(adapted from a guest lecture given for the European Civilization course)
Alix Ingber, Professor of Spanish

We can look at the past in different ways. We can simplify it and codify it into a few key words and concepts, like Empire and Renaissance, Reformation and Revolution, or we can try to get a sense of what it was like for ordinary people to live at a time quite distant from our own. Texbooks tend to take the first approach. The second, far less direct, is more compelling but also much more complex. Textbooks try to wrap life into neat packets, each bound by its own pair of dates; real life is rarely so easy to describe.

The term Renaissance is particularly problematic when it is applied to Spanish history. While we think of the Renaissance in Western Europe as an intellectual movement spreading outward from Italy in the fifteenth century, the flow of everyday life in Spain during the same period was often in conflict with the currents of Renaissance thought, and this conflict was to have profound consequences for centuries to come. It is easy enough to say that during the Renaissance a Europe dominated by the Church awoke to rediscover the thought and the arts of Classical Antiquity. It is quite another matter to see how these new European concerns interacted with the prevailing cultural situation in Spain - a situation that was very different from what was happening in other parts of Europe.

Moreover, the notion of "Spain" itself poses some fundamental questions. When did Spain begin to exist as a nation? Were the cultures that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula before the Roman Empire the first true Spaniards? Did the Romans bring to Spain - Hispania - the first notion of a Spanish identity? Did the Visigoths, who adopted the Latin language and Christian religion of the local inhabitants, somehow set Spain apart from other provinces of the former Roman Empire? Were the Moors - Islamic peoples who controlled much of the peninsula for centuries - Spaniards or alien invaders? Did the Catholic Monarchs, who conquered the last Moorish kingdom on the peninsula and expelled the Jews in 1492, finally establish Spain as a unified nation?

Today we use the term "multicultural" to refer a society composed of diverse ethnic groups. In this sense, the Spain of the Middle Ages was a truly multicultural environment. Américo Castro, the Spanish historian, claimed that Spanish history has its real roots in the coexistence, intermingling, and struggle of three groups - Christians, Moslems, and Jews - and that this coexistence or convivencia must be considered an essential component of what it means to be Spanish. While much of the Reconquest was over by the middle of the thirteenth century, Spain took shape as an amalgam of these three groups. The fact that an area had been reconquered by the Christians didn't mean that the entire culture or population had changed, but simply that a transfer of political power had taken place.

Medieval Spanish literature, all composed at some time during the Reconquest, takes this coexistence for granted. In the Poem of the Cid, the twelfth-century epic poem that follows the career of Spain's best known hero of the Christian Reconquest, the real villains are Christian noblemen, and some Moors are portrayed as loyal friends of the poem's Christian hero.

One fourteenth-century author (Don Juan Manuel), a blood relative of three Castilian kings and an active participant in the political struggles of his day, at one point dropped his support of a Christian pretender to the throne and went over to the side of the Moors; loyalty was not a matter of religious conviction or of ethnicity or "nationality," but simply of political expediency. In his collection of stoies called Count Lucanor (or The Book of Patronio) he uses tales from both Christian and Islamic sources, and he presents his Moorish and Christian protagonists in a very similar fashion - sometimes it is even difficult to tell which is which - and these characters all appear to inhabit the same world and share the same goals and preoccupations.

In the second half of Don Quijote, published much later in 1615, a morisco (Moslem convert) named Ricote makes an eloquent case for his right to be called a Spaniard. Referring to the recent expulsion of the moriscos he describes to Sancho Panza, his former neighbor, what it was like for his people, condemned by the expulsion to wandering through the world, searching for a new home, knowing that their only real home for many centuries was the one that now viewed them as aliens and enemies. "Everywhere we are," he says, "we cry for Spain...."

The Renaissance came late to Spain. This is somewhat ironic, since many would argue that were it not for Spain's multicultural Middle Ages, there might not have been any Renaissance at all. In the thirteenth century King Alfonso X (The Learned), himself a poet and authority on the game of chess, called together a group of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish scholars whose job it would be to translate into Castilian the major texts at their disposal in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. The Arabic and Hebrew texts included translations from the Greek, and the translation of this material into Castilian was a major force in reintroducing Classical texts into Western Europe, as well as establishing norms for using the spoken language as a serious written language. Works produced under Alfonso's direction included histories of Spain and of Antiquity (including Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans); a major compilation of laws from the Roman Empire on; books on astronomy/astrology, precious stones and their magical qualities, and chess; and lyric and religious poetry, some written by the King himself. The work of Ovid, and through him the world of Classical mythology, also made its way into Castilian as a result of Alfonso's efforts.

