María de Zayas

Coat of arms of the old Castilian noble family de Zayas.

María de Zayas y Sotomayor (September 12, 1590 – 1661) wrote during Spain's Golden Age of literature. She is considered by a number of modern critics as one of the pioneers of modern literary feminism, while others consider her simply a well-accomplished baroque author. The female characters in de Zayas' stories were used as vehicles to enlighten readers about the plight of women in Spanish society, or to instruct them in proper ways to live their lives.


Born in Madrid, de Zayas was the daughter of infantry captain Fernando de Zayas y Sotomayor and María Catalina de Barrasa. Her baptism was known to have taken place in the church of San Sebastian on September 12, 1590, and given the fact that most of Spain's well-to-do families baptized their infants days after birth, it may be deduced that de Zayas was born days before this date. So very little is known about her life that it is not even certain whether she was single or married during the time she wrote. What is known is that she was fortunate to belong to the aristocracy of Madrid, because despite earning the low salary typical of writers at the time, she lived well. In 1637, de Zayas published her first collection of novellas, Novelas Amorosas y Ejemplares (The Enchantments of Love) in Zaragoza, and ten years later, her second collection, Desengaños Amorosos (The Disenchantments of Love), was published. De Zayas also composed a play, La traicion en la Amistad, (Friendship Betrayed) as well as several poems. The author enjoyed the respect and admiration of some of the best male writers of her day. Among her many admirers were Lope de Vega,[1] who dedicated some of his poetry to her, and Alonso de Castillo Solórzano, who named her the "Sibila de Madrid," (Sibyl of Madrid). Despite the enduring popularity of her works during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth-century saw her works censured for their perceived vulgarity. As a result, they faded into obscurity, and would remain obscure until the late twentieth century. The exact day of her death remains a mystery. Death certificates bearing the name María de Zayas have been found in both 1661 and 1669, yet neither seems to belong to her.

The only physical description of de Zayas, which is likely made in jest, comes from Francesc Fontanella in his Vejámenes:

Catalan English
Doña María de Sayas

viu ab cara varonil,
que a bé que ‘sayas’ tenía,
bigotes filava altius.
Semblava an algun cavaller,
mes jas’ vindrà a descubrir
que una espasa mal se amaga
baix las ‘sayas’ femenils.
En la dècima tercera
fou glosadora infeliz,
que mala tercera té
quant lo pris vol acquirir.
per premiar sos bons desitgs
del sèrcol de un guardainfant
tindrà corona gentil!

Madame Maria de Zayas

She lived with a manly face,
what great skirt she had,
mustaches spinning high.
She resembled a gentleman,
But, I have just come to discover
that she poorly hides a sword,
underneath the feminine skirts.
In the third décima
she was an unhappy commentator
for she has such a bad third
how quickly she wants to get
in order to award her good desires
of a farthingale's ?
shall have a heathen crown.

Major works

Maria de Zayas's most successful works are her Novelas Amorosas y ejemplares (Amorous and Exemplary Novels), published in 1637, and Desengaños Amorosos (Disenchantments of Love), published in 1647. They are known as the Spanish Decameron because they followed a structure used by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, consisting of many framed novelle (Spanish novelas) within one. These novelas, which were written in a complex style, were a very popular genre in all of Europe. Zayas was strongly influenced by Miguel de Cervantes’s “Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels) which were also written in the style of the Italian novella. Use of the genre allowed de Zayas the flexibility to share many stories and while developing several strong characters, and provided a great showcase for her range.

The two works feature the central character, Lisis, who has invited a group of her friends to her home to help her recover from an illness. In an attempt to lift her spirits, each of her friends narrates a story about a particular experience. Two stories are narrated per night for a total of five nights. While the first book describes violence and deception, the second one intensifies these themes. The second book is full of description which displays, without censure, the abuse of women. The female characters in both books are well developed, and their experience allows them to eloquently denounce their inferior role in society:

Why vain legislators of the world, do you tie our hands so that we cannot take vengeance? Because of your mistaken ideas about us, you render us powerless and deny us access to pen and sword. Isn’t our soul the same as a man’s soul?.... [Later the husband listens her laments and approaches Laura] moving closer to her and incesed in an infernal rage, (Diego) began to beat her with his hands, so much so that the white pearls of her teeth, bathed in the blood shed by his angry hand, quickly took on the form of red coral (tran. H. Patsy Boyer, The Enchantments of Love)


As recently as the early 1970s, scant attention was devoted to female writers of the Golden Age of Spain. In the 19th century Emilia Pardo Bazán helped to bring Zayas's work once again to the forefront, with her descriptions of Zayas's settings among the aristocracy of Madrid. With the exception of the occasional paragraph or two in histories of Spanish literature, however, critical studies on Zayas languished. Then, in 1976 Frederick A. de Armas foregrounded her work in his book The Invisible Mistress: Aspects of Feminism and Fantasy in the Golden Age. Here, he linked her work to that of playwright Ana Caro. Almost a decade later, Elizabeth Ordóñez studied Zayas and Caro together in "The Woman and her Text in the Works of María de Zayas and Ana Caro," (1985). And in 1989, a turning point was reached when for the very first time, an entire section of the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference was devoted to the works of Zayas (including papers by Judith A. Whitenack, Amy R. Williamsen, Gwyn E. Campbell, and Margaret Greer). From that point on, Zayas studies were on their way. In 1991, Daniel L. Heiple wrote a creative essay in which he proposed the idea that both Lope de Vega and Zayas were reacting against Huarte de San Juan's misogynistic treatise Examen de ingenios (1575). During the 1990s, a variety of scholars, including Margaret Greer and Marina S. Brownlee (both in 2000), published influential monographs on the work of the Madrid writer. Translations (Patsy Boyer), conference papers, and essay collections (Judith Whitenack, Amy Williamsen, Gwyn Campbell) abounded. At the same time, scholars began to turn their attention to close studies of other women writers of Golden Age. Interest in "Gynocriticism," one popular term for the study of women writers, grew considerably during the 1990s and 2000s, and within studies of peninsular Spanish literature, both in the U.S. and Europe, much of the interest focused on Zayas’s work,

