Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Juana La Loca

Francisco Pradilla, La reina doña Juana la Loca, recluida en Tordesillas con su hija, la infanta doña Catalina, 1906
Juana's prison.  Shown here with her daughter who was born shortly after her mother was incarcerated and lived with her for 8 years until her older brother brought her to Portugal, where (10 years later) she married his brother-in-law, the King of Portugal.  Historians agree that Juana was devastated by her daughter's departure.
This spring I am taking a course in Spanish History at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.  It's a class especially for non-Spaniards that uses movies to walk through major moments in Spanish history.  If you'd like to watch along, so far we have seen El Cid, Juana La Loca and El Greco.

Given my interest in incarcerated women, it should come as no surprise that the character who has most intrigued me so far is Juana La Loca.  Now, if you really want to learn something about Spanish history, it would be wise to go beyond this silly blog, but here is my Siskel & Ebert take on the "crazy" queen....

Juana was the daughter of Isabel & Fernando, Los Reyes Catolicos (i.e. Inquisition, Columbus, major power brokers). The lovely couple had 5 children. The oldest two, including their only son, died young putting Juana in line for the throne. While she did inherit the crown when her time came, she never really sat on the throne, the power went from her parents to her son because along the way Juana's father and husband, and to some extent her son, deemed her crazy and locked her away in a dreary tower.

Crazy, I am not so sure, but certainly different from most women in her day. First of all, Juana loved her husband, which was an oddity in this era of arranged marriages. Further, unlike most of her peers who accepted their husbands' infidelities as inevitable, she got very angry when her husband started sleeping around. Another example of her "craziness" was that she chose to breastfeed all six of her children, instead of giving them to a wet nurse. And, probably most importantly, she wanted to be queen which was inconvenient for her father, husband and son. So, she was a head-strong and opinionated woman with a quick temper who liked to be in charge and insisted on breastfeeding.  Hmmm....  Sound like anyone you know?  Me and all my female friends and relatives would be so locked up in 1507.

Juana's incarceration in a convent for the last 50 years of her life (she lived until age 75 - where is smallpox when you need it?) sheds light on the fact that it was not uncommon for women during this time to live their adult lives as cloistered nuns. There was no role for unmarried women so if a young girl had no marriage prospects, or unappealing marriage prospects, she and her family might "choose" to have her join a religious order. Live in a thatched hut with a creepy guy watching your children die and eventually losing your own life in childbirth or live in a cold stone convent with a bunch of other women, working and praying all day. Neither option is super-duper but the convent life clearly had its advantages. Sure, you lose your freedom, but in the context of Middle Ages, what freedom was it that these women were actually giving up?

Of course, for Juana it could have been different. She was the Queen and could have spent her days eating little cakes while being entertained by the court's jesters, controlling a powerful empire and patronizing the arts. But for the average Jane on the street, maybe being locked up was preferable to fighting tooth and nail for survival all the days of her life?

Can we raise the same comparisons for the thousands of women who are locked up today? On the streets, low-income women have limited access to health care, few opportunities for employment and are at high risk for interpersonal violence.  In prison, they can generally sleep without a knife under their pillows, work - and sometimes even school - are readily available, and, if persistent, women can see a doctor. Three hots and a cot.

Maybe we should put the cloistered nun option back on the table? Voluntary confinement for women with no prospects in the free world. That would remove, or at least reduce, the element of coercion that makes prison so oppressive and perhaps make life on the inside more palatable. Alternatively, we could finally move beyond the medieval ages and create a life of hope, safety and opportunity for low-income women. Or is that just me being crazy?