Alison Taufer

title.none: Mirrer, Women, Jews, and Muslims (Taufer)

identifier.other: baj9928.9701.005 97.01.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Taufer, California State University, Los Angeles,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Mirrer, Louise. Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile. Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Civilization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. x, 190. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10723-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.01.05

Mirrer, Louise. Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile. Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Civilization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. x, 190. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10723-2.

Reviewed by:

Alison Taufer
California State University, Los Angeles

Louise Mirrer's Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile challenges traditional readings of intercultural and gender relations in Castilian ballads and literary texts of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. Rejecting a critical tradition that claims these texts offer images of peaceful coexistence among Christians, Muslims, and Jews and of harmony between the sexes, Mirrer argues that these literary images were mediated by male Christian Castilians during an age of increasing social intolerance, and that:while real women and 'others' clearly strained against the boundaries that delineated their participation in the dominant culture, literary images of women, Jews, and Muslims rarely tell us what subordinate groups -- at times powerful players in the newly dominant Christian state -- were 'really' like." (160-161)Mirrer's thesis is a valid one, and her readings are based upon meticulous scholarship, as indicated by her impressive footnotes; however, the essays themselves vary in quality and in persuasiveness.

Mirrer divides her text into four sections: "Other Women: Female Muslims and Jews;" "Other Men: Male Muslims and Jews in Ballad and Epic;" "Men's Language, Women's Power: Representing Christian Women;" "Women's Language, Women's Power: Castile's Earliest Women Writers." In the first three sections, Mirrer attempts to demonstrate how "women, Jews, and Muslims could play a remarkably similar role in the texts of reconquest Castile, shoring up male Christian Castilian identity through images that displaced their reality and established difference within the dominant cultural body" (159). The last section explores how the writings of two fifteenth-century Castilian women, Leonor Lopez de Cordoba and Florencia Pinar, may be interpreted as works of female resistance to cultural domination in medieval Castile. Mirrer's essays on the stereotyping of male Muslims and Jews and on Leonor Lopez de Cordoba and Florencia Pinar are particularly strong, while the sections on the representations of women in male authored texts are less persuasive in argument. At her best, Mirrer offers an insightful and provocative explication of texts based upon sociolinguistic analysis, grounded in a solid understanding of the social and cultural conditions in which these texts were produced. Her weakest essays are characterized by a tendency to force the text to fit her thesis, ignoring textual elements which may complicate or contradict her readings.

The least convincing section of the book, "Other Women: Female Muslims and Jews," appears first. Such claims that the morica is "a stand-in for Muslim Spain," or later that the young Jewish woman who converts to Christianity is "a metaphor for the triumph of Christianity" appear naive and rigid in their insistence on a one-on-one correspondence, and disregard the nuances and ambiguities inherent in the ballads that Mirrer analyzes. Her tendency to see these women characters primarily as Christian male fantasies of highly eroticized female desire also limits the persuasiveness of her essays.

For example, Mirrer argues that in the "Romance de la morilla burlada" (Ballad of the deceived young Muslim woman), "the authentic female voice is appropriated by a male Christian Castilian -- a juglar who introduces his own conception of woman's desire into the ballad" (28). Perhaps this is the case, but Mirrer completely fails to acknowledge the fact that in the ballad, the Christian, masquerading as a fugitive Muslim, claims to be the morica's uncle, "Yo soy el moro Mazote/ hermano de la tu madre" (I am the Moor, Mazote/ brother of your mother). The exigencies of family loyalty and the claim to be a kinsman, which the juglar has introduced but which Mirrer fails to address, would certainly have been intended by the author as a determining factor in the morica's decision to open the door. To a certain extent, the fact that she is told that the stranger at the door is a male kinsman contradicts, or at least complicates, Mirrer's reading of the young woman as the male Christian fantasy of "a lascivious, demanding morilla who formulates her own desire and is imaginarily liberated by the Christian from the strict guardianship of her male Muslim kin" (29).

In another essay, "The Beautiful Jewess: Marisaltos in Alfonso X's 'Cantiga 107,'" Mirrer argues that the story of Marisaltos is an example of "the extreme religious intolerance that initially led the text to strip Jewish men of their control over Jewish women and their power to carry out their own justice, imaginarily fulfilling a dream of Christian orthodoxy some two and a half centuries before it actually became a reality."(40)

The story of Marisaltos is an example of the popular medieval genre of the "Miracle of the Virgin," and follows the genre's typical paradigm, in that Marisaltos, pursued by the authorities (in this case the male elders of the Jewish community) for a serious transgression (here, sex with a Christian), is saved from punishment by the miraculous intervention of the Virgin, resulting in her conversion, or spiritual transformation. Why Mirrer claims that this ballad represents the "weakness of Jewish men, making public the sexual initiatives taken by their women" is unclear, especially since she makes no such claim for Gonzalo Berceo's "Milagros," which betrays a similar ineffectualness on the part of Castilian Christian authorities to control the sexuality of Christian women. It is also likely that Mirrer also reads too much significance into the line "na camis a leixaron" (they left her in her slip). While Mirrer mentions the Jewish prohibition against undressing women before capital punishment that appears in the Mishna, she also indicates that in a later version of the Marisaltos story, the detail of the slip "makes it clear that Marisaltos was judged and sentenced according to Christian law, by Christians," pointing to the fact, as evidenced in numerous medieval documents and literary texts, that the removal of outer clothing was a Christian custom. Why then in the "Cantiga 107" would such a detail indicate "the stereotyped erotic appeal of the Jewess" and not simply a Christian writer's unfamiliarity with Jewish custom?

