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Delbrugge, ed., Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Claussen)

  • 25 Oct 2017 9:32 AM
    Message # 5349592
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Delbrugge, Laura, ed. Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. Leiden: Brill, 2015, ix. 371 pp. ISBN 9789004250482.

    Reviewed by Samuel Claussen

    California Lutheran University

    Nearly forty years after the publication of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, the book’s theoretical frameworks and fields of inquiry are still strikingly relevant.  Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, a collection of studies edited by Laura Delbrugge, profoundly underscores this relevance, as Greenblatt’s approach is expanded in both time and space to incorporate the late Middle Ages with a focus on the Iberian Peninsula.  Many of the chapters in the volume delve deep into literary theory in order examine the development and self-fashioning strategies of aristocrats, religious converts, and kings.  The contributors to this work demonstrate that analyses of self- fashioning will continue to broaden our knowledge of individuals, communities, and ideas in this period.

    One of the strengths of this volume is its cohesiveness.  Several themes tie various chapters together and the reader has the delight of referring back and forth to chapters as he or she is drawn into the various chapters.  Female self-fashioning in Iberia is one such theme, bringing together at least five of the twelve chapters in an exciting intersection of gender studies, Greenblatt’s approach, and Iberian history and literature.  Zita Rohr’s exploration of royal female agency is particularly insightful at this intersection.  Rohr examines a series of related royal women and their efforts to self-fashion themselves as stateswomen.  Elionor of Sicily, Violant of Bar, and María de Luna successfully projected their identities as powerful and competent

    queens-consort, according to Rohr, through the assembly of their households, the writing of letters, and the cultivation of proper manners and behavior. On the other hand, Sibil∙la de Fortiá largely failed to establish herself as a successful queen consort because she was incapable of cultivating an image of acceptable queenship and primarily sponsored her own family’s successes.  Instead, according to Rohr, it was Sibil∙la’s husband, Pere IV of Aragon, who attempted to fashion her role. Without her own investment and commitment, she failed. Rohr’s chapter is most useful not only in its exploration of Iberian self-fashioning, but also because it neither reduces women to being the pawns of active men nor asserts that all queens were powerful and independent actors.  Instead, Rohr rightly suggests that individual women succeeded or failed in the context of their own actions, environments, and historical realities.

    Joining Rohr’s chapter in its focus on the theme of gender in this volume are Wendell P. Smith’s assessment of self-fashioning and the gender debate in fifteenth century Castile, Núria Silleras-Fernández’ presentation of letters of advice for a queen-to-be, and Mark D. Johnston’s close examination of a letter of advice to a Castilian countess. Wendell’s chapter uses the context of the late medieval debate over the admirable or contemptible nature of women in order to build a complex argument about authorial presence. The author identifies a shift in authorial identity in the fifteenth century: not from a lack of individualism to an emphasis on individualism, but from self-fashioning to self-cancellation.  In other words, Wendell argues that male authors more and more sought to hide their identities as they used the gender debate and the reality of female sovereigns to create and defend a space for masculine action and privilege.  Wendell’s chapter is useful especially as it moves Greenblatt’s work in a new direction, emphasizing the possibility of self-cancellation alongside the more traditional self-fashioning. Silleras-Fernández, meanwhile, exhibits a number of letters written to Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal as she prepared to marry the future Emperor Carlos V.  These letters of advice, written by her parents, strongly suggest that both the mother and father of the princess sought to fashion Maria Manuela in their own image rather than providing a space for her to self-fashion in her own way.  Similarly, Johnston’s chapter argues that Hernando de Talavera, the Archbishop of Granada in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century and the confessor to Queen Isabel, provided a theologically grounded model for the self-fashioning of the Countess of Benavente.  Talavera wrote a treatise for the countess counseling her on the management of her affairs and her daily life and in doing so, it would appear, helped her to project an identity as a powerful woman. Just like the evidence presented by Silleras-Fernández, this evidence suggests the ability of relatives or acquaintances to shape a medieval or early modern woman’s self-fashioning. Each of these chapters usefully builds on Greenblatt’s original approach to the concept of self-fashioning.

    Beyond the question of gender, the volume provides a very interesting examination of communal or corporate identities and applies the theoretical framework of self-fashioning to them.  Caroline Smith’s chapter is particularly interesting and insightful on this point.  Looking at the canons of the cathedral chapter of Girona, Smith argues that these men blended their identities as secular nobles of the area with their new calling in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. They jealously retained the rights of the secular aristocracy even as they embraced their clerical duties and privileges.

    As Smith notes, the canons compromised in their dual identities rather than allowing them to come into conflict.  Montserrat Piera also identifies a communal self-fashioning through her examination of the Cartagena family in late medieval Castile.  Piera notes that this converso family actively sought to create an admittedly liminal space for themselves through their embrace of intellectual and political activity.  By drawing parallels between the legitimacy- challenged Trastámara dynasty and the experience of conversos, Piera argues, the Cartagena family was able to tie its fortunes to the success of the dynasty and protect itself in a world that could be challenging for former Jews. The application of self-fashioning theory to communal groups is a most useful expansion of Greenblatt’s approach and significantly advances the historical understanding of corporate and communal identities.

    As a whole the volume is not only an important contribution to the field, but an impressively cohesive examination of a diverse range of topics.

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