In my novel, The Lines Between Us, part of which takes place in seventeenth-century Spain, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Ana, suggests to her brother that the ladies’ area in his home should be supplied with chairs, rather than cushions on the floors. She implies that the custom might be a holdover from the Moorish occupation which, though it had ended almost two centuries earlier, had lasted for seven centuries. The brother protests that no such influence exists in his house, but a few weeks later, Ana visits and finds that he has installed chairs for the women.
When I first saw the intriguing reference to the custom of dividing a salon with a wooden screen, with the women sitting or squatting “in Moorish fashion” on one side, while men sat on chairs and stools on the other, I was incredulous. Why had I never heard of this before? How did the women, in their rather restricting clothing, including very full skirts, manage to do this? Nevertheless, further digging uncovered confirmation that this was, in fact, true.
One might think that this arrangement prevailed only in poorer houses where cushions were an economic as well as cultural choice, but that is not the case. In a contemporary manuscript complaining of the ostentation in some homes, the author notes, “The most ordinary housewife is not content with a single salon furnished with Turkish carpets and cushions of velvet. She must have three, each more elegant than the other…”
One can even see this type of arrangement in the museum homes of two famous writers of the day: Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and Lope de Vega, a famous playwright. At the Cervantes museum, it says that women sat on cushions “a la morisca,” or Moorish style, to read, play music, do needlework, pray, or talk. In the photo, it looks as though the cushions might, in fact, be on a very low bench. In Lope de Vega’s home, records show that in the women’s sitting area, there were “two drawing room pallets and eight crimson velvet pillows,” on which the women sat cross-legged.
This gender-divided space was called the estrado, and the tradition was exported to the colonies, where in some cases it lasted longer than it did in Spain. Around 1850, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a writer and the second president of Argentina, described the area as “furnished with pillows in the tradition of the Arabic divan.” He wrote that his mother was disappointed when his sisters dismantled the estrado, as she “was not accustomed to working seated on a high chair.”
Throughout history, certain chairs have been the symbol of authority. Women sitting on the floor or a very low bench, while men sat on chairs, begs the question of gender inequities. Even when women did sit in chairs, they were sometimes very low. There are examples of both humble chairs, with the heavy wood, leather back and seat, and iron studs, and very elaborate chairs, that are markedly short.
Low sewing chairs were standard, and of course it was women who used them. But even in seating sets, the men’s chairs were taller well into the nineteenth century. Some scholars interpret this as a manifestation of the attitude that women were expected to look up at men with humility and respect.
The custom of the estrado was carried over into religious life, too. In a monastery of the time, some of the cells of the nuns from wealthy families were furnished in the manner of the homes they had left. The abbess had a chair with a back and armrests, showing her authority.
A chair as a symbol of power? In the Empordá region of Catalonia in Spain, there is a phrase that is still in use to indicate that a bride has status: “She’s brought a chair.”
Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women taking a different path. Her award-winning debut novel, The Lines Between Us, takes place in Spain, Mexico, and modern-day St. Louis, Missouri. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, will come out in September, 2023.
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Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.