The Medieval Review 17.03.05


Silleras-Fernandez, Nuria. Chariots of Ladies: Francesc Eiximenis and the Court Culture of Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. pp. 328. $49.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-8014-5383-0 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Zita Rohr
Macquarie University
zita.rohr@mq.edu.au

Núria Silleras-Fernández contends that, apart from specialist scholars, few in the scholarly community, particularly those in the Anglosphere, read the work of the fourteenth-century Franciscan friar, Francesc Eiximenis. Acknowledging the work of earlier scholars, she breaks new ground by applying her historian's eye to inform and situate the politico-historical context and motivations for Eiximenis's endeavours and writings as well as his long-term influence in a variety of geopolitical spaces.

Eiximenis had very specific goals in mind when he dedicated his two of his works to Sanxa Ximenis d'Arenós (the Llibre de les dones, ca. 1395) and María de Luna (the Scala Dei, ca. 1397). He wanted to reform his Franciscan order by securing powerful female patrons to ensure the adoption of his agenda and maintain close links as a counsellor to the ruling monarchs of Aragon-Catalonia, thereby guaranteeing for himself a seat at the high table of the kingdom's political and diplomatic affairs. Silleras-Fernández situates the friar's project, detailing the "Women behind the Book" (7-9) and segues seamlessly into "Contextualizing Female Virtue" by means of a close analysis of didactic/conduct literature. She reminds us that, for both men and women of the late Middle Ages, the bottom line was "good behaviour was seen as proof of good character" (10). The women populating Silleras-Fernández's study understood this only too well.

Eiximenis was a dedicated religious reformer and tireless promoter of the Observance movement. Not content with limiting himself to this, he carved out a role for himself as a political theorist and the '"go-to" royal counsellor for the Catalan house of Aragon. Eiximenis was unusually interested in the day-to-day functioning of government and the theories and principles buttressing it. He was also a prolific and popular moralist. Silleras-Fernández demonstrates that his most popular and avidly read works were those on feminine piety and virtue. These works attracted a significant following amongst aristocrats of both genders, garnering him considerable personal and spiritual prestige. However, very few of his works have been edited for a modern readership and, for the most part, they have been relegated to obscurity in the literary-historical landscape. Recently, however, scholars have realized that to fully understand the complex nature of late medieval and early modern Iberian literature and culture, Eiximenis's influence and worth must be taken into account. His most avid readers included queens and women of the upper nobility, his fellow Franciscans, nuns, and religious reformers as well as merchants and artisans. Silleras-Fernández's book "represents a new turn in the study of Eiximenis and his oeuvre, reinserting it into its peninsular and continental context, examining the vectors by which it was disseminated and the forces and factors that transformed it" (4). Silleras-Fernández problematizes the relationship between "talk" (theory) and the "walk" (practice) in the didactic context by analysing the identities of the readers of didactic/conduct literature through the lenses of the cultural, social and political contexts in which they moved. She explores the tensions between the sometimes disparate agendas of writers, patrons and readers, highlighting the most obvious tension of them all: the pedagogical models that suppressed female agency and contested female political power set against the reality on show to all and sundry. Women such as Sanxa Ximenis d'Arenós, María de Luna, Isabel the Catholic (and her daughters), and Catalina of Hapsburg wielded both power and authority. They played an essential role in the rise and durability of successful territorial monarchies, the precursors of the modern state.

Silleras-Fernández focuses upon two of Eiximenis's works: the Llibre de les dones (Book of Women) and the Scala Dei, or Tractat de la contemplació (Ladder to God, or Treatise on Contemplation), the women to whom these were dedicated, and those for whom they were copied and translated. She examines three incarnations of the Llibre de les dones in terms of their content and in comparison to other writings in the same genre during the same period, arguing that, during the reign of Queen María de Luna, consort of Martí I of Aragon, and into the tenures of her fifteenth century successors, both the Llibre de les dones and the Scala Dei became the templates for female virtue at the royal court (5-6). While Eiximenis intended his models of female virtue for specific patronesses and the relatively narrow aristocratic readership in their respective orbits, both texts took on a life of their own thanks to extensive networks of female readership to whom Silleras-Fernández believes Eiximenis's works "owe both their longevity and their wide cultural dissemination" (15). Once Fernando II of Aragon married Isabel I of Castile, the Llibre de les dones was translated at Isabel's command into Castilian, the language of her court, becoming El libro de las donas(The Book of Women). This new iteration of Eiximenis's work probably served as a model for the education of the Catholic Kings' daughters, Isabel of Aragon (queen-consort of Portugal); Juana la Loca (queen of Castile); Maria of Aragon (queen-consort of Portugal upon the death of her sister Isabel); and Catalina/Catherine of Aragon (queen consort of England).

