The eponymous protagonist of La Pícara Justina (1605, attributed to Francisco López de Úbeda), asserts that virginity is “un pleito que nunca tiene más de un testigo,” (López de Úbeda 594). Justina’s pronouncement highlights a perennial problem of patriarchal society: women, regarded as inherently lustful, could not be trusted to safeguard their chastity. Justina expresses the cultural mistrust of women in the early modern period through legal language (pleito/testigo) that invokes court procedures in which women’s testimony was deemed unreliable and required substantiation by another witness. Similarly, a saying from the refranero tradition, “es doncella, y dígalo ella,” highlights the insufficiency of women’s word as proof of virginity. Justina’s fictional life story underscores the unreliability of women as narrators of bodily integrity since she claims throughout her pseudoautobiography that she is a virgin. Of her wedding night, for example, she states, “yo bien sabía mi entereza y que mi virginidad daría de sí señal honrosa […] pero sabiendo algunos engaños y malas suertes que han sucedido a mozas honradas, me previne” (López de Úbeda 872). That Justina needs to use tricks and take precautions to ensure that she will bleed on her wedding night clearly indicate what her syphilitic condition and the ubiquitous sexual subtext throughout her account further reveal: that she is a prostitute. This article will examine references to virginity within depictions of transactional sex in La Celestina and the Spanish female picaresque. On one hand, picaresque tropes of hymen-mending and the repeated sale of falsely restored virginity reflect misogynist unease that devious celestinesque women could feign virginity, underscoring the threat such sexual duplicity poses to the patriarchal system. On the other hand, these narratives also demonstrate the economic advantage of selling virginity in the flesh trade and expose the instability of patriarchal sexual norms, revealing fault lines in the supposedly didactic intentions of these texts. Some female picaresque scenes indicate that clients were willing to pay a premium price for the semblance of anatomical closure even in women known not to be virgins, indicating a predilection for seeming modesty that goes beyond concerns about morality. As Anne J. Cruz demonstrates in Discourses of Poverty, the pícara as prostitute is an erotic projection of the male author that erases women’s voice (141); however, while the male author does not provide a realistic account of female experience, the authors of the picaresque mode provide insight on the male clientele that allowed prostitution to flourish throughout the early modern period. Historical and literary evidence suggests that virginity was an eagerly sought commodity in the early modern sexual marketplace. I argue that pervasive portrayals of pícaras as false virgins demonstrate a market for perceived virgin-likeness that should cause us to nuance understandings of early modern prostitution, that can inform our understanding of the clientele, and that reveals the extent to which the patriarchal system relied on the sexual availability of non-elite women.
Early modern Spanish prostitution was, in theory, an institution that protected women’s chastity. Until 1623, when King Philip IV prohibited prostitution, legal municipal brothels operated throughout Spain on the grounds that legalized prostitution was a ‘lesser evil’ that provided an outlet for male lust and thereby prevented greater social ills such as the rape of virtuous wives or daughters, or sodomy. Thus, discursively, prostitution was a social service that protected virginity. Throughout the period of legalized prostitution, a series of regulations sought to reduce the sinfulness of transactional sex by means such as banning married women from working in the brothels, banning the defloration of virgins in the brothel or the sale of virgins to brothels. Consequently, as Mary Elizabeth Perry explains, “the chastity of some women could be ensured by the fact that men would have access to other women who would sell their sexual services” (126). This ideology discursively linked the virgin and whore as constitutive others; the existence of the prostitute allows the integrity of the virgin to remain unsullied, and the purity of the virgin serves as contrast to the depravity of the prostitute.
A scene from La Lozana andaluza (Delicado 1528) illustrates this argument in favor of the regulation of prostitution as a social protective. The protagonist, Lozana, claims that prostitutes like herself provide a public service by safeguarding virgins, asserting that if prostitution is not left to “quien lo sabe manear,” in other words professional prostitutes, “redundará que los galanes requieran a las casadas y a las vírgenes d’esta tierra” (391). Her assertion is immediately challenged by her interlocutor Silvano who argues that prostitutes cause social disorder and spread venereal disease. Their discussion fictionalizes cultural debates regarding the licitness of prostitution that accompanied the rise and popularity of picaresque fiction in which some moralists argued for the containment of social disorder within the brothels (which, themselves, were spatially segregated from the city center), while reformers argued that prostitution must be abolished entirely, culminating in the closure of the brothels in 1623. As E. Michael Gerli asserts with regard to La Celestina, “the Church, private morals, sex, and public order were … in profound conflict” at the outset of the early modern period (14); attitudes towards prostitution were one point of conflict. Despite the desire to clearly demarcate virgins and whores in order to maintain social order, the picaresque contains an intriguing number of episodes that efface the supposedly binary juxtaposition of virgins and whores. In what follows, I trace the theme of hymen-mending from La Celestina through works of the female picaresque, highlighting the claims made by Celestina and her successors about the economic value of virginity in the flesh trade. This will allow me to explore scenes from Las harpías en Madrid and La niña de los embustes in a new light, revealing scenes of virginity sale in these novels; similarly, I examine La Lozana andaluza from a new perspective, demonstrating that Lozana instructs other prostitutes regarding how to appear virginal in order to heighten clients’ experience.
