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Unsung Heroes: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

2011 August 11

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.

Portrait of Juana aged 15, dated 1666. She a wears gold embellished gown and her dark hair is decorated with red bows. Image via Wikipedia Commons, shared under Creative Commons.

Juana in 1666, aged 15, looking super knowledgable

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.

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
4 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    August 11, 2011

    I wonder what your thoughts on how nationality also comes into play might be, given your closing paragraph; obviously Magnesi was an Italian, while Sor Juana was a Spanish colonial (or would have been thought as such at the time). Perhaps the difference isn’t so much one a hundred years but of a thousand miles?

  2. August 11, 2011

    As a member of the Latin American comunity (HA!) I feel it’s my duty to add a few details.

    First, the juicy one. Sor Juana would spend a lot of time with the Vicereine. Nobody can possibly prove it, of course, but everyone assumes that, well, “she would spend a lot of time with the Vicereine”.

    Second, I absolutely must explain the last two lines of the quote above. The original in Spanish reads:
    “la que peca por la paga
    o el que paga por pecar?”

    And a literal translation would be:
    “the one who sins for the pay
    or the one who pays to sin”

    This is the most famous quote by her, perhaps because it captures so well the essence of prostitution.

  3. August 14, 2011

    Fascinating. I’d certainly never heard of her before.

  4. Francisco Maury permalink
    July 29, 2013

    I really like the fact that there are people who are interested in this sui generis woman. Nevertheless there are some details in your article that I would like to point out.

    First of all, Sor Juana, even though she was brilliant, did take lessons in latin and greek. In her autobiography (Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz) she said that she mastered latin in twenty lessons.

    She also was not taught by the Vicereine, she was her protégée. Sor Juana got into the viceregal court because she was very famous at the time, being beautiful and intelligent she managed to create fame on her own.

    The famous test took place when she was 15, not 17. If you look closely at the painting that you have here, it says so at the bottom.

    We don’t know if she was asked to get married.

    The letter published was not written to attack Sor Juana. It was her own writing. The letter is called “Carta Atenagórica” or “Letter worthy of Athena” in which Juana criticize a sermon by Antonio Vieira. This letter was written in confidence as a request from her confessor Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz but he published it without her consent, which lead to the outrage of the church.

    Also, by the time when the letter was published, she did not have the support of the viceregal court. Her patron have longed been sent back to Spain and there was another “administration” in place. Which explains why she got into trouble (she no longer had their protection). Also the Jesuits never supported her writing because they thought they were scandalous (a nun writing love poems to other men!).

    We do know that she was prosecuted by the inquisition and was ordered to stop her studies in order to dedicate herself to her responsibilities as a nun. Her defense on the rights of women’s education has been viewed as the start of feminism. The response was called “Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz” or “Answer to Sor Filotea de la Cruz” which was the pen name of father Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz since the fact that a man and a woman exchanging mail was frowned upon.

    I hope that this brings more light to the story.

    Kind regards

    Francisco Maury

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