When the Renaissance finally arrived in Spain, through Italy, at the end of the 15th century, Spain was at the point of "unification." Unification, however, is a somewhat misleading term, and only makes sense if we see Spain as a thoroughly Christian country. The conquest of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews, and the publication of the first grammar of the Castilian language all occurred in 1492, and are often taken together as being symbolic of that unification. But underneath the surface of a unity that is so easy to describe in textbooks, there were social pressures and conflicts of unimaginable proportions: The Golden Age (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) of Spain was, according to Américo Castro, the Conflictive Age, a time in which individuals became obsessed with a notion of honor that was based on the opinion of others and on one's status as Old Christian or New Christian.

As Castro has shown, many of what today we would call "typical Spanish values" are a result of the long coexistence, or convivencia of the three cultures. The zeal of Spanish Christians to conquer infidels in battle included the assertion that the Christian soldier who died in such battles - whether with Moors, Protestants, or Native Americans - was guaranteed salvation. This is associated with the Islamic belief in the "spilling of the blood" of infidels. The obsession with lineage that extends beyond nobility and focuses on the maternal line may well be based on the Talmudic (Jewish) notion that a person's religion is determined by the religion of the mother - since the father's identity was not nearly as certain.

The definition of honor based on "caste" - a person's ethnic origins - comes out of the Spanish Christians' desire to define themselves as Spanish and distinguish themselves from the other groups who laid equal claim to calling themselves Spaniards. Each group came to be seen as having specific "jobs" and characteristics: the nature of Spanish Christians was largely derived from the time of the Reconquest, and later solidified into a series of stereotypes: the Spanish Christian was a knight, a warrior who fought in the name of his God and his King. He did not work with his hands, deal with money, or engage in intellectual enterprises. Moors were artisans; Jews handled money and engaged in medicine and other professions.

Large-scale conversions of Spanish Jews to Christianity began to occur following a series of brutal massacres in 1391 and continued through the edict of expulsion in 1492. Those Christians who had resented what they saw as the privileged status of Jews in the fourteenth century, soon realized that conversion only served to make matters worse, since their old enemies were now Christians like themselves and could no longer be controlled or persecuted as Jews. Administrative posts formerly occupied by Jews were now occupied by New Christians. The Holy Office (or Spanish Inquisition) was established in 1478 to insure that all Christians remained true to orthodox beliefs and practices - to keep the religion free from heretical elements. In practice, however, what tended to happen was that the Inquisition was often used as an instrument to pursue petty squabbles between individuals and to thus deprive rivals or personal enemies of the their Spanish identity.

The focus of persecution also switched from non-Christians to New Christians in areas of life not directly controlled by the Church. In 1412 King John II of Castile had ordered the separation of Moors and Jews from Christians in his kingdom, but this was no longer sufficient, and in 1449 the first of many so-called "Statutes of blood purity" was enacted. These laws made it impossible for people with any Moorish or Jewish ancestry to serve in specific positions and professions and to belong to elite organizations. In order to participate in an activity covered by one of these statutes, the individual had to undergo an investigation of his lineage, and this could often lead to consequences far worse than not getting the job: a hint of impure blood meant the irretrievable loss of honor, which was understood not in terms of what a person did, but who a person was and how others saw him. And along with loss of reputation came closer scrutiny by others - and possibly the Inquisition. It was dangerous, for example, to refuse to eat pork, because this might suggest either Jewish or Islamic practices.

Another crucial consequence of these events was that the terms converso and New Christian now came to apply not only to those who had converted to Christianity but extended to any Christian whose ancestors, at any time in the past, had not been born Christian. In the sixteenth century, two devastating books appeared that provided ample evidence to suggest that a good part of the Spanish nobility - including King Ferdinand himself - had Jewish origins. The authorities had all known copies burned in the seventeenth century.

The stereotypes of the three castes also continued after the expulsion, but now, once again, the distinction was made between Old and New Christians. The Old Christian was said to have hombría, manliness (later transformed into machismo) and sosiego, a kind of inner peace, while the converso was inquieto, or uneasy, unsure of himself. The Old Christian engaged in action, whereas the New Christian was more involved in financial or intellectual pursuits. A truly bizarre result of this last distinction could be seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when peasants occasionally used their illiteracy as proof of their purity of blood.

