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a quick note on The Handless Maiden

In The Handless Maiden, by Mary Elizabeth Perry, the author seeks to give a voice to the Moriscas of 16th century Spain by filling the historical silence that left many “voiceless and in the shadows” (6) by using a wide range of sources. They ranged from documentary evidence (such as the Almonacid writings (20)) to archival documents to co-religious legends, as well as an interesting utilization of anthropological frameworks. The lengthy introduction of Perry’s book expounded upon many topics including historical context (4), her issues with using traditional sources from the “victors who had the power to write and preserve the reports of the past” (5), and the need to read Inquisition records “against the grain” in order to attain an indirect notion of what Moriscos, and Moriscas in particular, where experiencing during this time period (6).

When Perry delves into the more psychological, and frankly suppositional, aspects of her argument in the first half of the book, they begin with the introduction itself. For example, Perry discusses the significance of the veil Muslim women wore as part of their faith. Perry maintains that Moriscas created a paradox by wearing of this piece of fabric. Hence she contends the veil was more of a symbol, and more accurately categorizes it as, “a veil of phallocentric assumptions [that] has covered most women of the past with unquestioned assertions that they have been more pawns or passive victims…in the background far behind the ‘real’ actors in history—men with military might and political power” (9). However, throughout her book, women often transgressed gender boundaries. Though Perry’s introduction is complex and comprehensive, her thesis seems straightforward: past historians have overlooked not only the minority, but especially women (10). And in the context of the medieval, pre-modern unification of Spain, Perry’s passion to give recognition to these women is palpable. Furthermore, the author contemplates whether Moriscas were active rebels with agency or passive victims simply trying to hang-on to their cultural identity (10).

Though every chapter of The Handless Maiden contains reoccurring and repetitive elements, each offers a distinct message. Chapter One focuses on the impact of traditional Muslim architecture on Moriscos (25) and introduces the book’s namesake with the legend of Carcayona. To Perry, this legend “can be read as a metaphor for a people who suffered a major reversal in fortune and cruel punishment imposed by an unjust ruler” (21). However, the author concedes that, though this legend is pertinent to her argument, there is no way to prove that 16th century Moriscas even identified with Carayona or had access to the myth (27). Chapter Two touches on the issue of the female body as a site of defiance (probably because it was often hyper-sexualized (54)), as ritual bathing became an act of heresy (38). In Chapter Three, rising societal tensions began to politicize Moriscas’ homes as a potential sites of defiance, as women continued to speak in Arabic, teach their children about Islam, and observe holidays and domestic (food-related) rituals (69).

Chapter Four was the most powerful chapter as Perry began to use more primary sources to illustrate the desperation Moriscas must have felt to necessitate their waging war alongside the Morisco men during the rebellion of 1568-1570. Her source use from Christian soldiers who witnessed the bravery of a particular Morisca named Zarcamodinia (88-89) gave this historical work a personal touch because this woman was real and died fighting with honor. Perry underscores Zarcamodina’s gender transgression when she calls upon the 7th century legend of Yurmuk (89-91), but later admits that many of the 16th century Morisca women would have been illiterate and may not have had access to this legend either (90). Chapter Five emphasizes the loss of humanity the Moriscos experienced after they lost the rebellion. In what Perry describes as a “Journey of Tears,” the converted Muslims were dispersed by the thousands and spread across Castile (111). In official documents, they were described as “heads of,” alluding to the fact that the relocation of “people in such large numbers…must have seemed similar to sheep and cattle—less than human, but live creatures that had to be herded” (114).

Chapter Six outlines the various debates between clerical members and the Crown concerning the ultimate expulsion of Moriscos in 1609 (135-138). Additionally, Perry again mentions the context of the unification of Spain through Ferdinand and Isabella (135), and the Church’s Protestant motives for creating a religious “other” (137). In this Chapter, Perry continuously stresses the economic implications for Morisco expulsion with documentation from Spanish nobility (134). In Chapter Seven, Perry examines the ultimate treatment of the Moriscos after they Crown demanded their expulsion and their “legacy of pain” (157).

Although Perry at times makes grandiose statements (mostly in the introduction and often geared toward other historians (88)) and offers extensive supposition, her constant transparency when it comes to the limitations of her sources was exceptional and not in the least condescending. In fact, I enjoyed the mixture of archival evidence, timely myths, and anthropological analysis. Perry created a story, and though at times she may have gone overboard with contemporary feminist interpretations, she was aware of it. Because of her combination of sources and absolute honesty, I gleaned a better idea of the voice of the Morisca, even if—at times—it was a bit influenced by Perry herself.