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Q&A on Friar Francisco de Osuna’s “Norte de los estados” in Modernized Spanish

What inspired you to do this edition?

Francisco de Osuna is best known for his influence on the Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. My purpose in producing the first modern edition of this work was to recover Osuna’s reformist and extraordinary vision of marriage. When I first read his 1531 guide, Norte de los estados, I was struck by its attention to women’s spiritual equality and its open treatment of the body, including sexuality, childbirth, and illness. Relative to other conduct manuals of the era it offers an intimate window into how clergy used confession and preaching to shape the domestic experiences of men and women across a range of social positions.

What is the main argument presented in your book?

A Franciscan friar of the Observants, Osuna energetically set down detailed instructions for his readers using private dialogues between himself and his fictional nephew, Villaseñor. In my introduction, I argue that Osuna was attempting to cultivate a married laity operating within the economic and spiritual values of his order. The book’s most exceptional features are its detailed criticism of men’s common behaviors and insistence on the value of fidelity for both husbands and wives. Osuna contends that the practice of devoted loyalty between spouses is the principal purpose of marriage, conspicuously placing it above the importance of producing offspring. He also has a skeptical view of the habits and proclivities of Villaseñor, who serves as a representative of married men in his text.

Can you summarize what this book is about?

True to its title, it was intended as a ‘north star’ to dependably guide people through the challenges of youth, married life, and widowhood. Osuna advises his readers how to successfully handle conventional dilemmas such as selecting a spouse, what to say at one’s betrothal, preparing for one’s wedding, problems of impotence and fertility, pregnancy, birth, and children’s education. He also describes—in a popular register—how to manage a variety of common relationship hazards caused by mistrust, absence, gambling, drinking, and violence, as well as how to best behave upon the illness and death of one’s partner. Throughout the book he is surprisingly candid, opposing narrower definitions of spousal roles that were to become orthodoxy within a few decades with the Roman Catechism of 1566.

What was the most surprising or exciting thing that you discovered during this project?

I expect modern readers, like me, will find the author’s voice to be wry, affable, and often singular. Osuna frequently criticizes the avarice and hypocrisy of nobles and clergy with anecdotes such as one about a philosopher who spat in a king’s face, or remarks such as his observation that Bishops—unlike nuns—do not show proof of their own virginity to get married to Christ. He offers an exceptional treatment of domestic abuse as well. At one point Villaseñor’s wife takes revenge on her husband by calling numerous female neighbors to threaten him with a communal beating. I realized in preparing this edition that Osuna’s conceptualization of marriage contributed to an alternative cultural thread that challenged hegemonic views. We know Miguel de Cervantes and Fray Luis de León read him. Doubtless, the spousal relationships he portrays were developed in subsequent works of literary fiction.

What impact do you hope that this book will have?

Osuna began as a rural commoner of humble means and went on to become one of sixteenth-century Europe’s most influential spiritual authors. His well-known mystical treatise, The Third Spiritual Alphabet, teaches meditative recollection, a method for gaining wisdom through study and introspection with the ultimate goal of directly experiencing the emanation of divine love. Norte de los estados is a valuable resource for understanding the period of social ferment before the Council of Trent began in 1545. It was Osuna’s last vernacular publication in Spain before he refused a prestigious post in the Indies as Franciscan Commissary General, left his country to travel through France and the Netherlands, and began publishing in Latin. I hope this edition brings attention to his practical focus on common people’s lives, and on women’s experiences in particular, just when his fame was beginning to rise.

by Dana Bultman