‘‘Muger,’’writesSebastiándeCovarrubiasinhis1611 Tesoro de la lengua
castellana o española, ‘‘del nombre latino mulier a mollitie (ut inquit
Varro) immutata et detracta litera, quasi mollier, et proprie mulier dici-
tur quae virgo non est. Muchas cosas se pudieran dezir en esta palabra;
pero otros las dizen ycon más libertad de lo que sería razón.’’ [Woman.
From the latin mulier, from mollitie (asVarro says) changing and taking
away a letter, almost mollier, and properly mulier is said of (a woman)
who is not a virgin. Many things could be said at this word; but others
say them and with more liberty than is reasonable.]
In an unusual mo-
ment of verbal reticence, the prolix lexicographer-canon of Cuenca,
adviser to the Inquisition and chaplain of the king, defines ‘‘woman’’
in only the scantest terms: as a word properly applied to nonvirgins
and as a subject that might elicit so many words that he will leave the
task of defining it to others, others destined, by definition, to overstep
the bounds of reason and propriety. Perfect Wives,OtherWomen opens
in the space of Covarrubias’s uncomfortable silence. It seeks not to
define muger—suggestively both ‘‘woman’’ and ‘‘wife’’ in Spanish—
but to tell some of those ‘‘muchas cosas’’ that the term embodies, or
that the bodies behind the term might somehow tell.
Throughout this book I argue that readings of the body—specifi-
cally, of the body of the wife in early modern Spain and America—
are often entangled with questions of signification and interpretation
and that these, in turn, are haunted by the body of an excluded Other
that is an intrinsic part of the formation of a cultural Self. In Spain,
as elsewhere in Europe, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
the body and soul of the married woman became the site of an enor-
mous amount of anxious inquiry, a site subject to the scrutiny of a
remarkable array of gazes: inquisitors, theologians, religious reform-
ers, confessors, poets, playwrights, and, not least among them, hus-
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