Chariots of the Ladies consists of two parts: "Genesis" and "Afterlife." The first part of the book contextualizes Eiximenis's works at the time of their composition, situating the man and his writing within the aristocratic milieu of the Catalan crown territories of late fourteenth-century Aragon. The second part analyses the reception of the friar's work, its adaptations, and translation into Castilian as it journeyed to the Castilian and Portuguese royal courts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Chapter 1 recovers the author, asking, "Who was this Francesc Eiximenis?" (21). Silleras-Fernández examines his circle, and the cultural, literary and social contexts whence his version of didactic writing emerged. She interrogates what motivated Eiximenis and what the agendas were that informed his work. She compares his agendas to the ideals and expectations of his contemporaries. She hammers home the point that, above all, Eiximenis was "a pragmatist and man of the world" (25). He needed the kings and queens of Aragon to be his patrons and facilitators, but he did not want to reside within the royal households, nor indeed did he act as royal confessor to any of the monarchs to whom he would have had more or less unfettered access. Silleras-Fernández claims that Eiximenis refused the honour of the post of confessor to Queen Violant of Bar, consort of Joan I, because he "considered the pair to be frivolous" (31). However, he did not act as confessor to either his "perfect Franciscan queen," María de Luna, nor yet his pious king, Martí I. Silleras-Fernández affirms that Eiximenis's policy towards the royal family consisted of being "close at hand, but not too close"; "he never served as confessor to anyone in the royal family and--although he was an occasional guest--he never resided at the royal court" (32).

Silleras-Fernández attends to court culture as manifested during the reign of Joan I and Violant of Bar, of whom Eiximenis clearly disproved. Joan and Violant were an extremely cultured and outward-looking king and queen: both were highly educated, literary and musically inclined. They were at the vanguard of humanism on the Iberian Peninsula. Violant, in particular, was responsible for a flowering of Catalan literary humanism due to her French tastes and her importation of the works of Guillaume Machaut--a textbook example of the way in which queens-consort acted as cultural and artistic vectors. Eiximenis was a Franciscan and a committed Scholastic, philosophically and temperamentally at odds with the proto-humanistic Joan and Violant and their cultural pursuits and priorities. In Violant's defence, Silleras-Fernández argues that, as well as importing cultural and literary innovations to the court of Aragon, "Violant's correspondence also shows her to be a key player in a network of readers including her French relatives and members of the Catalono-Aragonese nobility" (39). Eiximenis's writings lay bare "his distrust of the new French cultural models" (44) that had caught on since the marriage of Joan I to Violant of Bar, and that, for him at least, "France had become a kingdom that had lost its moral compass" (45). Upon the unexpected death of Joan I, Eiximenis fixed upon Violant of Bar's successor, María de Luna, to whom he directed his unswerving spiritual and political attentions, and to whom he dedicated his Scala Dei. The new queen's cultural and spiritual attention shifted definitively to Eiximenis. One might argue, however, that the baby went out with the bath water: banished was the "incipient humanism, scepticism and the love and entertainment literature" replaced by "the wisdom and conduct literature, and theological and moral treatises of the clerical-literary elite" (56). Eiximenis's moment had arrived.

Chapter 2 historicizes the Llibre de les dones, detailing the ways in which Sanxa Ximenis d'Arenós's unravelling personal circumstances informed its composition, arguing that its patroness would have read it in a very particular light. Sanxa was truly the inspiration behind this book, and Silleras-Fernández lays bare the fundamental concepts contained within this first iteration of the Llibre de les dones. In clear and engaging prose, Silleras-Fernández sketches out how Sanxa's marital troubles provided the contexts and subtexts of the Llibre de les dones and how analytical lenses such as gender and agency might be deployed to reinsert Sanxa's life and Eiximenis's work back into their shared context. She demonstrates convincingly that the Llibre de les dones "represents the first iteration of Eiximenis's approach to feminine devotion and morality" (96).

Chapter 3 explores Eiximenis's decision to rework much of his Llibre de les dones, rebranding it as the Scala Dei and dedicating it to Queen María de Luna. Silleras-Fernández exposes Eiximenis's project for Franciscan queenship, and the ways in which the canny and self-aware María used the friar's template to fashion her public persona. María's was a conscious act of "brand differentiation," a deliberate attempt to distance herself from the "worldly and foreign decadence of Joan and Violant" (97) of whom both she and Martí had been significant beneficiaries. It was with María's patronage that Eiximenis was most able to articulate his ideas, rendering them "an enduring model of Christian queenship and devotion" (16). Silleras-Fernández's insightful analysis of gender and performance and the ways in which an elite woman might follow and/or subvert the acceptable model is the most absorbing aspect of this chapter. Her case is subtly and well argued, and it adds significant value to current (re)thinking of the performative nature of gender in the pre-modern era.

