16.10.11, Delbrugge, ed. Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity

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Theresa Earenfight

The Medieval Review 16.10.11

Delbrugge, Laura, ed. Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 59. Boston: Brill, 2015. pp. ix, 371. ISBN: 978-90-04-25048-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Theresa Earenfight
Seattle University

The twelve authors in Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia take up fundamental questions of individual identity: Who were those people? What motivated them? How do we know this? It is difficult enough to understand the complexities of identity today, but the task is particularly challenging when the subject has been dead for five or so centuries. But these intrepid authors have taken on the task of unmasking identity and take as their starting point a method for literary analysis outlined by Stephen Greenblatt in his influential 1980 book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. The authors, a judicious balance of young, mid-career, and established senior historians and literary scholars, describe culture in action and reveal behavioral codes, social logics, and motive forces rooted in very specific times and places. These elegantly written essays, solidly grounded in empirical research and skillfully edited by Laura Delbrugge, test the boundaries of the concept of "self-fashioning" and show it to be a remarkably malleable and useful methodology for the study of identity. But they contradict one of Greenblatt's central arguments that the sixteenth century was a pivotal moment in identity formation, arguing instead for continuity across the medieval and early modern periods. This volume demonstrates the utility of Greenblatt's work in settings other than early modern England and is important reading, both for Hispanists and those who do not study Iberia. It opens the field of research to wider questions of race, gender, and class and in so doing, further integrates the Spanish renaissance into a wider European context. The authors re-fashion the renaissance, again, this time by going beyond the confines of the English renaissance to include the rich cultural tapestry of the western Mediterranean.

Greenblatt's method is tailor-made for studying the considerable self-fashioning among the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-faith societies of the various realms that populated the Iberian peninsula. Religious conversion and movement across political borders has led a generation of Hispanists to explore questions of individual, communal, religious, political, or social identity. Fluid and hybrid identities seemed the norm. The authors here all start from the premise that language has a power to convey identity and they all work with literary and epistolary sources. They argue for continuity across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries because they regard the tension between self and alien as "fundamental to human nature" (3) and not bound by time or space. This tension stems from a contestation of identity, what Delbrugge calls a bending, not breaking of rules and social constructs, an "attempt to subvert or reject existing social structures" (4) by men and women of various ranks who tried to adjust to changing circumstances. The success of this self-fashioning depends on audience, agency, and authorial consciousness that often leads to a change in the overall social structure and boundaries.

The book is focused on three reasons why an individual or group would "self-fashion" an identity. First, and most clearly evident in late medieval Spain, people did so because they experienced a conflict of identity. David Gugel takes up the fascinating question of the shifting boundaries of identity with the case of a Mallorcan Franciscan man, Anselm Turmeda, who abandoned his vows, traveled to North Africa, converted to Islam, and took a new name as Abdallah al-Tarjuman. His autobiography, written in Catalan, reveals a striking fluidity of identity. The personal and the political intersect in his autobiography, which was written to heal the political divisions in Mallorca. What the post-modern reader notes, however, is how porous the Mediterranean was, how seemingly easy it was for Anselm/Abdallah to move across political, linguistic, cultural, religious, and geographic boundaries.

Michael Harney and Wendell Smith both analyze self-fashioning in medieval literary texts and present the closest parallels to the core of Greenblatt's thesis: a deliberate, literary, public re-fashioning of the self to gain prestige or persuade an audience. Harney takes up fictional self-fashioning in his study of the anonymous chivalric romances whose heroes are anxious to make the right marriage and thus secure social and cultural prominence, a self-fashioning by class jumping. Status and kinship are at the heart of these literary dramas of social display. The men at the center of the narratives are desperate to be seen as honorable men married to rich women to create a false social front of propriety and, Harney argues, signify the very real, very disruptive social and economic shifts of the later Middle Ages. Smith looks at the vast and influential fifteenth-century literary genre known as the "querelle des femmes." Read through Greenblatt's lens, Smith argues that courtly love was as much about fashioning a male identity as a female one. This literature touches on both converso identity and the ultimate "alien," the figure of la Celestina. Smith considers this fictional literature in the context of Isabel I, a queen whose rule and her own very conscious and pragmatic self-fashioning bent more than a few cultural and political boundaries.

