience makes me sure, and the God of Truth knows that I had no other master nor consulted with any other learned authority nor translated from other books, as some people with malicious wonder are wont to say. Rather, this alone is the truth: that God of all knowledge, Lord of all virtues, Father of mercy, God of every consolation, He who consoles us in all our tribulation, He alone consoled me, He alone taught me, He alone read (to) me. He inclined His ear to me when I, besieged with great anguish and adrift in a deep sea of misfortunes, called upon Him with the Prophet, saying, “Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul” [Psalm 68:2] . (Translation from Seidenspinner-Núñez, 102-3)

Ultimately, Teresa concludes that the criticisms of her opponents call into question God’s authority to distribute gifts and consequently offends him. The "“virtuosa señora”" addressed in the second work as in the first acts as the female listener who sympathizes with Teresa’s concerns. To further illustrate her point, the author makes use of various imagery and references. First, she alludes to the Bible story of the powerful Judith who kills Holofernes after a whole army of men could not perform the task. She also expounds upon the virtue of the interior life of the housewife. According to Teresa, the tranquil and spiritual interior world of the household, in contrast to the exterior warring world of men, constitutes a place for reflection and intellectual growth. While strategically noting that men and women are not equal in all capacities, Teresa also remarks that masculine and feminine roles complement each other because of their differences. Her subtly feminist argument rejects the commonly held medieval belief that women were the weaker sex, intended by God for exclusively passive and reproductive purposes.


*Cantera Burgos, Francisco. "Alvar García de Santa María y su familia de conversos: Historia de la judería en Burgos y de sus conversos más egregios". Madrid: Instituto Arias Montano, 1952.
*Seidenspinner-Núñez, Dayle. “Teresa de Cartagena,” in "Dictionary of Literary Biography", Volume 286: "Castilian Writers, 1400-1500". Detroit: Gale, 2004. pp. 15-20.
*Seidenspinner-Núñez, Dayle, and Yonsoo Kim. "Historicizing Teresa: Reflections on New Documents Regarding Sor Teresa de Cartagena." "La corónica" 32.2 (2004): 121-50.

English and Spanish Editions of Teresa’s Writing:
*Cartagena, Teresa de. "Arboleda de los enfermos". "Admiración operum Dey". Ed. Lewis Joseph Hutton. Vol. anejo 16. Madrid: Aguirre, 1967.
*---. "The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena: Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretive Essay". Trans. Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1998.
*Castro Ponce, Clara Esther. "Teresa de Cartagena. "Arboleda de Los Enfermos". "Admiraçión Operum Dey". Edición Crítica Singular." Diss. Brown U, 2001.

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