Historical and literary evidence suggests that the sale of virginity was a lucrative segment of the early modern flesh trade, and frequent references to virginity sales in La Celestina (Rojas 1499) and subsequent female picaresque novels validate this assertion. As Anne Cruz (136) and Enriqueta Zafra (Zafra, Prostituidas 17) have argued, the female picaresque, from which I subsequently draw examples, is a parallel genre to the picaresque with male protagonist that derives more from the model set by La Celestina than from Lazarillo de Tormés (anonymous, 1555) or Guzmán de Alfarache (1599 / 1604, Mateo Alemán), although prostitutes figure prominently in these novels as well. Celestina, a former prostitute turned madame, boasts of her prowess as a restorer of maidenheads and of the high price her reflowered virgins command. Celestina’s servant Sempronio states, “entiendo que passan de cinco mil virgos los que se han hecho y deshecho por su auctoridad en esta cibdad” (Rojas 106). Similarly, Calisto’s other servant Pármeno declares that Celestina has “seis oficios: Labrandera [seamstress], perfumera, maestra de fazer afeytes y de fazer virgos, alcahueta, y un poquito hechizera. Era el primero oficio cobertura de los otros,” and that “mozas destas sirvientes entravan en su casa a labrarse,” such that Celestina’s profession of seamstress invokes her identity as a restorer of lost virginity (112). The sale of virginity, whether real or falsified, is crucial to Celestina’s business. Celestina brags to Pármeno that “pocas vírgenes, a Dios gracias, has tú visto en esta cibdad que hayan abierto tienda a vender de quien yo no haya sido corredora de su primer hilado” (141). Here, Celestina proudly boasts that she profits from the sale of virginity as part of women’s induction into prostitution. Historian Nina Kushner’s study of courtesans in early modern Paris finds that the sale of a new courtesan’s virginity could command an enormous sum when skillfully brokered through the services of an elite madam (76-78). Celestina seems to operate a similar business, though working with lower-class prostitutes such as Elicia and Areúsa rather than elite courtesans. Celestina meets a harsh fate, murdered by Sempronio and Calisto, although her textual punishment serves to avenge the corruption of a woman who should be chaste (Melibea), rather than from her quotidian role as go-between for prostitutes such as Elicia and Areúsa. This role as procuress of non-elite female sexuality sets the stage for later pícaras.
The methods Celestina uses to falsify virginity demonstrate a notable similarity to other sources. Pármeno explains that “esto de los virgos, unos fazia de bexiga y otros curava de punto” (Rojas 115–16). These two methods– using a small pouch of blood hidden in the vagina that will burst during intercourse or sewing up the opening of the woman’s genitals– appear in a number of sources. In La Lozana andaluza, Lozana’s arch-rival La de los Ríos uses a method similar to Celestina’s pouch of blood to “componer novias, … hacía la esponja llena de sangre de pichón para los virgos” (Delicado 314). Pármeno also mentions four herbs, “cepacavallo, fuste sanguino, hojaplasma, cebolla albarrana,” that Celestina uses to “componer virgos” (Rojas 116), and that are similar to recipes found in herbal treatises such as the fourteenth-century Catalan Flores del tesoro de beldad (Dies de Catalayud), which contains several herbal baths and pessaries to repair the hymen, with titles such as “para hacer un baño que estreche de repente la flor,” “para mejorar soberanamente la región sacra,” “para conseguir que la parte sacra sea bien oliente y esté restriñida,” “para la mujer que quiera estrechar la natura” (27; 27; 29; 61). In the satiric fifteenth-century poem “Coplas de las comadres” by Rodrigo de Reinosa, sometimes posited as a potential author of the first act of La Celestina (Puerto Moro 80–89), some of the same herbs used by Celestina– “cepacavallo” and “fuste sanguino”– are mentioned in the description of a hymen-mender (823-824), whose specialized skills include the ability to “faze[r] virgos de mil suertes” (794). The similarity among sources regarding the methods used by devious older women of the alcahueta archetype to falsify young women’s virginity indicate that if not necessarily common practice the restoration of maidenheads was at least conceived of as a possibility.
The relationship among Celestina’s oficios and her role as a hymen-mender and influence on later literature have been subjects of critical debate. For Derrida, the hymen is entre; “it is the ‘between,’ whether it names fusion or separation” (220). Derrida deconstructs the hymen’s paradoxical signification of the intactness of virginity and the hymeneal bond of marriage, so that for Derrida the hymen (marriage/copulation) destroys the hymen (virginity). Derrida rightly asserts that the hymen exists in an indeterminable state, since it is only perceivable when punctured. However, Derrida’s analysis is anachronistic to early modern Spain; although Celestina and her fellow alcahuetas, or procuresses, are often referred to as hymen-menders, the term himen had not yet entered the Spanish lexicon as an anatomical term, and the blood that usually accompanied defloration was often conceptualized as resulting from the forcible opening of the vaginal passageway rather than from the rupture of a membrane.  Nonetheless, I have used the term ‘hymen-mender’ periodically throughout since, although the hymen was not yet conceptualized as a membrane, the ability to repair maidenheads was unquestioned throughout the period. As Mary Gossy asserts, “the mended hymen is a text written over … hymen mending keeps the untold story untold, maintaining it in ambiguity and ambivalence” (46). The ambiguity of markers of virginity made those who were perceived to manipulate them subversive figures. The alcahueta is a complex archetype who often engages in hymen-mending, procuring, preparation of cosmetics and herbal medicine, as well as supernatural activities such as curing the evil eye or love magic. Her herbal medical activities also provide a realistic portrayal of women’s healing, of which the restoration of maidenheads may have been a part, “aplicando el conocimiento empírico heredado de generación en generación” (Pardo de Santayana et al. 255). In the absence of the term hymen, what Celestina and her fellow alcahuetas were restoring was the virgo, a term that in the early modern period indicated both the virgin herself and her anatomical integrity. Covarrubias defines virgo as “Latine virgo, puella intacta, a vividiori, id est validiori aetate appelata est. Por otro nombre la llamamos donzella; deste estado y de la virginidad y su castidad avía mucho que decir, pero es lugar común, y assí me contento con lo dicho … virginidad, cosa pertinente a los vírgenes” (1010). This circular and elusive definition emphatically casts the virgin as female. Beyond gender, the precise nature of virginity is undefined, though the Latin synonyms include the crucial ‘intactness.’ As will be seen throughout, early modern virginity could be defined anatomically or morally, but all attempted definitions and signs lacked consensus and precision. Roberto Echevarría Gonzalez asserts that in La Celestina “virginity not only values purity, but it is a pure value, concocted out of nothing but male fantasies … Celestina’s restitutions unveil the arbitrariness and fantasy of this value by reducing it to its tawdry physical fact: virginity is a piece of skin that can be replaced” (25). Because it is a social construction, virginity lacks ontological stability. I argue that by underscoring virginity’s malleability, the tales I examine reveal its marketability.
