By María Beatriz Hernández Pérez
Paper given at the 4th Global Conference (2012)
Abstract: One of the most recurrent female figures found in ancient and medieval literature was that of the go-between. Associated to the practice of gossip, bartering, display and selling of her trinkets around neighborhoods and streets, the old woman was allowed into the female domestic spaces of late medieval Europe. In the role of the visiting old acquaintance she could therefore act as an intermediary between young would-be lovers in clandestine relationships, thus becoming a fundamental asset in many fictional accounts, where her age and sterility underscore her evil deviant nature. Carrying out her own alternative freelance enterprise in the local sex market, her busy disposition turns her doings into an alternative evil counterpart to the ecclesiastical effort to lead women into the frames and strictures of either virginity or marriage. As a merchant and capitalist economy develops in late medieval Europe, a readjustment of the boundaries between public and private spheres is enacted and the wandering go-between finds her definitive location within the brothel. It is the trespass into such a space that allows her to lead the way to the figure later known as “the madam”. My current concern is to analyze this figure and her dealings from the perspectives of gender and space, two paradigms deeply intertwined. Based on a consideration of prostitution as endowed with symbolic spatial connotations, this paper will analyze the evolution of the evil go-between figure from ancient and medieval literary types into its modern roles and profile.
In The Production of Space, Lefebvre describes the different levels according to which every society creates its own space, built out of physical, mental and productive mainstays. As a cultural social product, space is coded and can thus be interpreted. This paper will try to get an insight into the importance of space in the design of some symbolic domains existing in gender relationships in the Spanish late Middle Ages. In order to do so, the figure of the go-between will be presented as the signifier through which the diverse levels of gender meaning circulate.
Although this figure is also found in classical culture, the attributes of the Hispanic go-between derive as well from ancient Oriental sources, and are related to the arts of the Hebraic match-maker and ultimately to those of the Indian bawd. In Islamic societies, where female seclusion called for brief but intense encounters among women in the private domestic space, the go-between was one of the few channels through which they would contact the outer world. The Arabic conquest of Spain in the early 8th century allowed for the development of this figure in the country, where her literary trace can be followed till the 17th century. In fact, two of the literary Spanish masterpieces in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor (ca. 1340) and Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1599), present this woman as a key character. In order to understand the resourcefulness of the go-between and her literary success, we should take into account the medieval perception of space related to the female body.