Unsung Heroes: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
A little while back we took a look at the polyglot mathematical prodigy Maria Agnesi. Today’s Hero has a remarkable number of parallels to Agnesi, but unfortunately did not fare so well when church authorities became involved in her life. Who is she? The wonderfully named Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, or Sor Juana for short.Sor Juana (1648 – 1695) was a writer and polymath living in what was known at the time as New Spain. Today we recognise the area as Mexico and Sor Juana is generally accepted as being amongst the first of the Mexican canon. She was born the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain who left her to be raised by local family.
Juana demonstrated her latent awesome from an early age. Sneaking away from family gatherings to read her grandfather’s books, she’d picked up Greek, Latin and Nahuatl by her teens, composing poetry and teaching younger children. If you want to keep some a scorecard of achievements here, that’d be four languages self-taught to the level of writing poetry in them and teaching them to others by early adolescence.
Wanting something a little more formal than teaching herself from borrowed books, Juana asked her family for permission to disguise herself as a man in order to gain access to the university in Mexico City. Her family were not keen and permission was denied, so instead she found private tutoring from the Vicereine Leonor Carreto.
The Viceroy was intrigued by this apparent prodigy studying under his wife, and seemed to doubt that a 17-year-old woman could have the intellectual prowess she claimed. He set her a test (because apparently that’s what you do when someone is awesome; you make them jump through hoops to prove it): many of the country’s leading minds were invited to put difficult questions to her in fields of law, literature, theology and philosophy, and to have her explain difficult concepts without preparation. You can probably guess what happened. If you can’t guess, here’s what happened: she kicked intellectual ass.
Over the next few years the now really rather popular Juana would reject several marriage proposals from assorted influential types before, in 1669, entering a Hieronymite convent.
Sor Juana made for a rather unusual Sister. Set against the social pressures of the time, prevailing attitudes in the church, and the continued influence of the Spanish Inquisition, she wrote works that bordered on the heretical in their focus on freedom, science and the education of women. One surviving, translated example of her work, Redondillas, deals with the madonna/whore complex, and the issue of whether someone who pays for sin is any better than someone who is paid for it.
“The greater evil who is in-
When both in wayward paths are straying?
The poor sinner for the pain
Or he who pays for the sin?”
- Sor Juana, Redondillas
In 1690 the pressure against Sor Juana began to mount. A letter was published attacking her intellectual pursuits, and several high-ranking church officials spoke out against her. On her side she had the Viceregal court and the Jesuits, who remained impressed by her intellect and works. She also had a lot of popular appeal, being considered at the time to be one of the first great writers to emerge in the country.
The support bought her the time to write an open letter to her critics, in which she defended the right of women to proper education. Even with powerful friends, it takes some distinct bravery to stand up to not only the Inquisition, but to the very church institution that you’re a part of via your convent, and tell them just why they’re wrong.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Details get a bit fuzzy here, and it’s possible that some of the letters involved were not in fact by Sor Jauna but merely had her name stuck at the bottom. What is clear is that around about 1693 the official censure became too much and Sor Jauna stopped writing (or at least, stopped making public things that she had written.) Her personal library of books and scientific instruments, which by that point consisted of some 4,000 or so volumes, was sold off.
A year later Sor Juana died when a plague hit the convent. She had done what she could to tend to the other sisters who were afflicted, but succumbed after a few weeks. She left behind a legacy as one of the most important poetic writers in recent South American history.
Part of what makes Sor Juana’s story fascinating is the difference 100 years made between her reception and that of Maria Agnesi. Both were fiercely intelligent, both spoke and wrote in multiple languages across an array of subjects, and both ended up in a convent. But where Agnesi was offered a professorship by the Pope, Sor Juana was censured and driven to abandon her lifestyle. It’d be interesting to see what Sor Juana might have managed, had she born a little later.