As Pármeno relates, Celestina sells the same maidenhead repeatedly, stating that “quando vino por aquí el embaxador francés, tres vezes vendió por virgen una criada que tenia” (Rojas 116). This tale of virginity sold three times is repeated in several female picaresque novels, including Salas Barbadillo’s La hija de Celestina (1612) and the novella La tía fingida (seventeenth century), sometimes controversially attributed to Cervantes. In La hija de Celestina, the protagonist Elena recounts that when she was a girl of thirteen, men “golosos de robarme la primera flor, me prestaban coches, dábanme aposentos en la comedia” and so many rich gifts that she ran out of room to store them all (Salas Barbadillo 112). Elena’s mother Zara, a malevolent crypto-Muslim figure who, like Celestina, is an expert hymen-mender, who “se resolviese a abrir tienda” with the body of the thirteen-year-old Elena, and Elena observes “no hubo quien no quisiese alcanzar un bocado” (112). As a result, Elena states that “tres veces fui vendida por virgen,” thus initiating her into a life of prostitution (112). Zara’s skills as a hymen-mender are so legendary that “pasaron más caros los virgos contrahechos de su mano que los naturales: ¡tan bien se hallaban con ellos los mercaderes de este gusto!” (110). This episode underscores the luxury status of virginity in the sex trade through the wealth of gifts given to Elena in an attempt to win the honor of deflowering her, the assertion that there are many customers who are ‘merchants of this pleasure’ and will pay handsomely to deflower a virgin, and the reference to virgins being ‘expensive.’ A third example of the repeated sale of virginity appears in La tía fingida, wherein the false aunt Claudia exploits the protagonist, Esperanza. Claudia later confesses that she took in the abandoned infant Esperanza from the steps of a Church to prostitute her, as she had done with several girls before her. Both Claudia and their servant Grijalba insist to potential clients that Esperanza is a virgin, “tan pulcela como su madre la parió” in Grijalba’s words (Cervantes Saavedra 277), while Claudia states “esta niña está como su madre la parió” (301). However, Grijalba later reveals that Esperanza “estaba de tres mercados, o por mejor decir de tres ventas” (279). In this tale, references to Esperanza’s bodily integrity are intended to enhance her value as a sexual object, and her economic worth falls sharply when the truth is revealed. When the would-be client Don Félix, having bribed Grijalba to gain entry to the house, offers a gold chain for access to Esperanza, Claudia insists that the girl is a virgin and therefore the proffered chain is insufficient as payment, exclaiming: “¿y la limpieza de Esperanza, su flor cándida, su puridad, su doncellez no tocada, su virginidad intacta?” (301). Grijalba explains that Félix already knows that Esperanza is not a virgin. Félix asserts “quisiera yo ser el primero que esquilmara este majuelo o vendimiara esta viña, aunque se añadiera a esta cadena unos grillos de oro y unas esposas de diamantes,” adding that “por mí nadie sabrá en el mundo el rompimiento de esta muralla sino que yo mesmo seré el pregonero de su entereza y bondad” (303). The negotiation is brought to a premature close when Claudia attacks Grijalba and officials of justice enter the house and arrest the women, but Félix’s statement that he would have compensated Esperanza’s services with a higher price if she had been a virgin affirms that her sexual value is lowered by her non-virginity, even though he also promises not to question the fiction that she is a virgin should they find another client. His assertion that he would have preferred to deflower her and would have paid handsomely to do so indicates that he is one of the merchants of that pleasure cited by Elena of La hija de Celestina. These descriptions of repeated sale of virginity unveil the fragility of a patriarchal system in which virginity can be realistically feigned and falsified, even as they highlight the marketability of the virginal body.
The repetition of the number three in the aforementioned texts is intriguing. This number is ubiquitous in folklore– seen in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or the “Three Little Pigs”– and has esoteric and spiritual significance, seen in the Trinity. A similar vignette appears in Rodrigo de Reinosa’s Coplas de las comadres in which a character remarks about a hymen mender, “vila hazer virgos tres / a tres de virgo no sanas, / e casaron bien después” (1053-1055). Thus, the tale of tripled virginity sale seems to have an older origin in folk tales that undergirds all these accounts. These tales could even be read as a Crypto-Jewish slander of the Virgin Mary. On the other hand, given that the number three often signifies completeness, the symbolic importance of being sold three times as a virgin may indicate that the young girl is fully corrupted and indoctrinated into sexual commerce.
The aforementioned examples all involve clandestine prostitutes operating outside the brothel system. La vida y costumbres de la Madre Andrea (anonymous, c. 1650), set in a Madrid brothel, provides a glimpse into initiation of young practitioners into the flesh trade. In this work, a client labels the madame Andrea “señora enemiga del doncelismo,” hinting that she sells virginity (102). Another client demands, “tráiganos cosa tierna, que ternuras es lo que se pide,” a play on words that labels the prostitutes both tender and calves (indicating their youth), after which Andrea states, “fui velozmente y traje dos piezas de serafinas y serafines, buena hacienda” (134). By labeling the brothel prostitutes seraphs, Andrea emphasizes their youth, which will bring her buena hacienda or a good price. Moreover, this scene provides a rare allusion to the existence of male prostitutes. These brief and fictionalized references to the demand for youth, tenderness, and inexperience in the flesh trade indicate a fetishization of pubescence both within and outside the brothel system.
