gender and sexuality
love and marriage
imagined worlds
places and spaces
danger: love
writing and fame
la querelle femmes

The Bizarre and Shocking
Samantha Gorman

The Baroque Age was imbued with great paradox. The dichotomy between sensational indulgence in the bizarre and shocking and the decorous reserve warranted by the Inquisition provided for the emergence of a unique aesthetic. It is perhaps fitting that "[T]he name Baroque comes from the Portuguese barroco, which designates a pearl of irregular shape" (Barzun 333). The cultural value of the rare and extraordinary was propagated throughout the Baroque, inspiring the elite to assemble rooms called "wonder-cabinets." Used for entertainment, these rooms were filled with the era's irregular marvels: "pearls" whose luster ranged from elements of the macabre to the ambiguous. According to Stephanie Merrim, "The Baroque Age in the Hispanic worlds, orthodox and narrow-minded as it was in religious matters, exalted novelty and uniqueness, anything that would feed the insatiable taste for spectacle" (1990, 38). Fortunately, this Baroque idolatry of the extraordinary created an opening for transgressive "Tenth Muses" to capitalize on their unique position as female prodigies and bend social rules in order to achieve a measure of renown and freedom.

"The Bearded-Lady Phenomenon" (the public's fascination with masculine circus women) has been lauded throughout history. Among the carnivalesque aspects of the Baroque, the sensationalism behind the man/woman figure had particular prominence in encouraging fusion between male and female roles. Many of the illustrious women of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were considered neuters (viragos) by profession, position, or choice, providing an ambiguity that helped fortify their fame. The epithet of the manly-women designated those who were acclaimed as "women of genius." This is hardly surprising when one considers that: "For women, the decision to take up the life of the intellect has frequently meant giving up sexual or maternal lives. Conversely, certain intellectual insights and advances could be made by women only at life stages when they could be economically and emotionally independent of men" (Lerner 15-16). Especially poignant was the gender-neutral status of nuns and virgins, as evidenced by Queen Elizabeth's virginal entity: "Indeed if anyone sought to assimilate herself to the Renaissance notion of virago, it was Elizabeth-the virginal, 'honorary male.&' . . . her propaganda referred consistently to her ability to rule as "an exception to the Law of Nature" (Kelly 88). The astuteness of many of these famous female figures in manipulating masculine traditions to gain notoriety was also, in keeping with the paradox, a form of submission to the exhibitive and exploitive tendencies of the age. However, this submission to the "wonder-cabinet" was prolepsistic. It allowed the women writers to attain greater self-regulation than was available to other women of the Baroque period.

Catalina de Erauso

Alejo Caprentier writes, "What is the history of America if not a chronicle of the Marvel of the Real?" (Merrim 38). It is precisely this "marvel of the real" that gives validity to the legendary seventeenth-century nun turned transvestite soldier, Catalina de Erauso. Erauso's bold presence as a virago and the ambiguity surrounding her sexuality brought her such renown that she acquired a commission from the Crown and a dispensation from the Pope. She was accepted within the male-dominated archives of the Baroque period. If histories are indeed "construed from a male position" (Kelly 84), then it is not surprising that fame was accorded to women based on masculine concepts of achievement. In The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy, Gerda Lerner asserts:

There is a strong connection here to the question of the "women of genius," and of "outstanding women" or "notables" and "worthies." The latter categories have long been suspect in Women's History because the bias of patriarchally framed selection has tended to make only those women "notable" and "worthy" who did what men did and what men recognize as important. (16)

The biography of the "Lieutenant Nun" is a chronicle of masculine activity in the New World; regardless of authorship, the fact that it is based on a real figure-a woman who manipulated male constructs in a repressive age-probably accounted for its eventual popularity and publication.

