Friday, August 18, 2006


Luis de Leon’s Spain

When Luis de Leon was born in 1527 (or 1528), the great political events, which shaped Spain’s political and cultural landscape for a long time to come, had already taken place. The marriage in 1474 of Ferdinand and Isabella heralds a new reality in Spain. Whereas formerly Spain was a medieval pluralistic society, a mosaic of small kingdoms and several civilizations, where Jews, Christians and Moors shared a house and somehow managed to get along, the new Spain was organized according to a Castilian principle: Spain was to become a single country, unified under one monarch, one religion and one language.

The events abide by this principle almost to perfection: Granada falls in 1492. The Moors are conquered. The Jews are expelled. Columbus, one of many explorers and conquerors, opens the future to an immense Christian kingdom, seductively offering rewards, glory and dominance. Spanish interests require its intervention in Italy, which humanistic development in turn influences Spanish culture, so far immune to the charms of Italian renaissance. In a period of non-stop and rapid change and discovery, the theological, rational and ethical resources of the Church must be used to the utmost. In fact, every innovation must be coordinated with church doctrine.

Spanish renaissance is Church-centered. It does not turn its back on the medieval period, but rather builds on it. Spanish renaissance echoes the Castilian principle: unity and harmony are its goals. So that poets and statesmen share the same view, of unifying diversities, bringing order out of chaos, music out of discord [1]. The Kings of Castile, and later Spanish monarchy, had completely understood that in order for unification to prevail, they needed to consolidate and centralize their power, by leaning on the support of the inquisition. Consequently, a partnership was formed between the crown, the inquisition and the “lowly hungry masses” which aimed at crushing groups caught in the middle with iron pincers: intellectuals, the rising bourgeoisie and even the aristocracy. Jews and conversos, whose rise to power and wealth during the preceding century was nothing short of miraculous, would be their main victims.[2] They were singled out for persecution and annihilation.

Spanish renaissance develops in three unequal stages: The first one spans the last quarter of the fifteenth century, where all the traumatic events listed above take place, political unity and uniformity is achieved and Spain is committed to involvement in the rest of Europe. The second period, being the first half of the sixteenth century, is the one during which Luis de Leon is born and grows up to adulthood. Spanish expansionism and constant intervention abroad are now the accepted realities. Problems multiply and concurrently, the energies of the Spaniards trying to solve them. The third part of Spanish renaissance spans the second half of the Sixteenth century, when these realities are consolidated, again, along the principles of religious and political unity. The sixteenth century was harvest time for Spain[3]. This is the time when Luis de Leon’s mostly mature life develops, ending in 1591. He is born, lives and dies during one of Spain’s greatest and most interesting times, the Golden Age. Being who and what he is – a moral Christian intellectual with indisputable Jewish roots- his attitude towards Spain’s government and towards the chauvinist values of Spanish society is a blend of derision and anguish. Spanish historians see in Leon a social commentator and maybe a prototype of the modern anarchist. His ideal was a stateless society, where God’s grace will replace the law and the ruler would be more like a shepherd.

The fortressed castle of Belmonte

La Mancha

Le ciel, la terre, rien de plus”, this is how Castilian landscape, is described in Alain Guy’s quite romantic portrait of Luis de Leon[4]. Leon was born in Belmonte, a small town, perched on top of a hill, on the heart of Don Quixote’s country of La Mancha, approximately 100 km South-West to Cuenca. During the sixteenth century Belmonte boasted some thousand families. Juan Pacheco, the Marquis of Villena, a converted Jew, built the fortressed castle that dominated its skyline, in 1456. He was a favorite of the Juan II and one of the most powerful magnates of his time[5]. La Mancha was recognized for its fiercely energetic and passionate men. Aubrey Bell, who wrote the first definitive biography of Luis de Leon in 1925[6], is quoted by Manuel Duran as thus describing the nature of the people in that region:

“ The inhabitants of the town, hospitable, courteous and independent, have strongly marked character. La Mancha. … produces a keen, energetic, tenacious race … They can combine a Castilian chivalry towards the weak with a hatred of injustice and a vehemence that is almost Valencian. A foreigner well acquainted with Spain, when asked how he would distinguish the inhabitants of Cuenca…. Answered without hesitation that he considered them “a little fiercer.”

[1] Duran, Manuel., Luis de Leon, Yale university, 1971 p.15-17
[2] Duran, “The Names of Christ” p. 10-13
[3] Duran, pp. 18-19
[4] Guy, Alain., Fray Luis de Leon, Iberiques, Jose Corti 1989
[5] Guy, p. 18
[6] I could not find a copy of this book, unfortunately
[7] Duran, Manuel. “The Names of Christ”, Paulist press, New York 1984 p. 2


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