As literary depictions of young girls repeatedly sold as virgins suggest, locating and verifying virginity was an impossible task, and the cultural value of virginity went beyond the corporeal. Didactic literature of the period frequently portrays chastity and virginity as a state of complete mental purity such that an impure thought can cast a woman into the category of ‘whore’ even if her physical integrity remains intact. To give but one example, Fray Luis de León’s La perfecta casada (1583) states, “ramo de deshonestidad es en la mujer casta el pensar que puede no serlo … y, cierto, como al que se pone en el camino de Sanctiago, aunque no llegue, ya le llamamos allá romero; así sin duda es principiada ramera la que se toma licencia para tratar destas cosas que son el camino” (91). This metaphorical road to whoredom references the proverb “ir romera, volver ramera” whose iterations in the female picaresque Enriqueta Zafra has studied (Zafra, “Ir romera”). In this and similar statements found in conduct manuals, unchaste thoughts are enough to call a woman’s integrity into question, even if not acted upon. As Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd explain, “because of the way whoredom or prostitution was defined, any woman who was sexually deviant, or any woman who was not under the control of a man, could be placed in that group as well” so that labelling a woman a whore functions as a control mechanism rather than a descriptor of behavior (105). Such rhetoric conceptually displaces both ‘virgin’ and ‘prostitute’ from the physical body so that as Anke Bernau, Ruth Evans, and Sarah Salih argue in Medieval Virginities, “virginity has no ontological security” (5). This is especially true for nonelite woman, who were susceptible to stains on their honor since they needed to move about the streets and public spaces as part of their daily activities. Since immobility was equated with chastity, nonelite women necessarily violated the strictures of domestic enclosure that safeguarded chastity in didactic literature.
Returning to the female picaresque, the virgins sold into prostitution in these tales were born into their status as prostitutes (or adopted in the case of Esperanza), and had already entered the conceptual field of transactional sex even when their bodily integrity remained intact. The commodification of virginity in historical and literary sources indicates a sexual preference for innocence and youth that stems from the obsession with female chastity in this period and the prevalence of references to virginity sales in Celestinesque literature suggests that virginity (or the semblance of virginity) was highly prized in transactional sex.
The preceding examples of virginity sales in celestinesque literature may help us to better understand a scene from Las harpías en Madrid y coche de las estafas (1633, Alonso de Castillo Solórzano), in which a widow relocates to Madrid determined to profit from her two daughters’ sexuality, seeing in the “hermosura que las ha dotado [el cielo] … un Potosí de riquezas” (10). By the time the women arrive in the city, the elder daughter Feliciana has already lost her virginity since the narrator explains that she had an affair with her dance instructor, stating “no se sabia de Feliciana más travesura que la que con su maestro de danza había hecho, quizá por paga de la buena enseñanza” (14). For Teodora, Feliciana’s lack of virginity represents an economic disadvantage. The narrator explains that “sabidora su madre deste descuido después de hecho, sintiendo entrañablemente que en trueque de mudanzas hubiese dado lo que pudiera al de firmezas a quien con más pródiga mano supiera pagar primicias tan mal desperdiciadas, y así esperaba de la hermosa Luisa un grande donativo en llegando a la corte” (14). Thus, she determines to sell Luisa’s virginity for an exorbitant price to make up for the loss of profit from Feliciana. The women obtain the coach of the novel’s title, which allows them to carry out their escapades, through the sale of the younger daughter Luisa’s virginity. Her mother Teodora negotiates with the wealthy suitor don Fernando. After he makes clear he will not marry Luisa, Teodora “procuró dar a entender la entereza con que estaba Luisica, [y] las obligaciones que le corrían caso que hubiese de ser el Colon della” (24-25). In other words, Luisa’s virginal intactness demands that he pay handsomely for the privilege of deflowering her, which he does, paying what the narrator terms the “principio de entrada” with a chain worth 200 escudos, gifts of jewels to both sisters, and to Luisa a bed and 500 gold escudos, along with assurances that the affair will remain secret (25). The narrator explicitly states that “con esta generosa demostración don Fernando fue dueño de la beldad de Luisa,” taking her virginity (25). After Fernando is murdered as a result of a gambling disagreement, the women find themselves in possession of his coach, which they use to enact a series of deceits. This introductory scene that allows the women to acquire the coach of the novel’s title and become the Harpies of Madrid underscores the economic value placed on virginity in transactional sex. Since Luisa is a virgin, this relationship (the only one that is consummated in the novel since after this initial relationship the women utilize the coach to deceive men and rob them) is worth a premium price. Unlike many works of the female picaresque, which mask sexual activity in erotic subtexts, this relationship is explicitly transactional. Fernando takes on the financial responsibility of supporting the family in order to have exclusive access to Luisa. As this example suggests, the taking of a woman’s virginity implied a financial obligation toward her, and a price could be established for such defloration.
The promises to keep relationships secret proffered by clients such as Don Félix in La tía fingida, Don Fernando in Las harpías en Madrid, and similar characters serve two purposes: they could allow the woman to resell her virginity repeatedly, as occurs in the texts mentioned previously, or they could protect the reputation of women such as the Harpías en Madrid who assume the guise of respectable society ladies. As the Pícara Justina asserts, “no hay cosa que más entone a una mujer que el tener su caudal entero, ni que más la humille que lo otro. Digo si se sabe, que si es oculto, sigue su trote” (López de Úbeda 306). According to Justina, loss of virginity is not a problem in itself, it is the loss of reputation that damages women’s prospects.
