Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, Religious Women in Golden Age Spain: The Permeable Cloister, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005.

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, Religious Women in Golden Age Spain: The Permeable Cloister, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, £45 (hardback): Women and Gender in the Early Modern World series.

Reviewed by Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London, January 2007.


This is an important book because not only is it deeply rooted in wide-ranging manuscript research together with a clear understanding of existing secondary reading, but also it cuts new ground for historians of women religious in the early modern period. Lehfeldt brings together an appreciation of the internal life of the convent with a knowledge of the legal system and underlying economic conditions in the area chosen for her study. Her title is carefully worded, using the phrase ‘religious women’ to reflect the space she gives to beataswho chose to remain outside the convent rules but who were nevertheless important when considering the spiritual life of women in Spain in this period.

The opening of the book gives a striking example from 1997 of a Spanish convent defending its autonomy and property rights taking their case ultimately to Rome: an indication of the issues to be raised in the rest of the book and one which, as Lehfeldt points out, resonates with all historians of women religious. Lehfeldt’s study is based on records from twenty-three convents in Valladolid 1450-1650, a small city situated some 125 miles north west of Madrid. The importance of Valladolid in this period rests on the fact that by the sixteenth century it had become in effect the capital of Spain. The presence of the court brought benefits to the city and convents but in the long term it failed to prevent the economic crises of the early seventeenth century. On the one hand it brought prestige and people with money prepared to act as patrons of the convents: on the other these relationships required careful management by the convents needing to define boundaries between the secular and the religious life. Senior members of the convents had to understand the world outside the convent, particularly as falling values placed obstacles in the way of them conserving sufficient resources to ensure their long-term survival. At the same time, in order to attract significant patronage, convents needed to be recognised as centres of spiritual life. It was a two way relationship between convents and patrons. In return for patronage the convents offered prayers and masses and possibly a place for a female member of the family as a member or a lodger. It was not always an easy relationship to manage and many convents showed themselves to be tenacious litigators to protect their rights. Lehfeldt discusses the questions these issues raise about the role and identity of nuns in early modern Spain and how they perceived themselves.

The book can be divided into two main parts: in the first, Lefeldt looks at the relationships the nuns of Valladolid forged with the lay world outside the enclosure whether legal or economic and their relationships with their patrons. In the second part (covering the whole peninsula) she focuses on issues of reform; that is the internal life of the convent and the impact of reform movements both before Trent and the effect of the Tridentine decrees of 1563 and 1566. These in theory required strict enclosure for all women religious and would, (if fully enforced), curtail much of the activity discussed in the first part of the book. It is the tension between these elements that Lehfeldt explores so effectively.

 A key question in contemporary advice books for laity and ecclesiastics alike was female chastity and how best to protect it. Some considered that women religious could only be safe if they were strictly enclosed and subject to rigorous control by the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The decree Periculoso(1298) which theoretically created strict enclosure for women was only patchily enforced but, (Lehfeldt argues) this does not mean that the literary trope of the wayward and licentious nun was a widespread reality in Spain. Nevertheless there were examples of laxity in some convents and by the end of the fifteenth century the impetus for reform was widespread. The situation in Spain was complicated by the presence of beatas(religious women who did not have to follow the rule) living in convents. As with the later reforms from the Council of Trent, the imposition of reform from above led to some awkward situations where the nuns resented or even resisted external authority. However there were still considerable reforming initiatives besides the well-known Teresa of Avila (1512-82). For instance, Beatriz de Silva a lady in waiting at the Portuguese court whose inspiration to follow the religious life came during her three-day incarceration in a trunk. She had been shut up and left to die at the instigation of the queen who was jealous of her beauty. Beatriz went on to found a community of Conceptionist nuns in Toledo which received papal approval in 1489.

The imposition of strict claustration on women religious has been widely interpreted in a negative light. However for Lehfeldt, the situation is more complex than that. Strict observance of the rule could also be considered a sign of strength: it was still possible to attract patronage and mitigate boundaries between the secular and the sacred world, for example through literary production. By tracing those earlier reform movements in Spain, Lehfeldt argues that Trent should be seen as part of a continuum of reform. In the final part of the book, Lehfeldt demonstrates the varieties of the experience of female religiosity in early modern Spain by looking at the cross over between lay women, beatasand women religious finding ways to live in convents and testing the boundaries between the secular and religious. She also considers the ways in which local rights were used by the convents to challenge attempts by central authorities to impose unwanted reforms, providing the early modern versions of her opening story.

Non-specialist readers (including this one) would benefit from more contextual information for instance about Valladolid itself, the legal system and money values. However these are very small points and can be followed up elsewhere in a general text book. This is a fine study covering a huge amount of ground. The strength of this book rests on Lehfeldt’s detailed knowledge of her sources enabling her to demonstrate clearly the value of close reading and showing that complexity does not necessarily lead to muddy arguments.