Luisa de Carvajal, her ‘Life’, and the place of women in Counter-Reformation politics
in Political and religious practice in the early modern British world
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Luisa de Carvajal’s story of extraordinary piety and her extraordinary mission to England during James I’s reign is well known. Sources are relatively plentiful, and, like the woman herself, remarkable. Perhaps most precious are her own life writings, which survive in several drafts, and an equally interesting formal ‘Life’ written by her English Jesuit confessor. These texts have most often been used to understand aspects of Luisa’s interior life – to flood light on her personal feelings and thoughts. Not enough has been done to understand these texts as important interventions into important political landscapes both in England and on the Continent. This chapter argues that her autobiographical sketches were not private musings but efforts to construct a version of her life that would be ‘useful’ within various polemical contexts in which her actions and example mattered. I argue they were part of a broader scheme to stabilize her sometimes erratic ‘performances’ of sanctity in and around London for audiences in England and Spain. She and her confessors wanted to take control of her narrative and underline the significance of her activities using techniques of manuscript circulation and strategic print campaigns. In doing so, they wanted to define her efforts and render them exemplary with hopes that they would become normative. To do this, she and her confessors tried to create a coherent ‘public’ which had remained elusive given her controversial eccentricities. Drawing inspiration from recent work on English Catholicism, this chapter shows that life-writings associated with Luisa were deeply engaged in contemporary politics and spoke specifically to the question of the role women should play on the English (and Spanish) religio-political scene.

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