One of the most striking features about La Celestina is the way in which the world of courtly love –the fictional product of the medieval mind for aristocrats– is subverted by the underworld of Celestina and her companions.
There are many ways that Rojas (and the unknown author of Act I) manages to demystify the courtly ethos and bring it “down to earth” as it were: e.g. setting the action in the present and in a realistic location, using colloquial language, fashioning an ambiguous world dominated by individuals whose main concerns are their daily needs.
Such a world was alien to sentimental romances (novels) which occupied themselves primarily with questions of love. It was also alien to the romances (novels) of chivalry whose protagonists were inspired by their ladies to heroic action.
Given the vogue of chivalric and sentimental romances, the appearance of another form of prose fiction dominated by a go-between, prostitutes and servants was a radical innovation.
Love in La Celestina is no more than sexual pleasure and the characters battle not for glory but for survival. Celestina and her companions survive through their commercial enterprises and their guile.
In this urban society (Salamanca, Toledo, Seville?), Celestina sells cosmetics, sex, recycled virgins etc. now that she is too old to sell her body, and Areúsa and Elicia are prostitutes. Underlying their commercial activities is the fundamental role of money as a source of both security and power. “Money can do everything,” observes Celestina (Act III), but money is an unfeeling object that also dehumanises and endangers human relationships. “There is no friendship based on money,” observes Pármeno (Act XII) ironically, shortly before killing Celestina, for relationships in La Celestina are cemented according to their monetary value.
When Pármeno sings Areúsa’s beauty, Sempronio bluntly asks him “What does it cost you?” (Act VIII), and Celestina remembers a client of hers –a young woman whose virginity she is to repair for the seventh time– not by name, but by the gold bracelet handed over in payment: “Oh the one with the gold bracelet. Now I know who you are talking about” (Act VII).
Even Calisto, the noble lover, cannot escape the omnipresence of money because, although he is evidently wealthy enough not to be concerned about his material welfare, his relationship with Melibea is achieved initially via the purchase of Celestina’s help and not his personal qualities.
His “love” for Melibea, then, is tainted from the beginning not only by the use of a go-between, but also because it is predicated on the use of money or gifts. And Melibea? She too cannot escape its long reach, even if only viewed through the jaundiced eyes of Elicia and Areúsa: “Is Melibea pretty?” “… if she is at all, it’s only because of the clothes she wears,” comments Elicia, to which Areúsa adds “it’s wealth that makes these women pretty and objects of praise” (Act IX).
Money is a tactile commodity and has no place in sentimental or chivalric romances. Its use or pursuit demystifies any heroic endeavour and brings the hero close to us.
An appropriate example of this can be seen, for example, in Spain’s or Castile`s greatest epic poem, the Poema de mío Cid (late 12th early 13th century). The Cid is quite unlike other Medieval epic heroes in many respects, one being that he is portrayed as a very down-to-earth man. He is, for example, constantly concerned about his welfare and that of his family and followers. Indeed, the word ganancias (spoils) runs through the poem like a leitmotiv, and we are repeatedly informed of the livestock, gold, silver, horses and clothing the Cid has won, and the wealth he has accrued.
But there is a big difference between La Celestina and the Poema where money is concerned. The Cid shows us the potential for good that wealth can bring in that he is generous and shares his riches with his king and followers. In La Celestina we see how money, gold, gifts have a corrosive, dehumanising effect on human relationships.
The world of commerce is a world of immediacy. It deals with the here-and-now and is incompatible with romance, whether chivalric or sentimental. La Celestina breaks new ground by absorbing the world of courtly love, by bringing it down to earth, in the same way that Don Quixote was to demystify the romances of chivalry just over 100 years later.
Castro, Americo La Celestina como contienda literaria (castas y casticismo) Madrid 1965
Gilman, Stephen The Spain of Fernando de Rojas: the Intellectual and Social Landscape of “La Celestina” Princeton 1972
Lacarra, María Eugenia Como leer “La Celestina” Madrid 1990
Maravall, José A El mundo social de “La Celestina” Madrid 1973
Severin, Dorothy ed. La Celestina Madrid 1997