The next section's exploration of how Christian Castilian texts feminize Muslim and Jewish males is far more convincing in its presentation of these texts' depiction of "otherness." Mirrer examines the epic Cantar del mio Cid and various frontier ballads to demonstrate how male Christian poets perform a kind of symbolic conversion of Muslim and Jewish men into women through the use of the diminutive and the femininization of their appearance, language, and behavior. Mirrer demonstrates how the poets sought to establish Christian supremacy in their texts by denying Muslim and Jewish men the masculine and aggressive qualities considered ideal for men in medieval Castile, although in reality, Muslim and Jewish men played formidable roles within the medieval Spanish world.

In "Men's Language, Women's Power: Representing Christian Women," Mirrer argues that society's more powerful, independent women, such as queens or even widows, are frequently characterized in medieval Castilian texts as reckless, lascivious, or criminal. In the case of the Libro de Buen Amor, Mirrer presents strong evidence for how the complex linguistic scheme of Dona Endrina's and Don Melon's verbal exchanges as well as Don Melon's final sexual conquest of Dona Endrina reflect the ambiguous legal and social situation of widows in reconquest Spain . "Queens in the Ballad," which analyzes the images of powerful women in "Landarico" and "Dona Blanca," less convincingly claims that the portrayals of the two queens in the ballads argue "for the limitation of women's access to the discourses of power"(104). Since both ballads deal with adulterous wives, it appears that uncontrolled female sexuality rather than politically powerful women is the real issue here. Mirrer's assertion that by collapsing female power with reckless and lascivious behavior, the texts "disqualify all women from exercising social or political control," appears overstated, given the examples that she provides.

The most problematic essay in this section, "The Virgin and the Abbess: Gonzalo de Berceo's Milagros de Nuestra Senora, attempts to demonstrate how the Milagros "also exposes the danger powerful women pose to male- dominated society when allowed access to the discourses of power"(105). Mirrer argues that like the Christian women in the section's companion essays, the Virgin Mary's "access to the discourses of power is linked to lawlessness, and her authority, represented chiefly in the context of weakening male domination, is characterized by a frightening excess" (109). She then goes on to link her behavior to that of the queens of the ballads "Landarico" and "Dona Blanca," in that by overturning customary hierarchical relations between the sexes, the Virgin Mary provides another link between dominant-"other" struggle and images of powerful Christian women in medieval literature. In making this assertion, Mirrer completely ignores the action of the texts that she analyzes in order to force the "Milagros" into her model. In the ballads, the queens' behavior is portrayed as self- directed, selfish, and therefore ultimately destructive to society. In the Milagros, the Virgin Mary's behavior is portrayed as other-directed, redemptive, and restorative to social harmony. It is difficult to see any connection between the queens' adulterous acts and murder of spouses on one hand, and the Virgin Mary's liberating of the disenfranchised and powerless from the clutches of the established hierarchy on the other. In the Milagros, the Virgin Mary's role as rescuer and protector of criminals, sexually active nuns, and other social "sinners" would seem to suggest a gleeful subversion of established authority. The deterministic reading that Mirrer offers us of yet another cautionary exemplum of dangerous, powerful, and reckless women robs the text of its richness and its complexity.

The final section of the book contains Mirrer's best work. Freed from the necessity of situating a text within a predetermined paradigm, she allows herself a flexibility of analysis that is often missing within her book's earlier essays. In "Leonor Lopez de Cordoba and the Poetics of Women's Autobiography," Mirrer convincingly demonstrates how Leonor appropriated the discourse of law and of hagiography in an attempt to enter the official, masculine world of letters and learning. By mixing male, official language with the private, discursive practice of female discourse, Leonor developed "a strategy that would authorize her public, female voice in a culture that encouraged women's silence" (147). Mirrer examines Leonor's Memorias within the budding tradition of female autobiography, exploring the similarities and differences between the Memorias and similar works by Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. She provides a fascinating account of this fifteenth- century noblewoman's personal life situated within its larger cultural and literary context.

The companion essay in this section, "Gender, Power, and Language in the Poems of Florencia Pinar" is a provocative discussion of the poet's work, analyzing her linguistically innovative and anomalous writing style as a "mode of resistance to domination in a culture where men routinely assumed women's signifying and representative functions" (151). Mirrer reveals how Pinar's use of marked terms, the register of the lament, and the manipulation of multiple perspectives draw attention to the issue of women's identity during the late Middle Ages.

In summary, Mirrer is at her best when discussing ethnic stereotypes of Muslim and Jewish males and analyzing the texts of female writers. Her readings of female characterers as portrayed in male-authored Castilian texts tend to be reductive and deterministic. Nevertheless, her book is a significant one in its challenge to traditional notions of medieval Spanish culture and hopefully will stimulate similar investigation. Mirrer's scholarship is sound, and the historical context that she offers of the period is well- researched and well-presented. Eminently readable, Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile should prove useful to both specialists and non-specialists. Its bibliography is up-to-date and extensive, providing a helpful list of materials for teaching and research alike.