Accepting payment for covert affairs may have allowed struggling families a source of income through a sort of informal courtesan system in which kept women were supported by upper-class men. Miguel de Cervantes’ family provides a historical example of such social arrangements. Cervantes’ illegitimate daughter, Isabel, was the mistress of an older married man, Juan de Urbina, who arranged a marriage with his scribe that allowed Urbina to continue his illicit relationship with her. Urbina paid a sizeable dowry for the marriage and later bequeathed a house to Isabel’s daughter (Blasco Pascual 152–53). Similarly, Cervantes’ sisters, Andrea and Magdalena, and Andrea’s illegitimate daughter all received generous gifts from a variety of wealthy men (Márquez Villanueva, “La cuestión” 57–58). Francisco Márquez Villanueva asserts that Cervantes’ relatives, whom he calls ‘las Cervantas,’ were courtesans, perhaps because their status as conversas prevented them from finding suitable marriage partners; furthermore, Márquez Villanueva asserts that the position of mistress was a “profesión … semiinstitucionalizada en la vida de la corte” that “se ejerce sin demasiado recato” with payments disguised as gifts or compensation for services such as health care (Márquez Villanueva, “La cuestión” 57–58). Such relationships may have allowed women to support themselves while avoiding being labelled prostitutes by their community.
Another example from La hija de Celestina indicates that a precise economic value could be placed on the loss of virginity. Elena claims to be a virgin who has been forcibly ‘deflowered’ through a rape at knifepoint to extract money from the wealthy uncle of the purported rapist, don Sancho, presenting Sancho’s dagger, given to her by his page (her client), as evidence of her claim. Sancho is set to be married to a rich noblewoman the next day, and his uncle fears that if Elena’s supposed rape is revealed, Sancho will be forced by social mores to marry her, impeding his nuptials. Therefore, the uncle gives Elena 2,000 ducados to enter a convent. Elena accepts his bribe, and immediately leaves the city. Key to the success of this deception is that Sancho is in fact a rapist, who, as the narrator explains “a más de una doncella había forzado” (Salas Barbadillo 28). His violent assaults are dismissed as “travesuras,” and his uncle has already bought the silence of several young women. Here, the reader encounters a false rape narrative that implies that women lie about sexual violence for monetary gain (a theme still distressingly familiar to the modern reader as we see accusers of powerful men suspected of making false claims for notoriety or profit). Like the tales of virginity sales, this narrative demonstrates that an economic value could be established for defloration based on the woman’s social status.
As we have seen, in Las harpías en Madrid, Teodora barters her daughter’s virginity for gifts and financial support. This is one of two basic patterns of exchange in the female picaresque. In some cases, women or their proxies (often mothers, false aunts, or pimps), openly negotiate a transactional sexual encounter as occurs with Luisa and Don Fernando. In other picaresque tales, women use the promise of sexual gratification to dupe men out of significant sums of money without consummating the relationship, often portraying themselves as elite virgins as in the case of La niña de los embustes, Teresa de Manzanares, (Castillo Solórzano, La niña 1631). Unlike many pícaras, Teresa (though a veteran trickster) is a virgin at the time of her first marriage. In several episodes, Teresa utilizes the illusion of sexual innocence to her economic advantage. For example, she presents herself to a rich elderly man under the guise of being his daughter, Doña Feliciana de Mendoza y Guzmán, who had been kidnapped by Moors as a child. She tells him that she was held captive by a rich Moor, whose son Ali Cidan courted her for six years. However, she rejects him, stating “antes perdería mil veces la vida que dejar mi religión” and she undertakes a harrowing escape by boat with other Christian captives, returning to her supposed father’s house (Castillo Solórzano, La niña 191). Thus, in this episode she portrays herself as a Christian virgin who has heroically defended her chastity and religion by refusing her Muslim suitor. When her deception is unveiled by the inopportune appearance of the real daughter, she fears reprisal, and throws herself on the mercy of the father. She again spins a tale, this time a mixture of truth and fiction, presenting herself as an orphan, daughter of an hidalgo from Madrid. She tells him that she is poor, but virtuous (except for the previous deception), alleging “aunque vago por el mundo, puedo asegurar que he guardado siempre los preceptos de la buena enseñanza y educación que tuve” and describes an attack by highwaymen in the Sierra Morena (this element of the story is true) who, “tras haberme despojado de cuanto llevaba hasta dejarme desnuda, querían hacer el último despojo de mi honestidad” (200). She does not mention her previous marriage, and though she does not outright state in this explanation that she is a virgin, her narrative depicts her as a poor virgin from a decent family who is in need of assistance. The father does not punish her, but rather sends her on her way, even giving her several costly dresses and a valuable piece of jewelry, a kindness Teresa rewards by stealing a jewelry box and money. Throughout this episode, Teresa utilizes the semblance of virginity as proof of moral integrity even as her lies are exposed. Though these exchanges are distinct from the sort of transactional exchanges of sexuality in the previous examples, Teresa uses the cultural value placed on virginity to her economic advantage.
