Fink De Backer, Widowhood in Early Modern Spain: A Review

Stephanie Fink De Backer, Widowhood in Early Modern Spain: Protectors, Proprietors, and Patrons. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

To write this book, Fink De Backer has scoured the archives of Toledo for traces of the activities of widows, and through these efforts, she persuasively argues her case that widows rejected the model of a convent-like recogimiento, pushed by moralists, and were full, public participants in the legal, economic, and social lives of their neighborhoods. Along the way, she provides a series of fascinating windows into the lives of a variety of widows, ranging from Blanca de la Cerda, countess of Cifuente, to Catalina Rodríguez, an impoverished widow brought before the inquisition for casting lots and muttering spells for neighborhood women in exchange for bread. While Fink de Backer makes it clear that the assertiveness of widows did not really bother their neighbors, contrary to the restrictive, misogynistic stereotype of sixteenth-century Spain, she leaves herself open to the charge that many of her findings about widows aren’t really about widows at all, but really could be said of all contemporary women.

Fink De Backer begins by pointing out that widows made up perhaps 19% of the entire population of Toledo in 1561, thanks to the low life expectancy of the period and the fact that Castilian law allowed widows full control over their dowries and half of all the gains made by couples during the marriage, allowing them to live independently and not have to seek remarriage or flee back to their families, as in Klapische-Zuber’s Italy, unless they wanted to. Following the work of Grace Coolidge, Fink De Backer also finds that widows frequently served as guardians for their children, and their children’s property, giving them another important, independent role. To describe the way that Toledan society accepted this autonomy, Fink De Backer further argues that widows were neither oppressed by patriarchy nor did they fight against it; there was room for widows to exercise power within the patriarchal structure of Castilian society. Following the work of Helen Nader, she uses the term “matriarch” to describe this autonomous niche that women had in early modern Spain.

Widowhood in Early Modern Spain opens with a section on prescriptive literature and the expectations for repression and enclosure that one finds there, expectations that Fink De Backer then contradicts in the rest of the book. But Fink De Backer points out that even some of the Christian moralists and playwrights who worried about the sexual freedom of young widows acknowledged that widows had a legitimate role in tending to their financial and familial affairs, publicly. In the archives, Fink De Backer finds little concern over the sexuality of widows, who raised illegitimate children or fight off accusations of bigamy with the support of neighbors, so long as they were morally upstanding in other ways.

And herein lies the strength of the book: the activities of real widows that Fink De Backer was able to find in the inquisition records and especially notary records of Toledo. The second half of Widowhood in Early Modern Spain chronicles the activities of widows while they managed their households, engaged in the market, sold and bought property and defended their ownership in court, raised their children and educated them for adult careers, acted as consumers, negotiated their children’s marriages, continued their husband’s crafts, gave or received charity, drew up their wills, created and supported charitable institutions, founded chapels, and made provisions for the remembrance of themselves and their families after their deaths. Fink De Backer hit on the nice idea of following the widowhood of the Countess of Cifuentes throughout the book, and then comparing her experiences with those of her less elite fellow widows, which helps give the book a narrative thread that holds the thematic chapters together.

But Widowhood in Early Modern Spain’s strength – the diversity of experience of widows that Fink De Backer reveals – is also a weakness. Certainly widows acted as charitable benefactors, arrangers of marriages, overseers of property, etc., but cannot the same be said of all early modern Spanish women? Fink De Backer admits as much at one point, stating that “Women of all socio-economic levels held wide-ranging responsibilities as daughters, wives, and mothers, learning and utilizing skills and attitudes that prepared them well for lives as widows… widowhood merely made more manifest the latent potential for authority many Castilian women might enjoy.” (p. 298) Indeed, widowhood made the activity of women visible in the archival records, where otherwise their husbands would have been the official donors, managers, sellers, and so on, obscuring the extent to which their wives were asserting themselves privately within the family.  But this weakness in Fink De Backer’s argument doesn’t have to be such a bad thing, if the reader thinks of Widowhood in Early Modern Spain not only as a study of a discrete social position – although widowhood certainly was that – but also as a way to consider the broad range of activity that women in early modern Castile were able to engage in without much resistance from their patriarchal society. We have Fink De Backer’s dogged and imaginative archival work to thank for this insightful view into women’s lives in a time and place that until now we have known chiefly through the lenses of misogynic satire and bullying Christian moralism.


About emspanishhistorynotes

Scott Taylor is an associate professor in the history department at the University of Kentucky.


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