In 1666, the Viceroy of New Spain gathered forty doctors of philosophy to examine the intellectual credentials of a teen girl, Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje.
Together, the scholars approximated the sum of Western knowledge in the 17th century; the conclave included theologians, linguists, philosophers, jurists, scientists, mathematicians, musicians and poets.
The royal governor needed such a diverse and distinguished panel to test the full range of Juana’s apparent talents, to determine whether the girl was a true prodigy or — as most suspected — just a gifted parrot who by some trick of rote learning had achieved merely the illusion of erudition across the arts and sciences.
Her reputation as an accomplished poet and multilingual polymath directly challenged several core cultural norms of her civilization.
First and foremost, early modern European men were sure that Christianity, Aristotle and millennia of human history had comprehensively proved women’s innate inferiority — intellectually, morally and physically.
Second, the scholars knew that wisdom and accomplishment came from age and experience. How could someone so young possess so much knowledge and ability?
Finally, the girl’s achievements threatened Mexico’s complex caste system, which assumed the biological superiority of European-born nobles. Juana’s maternal grandparents hailed from Spain, but her mother’s social status dropped by virtue of being born in Mexico, and plummeted further when she had her children out of wedlock. As the bastard daughter of an unknown father, Juana’s rank in the class system of New Spain sank even lower, barely exceeding that of a mestizo peasant.
Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, the viceroy, invited the learned men to question the girl on any topic. The scholars took turns grilling her in their respective areas of expertise. With preternatural calm, young Juana rose to the occasion, demonstrating wide and deep knowledge of multiple languages and every academic discipline.
After a few hours, her impressive performance forced the scholars to concede the authenticity of her intellectual attainment.
As she continued to study and publish over the ensuing decades, Juana earned improbable recognition as a leading intellectual throughout the Western world.
In the Classical tradition, the Muses were nine daughters of Zeus who inspired human achievement in the arts and sciences. The birth order, names and domains of these goddesses were:
- Calliope (epic poetry)
- Clio (history)
- Melpomene (tragedy)
- Euterpe (music)
- Erato (love poetry)
- Terpsichore (dance)
- Ourania (astronomy)
- Thalia (comedy)
- Polyhymnia (religious poetry)
Juana’s contemporaries recognized her seemingly divine mastery of the arts and sciences by calling her the Tenth Muse.
In subsequent posts, I’ll describe how she acquired her exceptional knowledge, how she swam against strong cultural currents to stake out considerable intellectual independence, and show how myths continue to contaminate most modern accounts of her life.