In 2009 prominent Golden Age scholar Anne J. Cruz summarizes Margaret R. Greer's major study of Zayas's work thus: “Greer brings a welcome psychoanalytical perspective to Zayas’ novellas. Focusing on the various meaning of ‘desire,’ she investigates both the author’s need to win over readers, and the role that sexual desire plays in structuring the fiction.” In another well-known study, The Cultural Labyrinth of Maria de Zayas, Marina Brownlee argues that Zayas’s novelas were greatly influenced by Baroque culture, and were represented by a series of paradoxes. Brownlee explains how Zayas' women were themselves a paradox: the women were strong of character, but not strong enough to escape their particular negative situations. According to Brownlee, Zayas's belief was that the source of violence was the family, which was in turn an extension of a bigger institution, the Inquisition. She also points out that de Zayas' women were atypical females who chose to fight for revenge and defy their roles toward gender, race, sexuality, and class.

In the 21st century, several scholars, including Lisa Vollendorf, have also focused their attention on Zayas, and recently a new translation of several of Zayas's works has appeared by Margaret R. Greer and Elizabeth Rhodes. Echoing Brownlee's comments, Lisa Vollendorf’s Reclaiming the Body: Maria de Zayas’ Early Modern Feminism argues that Zayas used her prose to challenge the social view toward women. Vollendorf claims that Zayas's use of vivid images were intended for this purpose. She also explores Zayas’s strong belief in the convent as a haven for women’s independence. According to Vollendorf, Zayas had little expectation for change to occur by itself, and she became a voice urging women to seek independence and men to educate themselves about violence.

Zayas distinguished herself by writing about violence against women within the context of a “gender system” in Spain which was too universally accepted to change. She wrote within the confines of the Spanish Inquisition, during a time when women were closely monitored and kept from participating in any significant decision-making in the society. The paternalistic society of 17th century Spain dictated the confinement of the majority of the women to the home, the convent, or brothels, and it was fortunate for Zayas that she was born into privilege and was able to avoid living this type of existence.

Even more than her first volume (Amorous and Exemplary Novels), it was her second volume, Desengaños amorosos, that became a literary milestone by presenting women as intelligent people who could present and defend arguments in the style of an "academia." The women are independent and demonstrate that they do not need a male in order to discourse on intelligent topics, and furthermore, that they are more than capable of following the same practical ground rules and protocols as the men do. The general theme of the arguments is the mistreatment of women at the hands of men. This desire for female camaraderie and independence was contrary to most of the portrayals of women of the era, and was a unique way of portraying women in a world where the men of the society were looked to for guidance and leadership.

During much of the 20th century, the feminist literary canon in Spain was limited to one or two female writers. But Zayas and other writers of the seventeenth century, including her fellow Spaniards Ana Caro and Leonor de Meneses, as well as England's Aphra Behn, have been rediscovered by academics seeking to uncover or re-discover other first-rate works by unconventional voices.

Given the vision and excellence of her work, the public's desire to know more about the mysterious life of Zayas is understandable. But it is this very lack of knowledge about her personal life which may prove advantageous to her legacy, because it places the reader’s attention solely on her work.

List of works

Spanish title Boyer's Translation (More) Literal Translation
1632 La traición en la amistad The Treachery in Friendship The Betrayal in Friendship
Novelas amorosas y ejemplares, o Decamerón español Enchantments of Love Amorous and Exemplary Novels, or, the Spanish Decameron
Adventurarse perdiendo Everything Ventured Losing Alongst the Journey
La burlada Aminta y venganza de honor Aminta Deceived and Honor's Revenge The Tricked Aminta and the Vengeance of Honor
El castigo de la miseria The Miser's Reward The Punishment of Misery
El prevenido engañado Forewarned but not Forearmed The Forewarned Man, Deceived
La fuerza del amor The Power of Love The force of Love
El desengañado amando y premio de la virtud Disillusionment in Love and Virtue Rewarded Revelation in Love and the Prize of Virtue
Al fin se paga todo Just Desserts At the End, Everything Pays Out
El impossible vencido Triumph over the Impossible The Impossible, Conquered
Juez de su causa Judge Thyself Judge of One's Cause
El jardín engañoso The Magic Garden The Deceptive Garden
1647 Novelas y Saraos, and 1649 Parte segunda del Sarao y

entretenimientos honestos, later collectively, Desengaños Amorosos

(collectively) Disenchantments of Love Novels and Soirées, Second Part of the Soirée and Honost

Entertainments, collectively, Amorous Revelations

La esclava de su amante The Magic Garden As a slave of her lover
La más infame venganza Most Infamous Vengeance The Most Infamous Vengeance
El verdugo de su esposa His Wife's Executioner The Executioner of His Wife
Tarde llega el desengaño Too Late Undeceived The Truth Comes Late
Amar sólo por vencer Love for the Sake of Conquest Loving Only to Conquer
Mal presagio casar lejos Marriage Abroad: Portent of Doom Bad Omen to Marry Far Away
El traidor contra su sangre Traitor of His Own Blood Traitor to His Blood
La perseguida triunfante Triumph over Persecution The Persecuted Woman, Triumphant
Estragos que causa el vicio The Ravages of Vice Ravages Caused by Vice



  1. "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Felix de Lope de Vega Carpio". Retrieved September 21, 2015.


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