"Catalina's celebrity was not only a sign of personal distinction; it was, as she tells it, an effect of paradox, risk, and excess" (Garber xvi). It is the amazing seduction of paradox that magnetized Divine Providence and benefactors toward Erauso. Her success correlated with the era's subconscious sexual intrigue and erotic fascination spawned from the bizarre appeal of the young pageboy and "the dark fantasy of procreation without a sex" (Garber xiix). Catalina's position as a virago (her proudest claim to identity was not sexuality but nationality) allowed her to transcend cultural boundaries and gain the prestige of a border-crossing conquistador. "Catalina, miraculously herself still a virgin, eluding the claims of her 'natural' parents and family, confounds the 'forbidden mixtures' of gender, sexuality, class, and nation to emerge as a sign of Spain's-and Catholicism's-primacy in a changing and mysterious world" (Garber xiix). When Erauso finally reveals her true identity, she secures her spot in the "wonder-cabinet" of the Age. Her existence became an apotheosis; she achieved eminence and won pride instead of repulsion due to the singularity of her exploits. The symbolic aspects of her popularity were not lost on the potentates; like many of her contemporaries, Erauso became a political tool. Dutch scholars Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van der Pol write that, "female soldiers had a propaganda value: the monarch could show to the world that even women rallied under his banners" (qtd. in Garber xiix). However, Erauso cleverly transformed the king's exploitation of her fame into one of the Crown by capitalizing on her unique position in order to gain monetary compensation from the monarchy. The "Petition of Catalina de Erauso" records Erauso asking "that her services and long wanderings and valiant deeds be rewarded, thereby showing his greatness; [rewarding her] for the worthiness of her deeds and for the singularity and prodigiousness of her life" (qtd. In Trueblood 37). Through the clever manipulation of male forms and the power of her mystique as a virago, Erauso resourcefully used elements of the bizarre and shocking in order to bend societal constructs for personal gain. "Catalina, quite literally neither the one thing nor the other, carved out for herself the freedom to transgress, and-like the most successful gender-benders of today's popular culture and the arts-was rewarded for her temerity, however briefly, with fame and money" (Garber xix).

María de Zayas y Sotomayor

Spanish writer María de Zayas y Sotomayor "wielded her pen as a sword" (Boyer 1990, xxvi), but fought a very different war. Her virago status was implied by the exaltation she received on behalf of her success in literature: "To give the title of the 'Tenth Muse' to María de Zayas, . . . favored in those days as a way of recognizing distinction in women who had made their mark in literature, . . . was a somewhat ambiguous act" (Sabat-Rivers 144). Thus, Zayas received exalted as well as condemned status. Zayas wrote to effect change in the way woman were perceived and treated in her time. Unlike Erauso, Zayas's manipulation of the bizarre pertains not to her life, but to the content of her stories. Zayas was a master at subverting the exemplary novellas of Miguel de Cervantes into a compendium of shock in order to draw an audience for into brazen women's advocacy. She broke from the mold of love poetry and other acceptable women's genres and instead used miracles and the macabre to accentuate her feminism. She was probably well aware of the novelty of her position. As Joan Kelly states, "For a woman to talk back to ribaldry and misogyny was new, in writing at least, in the language of literature and learning" (71). The literary circles of her time propagated Zayas as a novelty. In the "Prologue by an Objective Reader" that opens her Enchantments of Love, Zayas is acclaimed as, "A brilliant talent in our country, a portent of our age, a wonder of all time, and a marvel among the living." her reviewer (possibly Zayas herself) goes on to say, "I exaggerate little if you take into account the fact that heaven has placed such consummate abilities in the weak sex of a woman; abilities that surpass everything talent praises and applause celebrates" (Boyer 4). However, it is not only her position as a woman but also the ambiguity of her identity that has contributed to Zayas's fame. Scholars have engaged in speculations about her life ranging from her personal beauty to her possible engagements in tragic love affairs (Boyer 1997, 2). Although she doesn&'t possess a physical ambiguity like Erauso, her power of intrigue and seduction lies in the mystery of her literary accomplishments as a woman who leaves little biographical information. In a sense, the missing details of her life function as tools of wonderment that fascinate the public and allot her a shelf in the "wonder-cabinet" of the Baroque. The content of Zayas's novels plays into the Baroque aesthetic of the shocking. One wonders if Zayas used her feminist message as a sensationalistic ploy to earn monetary success in the same way that she probably used the macabre to attain public appeal. Zayas's grotesque tales "were lauded as exemplary by the censors" even though "they treat moral issues and present material (e.g. rape, battering, murder) with a frankness that seems shocking to us" (Boyer 1990, xxv). Zayas's frankness pertains not only to the bizarre content of her novellas, but also to her shocking feminist message.