Later in the narrative, Teresa explicitly engages in a transactional exchange of sexuality that is not consummated, thus enraging her would-be clients. After a series of escapades including a second marriage that brings her into the world of the theater and a third marriage to a wealthy indiano who discovers her in flagrante with her lover, she buys two slaves and takes residence in a fine house in Toledo under the guise of a rich widow (which, at this point in the narrative, she is three times over). She outfits one of the slaves, a virgin named Emerenciana, in fine clothing under the pretense of being her niece and initiates a complicated farce meant to profit from her own sexuality as well as that of Emerenciana, who Teresa promises to free if she plays along. The two women quickly attract suitors who shower them with gifts. Curiously, although Emerenciana’s suitor is a bachelor, there is no mention of marriage; instead, he is clearly pursuing a sexual relationship by imploring Emerenciana “que le diese entrada una noche” (Castillo Solórzano, La niña 258). Likewise, since Teresa’s suitor is a cleric, there can be no question of matrimony, though he implores her “que yo le favoreciera del todo” (258). Therefore, these relationships are clearly transactional, entailing an exchange of lavish gifts for promised sexual favors.
Emerenciana, although she is a virgin and despite her status as a slave and Teresa’s coercion, is willing and eager to satisfy the handsome nobleman, embodying early modern stereotypes of the eroticized foreign woman since the narrator describes her as a “moza liviana … como nacida en Grecia” (Castillo Solórzano, La niña 258). One might expect that Teresa would eagerly profit from such a consummation; yet, she cannot resist the opportunity to enact an elaborate scam. She fakes the death of her squire, who then pretends to haunt the house as a ghost, terrifying the suitors when they arrive to consummate their relationship. This scam results in both men fleeing the house, leaving them “estafados y sin alcanzar el premio de sus deseos” (271). The two suitors later discover Teresa’s treachery when they spot the squire alive and well and enact a proxy revenge in which a friend of the two men lures Emerenciana from the house with the promise of marriage, then deflowers her after she has robbed Teresa of all her money and jewels. Don Leonardo and Don Esteban then visit Teresa and declare themselves vindicated, and she accepts that she has been defeated by their superior cunning. The taking of Emerenciana’s virginity seems crucial to their perceived victory and they proudly boast of having outwitted Teresa even though someone else enjoys the sexual gratification. Teresa’s body, on the other hand, no longer interests them, another factor that indicates the significance and worth of virginity in the sexual marketplace; Teresa, as a ‘common’ woman who has had many previous relations, has no worth beyond her jewels. Instead, the revenge on Teresa is carried out through the body of her slave, whose despoilment impacts Teresa economically. The fact that Emerenciana is considered less valuable as a slave following her defloration hints at the prevalence of sexual exploitation of female slaves in the period. This complex scene illustrates the fear of male impotence in the face of superior female cunning– the two men would be satisfied with an arrangement in which they barter gifts for sexual favors, and their rage stems from the fact that they are left sexually unsatisfied and financially outwitted. Teresa uses the pretense of elite lifestyle to attract wealthy men at the same time that she transacts relationships with them, though she asks them to maintain silence. The men, in turn, accept her charade of elite identity, and are willing to pay lavishly for what they believe to be an affair with a woman of social (if not moral) standing. This scene demonstrates the complexity of transactional sex in the early modern world; ‘prostitute’ is not a homogenous category, men are willing to pay a higher price for what they consider elite merchandise, and the semblance of virginity raises the value of the sexual object.
Indeed, this scene in particular highlights the problematic nature of classifying women as prostitutes since Teresa is sometimes used as an example of a pícara who is not a prostitute and does not engage in transactional sex (see Zafra, Prostituidas 7–8). Adrienne Martín has demonstrated the broad variety of representations of prostitutes in Golden Age literature, ranging from the rural prostitute Maritornes to elite courtesans like Esperanza of La tía fingida (26-42). Similarly, Ángel Luis Molina Molina (see especially 77-79, 93-94, and 135-136) and José Luis Alonso Hernández (16-69) document a striking variety of terms and types of historical prostitutes operating in Golden Age Spain, drawing distinctions based on type of clientele, methods and location of operation, and other factors. Other critics have elaborated distinctions between the pícara and the prostitute such as Luz Rodríguez who asserts that the pícara moves into and out of prostitution without being bound within or outside either sphere. Nonetheless, the varied representation of modes of prostitution and types of prostitute within the female picaresque merits further attention.
As we have seen, themes of hymen-mending and false virginity enter the female picaresque through La Celestina, illustrating stereotypes of women’s mendacity. Lower-class women such as Emerenciana can be at once physically intact yet also perceived as predisposed to lascivity, thus embodying Fray Luis’ road to whoredom, disconnecting virginity from the corporeal and locating it in an invisible mental realm of mental purity that could not be detected through physical observation. We now turn to several scenes from La Lozana andaluza that further complicate this narrative. These examples hint at a sexual proclivity for virgin-seeming genitalia that goes beyond a concern for physical integrity.
In La Lozana andaluza, Delicado frequently ponders virginity and its loss. The protagonist, Lozana, loses her maidenhead jumping over a wall, a supposed accident that is replete with sexual subtext. As the narrator explains, Lozana, then named Aldonza, and her mother are left without financial support when her father dies and decide to travel throughout Spain, with her mother serving as “procurador para sus negocios” (Delicado 176). Like Celestina, they use the profession of seamstress as a cover for illicit activities, revealed through double-entendres on sewing vocabulary (“tejer … ordir … tramar”) and other common euphemisms like “conversar” (176). Aldonza’s mother seems to have planned to sell her virginity since the narrator explains that “como pleitaba su madre, ella fue en Granada mirada y tenida por solicitadora perfecta e prenosticada futura” (176). In other words, her mother displays her as potential merchandise while arranging the pleito, her first encounter in transactional sex. However, Aldonza circumvents parental control, “conversó con personas que la amaban por su hermosura y gracia; asimismo, saltando una pared sin licencia de su madre, se le derramó la primera sangre que del natural tenía” (176). The sentence preceding the loss of virginity, with its double-entendres on conversar and amar makes clear that she does not lose her virginity accidentally. A similar scene describes a female baker, who “trajo a su hija virgen a Roma, salvo que con el palo o cabo de la pala la desvirgó; y miente, que el sacristán con el cirio pascual se lo abrió” (251). This falsified account of defloration closely mirrors Lozana’s own life story, though in this instance, the supposed accident hides an affair with a clergyman, whose candle is a clear phallic referent. Both these accounts jokingly reinforce the same message seen in La pícara Justina cited earlier: women lie about their virginity or lack thereof. In both instances, young girls’ claims to have been desvirgado through non-sexual means cover entry into the sex trade. These scenes ludically reduce virginity to a frivolity that can be accidentally lost or falsified and resold.
