The more I read history, the more I encounter fascinating - and somewhat monomaniacal - people, living lives of glorious challenge to the received wisdoms of both their contemporaries and the modern audience. Take the Spanish missionary and would-be martyr Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza (1566-1614), subject of a slim new biography, The She-Apostle, by Glyn Redworth (kindly sent to me, at my request, by OUP). She was a strange creature in her own time: a pious woman living with neither male presence nor convent walls to protect (and constrain) her, a noble who chose a life of public poverty, a meddler whose religious fervour led her to put herself in situations thought suitable only for men. She looks more than a little odd to us, too: a writer of spiritual poetry ardent with her desire for martyrdom and a tower of determination in pursuit of her own abuse, patiently pretending to take her (male) superiors' advice for years, while playing the long game to get what she wanted.
Born to high social status - both her parents came from great aristocratic lineages, as her name reflects - Luisa's life ought to have been one of great privilege and conventionality. Spanish noblewomen received, apparently, a good education by the standards of Europe at the time, but their major role was, nonetheless, to marry well and continue the family line. But Luisa was orphaned by the age of six, after typhoid carried off both her parents in quick succession, and raised instead as part of the family of an uncle, who fostered her spiritual ambitions in disturbing (if not entirely unprecedented, particularly in Spain at this time) ways.
Despite Redworth's lightness of touch elsewhere in the book, the account of Luisa's adolescent
introduction to hatred of the body, and mortification of
the flesh, makes for upsettingly grim
and even prurient reading. This man, we're told,
inflicted on her what to us - and possibly even to her - was a shocking degree of physical penance. Once settled in Pamplona, he began to 'exercise' her in an exceptional way which she was the first to admit 'went against my natural inclination, I being then only fourteen years of age'. Her uncle selected as her tormentor a female servant whom he could trust not to breathe a word to his wife about the mortifications and whippings that were being unleashed. These secret sessions often took place in a clandestine chapel.
In her later writings, Luisa does not hide discomfort at what was done to her - even if she presents it as essential to her spiritual strength and development - describing how she was
[...] tied to a column that was constructed specifically to this end and my feet on the cold ground, and a hemp rope at my throat [...] Sometimes I could tell how many blows of the whip there were because that person counted them in a way that I could hear. And I recall that sometimes there were one hundred and at times fifty or more, and it seems to me there were never fewer. And I think they many times exceeded a hundred, but I can't be sure, because my memory of it is hazy. The pain, as I said, was not little, nor the chill that entered my bones on the very cold days of winter, because the ground was very cold.
Redworth notes that Luisa's uncle (and, apparently, Luisa herself) sought to keep this practice secret from his wife, who did not approve of it, and (tellingly) would not allow him to do it to their own daughters. (One wonders what she could have done to stop him even had she known, though, given the balance of household power in this period.) Redworth considers the suggestion that the abuse was carried out at least in part for her uncle's gratification, but rejects this on two grounds: firstly, that there is no evidence he watched (indeed, apparently quite the contrary - although it seems to me, unsettlingly, that a man with such leanings wouldn't necessarily need to watch to get a thrill out of her agony and obedience, or his domination); secondly, that Luisa presents herself in her (much later) memoirs as having been a willing participant. On the latter count I am uncertain how much store should be set by Luisa's claims; it is clear that she internalised the abuse, and that self-harm and self-deprivation came to be central to her way of life, an ongoing demonstration of her piety. Still, this was not an uncommon means of devotion in the Spain of her day.
In any case, she emerged from the experience with a well-honed ability (and desire?) to suffer pain, and a cause in furtherance of which she longed to incur it: her faith.
Luisa spent the next few decades battling against her remaining family and against her religious superiors. Firstly, she fought to live both independently and in poverty, heading a small, all-female household devoted to charity, prayer, scripture, and (in Luisa's case) bodily mortification. This was a source of great scandal to her family, who were thus made to look as if they could not support her (pious poverty only being acceptable when cloistered and obedient, away from the public gaze), and to her neighbours, who struggled to envisage women living alone without some form of impropriety being attached. Secondly, she fought to give away her entire inheritance to the Jesuits, which necessitated a court case against her brother stretching over many long, damaging years. Thirdly, in order both to court martyrdom and escape pressure to give up her independent life in favour of a convent, she fought to be allowed to go to England, as a missionary and a witness, in writing, to the martyrdoms of English Catholics. (Both of these things were considered roles for men, and earned her much disapprobation, in life and in death.)
Above all, she sought to embody a different sort of life for a Christian woman: female piety that was active in the world, rather than contemplative behind screening walls.
