Teresa De Cartagena was a Deaf Spanish author in the 15th century. Her family was Jewish conversos, members of the Santa Maria Cartagena family (the most powerful conversos in late medieval Spain).
Cartegena’s grandfather was Rabbi Selemo ha Levi, a rabbi who converted to Christianity in 1390. He was baptized as Pablo De Santa Maria. Later he became the bishop of Burgos.
Cartegena was one of seven children. Her father was Pedro Cartegena (1387-1478), a royal counselor.
As a young woman, Cartegena claims to have attended the University of Salamance. During that period in Spain, women were not allowed to officially attend university, but she could have been tutored there. There is no evidence of what the nature of her attendance at the university was.
Cartegena entered the Franciscan Monasterio De Santa Clara in Burgos in 1440. In 1449, she transferred to the Cistercian Monasterio De Las Huelgas in Burgos, where she contracted an illness that left her Deaf. It is speculated that this transfer was a political maneuver due to Spanish laws being passed forbidding Jewish conversos from holding any political positions. Cartegena’s family was very much involved in the political scene and would have certainly been the target of the Franciscans aimed at outing conversos.
Cartegena’s first work, “Arboleda De Los Enfermos” (Grove of the Infirm) was appearantly a treatise written to a prominent “Lady of Virtue.” It is a reaction to her solitude in Deafness. Cartegena tries to find some good in the solitude, but she also admits how aggrevating it is to be asked to attend gatherings where she cannot communicate with her hosts and friends.:
“What I used to call my crucifixion, I now call my resurrection. Now are my two enemies reconciled, my desire and my suffering…. For you not only cut me off from the dangerous mob of worldly distractions but you have removed from me my desire, agonizing but undying, your mercy sparing me a lengthy battle between those two enemies, which are my wanting and my not being able….
“What I do want is to involve myself in worldly activities, and what I do not want is solitude or isolation from them. Well, if I examine my suffering, its intention is better than mine, for it wants my salvation, and I want my perdition; it wants to withdraw me from dangers, and I want to cast myself into them….”
“So with reason I am angered when people beg me and say, “Go to so-and-so, for they want to see you and even though you cannot hear them, they will hear you.” And while I understand that this is said in good friendship and innocence without any malice, nevertheless it still annoys me, knowing as I do that speech is pointless without hearing….”
Many men of the time criticized the work claiming that it was written by someone else because a woman could not have possibly written such a reasoned treatise.
This criticism inspired a later work, “Admiracion Operum Dey” (Wonder at the Works of G-d), in which she asserts that her critics are denying G-d’s power:
“However, there is something else I must not permit, for truth does not allow it: apparently not only do prudent men marvel at my treatise but some cannot believe that, indeed, I could do any good at all. …[T]his can ruin the substance of my writing and undermine greatly the benefit and grace that God wrought for me”
“And thus it follows that when we see that God has made something from nothing, we shall praise His omniscience; and when we see that He has made great things from little things, we shall praise His magnificence; and when we see that God makes simple and crude intellects learned guardians of His law, we shall praise His eternal wisdom;…
“Thus heavily burdened with human concerns some people marvel — or have marveled — and even consider it doubtful or impossible that a woman can write treatises or compose a meaningful book that may be good.
“Yet no one marvels if men write books or compendious treatises, for this is attributed to the very brain and sufficiency of understanding of the male author and to the great and “natural” learning that he knows; and nothing is said about the glory of God, nor do I think they remember whence came this “natural” knowledge that men acquire in their studies, and even those who know these subjects do not remember from where they got their knowledge nor who taught them”
The books were made available in 1481. We do not know if Cartegena was still alive at that time or not.