The Libro de buen amor: The Art of Love (or Seduction)!
The thread that holds the rambling and digressive Libro de buen amor together is love, specifically the question of “good love” (buen amor) and “mad love” (loco amor). Buen amor, we are told in the prose preface, is love of God which the soul yearns for (p. 7), loco amor is the worldly sin of lust, which the soul rejects (p. 8). But, the Archpriest concludes, “Since it is human to sin, if any wish to pursue mad love –which I do not advise- here they’ll find some ways to do it” (p.10). The Book ostensibly becomes, then, a kind of manual on the art of seduction, although generously sprinkled at the same time with devout songs and moralising fables.
In composing a manual on the art of seduction, Juan Ruiz, was doing nothing new. Perhaps the best known guide is Ovid’s Ars amatoria, composed about 1 BC, and enormously popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. Closer to the Archpriest’s day (mid 14th century) were the equally popular 12th-century anonymous Pamphilus de amore (which was a loose and much shorter adaptation of the Ars amatoria), and the 13th century De vetula (About the Old Woman). Each of these contains advice on the art of love or seduction (Ovid also has advice for women, in Book III), and the last two contain loose plots in which the lovers enlist the aid of bawds, whose role in governed by their mercenary needs.
Beginning in the 12th century, the idea of courtly love established itself in Provence and was codified (around 1185) by Andreas Capellanus. Distinguishing between the various attitudes towards love is difficult and is not the intention here. However, as a sweeping generalisation, we might say that the world of courtly love is aristocratic, and the object of the lover’s desire is married to another man. Love, thus, is a secret shared only by a confidant, but not a bawd. The lover worships his lady, and after an appropriate passage of time, she might grant him a small gift (a waistband, a lock of hair). Most importantly, love ennobled the lover and was a source of excellence, esteem and virtue. In other words, courtly love was, basically, serious stuff.
The Archpriest uses some of the language of courtly love, but the context in which it appears is hardly aristocratic. The Libro de buen amor operates at the street level of food, money, wine, women and song. The advice handed out by Love and Venus to the Archpriest has a strong Ovidian flavour and the adventures described are comical and joyful. This is not the medieval “vale of tears” but medieval laughter … ribald, salacious stuff. Just one example: the advice of the go-between, Trotaconventos, that the Archpriest try and seduce a young nun, Garoza (stanzas 1332-1507). “take my word, go after a nun/ she won’t be able to marry afterwards nor will the affair become public/ and you’ll be able to enjoy lovemaking for a good long time” (stanza 1332). And the Archpriest’s reaction when he spies the beautiful Garoza at prayer? “That pretty young thing should have children and grandchildren and not be shut up in a black veil or a habit. Although it might be a sin against our Lord to make love to a nun, oh God, if I were that sinner I would [willingly] do penitence after such a sin” (stanzas 1500-01). (Garoza, however, dies without having succumbed to Trotaconventos’s inducements.)
Juan Ruiz starts the adventures calling on the authority of Aristotle:**
As Aristotle says, and this is true,
The whole world strives for two things in life,
Firstly, to have enough to eat, and the other thing
Is to mate with an attractive female. (Stanza 71)
Ruiz is establishing his credentials on what
Aristotle said. Ironically, however, Aristotle
is not known to have made claims made in
the verses that follow, so the Archpriest
undermines the authority of his own words
at the same time that he asserts their truth.
The sexual urge is natural, in man as in all animals. But woman cannot be all bad for man for, as the Bible confirms, if God had believed woman to be so, he would never have made her man’s companion (stanza 109). But how easy is it to get a mate? After three unsuccessful attempts, the Archpriest bitterly attacks Love for having let him down. Love (seconded by Venus) then responds with ample advice on what to look for in a woman and how to seduce her. She must be pretty, medium height, a blonde with a good figure (stanza 432), small breasts (stanza 444) and broad hips (stanza 445), but not a peasant (stanza 431). She will be sparkling, with bright eyes adorned with long lashes (stanza 433), small white teeth, full, red lips (stanza 434), a woman passionate in bed and prudent around the house, neither hairy nor sharp-voiced (stanza 448). And a lot more besides.
To ensure success the suitor must attend and serve her (stanza 611, 616), be resilient to any rebuffs (stanza 613), praise her liberally (stanza 560), use a wily go-between (stanzas 435-443, 645), shower his lady with gifts (stanza 625), make use of plenty of money (stanza 508), play fine music (stanza 515); even a bit of rough and tumble is not amiss (stanza 520). And how is the suitor to behave? Drink moderately (stanza 548), avoid gambling (stanza 554), refrain from swearing (stanza 558) or praising other women (stanza 559), or touching her on the first meeting (stanza 646). Generous in gifts, discreet in action, secretive in protecting her identity (stanza 566), the lover must demonstrate his devotion with sighs and avoid lies (stanza 627), or lie only prudently (stanza 637). The effects of love on the lover will be evident (stanzas 588-93, 654-55): wounded by arrows of love, he will suffer torments. He will be afraid to say anything to anyone (except the go-between), he is dying from the wounds caused by the arrows of love, he burns and trembles (stanza 654); he stammers, his complexion becomes pale, wan, yellow.