Spanish literature in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries often reflects the conflict between Renaissance Humanism and the peculiar social pressures associated with life in Spain during that period. This conflict is evident in all literary genres. In the theatre, which began as a diversion for the nobility but came to be the genre most accessible to the general public, there is a distinct shift of perspective over time. In poetry, the conflict is played out in questions of religious and artistic doctrine in the sixteenth century, and in the seventeenth century moves into the realm of broad satire and personal attacks.

The early (fifteenth century) theatre of Juan del Encina and others was written for and performed in the palaces of kings and other noblemen. The themes were religious, and the performance practices of the day probably had their origins in the Church - where, for example, a Christmas Mass might pause for a dramatic representation of the story of the Three Magi. What Juan del Encina and his contemporaries (many of whom were New Christians) added to this tradition was a new comic character: the peasant. While this character may have been derived in part from the buffoons of the commedia dell'arte, the peasant in Renaissance Spanish theatre speaks a special dialect created just for him, and brings to the stage the economic and social preoccupations of his class. He is a funny character, but he also serves at times to highlight Spanish values - like the obsession with honor - that Encina and others wished to satirize.

As the fifteenth century drew to a close, one of the most extraordinary works of Spanish literary history appeared. Not quite theatre, not quite novel, La Celestina is a dialogued action with no narrative, description, or stage directions. Its first edition contained sixteen acts and was published anonymously. It is unlikely that the author - who in a later edition added his name and five additional acts - ever intended it to be performed on stage. La Celestina presents a view of the grotesque underbelly of Renaissance Spain, a series of actions and confrontations in which love is equated with sex, loyalty and religious faith are subverted in the name of self-interest, treachery and hypocrisy reign, and the only character with any sense of honor is Celestina, an old woman who has been convicted of practicing witchcraft and whose jobs include procuring women for clerics and restoring the virginity of young ladies who wish to get married. The incredible pessimism of this work is generally attributed to the fact that its author, Fernando de Rojas, was a New Christian who saw his own relatives persecuted by the Inquisition and thus viewed the society in which he lived from a unique perspective.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Spanish theatre became immensely popular, and moved from palace to public theatre and town square. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quijote and considered by many to be the inventor of the modern novel, spent his life bemoaning the fact that he could never quite make it as a dramatist. Success in the theatre meant appealing to a series of popular values - of which honor was the most prevalent. Lope de Vega, though he seemed to have found the racial implications of honor personally distasteful, took Juan del Encina's peasant and turned him into a national hero by presenting him as the purest-blooded Spaniard of all. Many plays of the period suggest that the nobility's racial purity was questionable, and peasants - with no political or social status - end up being seen as placing higher on this caste-based scale of honor than those who ruled them. In Lope's plays peasants openly declare this racial superiority and, through it, their right to honor. And it was Lope, not Cervantes, whose dramas were most admired by the public.

The poetry of the period deals with these issues in somewhat different ways. Possibly the best known Spanish poem of the sixteenth century is the following anonymous sonnet:

To Christ on the Cross

I am not moved, my God, to give you love
by thoughts of heaven that you've promised me;
nor am I moved by thoughts of dreaded hell
for that alone, to cease offending thee.

You are what moves me, Lord; I'm moved to see
you on a cross and mocked with every breath;
I'm moved to see your body racked with wounds;
I'm moved by your abuse and by your death.

I'm moved, in sum, by love for you so great
that I would love you were not heaven there,
and I would fear you, if there were no hell.

You need give me no prize to love you thus,
for even if I sought not what I seek,
as I now love you I would love you still.

Why would this sonnet be anonymous? The assumption is that in the context of sixteenth-century Spain it represented a dangerous departure from doctrine, as it specifically rejected the orthodox notions of the tangible rewards of faith and the punishments coming to those who do not believe. Instead, the focus is shifted to the humanity of Christ, to his love, and to his suffering. As it turns out, many clerics in the sixteenth century were New Christians. These conversos in the Spanish Church found the work of Erasmus and the humanists particularly appealing, which ended up, of course, being another count against them with the Old Christian orthodoxy. A poem like this was likely to raise all sorts of suspicions, and anonymity was probably the only choice available to the poet.