Luisa continually resists easy categorisation: although she looks like (and in many ways was) a survivor of childhood abuse conditioned to seek out pain and suffering, she was also - by her own and others' testimony - a person of great courage and resilience who chose, and kept choosing, the life she led out of sincere and considered belief. Redworth also rejects some scholars' arguments that Luisa was merely the puppet of the Jesuits and other powerful ecclesiastical and political figures, sent over the parapet to draw Protestant fire and serve as a symbol to other Catholics across Europe; he traces, convincingly, how she pursued her own goals throughout her life. As he puts it:
Redworth writes engagingly, arranging his narrative in short, broadly chronological chapters, peppered with quotations from the writings of Luisa, her companions, and other contemporaries who discussed her. If I have one major reservation about the biography, it is the approach to these sources. Redworth spends time discussing them generally, and he acknowledges that Luisa wrote about her early life in a highly programmatic way - that is, years later, with the aim of explaining and justifying herself to her spiritual advisers, or in letters to supporters and friends. But in the rest of the book I often felt that Redworth was not engaging as fully as he might with the context for Luisa's various statements - on which he, after all, relies for much of his detail and especially for her motivations - and the extent to which she remade herself and her past, repeatedly and for very specific ends, through her writings.
Still, this is a lively book that evokes its time and contextualises its subject well: the "hothouse world of fanaticism" of religiously-divided 16th-century Europe, and of rigid, enriched, physical penance-obsessed Spain in particular, a newly-unified country that had only within the last few generations completed its 'reconquest' and ethnic cleansing of the Iberian Peninsula. Luisa was a product of this time, fired up by popular tales of persecution and the brisk trade in relics from Catholic martyrs - something she became involved in once she reached England, collecting (illegally, and thus at great personal risk) remains and scraps of clothing to send home to the faithful. She was also inspired by examples presented by the spiritual biographies of a host of remarkable religious women across Europe (a form of writing that undoubtedly influenced the way she lived, and presented herself).
She arrived in England in 1604, shortly before the Gunpowder Plot: a time of heightened expectation and tension alike (Catholics hoped that the new king, James VI and I, would extend greater toleration to them than had Elizabeth, Puritans and other extremist Protestants feared such compromise with the 'enemy'), which soon threatened to collapse into serious civil violence after the Plot stoked anti-Catholic fears. James, greatly to his credit (full disclosure: I'm a fan), acted to prevent this:
From the very spot where he was supposed to have been blown up only days before, he had the moral courage to say in his speech from the throne that, although their religion had led a few Catholic hotheads to conspire against him, it did not 'follow that all professing that Romish religion were guilty of the same', and he roundly condemned extremism among Catholics and Protestants.
But James was, as ever, short of money, and had already reimposed recusancy fines (penalties for those who did not attend a Protestant church, i.e. Catholics). While he resisted more general persecution, and a purge of Catholic ministers, he also enacted legislation requiring that all Catholics give an Oath of Allegiance declaring that their highest loyalty was to him as monarch of their country (rather than, e.g., the Pope).
The main crisis was averted, therefore, and life was generally easier for Catholics in England than it had been under James' predecessor. But the rhetoric remained vituperative - as attested by the ongoing popularity of works like Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and, later, the reaction to Charles I's various idiocies - and some Catholics were willing to die rather than take the Oath. It was in this atmosphere that Luisa set out her stall. She missionised in the streets of London, sheltered Catholic women in her household, circulated subversive Jesuit literature, and encouraged young Englishmen to go to Pamplona and elsewhere for a good - and somewhat radicalising - Jesuit education. (I can't help but think that today se would have been deported for Glorifying Terrorism...)
She was arrested repeatedly (but, frustratingly for her, went long un-martyred), and was not always welcomed even by Catholics: she had a difficult relationship with a succession of Spanish ambassadors (several of whom saw her as a political embarrassment), and found London's well-to-do Catholics remarkably uncharitable and unwilling to support her. Her household seems to have been maintained by donations, and a stipend via the embassy; she and her followers also earned a small income from crafts. Her profile was raised with the arrival of the sympathetic Count Gondomar, Spanish ambassador from 1613, but the risks increased accordingly. Eventually she was arrested again and her house was raided, with considerable violence, by the king's men; apparently there were rumours of bomb-making equipment inside. While the situation was defused by Gondomar's intervention, Luisa was left very ill, and finally got (something approaching) her wish, dying from the effects of her imprisonment soon afterwards.
Luisa emerges as a fascinating, strong-willed, and unsurprisingly morbid person. Redworth calls her "spiritually macabre", describing how in 1608 she wrote to Thomas Garnett ahead of his execution for refusing the Oath, telling him "she was jealous of his impending good fortune". Also illuminating is the language used in the Rule that she drew up for her non-convent household, whose
opening section concluded in a way typical of Luisa but shockingly different from anything else written for religious women at this time. It ended with an invocation that 'our path might lead to a violent and fortunate death'!
Her poetry, meanwhile, illustrates the extent to which her faith revolved around bodily mortification and the desire for martyrdom. Pain brought her closer to God, and to live without it was a torment:
trials now gone, victorious hour,
delightful and glorious infamy,
holocaust burnt in a thousand flames
tell me, Love, why has this fortunate fate
gone so far away from me
and the pleasing and pleasureful chain
changed into harsh freedom for me?