We might expect that with all this advice, from the lips of Love and Venus themselves, the Archpriest would have no trouble in getting his way. On the contrary. He is as unsuccessful when following the advice of Love and Venus as he was before, and their words are shown to be empty and ineffective. Only the pursuit of Doña Endrina (stanzas 596-891) ends with success, but here significantly the narrating “I” is no longer the Archpriest but Don Melón, and the episode ends in marriage, something inessential in the world of courtly love and not possible for a priest. A series of ribald encounters with four mountain girls (stanzas 950-1042) further turns upside down and comically deflates the advice of Love and Venus. Extraordinarily repulsive, each girl accosts the Archpriest, carries him off to her cabin and with scarcely a preamble proceeds to ravish him despite his protestations! So much for elaborate schemes and expensive go-betweens!
Love and Venus, then, have nothing more to offer the Archpriest than words. There is nothing spiritually uplifting or ennobling in their message, and the whole idea of loco amor is in effect debunked. The Archpriest is quite right in his long, bitter attack (stanzas 181-422) on the handsomely composed Love as a deceiver, a liar who has not saved a single person (stanzas 181-2) but rather destroyed people with unfulfilled promises (stanza 400); his own subsequent failures are proof enough. What is more, as the Archpriest develops at length (stanzas 217-422), Love’s closest companions are the deadly sins (“The mortal sins are always your companions” 217a), those very vices that were held to be fateful to spiritual progress. “All the evil in the world, all the pestilence,/ lies and deceit come from your false tongue” (stanza 417ab) concludes the Archpriest. But Love is powerful, and the irate Archpriest falls to the very deceit that he has accused Love of. What better proof of the power of Love: his ardent critic conquered, his advice adopted! But what better proof, too, of the uselessness of Love’s advice than the narrator’s fruitless and comic pursuit of his ladies!
How do we then understand this elusive and seemingly comical book? The problem for us is the apparent fun Juan Ruiz seems to have in writing the racy parts of the poem. But this is to look at it with modern eyes, when religion has been segregated from the state and hence from our daily lives, which no longer follow the calendar of the Church (except superficially) but our own secular needs. Not so in the Middle Ages! Life was governed by the ritual cycles of the Church; even kings and nobles obeyed them. It has been persuasively argued that the Libro is an inverted, carnivalesque text tolerated by the official hierarchy –in this case, the Church– as a necessary “letting down” of society’s hair that was a part of the church calendar. As a result, the irreverence is not meant to undermine church doctrine but to offer the colourful “other side” to official discourse, which was normally marginalised by officialdom. That irreverence, especially when juxtaposed with the sacred (e.g. the scandalous parodying of church liturgy) can be scabrous and shocking to our modern sensibilities, but it was part and parcel of the medieval world. Such inversions took place, for example, during various festivals throughout the year when the official world was turned upside down, and safely so since it was understood to be only temporarily suspended.
If we recall that instruction and merriment were normal in medieval sermons, then it is possiible view the Libro as a jolly, rambling sermon. As the Archpriest claims in stanza 1632, he has written a book which combines holiness and merriment and jest. It is the merriment and jest that stand out and perhaps that is what makes it so difficult for us nowadays to accept the work as serious. Still, if we remember what the Archpriest said in the prose preface that “Since it is human to sin, if any wish to pursue mad love –which I do not advise- here they’ll find some ways to do it,” then we soon realise that the “ways” depicted lead only to failure, and the Archpriest ends up being the object of laughter. This laughter is rollicking and fun-loving and nothing reduces solemnity to ridicule better than mirth. How can we then take Love’s advice seriously when it only leads to failure and ridicule? The Libro is, in this sense, not a guide to successful seduction. Anyone following it will end up frustrated and the object of laughter.
Blecua, Alberto ed. Libro de buen amor Madrid 1996
Burke, James Desire against the Law: The Juxtaposition of Contraries in Medieval Castilian Literature Stanford 1998
Deyermond, A. D. A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages London 1971
Gies, David T The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge 2004
Green, Otis Spain and the Western Tradition: The Castilian Mind in Literature from El Cid to Calderón Vol. I Madison 1963.
Haywood, Louise M ed A Companion to the Libro de Buen Amor Woodbridge: Tamesis 2004 9 wide ranging articles (+ Introduction) under general headings: Contexts, Form and Traditional Wisdom, The Dona Endrina/ Don Melon Episode and Theoretical Approaches.
MacDonald, Elizabeth D (trans) The Book of Good Love London: 1999
A very informative internet source in Spanish: http://jaserrano.nom.es/LBA/