“Fearless Females of the Global Renaissance”: A Critique of “Renaissance” in the New World.

On 17 February 2015, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies sponsored two lectures jointly presented as Fearless Females of the Global Renaissance.

In one presentation, Marsha Fazio covered Arcangela Tarabotti, a 17th-century monachized nun who wrote extensively on her dissatisfaction with the monastic lifestyle forced upon her and other “unmarriageable” Venetian girls of the same socioeconomic standing. Tarabotti’s works condemn the church for its dishonesty in portraying the convent as a sugar-plum paradise to young, impressionable girls. Her writings also condemn the Catholic Church for disregarding the free will of women who might have neither the interest nor the constitution to don the habit. Written in the 17th century, her works are positively proto-feminist, a fact made plain by the title and content of one book in particular, Paternal Tyranny, which the Church added to the index of banned books because of its anticlerical stance.

In the other presentation, Professor Sharonah Fredrick discussed the problems with the historical characterization of Malinche, the 16th-century Nahua girl who has been treated by historians, artists, and Mexican society in general as a harlot and as a traitor to the Mexican people. Likely 15 years old during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Malinche was chosen by Hernan Cortes to translate and to assist him as he treated with the tribes surrounding the Aztec Empire. She bore Cortes a son, Don Martin Cortes, who turned out to be the conquistador’s favorite among all of his children, legitimate or illegitimate. Spanish chroniclers write that Malinche was key in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Influenced by the nationalist agendas of 19th-century romantic historians, modern Mexico still holds Malinche’s name and character in contempt. Diego Rivera painted her with tattoos – marks that only a prostitute in the Aztec Empire would bear. Her place of birth is continually disputed, with no region in Mexico wanting to claim her as theirs for fear that associations with her will bring contempt upon them. Even academics in Mexico – historians, anthropologists, archeologists – play the petty game of disowning Malinche. It’s a common insult on the streets of Mexico to say, “La Malinche es tu madre.” A malinchista refers to those who are allured by foreign values, who have no national (i.e., Mexican) spirit.

But Sharonah Fredrick reasons that Malinche is a national scapegoat for those who cannot come to terms with the fact that Spain stood to conquer the Aztec Empire with or without the assistance of a figure such as Malinche. Frederick continues that while Malinche bore Cortes a son and enjoyed relative favor from him during the conquest, it’s inaccurate for scholars to characterize her as Cortes’s intimate lover: Malinche was a slave, and as such, she could not have consented to the relationship and to her pregnancy. Cortes did with her as he pleased.

Last, it’s important to note that the accounts documenting the role of Malinche in the conquest of the Aztec Empire were written by Spanish men. Unlike the Venetian nun Tarabotti, who was armed with a pen, Malinche does not have a voice in the historical record to tell her story during the conquest. A chronicler writes that Malinche wept as the Cholula people were slaughtered in the thousands by Cortes, who, heeding Malinche’s warnings about their plans to turn on him, preempted their revolt. But again, because she does not have her own voice in the record, we do not have a clear idea on the source of those tears. Did she weep under the burden of guilt, knowing that she was complicit in the slaughter? Did she weep perhaps because the tension of being pulled in two opposite directions, in one direction by the Cholula and in the other by the Spanish, proved too much for her on a psychological or emotional level? Did she weep at all? Should her role in the Cholula uprising be qualified? Having access to Malinche’s own words would have allowed us to answer these questions with more satisfaction. But instead we must make do with the biased words of conquering men as we try to characterize Malinche.

The speakers framed their lectures with the notion that these women were actors in a global renaissance. Indeed, there is a new tendency in academia to apply the concept of the Renaissance more broadly to the world and not to limit its application exclusively to late-medieval and early modern Europe. Meaning the rebirth of a society’s intellectual, literary, artistic, and civic traditions that might have been lost or muted in previous eras, the term “Renaissance” can be quite loaded, and often it is selectively used (and withheld) to periodize eras of history. Medieval Europe showed many instances of cultural and intellectual rebirth in various areas – for example, in the Carolingian empire or in Visigothic Spain – but many historians continue to reserve the Renaissance for the flourishing and export of Italian achievements from the late 14th century to the 17th century.

Thus, it’s problematic even to apply the term to certain European societies while withholding it from others, so I cannot see how the situation in Mesoamerica should be folded into the idea of a global renaissance, especially in light of all the horrors committed on the indigenous. There was no rebirth of anything there: the slavery, genocide, and wanton destruction of Mesoamerican society represents an antithesis to the very idea of a renaissance.

These lectures, which nevertheless skillfully highlighted the problems in constructing comprehensive women’s histories from primary source material, would have succeeded with another title that did not incorporate the idea that the Renaissance can and should be observed on the world stage. Tarabotti enjoyed a sympathetic audience among intellectuals who were equally skeptical of clerics in Venetian society. One might say that in spite of her monachization, Tarabotti benefited from the Renaissance atmosphere into which she was born. But I fail to see how we should consider Malinche in the context of the Renaissance, or a renaissance, unless we use the term comparatively to show that one society enjoyed the benefits of a renaissance while the other faced the antithesis of a renaissance. This comparative use of the term was absent from the pair of lectures.

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Filed under Academic, Gender, Genocide, History

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