Four essays directly address the second reason, self-fashioning for political gain. Jaume Aurell analyzes the fashioning of a dynastic royal persona through the "gestural self-fashioning or performative self-fashioning" (20-21) evident in the self-coronation of three kings--Alfonso IV of Aragon (1328), Alfonso XI of Castile (1332), and Pere IV of Aragon (1336). This tight time frame and the specific gestures and performances of these kings signify deliberate speech acts that re-fashioned the Iberian monarchy as a refusal to submit to the authority of ecclesiastical officials. The kings accepted anointing as a signifier of divine approval, but drew a clear line of separation between church and state authority. One source in particular, the royal autobiography of the sixteen-year-old Pere IV, makes clear the intention of Pere. He succeeded in his goal to push the boundary, to test the limits of royal authority relative to that of the church in order to bolster monarchical power.

Women occupy the attention of Zita Eva Rohr, Mark Johnston, and Nuria Silleras-Fernández. And all three work with similar sources: personal letters of guidance and mirrors for princesses. Rohr takes up the identity formation of four "stateswomen queens" who learned to fashion a distinctly Aragonese queenly identity. Rohr's essay most clearly demonstrates the wider social impact of self-fashioning in her emphasis on the role of generational transmission of knowledge through conduct manuals and letters of instruction from one queen to the next. Sibil.la of Fortià was crowned by her husband, Pere IV; he made her a queen, he fashioned her identity in the most public way possible. In response to her critics, who regarded her as a dangerous upstart, Sibil.la pushed back by wearing fashionable clothes and regalia to reinforce her status. Her attempts ultimately were unsuccessful, but she is a vivid example of the pragmatic and purposeful nature of fashioning a new self to reflect new status.

Johnston looks at fifteenth-century conduct books, mirrors for princes, and chivalric manuals but pays particular attention to Hernando de Talavera's use of moral theology to instruct María Pacheco, the countess of Benavente. His letter might easily have had the condescending tone of "mansplaining." But Johnston argues, convincingly, that it is a carefully articulated defense of Pacheco's right to craft for herself a life appropriate to her rank, that of a noblewoman with considerable individual agency. Talavera's letter is not just a string of precepts and advice, it's a single, coherently organized exposition of practical advice informed by moral theology.

Like Rohr, Silleras-Fernández looks at royal letters, but in this case the letters are from both parents, the sixteenth-century Portuguese monarchs Catalina and João I. Their three letters of guidance to their daughter, María Manuela, the future wife of Felipe II, exhibit a concern for how a Portuguese princess can remake herself into a Spanish queen and how she can maintain her identity a new setting. Their advice, like Talavera's, is not high-minded or abstract, but concise in giving advice both personal (mind your honor and reputation) and pragmatic (stay close to the king, mind your diet and health). Taken as a whole, these four essays highlight important elements of Iberian kingship and queenship. Rohr, Johnston, and Silleras-Fernández all presume, or at least hope, that the intended recipient took the advice and fashioned a personal identity. This is "vicarious" fashioning, but, it is a carefully guided self-fashioning rather than one that was self-instantiated. It suggests training and teaching, or at the very least, tutelage, and this implies a conformity to a norm, not a bending of a boundary. Reading the three essays together makes me want to know more: To what extent did the recipient willingly take the lesson to heart? Did she resist? If so, how?