"Besides raising some provocative questions, each of the ten enchantments relies on some sort of catchy device intended to enchant and amaze (maravillar)"; Zayas often employed "flashy literary device[s]" (Boyer 1990, vviii), of magic and the supernatural. Zayas imbues her stories with the religious elements of the miraculously shocking that were prominent in the Baroque period. She implies a definitive connection between Christ and the martyrdom of women who are put to death because of their gender, not their faith. The comparison of women and Christ shocks in itself. Moreover, "Given the explicit exemplarity of the disenchantments . . . it is interesting to note that the Inquisition's censors found nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in these novellas; indeed, they considered them highly edifying" (Boyer 1997, 14). The imagery of the holy body and blood permeates Zayas's work: "Indeed, contrary to all the rules of poetic justice, the most repeated motif in the twenty novellas is the victimization of an innocent woman sacrificed on the altar of love, or honor, a motive reminiscent of stories of the early Christian martyrs" (Boyer 1990, xxx). This Baroque association is illustrated by Mencía's murder at the hands of her brother and father; her continuously bleeding body, revered as "immaculate" (Boyer 1997, 15), suggests stigmata. The victim is always a woman, and her body always preserved in the untarnished status of angelic sainthood.

Through the shocking desecration of the female body, Zayas explores the underside of chivalric love. Also found in Marguérite de Navarre's The Heptameron, the motif of unjustified wife abuse, torture, and killing-often in the name of honor-figures prominently in The Disenchantments: "In this work, the central theme is women's powerlessness and inability to cope, expressed in extreme and bizarre cases of female victimization and male cruelty" (Boyer 1997, xvi). It follows that, "One of the most amazing and "modern" aspects of Zayas's stories is the way they probe men's darkest feelings of insecurity, fear, and rage, which are then inscribed on women's bodies" (Boyer 1997, xiii). In this sense, Zayas's women are literary martyrs: a shocking sacrifice on the altar of edification. Like her own identity as a "Tenth Muse," Zayas's women are constructed as symbols. The female characters are meant to inspire reaction rather than to articulate their own stories, which remain ambiguous and undeveloped: "instead we are left only the macabre body imagery to contemplate" (Boyer 1997, 17). Yet, "Zayas appears to delight in her transgressive creativity, in exceeding the bounds of propriety by depicting homoeroticism, rape, murder, and parricide, topics we still don't easily talk about today" (Boyer 1997, 22). However, "love for the baroque Zayas is war," and women, "do not remain unscathed from these battles despite their cleverness" (Merrim 1999, xxxvi). Unfortunately, cleverness often grants little solace to the progressive woman. Throughout history, women have been martyred for their intelligence and raped for their ambition:

The victims of rape are frequently presented as women distinguished by being particularly active, clever or virtuous. Rape seeks to show that they are none of these. It has been claimed as a general principle that in periods when women show signs of assertiveness there is a corresponding preoccupation with violence against them (Chilton 17).

Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz

Rape has been used as a tool of war to put women in their place and as a method for subverting female intellect. However, in Sor Juana's "First Dream" (1692), the feminine soul cedes briefly to assault in order to resurrect as a manifestation of the indomitable: "The protagonist, after suffering great trials, manages to tell her story and . . . assumes control over her destiny by choosing to live in a sisterhood beyond the sexual economy, sometimes as a nun, sometimes as a secular guest" (Boyer 1997, 23).

Sor Juana was one such refugee. In order to pursue the intellectual freedom denied women of the Baroque age, Sor Juana took refuge in a convent. Before Sor Juana's superiors censured her intellectual pursuits, she, like Erauso and Zayas, was considered a marvel of her age. In the Catholic "wonder-cabinet" of Mexico, Sor Juana occupied the top shelf. Yet, "To live by the pen could be esthetically limiting and liberating. . . . In the case of Sor Juana, writing for mass consumption activated a carnivalesque popular voice" (Merrim 1990, xxxix). In order to sustain her popularity, support, and freedom to write, Sor Juana ceded to her own novelty in a political prolepsis to support her literary position and her intellectual freedom. By writing on non-ecclesiastical topics, , ,Sor Juana created her reputation as a literary "bearded-lady." "We may wonder whether the glory accorded to this woman in her own day, in a post-Renaissance period, was due to her genius itself or to those Baroque ideas of being unusual, extraordinary, and amazing in a topsy-turvy world" (Sabat-Rivers 144). Sor Juana astutely capitalized on and subverted her identity in accord with the Baroque aesthetic of the bizarre, assuring that through her fame she would be granted the special privileges that would allow her to work. "Sor Juana exploited the dominant culture's own mechanisms and ideologies to legitimate her personal anomaly and to gain herself autonomy (Merrim 1999, xl).

