Women whom history has deemed as “mad” play an interesting role in pop culture. Some of them are viewed as romantic figures, their stories revered and retold as tragic love. Others are viewed as passive objects, mostly used as props in men’s stories. Still others are retroactively diagnosed as “mad” due to their actions, even when men who did the same or similar things were not.
A lot of these ideas about historical mad women are embodied in the story of Juana of Castile (in English, Joanna), often known as Juana la Loca, or Joanna the Mad. She’s been the subject of paintings, plays, operas, songs, books, and movies, almost always depicted as the mad woman whose obsessive love for her unfaithful husband led to her imprisonment, for the good of Spain. Sometimes she’s accused of necrophilia, other times she’s distantly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, with evidence provided by accounts written by people paid by her husband, father, and son to ensure that she was viewed incompetent to rule. She is rarely presented as having any agency of her own, and in an age where Henry VIII was having wives beheaded for perceived and actual infidelity, Joanna’s “hysterical” jealousy of her husband’s well known affairs has been consistently presented as “proof” of her insanity.
Joanna was the third child of Isabella and Ferdinand of “funding the voyages of Columbus” fame. At 16 she was sent off in a marriage of state to the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Handsome. Joanna fell madly and devastatingly in love with her husband, and his subsequent infidelities are said to have “driven her” into her madness, which was later used by her father, husband, and son to justify locking her up for decades and denying her the crown she inherited from her mother. She was kept captive in Tordesillas from 1509 until her death in 1555, still stylized as “her majesty” with her various male relatives merely ruling in her name. Academics Maria Asuncion Gomez, Santiago Juan-Navarro, and Phyllis Zatlin describe her time there as enduring “almost a half-century of loneliness and well-documented physical and psychological abuse.” (Juana of Castile: history and myth of the mad queen, Introduction, pg 9)
The commonly-held view, especially depicted in pop cultural representations of Joanna, is that she went mad with jealousy. She loved her husband far more than he loved her, and his infidelities are what drove her to a madness that could only be contained by locking her away for most of her life. This appears to be the tact taken by the 2001 movie (released in the US in 2002) Juana la Loca (Mad Love in the US). (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a version subtitled in English, so I am relying on the wikipedia description of the film.)
Historians are of mixed opinions as to Joanna’s mental health condition, and whether it was permanent or temporary. There was a history of women with mental health conditions in her family—her maternal grandmother, Isabella of Portugal, had also been confined due to “sinking into melancholia” after the births of her children and then the death of her husband. On the other hand, this history—combined with Joanna’s eratic behavior—allowed her husband to spread rumors that painted her as behaving far worse than she actually did. (Crazy women! You can believe anything about them!)
Part of the romantic legend that has grown up around Joanna is that, upon the death of her husband, she had his body disinterred and carried—at night, accompanied by the entire Royal Entourage, by torchlight—to the place where he had expressed an interest in being buried. According to Uppity Women of Medieval Times, by Vicki Léon, “When (Philip the Handsome) died unexpectedly at twenty-eight, Juana came completely unglued. To get her mind off the tragedy, she toured Spain for three years. The snag was, she dragged Phil’s embalmed corpse along with her—and then found she couldn’t get him out of her mind or her nose.” (pg 106) Other popular histories also emphasize this event, further embellishing the tale.
And… that’s where these stories stop. Joanna married a beautiful man, she fell in love with him, that love drove her crazy, and she was obsessed with his corpse throughout the next fifty years of her life. Léon goes so far as to describe her captivity as being “surrounded… with a variety of musicians and singers.” So romantic! So tragic! So pathetic! Quick, let’s make a movie or write an opera or a novel about that.
We certainly shouldn’t tell the story about how Joanna’s captivity actually went. According to History and Myth of the Mad Queen (pg 14):
Juana lived for forty-seven years locked away in interior chambers without access to natural light. Her jailors were permitted to “give her the strap,” which meant perhaps the authority to tie her up or to whip and torture her, and to “use force.” The queen died in 1555, paralyzed from the waist down, her legs covered in ulcers and tormented by the agony of gangrene.
The pop cultural perceptions of Joanna show many of the same things we’ve seen again and again in this series. Some of this is, of course, based on the historic record. We don’t know if Joanna’s madness was real, a political lie told by every male in her immediate family, or brought about by being a well-educated and well-trained woman in a world where both things were seen as very threatening. However, some of the stories around her emphasis her (alleged?) violent reactions to her husband’s lovers, because crazy women are all violent. They don’t talk explicitly about the abuse that Joanna experienced at the hands of her “caretakers,” since the history of abuse in asylums is one that makes people uncomfortable, and thus isn’t often considered appropriate to the story. The image of her being required to be locked up, for the good of her family, is echoed in modern depictions of “mad” mothers who must also be locked away and thus made passive or, more often, just ending their story. And, of course, so much of this interest in Joanna’s madness, especially focusing on her love life, has a similar feeling to modern fascination with the “madness” of celebrity women.
- Elvis Mitchell at the New York Times: Mad Love (2001) Film Review: Bewitched and Bewildered by Her Passion for a Heel
- Heather at The Maiden’s Court: Movie Review: Mad Love
- Find a Grave: Juana la Loca
- Penguin Unearthed: Travelling Feminist: Isabela I of Castile
- Brenda Maddox at The Times: Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present, by Lisa Appignanesi
- A description of the BBC Radio Documentary “Mad Women In the Attic”