The references to the potential for women to be deflowered through means other than coitus rely on medieval and early modern medical literature’s equation of virginity with narrow genitalia. Medical texts posited that sex opened the female body by widening the vaginal passage, making the sexually experienced woman’s body looser and more open. De Secretis Mulierum [The Secrets of Women], for example, a late thirteenth-century text that remained influential throughout the early modern period, states that virgins urinate more slowly and from higher in their body because their vaginal passages are narrower. There are some indications that the anatomical closure associated with virginity was sought-after even in practitioners of transactional sex. José Luis Alonso Hernández’s study of prostibulary lexicon El lenguaje de los maleantes españoles finds, among the over 300 terms recorded as synonyms for ‘prostitute,’ a number of terms for prostitutes who used narrow genital passageways as a means to increase the price of their services, such as la apretada [the squeezed one] and la estrecha [the tight one], which provide further evidence of a sexual preference for virgins in the flesh trade, or at least the narrow orifices associated with virginity (33-34). Herbal remedies such as those used by Celestina and listed in the Flores del tesoro de beldad may have been employed for the purpose of feigning virginity, either to establish the woman as a virgin at the time of marriage, or in order to barter virginity in the flesh trade. At the end of her narrative Lozana declares her intention to retire from a life of prostitution, asserting “ya estoy harta de meter barboquejos a putas” (Delicado 481). This statement implies that she has been in the business of falsifying maidenheads for prostitutes. On the one hand, the maidenhead was a marketable commodity in the flesh trade, yet the preference for narrow genitals even in a prostitute further indicates a predilection for pubescence that was about more than ‘passing’ for a virgin.
The economic advantage of virgin-like anatomy figures in several scenes in La Lozana andaluza (1528). Lozana, in stark contrast to Celestina’s pride in the sale of virginity, boasts that she traffics only in prostitutes and already corrupted women, declaring “no me empaché jamás con casadas ni con virgos” (Delicado 324). This claim seems accurate since, on closer inspection, all the supposed virgins in this text turn out to be false. In one scene, a fellow prostitute named Doméstica asks Lozana to assist a “pobre muchacha … virgen” asking Lozana “si pudiese o supiésedes cualque español hombre de bien que la quisiese, qu’es hermosa, porque le diese algún socorro para casalla” (429). In other words, Doméstica asks Lozana to sell the girl’s virginity in order to earn a dowry so that she could marry. Lozana is scandalized (or at least feigns it), exclaiming “¡Vieja mala escanfarda!, ¿qué español ha de querer tan cargo de corromper una virgen?” (429), to which Doméstica replies “esperá, que no es muncho virgen, que ya ha visto de los otros hombres, mas es tanto estrecha que parece del todo virgen” (429-430). This young girl, then, can realistically feign virginity due to narrow genitalia, and therefore could be sold as a virgin, thereby increasing the price of her services.
Although Lozana will not involve herself with virgins, she counsels proteges on how to feign virginity to heighten their clients’ experience by tightening their vaginas, advising one young Spanish girl that “cuando monseñor se lo quiera meter, le haga estentar un poco primero,” in other words, constrict her vagina before sexual penetration to make Monsignor’s entry more difficult (Delicado 318). Alternatively, she should “tire la una pierna y encoja la otra” to narrow the passageway, and should avoid “menestra de cebollas, que abre muncho” (319). This same girl’s mother thanks Lozana for an ointment that Lozana prepared for her, telling her “mucho le aprovechó, que le dijo monseñor ¡qué coñico tan bonico!” (318). It is unclear from the context whether this remedy has improved the appearance of the vagina in some way. Since one part of Lozana’s service was depilation of her prostitute and courtesan clients, perhaps this salve was intended to remove hair and therefore beautify the genitals, but it seems reasonable to believe, given the earlier conversation that immediately precedes this statement, that it was intended to tighten her genitals in order to improve Monsignor’s sexual experience. Since this young girl is already Monsignor’s courtesan, her efforts to appear more virginal are not intended to portray her as a virgin. Instead, Lozana’s advice is clearly intended to improve the sexual experience of the client. In this work, even the novel’s virgins are, upon closer inspection, whores, reinforcing the stereotype of women as untrustworthy and sexually suspect, and indicating a preference on the part of clients for the illusion of anatomical integrity associated with virginity.
All these tales suggest that despite moral injunctions intended to safeguard female virginity, despite legislation seeking to ensure that virgins were not forced into prostitution, and despite charities established to provide dowries to vulnerable impoverished virgins, virginity commanded a high price and was eagerly sought in the sexual marketplace. As we have seen, the topos of selling women’s virginity at a premium figures prominently in tales of induction into prostitution. Moreover, references to prostitutes by terms such as estrecha or apretada, indicate that narrow genitalia could increase the price of sexual services. The cumulative effect of these tales of false virginity is to portray lower-class women as inherently sexually deviant and available to wealthy men. The rage incited when women reject advances or refuse to provide coitus hints at the violence that undoubtedly pervaded the flesh trade and which no doubt led to the forceable induction of many women into a life of prostitution. Teresa’s tale, in particular, seems to indicate an elite male presumption that they are entitled to nonelite women’s bodies. Male clients, on the other hand, are rarely stigmatized for involvement in transactional encounters. This, in turn, indicates that much of the didactic condemnation of prostitution in the picaresque stems not from the sale of sexuality itself, but rather the misrepresentation of merchandise when women feign a modesty or class status that they do not possess.