Sor Juana capitalized on her sexual ambiguity as a nun. Further, she defeminized herself and transcended expectations by excelling in the male-dominated literary arena. While the elite tastes of the court, with its "wonder-cabinet" esthetic, praised Sor Juana's rarity, the patriarchical Church was troubled her paradoxical existence:

The cause of the conflict . . . was the contradiction the high prelates found between her situation as a nun and her literary aspirations. Added to this was their animosity toward women: the prelates shared the ideas of their time and could only view female excellence with hostility. (Paz 494)

Faced with mounting hostility, did Sor Juana realize that she was predestined an Icarian fate? Was she romanced by the idea, and furthermore, did she allow herself to follow that path?

In the "Reply to Sor Philotea" (1691), Sor Juana represented herself as a Christ figure. Like Zayas, she shocked her reader with the image of the martyred woman. However, her mutilation entailed oppression of the soul and intellect: "Sor Juana, for her part, devotes an extensive and astonishing section of the 'Respuesta&' to comparing herself, as a woman ostracized and martyred for her intelligence, with the suffering experienced by Christ due to his exceptionality" (Merrim 1999, xvii). In the letter in which she broke with her confessor, Father Antonio Nuñez de Miranda, Sor Juana proclaims, "one and all wish me to conform to the rules of their judgment; so that from all sides comes such a singular martyrdom as I deem none other has ever experienced" (Paz 497). The themes of divine election and suffering permeate Sor Juana's literary voice, making her particularly susceptible to jealousy and persecution. Sor Juana's virago status as a nun enhances the threat of her intellectual assaults; her detractors are presented with the dilemma of her identity, and thus their attack is blunted. Should they admonish her as a fellow scholar or as a woman? This confusion crystallizes the danger that she presents to her detractors as "a woman, a nun, who, by making use of every recourse available to women, offered new solutions to the old problems of man, inscribing herself fully within a universal human problematic" (Sabat-Rivers 157).

In the "Reply" Sor Juana suggests that her verses are divinely inspired; by proclaiming that God sanctifies her talent despite her sex, Sor Juana gives credence to her intellectual pursuits. Utilizing superficial self-castigation, she cleverly plays with the contradiction of submissive text and aggressive subtext. Sor Juana's sarcastic and biting wit reveals her aggression. Whether or not divinely ordered, Sor Juana's flagrant trespass of social bounds rendered her a threat to the patriarchy. The novelty of her position allowed her to obtain a certain degree of intellectual freedom via benefactors even while subject to ecclesiastic scrutiny. Eventually, she would fall victim to the patriarchy that feared her advancement as a virago and as a scholar. The church would come to consider her eminence akin to the perception of the cross-dressing woman in the seventeenth-century misogynistic pamphlet "Hic Mulier," which described manly-women as "most pernicious to the Commonwealth, for she hath power by example to doe it a world of injury'" (qtd. in Merrim, 1999, xxviii).

Although her sexual contradictions eventually contributed to Sor Juana's downfall, she was astute enough to take advantage of them in order to obtain a measure of freedom. Clinging to her status as a virginal nun, Sor Juana was able to navigate the loopholes provided by the Baroque taste for the bizarre and shocking:

Singular and prodigious phenomena-the predilection for dwarves, captured in Velázquez's paintings; the eccentric figure of Don Quixote tilting at windmills-struck the fancy of the public and elite. Sor Juana, in a certain sense, was one such phenomenon. Therefore, despite her trespassing of church orthodoxy, despite the anomaly of her accomplishments and audacity as a woman, Sor Juana was widely celebrated in the Old and New Worlds. (Merrim 1990, 38)

Sor Juana, like other "Tenth Muses" of her time, benefited from the Baroque fascination with the bizarre and shocking that allowed space for women to be displayed in the "wonder-cabinet" as "pearls" of their age: rare, commoditized, illustrious, and ornamental. Even in the cultural element of our times, a woman's voice still contains elements of novelty and intrigue. In certain circles, women's voices are still perceived as a novelty and valued more for elements of diversity and sexuality than for their artistic achievement. Elements that appear to lend themselves to this exploitation include, but are not limited to the "Bearded-Lady Phenomenon" and the role of the virago.