When we talk about secular Renaissance poetry in Spain we always begin with Garcilaso de la Vega, the prototypical Spanish "Renaissance man," the soldier-poet who was the most influential (though not the first or the only) poet to introduce Italian Renaissance verse forms, poetic techniques, and themes to Spain. Although his primary themes are love and the psychological conflicts it imposes on the lover, one of his best-known sonnets - an adaptation of an Italian sonnet by Tasso - deals rather conventionally with the equally conventional carpe diem theme:

So long as of red rose and lily white
the proper colors of your face now show,
and your impassioned, fervent, honest glance
inflames the heart and holds it close in tow;

and so long as your hair, which in a vein
of gold was mined, endowed with rapid flight,
around your lovely white, and haughty throat
the wind can still move, scatter, and uncomb;

go, pluck now from the spring of your delight
the sweetest fruit, before the angry years
can wrap the lovely peak in snowy scenes.

The icy wind will cause the rose to wilt,
and all things will be changed by fickle time,
so as to never change its own routine.

Garcilaso's innovations were not greeted with open arms by all Spaniards. Cristóbal de Castillejo - a monk, soldier and poet who kept a mistress and fathered an illegitimate child - rejected the new poetry on patriotic grounds (since it came from a foreign culture). He even went so far as to accuse the new poets of "heresy." Ironically, one of his most famous poems criticising Garcilaso is a perfect Italian sonnet:

Boscán and Garcilaso having come
to that place where the troubadours reside,
who in our tongue and its exquisiteness
were in this century once recognized,

the two groups at each other in alarm
regard, the colors of their faces fade,
fearing that they might be foreign scouts
or spies or enemies gone renegade;

and judging them at first just by their clothes,
it seemed to them they were, as it should be,
two cultivated Spanish gentlemen;

and hearing the new language that they spoke,
all mixed with verse from lands across the sea,
they looked upon the two as aliens.

Luis de Góngora, perhaps the most controversial of Golden Age poets, reworked Garcilaso's carpe diem sonnet in the seventeenth century and gave it a far more extreme resolution. In the Garcilaso sonnet the culprit is time, which routinely transforms young into old. In Góngora's version what begins as a competition between nature and a beautiful woman is ultimately resolved by death, devastation, and oblivion:

While trying with your tresses to compete
in vain the sun's rays shine on burnished gold;
while with abundant scorn across the plain
does your white brow the lily's hue behold;

while to each of your lips, to catch and keep,
are drawn more eyes than to carnations bright;
and while with graceful scorn your lovely throat
transparently still bests all crystal's light,

take your delight in throat, locks, lips, and brow,
before what in your shining years was gold,
carnation, lily, crystal luminous,

not just to silver or limp violets
will turn, but you and all of it as well
to earth, smoke, dust, to gloom, to nothingness.

While Góngora's poetic style in this sonnet is fairly comprehensible, he was best known for poems written in a more extravagant style that included words based on Latin and the violent disruption of normal word order. Lope de Vega, a literary rival of Góngora, follows Castillejo's lead, using Garcilaso and Boscán to attack Góngora's poetry. In Lope's seventeenth-century version, however, Garcilaso now represents the traditional, and Góngora the excesses of the new:

"Boscán, we're late arriving. Is there room?"
"Call to them from the gatepost, Garcilaso."
"Who's there?" "Two gentlemen from Mount Parnassus."
"There's no palaestra here to nocturnate."

"I cannot understand what that maid says.
Madame, what did you say?" "Effect retreat,
while dusk obstends its aformentioned limbos
and the sun distills its pink particulate."

"Have you gone crazy, Miss?" "The errant guest's
the one who's lost his way." "In what brief span
have Christians learned to speak such tongues, I ask!

Boscán, I'm sure that we have lost our way;
ask where's Castile, for either I've gone mad
or we've not left the country of the Basques."

Francisco de Quevedo, an even more vehement enemy of Góngora than Lope, attacks Góngora's extravagant style with a similar approach, but the effect he achieves through his invention of absurd and nonexistent words is far more extreme:

Francisco de Quevedo: Against Góngora

What capture you, nocturnal, in your ballads,
fool Góngora, crepusculating them,
if when you want to heronfluctuate them,
they're merely reptilized and subterposed?

I microcosmate you God of the pedants;
and you want them certify your worth
like bovines, antiquations or stigmata,
just so novitiate bards you'll decompose.

You exoticity is so commensurate,
that he who ruminates you must detract you,
since you eruct entrailings of turdalchemy,

pharmacofoliating like a numiate,
with your stomachabundance emanating,
you metamorphosize the archacadumy.

Castillejo's assertion that the new poets were heretics is carried to a further extreme by Quevedo, on one of the rare occasions that the social pressure associated with blood purity is explicitly mentioned in a sonnet. In a sonnet said to refer to Góngora, Quevedo demonstrates the danger that comes with ambition, and also shows how literature could be used to attack one's enemies by suggesting that their lineage would not hold up to scrutiny.