Chapter 4 examines the linguistic journey of Eiximenis's texts from Catalan to Castilian, from the courts of Aragon to the court of Castile. Isabel I ordered a Castilian translation of the Llibre de les dones, transforming it into El libro de las donas. The Scala Deiwas referred to by Castilian religious reformers from García Jiménez de Cisneros to St Ignacio of Loyola. Sillleras-Fernández examines how the Catholic Kings negotiated their respective court, linguistic, and cultural identities, and how the Crown of Aragon functioned in partnership with Castile. She draws out the relationship between power and language, demonstrating the ways in which translation was "a fundamental motor of medieval literary culture" (172).

Chapter 5 analyses the changes made to the Libre de les dones/Libro de las donas as it was transformed into the Carro de las donas (Chariot of Ladies) for a new readership. Silleras-Fernández provides us with a means by which to assess the evolution of gender discourse and court culture on the Iberian Peninsula from the late middle ages to the early modern period. The appropriation and translation of Eiximenis's text was combined with new material inserted by the translator, harvested in part from Joan Lluís Vives's De institutione feminae christianae (On the Education of a Christian Woman) as well as other sources. The new version was taken up by Catalina of Habsburg, queen of Portugal, and her daughter, Maria Manuela of Portugal, first wife of Felipe of Asturias (later Felipe II, king of Spain), other Habsburg women, and a wider mid-sixteenth century female readership. Honing in on the transformation of, and additions to, Eiximenis's original text, Silleras-Fernández explains the changes in gender discourse during the transitional period between the medieval and early modern periods and reconsiders Joan Kelly's 1977 question: "Did Women Have a Renaissance?"

Like all carefully constructed and meticulously considered manuscripts, Chariots of the Ladies contains a few errors. Silleras-Fernández's book sent me running to my own recent monograph wherein I found a "clanger" of my own, inserting a Joan where a Jaume ought to have been. Lest I be accused of sketching a too-hagiographic review of Silleras-Fernández's splendid addition to the corpus of pre-modern historical and literary research, I note here some mildly disconcerting instances:

Christine de Pizan did not dedicate her Livre des trois vertus to Isabeau of Bavaria, specifically (11) or otherwise, but rather to Marguerite of Burgundy, possibly at the request of her father, Jean sans Peur. The Book of the Queen (ca.1413-14) held by the British Library (MS Harley 4431), a compendium of Christine de Pizan's writings assembled by her for presentation to Isabeau, contains a miniature of the author presenting her collected works to Isabeau (3r). Neither the Livre de la Cité des Dames nor the Livre des trois vertus, both completed around 1405, is dedicated to Isabeau of Bavaria. "The queen's (Violant's) aunt was Isabeau of Bavaria" (39). Isabeau was Violant's cousin-by-marriage. Violant had no surviving aunts at the time of her marriage to Joan in 1380. In 1380, Joan did not ask his mother, Elionor de Sicília, to send him and his new wife, Violant of Bar, "the book of John Mandeville, and the Romance of Machaut" (40). Elionor died in 1375. He wrote instead to his mother-in-law, Marie of France, a patroness and admirer of Machaut. Violant/Yolande of Aragon was not married to "Louis d'Anjou, son of Jean the Good of France (1350-64)" (43). She was married to Louis II d'Anjou, son of Louis d'Anjou, grandson of Jean the Good. It is not certain that in 1345 seventeen-year old Endre (András) of Hungary "intrigued that he too should be crowned" (46). It was pope Clement VI who decided that András ought to be crowned with Johanna to put an end to the factionalism and dysfunction of her teenaged court. It is inaccurate to suggest that Louis d'Anjou "briefly held Provence" (46). Anjou held Provence until it was annexed almost a century later in 1481 by Louis XI on the death of his uncle, Charles IV of Maine. Both were descended from Louis d'Anjou.

These small errors notwithstanding, this is a remarkable monograph, one I will keep close to hand as I continue to trudge along the dusty research camino to scholarly enlightenment. It is a must-read for scholars of pre-modern gender, political, literary and intellectual history. It promises to be a durable and valuable classic in its field.



Copyright (c) 2017 Zita Rohr



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