As we have seen, both Erauso and Sor Juana were famed viragos. It seems that "contradiction and category conflation serve as focal points both for the two women's advantageous fame" (Merrim 1999, xl). Erauso was masculine in her costume, her look, and her manner. She "effectively erased her femininity by living as a man and comporting herself bravely in the male sphere of arms" (Merrim 1990, 38). While Erauso utilized actual "masculine" swordsmanship to enhance her notoriety, Zayas and Sor Juana battled via their pens. The two women achieved virago status through their use of another male form: letters. Sor Juana's prodigious intellect helped create her iconic stature, while Zayas's astute deployment of male literary forms ("exemplary novels") secured her fame. The content of both writers&' works also shocked. Sor Juana wrote erotic love poetry "atypical for a nun" (Merrim 1999, xi), while Zayas utilized elements of the macabre and magic. Both women subverted the male concept of Christian martyrdom into feminist weaponry. Biographical issues also enhance the tabloid intrigue and desire to read these women's works. On one hand, the notable lives of Sor Juana and Erauso on varying levels generated their literary fame. On the other, almost complete lack of biographical material has driven the modern fascination with resurrecting Zayas's work.

These female viragos, active in male spheres, capitalized on their unique position to bend social restrictions and achieve a measure of self-determination. Erauso yielded to being exploited as political propaganda in order to obtain money from the King and the right to dress as a man. Zayas marketed herself as a woman to gain fame and audience. Sor Juana took advantage of the contradiction between her position as a nun and her literary aspirations in order to solicit protection from her political and ecclesiastical superiors. Her "prostitution" of identity constituted a cunning gambit for self-advancement. That the works of these writers exist to this day serve as a poignant testimony to the astuteness of the manipulation of sexual identity; as seen in Zayas's disclaimer to The Enchantments of Love: "I offer this book to you, trusting your generosity and knowing that if it displeases you, you will excuse me because I was born a woman, with no obligation to write good novellas but a great desire to serve you well" (2).

Although hallowed as luminaries of their times, Sor Juana, Erauso, and Zayas temporarily receded into varying levels of obscurity. The disappearance of biographical information on Zayas perhaps owes to her detractors, such as George Ticknor. "The fate of her work reflects historical attitudes toward women through time and culture" (Zayas 1990, xii). Many mysteries remain even in the well-documented case of Sor Juana, who became the tragic figure of Icarus, hurled down by the church. Such censorship verifies Zayas's preoccupation with rape. As Sor Juana appropriately states, "Heaven help me, then doing extraordinary things is sufficient reason for putting someone to death" (Trueblood 220). However, as the modern age has proved, these women are not lost; the souls of their intellect revitalize in triumph. As in Sor Juana's "First Dream," the penetrating rays of "Father Sun" cannot squelch the feminine soul. Inevitably, the spirit arises phoenix-like from the ashes, towards new conquests of intellect. Thus, the legend of Erauso and the works of Zayas's and Sor Juana have been resurrected, after having been martyred for their extraordinary, singular existence.


- Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
- Chilton, Paul A. Introduction. The Heptameron. By Marguerite de Navarre. London: Penguin, 1984.
- Garber, Marjorie. Forward. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. By Catalina de Erauso. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. vii-xxiii.
- Kelly, Joan. Women, History, and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
- Lerner, Gerda. Introduction. "The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy." Women and History Vol. 2. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Merrim, Stephanie. Introduction: "Catalina de Erauso: Prodigy of the Baroque Age," Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, 43 (1990). 37-41.
---Introduction. Early Modern Women's Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.
- Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
- "Petition of Catalina de Erauso to the Spanish Crown, 1625." Trans. Stephanie Merrim, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, 43 (1990). 37-41.
- Sabat-Rivers, Georgina. "A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana's Dream." Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Ed. Stephanie Merrim. Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1991.
Stepto, Michele. Introduction. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. By Catalina de Erauso. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
- Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. "Reply to Sor Philotea." Ed. and trans. Alan S. Trueblood. A Sor Juana Anthology. Boston: Harvard, 2001. 205-243.
- Zayas y Sotomayor, María de. The Enchantments of Love. Trans. and introduction by H. Patsy Boyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
---. The Disenchantments of Love. Trans. and introduction by H. Patsy Boyer. Albany: The State University of New York Press, 1997.

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