Francisco de Quevedo: Advising a friend, secure in his nobility, not to have his lineage investigated, so no one will find out what is not known

Without fraud your grandfather's unknown past
is your estate, your forebears' pedigree;
don't scrutinize the registry of Time,
or part silence's veil of secrecy.

Just see what happened when that daring youth,
misguided spectacle of days gone by,
to prove that he descended from the Sun
proved, falling, he descended from the sky.

Don't tamper with your kin's long-buried bones;
you'll find more worms than crests residing there
when newly questioned witnesses tell all.

For with each bit of evidence you add,
you may find as the bonfires multiply
a proof akin to Phaethon's famous fall.

The poem's subject matter is clearly indicated in its title. Quevedo, with a good deal of irony, suggests that ignorance of one's lineage is better than, quite literally, opening up the "can of worms" of a genealogical investigation that might prove disastrous for a seventeenth-century Spaniard. Quevedo emphasizes his theme by referring to the myth of Phaethon.

The device that holds this sonnet together is allusion. There are really two types of allusion here: the fairly conventional mythological references to Phaethon, and the essential issue being addressed by this sonnet: the question of lineage and blood purity in Golden Age Spain. While the latter was, for Quevedo and his immediate audience, an allusion to a contemporary reality that permeated the life of Spanish society at every level, for us it becomes an historical allusion, and in order to deal with this poem we need to recall the context in which it operates.

In Golden Age Spain, as we have seen, the nobility had more to worry about with regard to blood purity than the peasantry, since the upper classes were more likely to have their ancestry considered suspect. Unfortunately, it was often the case that an upper class Spaniard of Quevedo's day might want to join a prestigious organization (the military orders were a common example) that required an investigation to produce an ejecutoria, a document detailing the results of that investigation. A successful investigation (certification of a person's Old Christian heritage) would guarantee social status and prestige. Should such an investigation produce problems or even questions, however, the individual involved would be completely discredited and lose all social status.

Quevedo likens the impulse to investigate one's lineage to the story of Phaethon, the young man who insisted - to prove to everyone that he was the son of Apollo - that his father allow him to drive the chariot of the sun. When Phaethon could not control the chariot and started wreaking havoc on the world below, Apollo was forced to destroy him, striking him with a thunderbolt and casting him down to earth - and to his death - in flames. While mythological allusions were characteristic of Renaissance poetry, and references to Phaethon as a warning against impulsiveness or excessive ambition were fairly common, Quevedo's use of the allusion here is even more compelling, since Phaethon's story is itself directly related to the question of lineage.

In order to make his point, Quevedo alternates his references to genealogical investigations and to Phaethon. The first quatrain and the first tercet deal with the ejecutoria, and contain Quevedo's advice against undertaking such an investigation. The second quatrain and second tercet refer to Phaethon, and associate his error - and his fate - with that of a man who would foolishly seek to fill in the branches of his family tree.

The most striking figure in the poem appears in the second quatrain, where Quevedo introduces a play on words, using the verb descender (to descend) twice: first to refer to lineage, then to refer to falling. A similar technique is used in the first tercet, based on the word gusanos (worms). The notion that if you open up an ancient tomb you're likely to find more worms than coats-of-arms is obvious in a literal sense, but the reference to worms also suggests something rotten or contaminated. Finally, in the second tercet, Quevedo brings together his two allusions with the reference to fire, as the flames in which Phaethon perished merge with those of the auto de fe: the possible fate of an overly ambitious Spaniard.

A final poetic technique, less obvious than the others, is Quevedo's use of apostrophe. The sonnet speaks to a "friend." Who is this friend? Is he a real person? Is he really a friend? We have no way of knowing whether Quevedo is expressing real concern over a friend's welfare, or is instead using the sonnet to actually make a public accusation against some enemy, perhaps Góngora. The latter possibility is intriguing, because in that case the sonnet, by suggesting that the "friend's" lineage is indeed in question, would become part of the very situation that Quevedo is warning against!

This final poem is a particularly good example of the paradox of the Spanish Renaissance. The use of the sonnet form, of mythological allusion, apostrophe, and plays on words, are all typical of Renaissance poetry. The use to which these structures and devises are put, however, points to a social context that permeates the literature of the period, and gives us a glimpse, however hazy, of the problematic life that lay behind the art.

Links to additional sonnets in Spanish and English can be found at: http://ingber.spanish.sbc.edu/SonnetTexts/.

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Last updated: June 30, 1999 - 10:45 PM