The prevalence of virginity sales in literary portrayals of prostitution reveals a fetishization of virginity that gives erotic value to the semblance of virtue and modesty, and that elides ontological distinctions between virgin and whore, instead portraying lower-class women as inherently deviant. On the other hand, such accounts urge us to nuance our views of prostitution in the picaresque (and in Golden Age society generally). Though discursively ‘whore’ (ramera and related terms) encompassed all women who were not chaste, in practice some services and some practitioners commanded a higher price than others, demanding that we see ‘prostitute’ as a heterogenous category.
On brothel regulations and virginity, see Kuffner (47-50), Karras (252), Zafra (Prostituidas 10-14), Perry (“Magdalens and Jezebels”). On the administration of and legal restrictions on brothels, see Molina Molina.
Mary Douglas asserts that allowing the existence of regulated impurity allows social order to be maintained (95-102).
As syphilis began to be understood as a sexually transmitted disease, sex with a virgin was posited as a potential cure, potentially providing a new motivation for clientele (Schleiner 188).
Manuel da Costa Fontes traces the erotic discourse of sewing lexicon in La Celestina through folk tales. He focuses on the phallic symbolism of sewing implements, most notably balls of yarn and needles, rather than on the more literal form of sewing that Celestina carries out (55-79).
There is an anatomical flaw in this argument since the hymen is not destroyed through copulation, but merely stretched.
In the early modern period, midwives were sometimes called upon to substantiate virginity through examination of the genitalia, but such tests have always been highly ambiguous. On virginity tests, see Burge; Cartwright.
Of course, not all female bodies bleed at the first penetrative sexual encounter. Støkken Dahl and Brochmann cite studies in which “56 percent or 40 percent of all women, respectively, bleed when they have consensual vaginal sex for the first time” (15). However, these statistics derive from interviews, so there may have been unnoticed bleeding, and there is no way to ascertain if the blood came from the hymen.
See also Paloma Moral de Calatrava, who argues that “magic and the medicine associated with women and children were one and the same” and that, at the same time that physicians derided women’s medical knowledge as inferior “many of the treatments recommended for female complaints that were published in medical manuals were no different than those prescribed by midwives and female healers” (229).
As Allan, Santos and Spahr attest, “insistence on the hymen [as a marker of virginity] erases all kinds of bodies save the most normative, cisgendered body of the female” (4).
La tía fingida’s authorship has been a source of debate for more than a century, and sadly this controversy often overshadows critical interpretation of the diegesis. See Aylward “Significant Disparities” for an overview of the debate. The novella exists in two versions: the Biblioteca Colombina and the Porras de la Cámara texts. I cite the Porras de la Cámara version, noting any discrepancies from Biblioteca Colombina.
Encarnación Juárez-Almendros offers an analysis of this scene from the perspective of disability studies, concentrating on the figure of the hymen-mender as part of ageist misogyny, concluding that figures such as Claudia and Celestina are “accomplice[s] of a society that demands virginity” even as they use “knowledge of the female body to subvert and take advantage of a system that stigmatizes the sexually active woman” (69).
The Biblioteca Colombina version omits the last phrase “su virginidad intacta” (300).
The Biblioteca Colombina omits the phrase “o vendimiera esta viña” (302).
Manuel da Costa Fontes makes such an argument regarding the uses of the number three in La Lozana andaluza (“Anti-Trinitarianism”); see also Márquez Villanueva (“El mundo converso”).
Though nearly absent from the literary record, Rafael Carrasco demonstrates that male prostitution for a male clientele thrived in Golden Age society. Carrasco asserts that “archival sources demonstrate that young men’s prostitution was of considerable importance in Early Modern Spain” (57). Juan Mariana’s Tratado contra los juegos públicos denounces the early modern theater as a brothel “muy más perjudicial que los que tienen este nombre” where actors, made effeminate by their unmanly career, and actresses use rooms behind or under the theater to prostitute themselves (48-50).
Renato Barahona’s study of court records from the Basque country (1528-1735) finds that, at least for lower class women, “the loss of female honour and reputation could [be]– and often was– remedied through orderly and legal monetary means” (166).
Both humillar and trotar have sexual overtones and should be read as double-entendres.
Diane Ghirardo, speaking of Ferrara, describes how lower-class married women sometimes supplemented their family’s earnings through transactional sex. Early modern society attempted to spatially segregate prostitutes from ‘respectable’ society, but the need to constantly police and reinforce such boundaries demonstrates the liminality of categories in which the “line separating honorable women from dishonorable ones was elusive” (Ghirardo 408).
See also Jennifer Jo Cooley, who notes that some pícaras use courtly discourse to their economic advantage but does not explore the practice of prostitution in depth. (34).
On the ubiquitous erotic wordplay in La Lozana andaluza, see Bubnova.
Onions were believed to cause windiness and therefore opened the orifices. In men, onions were thought to multiply sperm and thus were sometimes recommended to increase fertility.
The Flores del tesoro de beldad contains several depilatory recipes, including one that uses “agua de placer” and seems intended for the genitals (31). This, along with the numerous references to Lozana shaving courtesans in La Lozana andaluza, indicates a sexual preference for lack of pubic hair or groomed pubic hair.