Finally, some individuals and groups were engaged in self-fashioning for self-promotion. Deceptive self-fashioning animates the essays by Daniel Hartnett and Albert Lloret. Hartnett examines the career of Iñigo López de Mendoza, the Marqués of Santillana, who self-fashioned his fame by using his image as a learned man to gain access to higher circles of power at court. Santillana's family name along would have been enough to buy him favors among his friends in high places, but he fancied himself an intellectual, even though he was a weak scholar whose Latin was mediocre at best. Recognizing that prestige at court derived from public displays of cultural knowledge, he fashioned an identity as a man of letters by amassing an impressive library. He stuffed his shelves with books by Dante, the most venerable author of the age, and then invited courtiers to visit, counting on them to advertise his erudition.

Lloret's provocative essay stretches Greenblatt's notion of self-fashioning by considering the career the fifteenth-century Catalan lyric poet, Ausiás March. Sixteenth-century editors reshaped March's poems to more closely resemble Petrarchan sonnets to render them more palatable to the taste of the times. This fabrication of an identity for March prompted Lloret to question whether authorial involvement is crucial for self-fashioning. After a careful analysis and comparison of March's original and the refashioned poems, his answer is no. Lloret wants us to think about self as more than a singular self, as something unstable and constantly changing. In this instance, the self-fashioning is "editorial poesis, but not an authorial self-poesis" (273). Yes, but reshaping March's reputation a century after the poet's death is more a revisionist move than an act of "self-fashioning." March had no choice in the matter. He was fashioned anew and no one cared whether he would have liked it or not.

Finally, Caroline Smith, Lesley Twomey, and Montserrat Piera skillfully redefine the "self" in "self-fashioning" as a collective, not singular self. They consider how nuns, an aristocratic family, and a group of cathedral canons crafted collective identities to bolster their political power. Twomey examines Sor Isabel de Villena's portrayal of the Mary Magdalene and Martha of Bethany in her Vita Christi and sets this against a specific audience, the Clarissan nuns in a Valencian convent who read the work. Villena does not overtly fashion herself, but Twomey notes that her self-fashioning is evident nevertheless. Villena used prior renditions of the Vita Christi and wrote these stories as guides for both nuns and patrons seeking to reconcile the contemplative and active life. Twomey argues that in the process of writing, Villena both resolved her own conflicts and gave new shape to the stories by subtly emphasizing the values of both the active and contemplative life to adjust to the fifteenth-century convent life that included manual labor with prayer.

Piera looks at familial self-fashioning among the Cartegena clan in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the family shifted from Jewish to converso. This family embodies the very real fears of religious and political persecution. Pedro de Santa María, the rabbi turned bishop, kept ties with Jewish culture and religion and created an identity based on a proud intellectual heritage. His brother, Alvar García de Santa María, vied for royal favor as a chronicler; his son, Alonso, wrote a treatise asserting the pre-eminence of the Castilian kings over the English. Their granddaughter and niece, Teresa de Cartagena, wrote the first theological treatise in defense of the right of women to write. The group effort of a bishop, royal chroniclers, and a professed nun was intended to secure the communal well-being of a family at a time of tremendous insecurity for converso families.

Caroline Smith uses unconventional sources for self-fashioning, the behavior of a group of cathedral canons in the Catalan city of Girona. The cathedral canons left no personal writings, but Smith argues that their behavior can be a valuable expression of identity because it reflects the priorities, values, and relationships. She observes individuals choosing which norms to follow and which to ignore, and this allows her to more personally pinpoint agency. We are not left to wonder whether or not the advice was taken, as we are with conduct books and letters of advice. By looking at evidence from the canon's bequests and pious foundations, wills, tithes, and their membership in confraternities, Smith pinpoints the hybrid identity of men who struggled with their loyalty to secular kin and spiritual family.

All twelve essays argue a coherent thesis: Self-fashioning is the result of individual agency, conscious or unconscious, and not just the result of social or structural forces. Taken as a whole, this is an argument for a more dynamic understanding of identity, one where individual agency both influences and is influenced by political, religious, social, and cultural realities.

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