Lonesome Knights of a Spanish Nun: Teresa of Avila and Chivalresque Literature in Sixteenth-Century Spain

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On March 28, 1515, Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda, the third of the nine children produced by Don Alonso Sánchez y Cepeda and Doña Beatriz de Ahumada, was born in the Castilian city of Ávila de los Caballeros, the "City of Saints and Stones." It was the same year that saw the first printing of the tale of chivalry known as the Demanda del Sancto Grial con los maravillosos fechos de Lanzarote y de Galaz. The extremely popular genre to which the Demanda belonged –books of chivalry- grew in enormous popularity and quantity in these early years of the sixteenth century, at the same time as Teresa would begin to find herself attached to this type of literature, a connection, as this paper argues, that would last throughout her life. As she informs us, books in general "...began to make me think seriously when I was, I believe, six or seven years old" (Teresa, Life, 2). Books of chivalry would influence her patterns of thought in a profound way. The passionate young girl of tender years would subsequently stop reading these types of books upon her entry into the religious life. Yet as a penitent, humble woman of middle age, Teresa would employ the images, mentalities, and fantasies of this chivalresque literature that she had absorbed as an adolescent. Teresa's particular attachment to these books represents a wider interest shared by a large segment of sixteenth-century Spanish society. Teresa was very much influenced by her environment. Her native city, said to have been founded by Hercules, with its turrets and towers, stands in the midst of the bleakness and desolation of the harsh Castilian landscape. It was with pride and justification that Ávila was called the City of the Knights and Liegemen, and it was said that captains recruited its valorous soldiers on the strength of their birthplace alone. The impregnable walls, guarded by its eighty-two granite towers, encircled a small world whose life and culture were permeated by the code of behavior known as chivalry. In theory, the old and poor were venerated and succored, ladies defended, the truth always spoken, and the pundonor (the point of honor) was kept at the risk of death.

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