Book of Good Love: The Art of Ambiguity.

Understanding The Book of Good Love: Libro de buen amor.
Written in the same lusty, exuberant vein as the Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer 1343/44-1400) or the  Decamaron, (by Giovanni Boccaccio 1313-1375), the Book of Good Love by the Archpriest of Hita (14th century) is one of Medieval Europe’s great literary masterpieces.

The Ambiguous Text.
Like all great literature, the Book of Good Love has universal appeal, and works on many levels; trying to interpret it is like entering a minefield.  Ambiguity just about summarises its content.  From what the Archpriest says in the prose sermon-prologue, and reiterates near the end of the poem, he wants to guide us towards the love of God, which is buen amor: “good love” and away from sexual sin, which is loco amor: “mad love.

That seems straightforward enough. And when he adds that human nature is more inclined toward sin than toward good and that we need laws and punishment to guide us (p 8 lines 70-75 in Blecua’s edition. See Sources), or when he says that his modest little book contains “some” examples of the wiles of “mad love” so that we can be forearmed (p 9 lines 95-99, p 11 138-40), we follow his reasoning.

But then in the same breath, he throws us for a loop. “However,” he says, “because it is human to sin, if some people want to indulge in the excesses of worldly love, which I do not advise, they will find various ways to do so described here” (p 10 117-9).

There is delicious irony as well as humour in this sudden deflation that is an essential part of the art of the Archpriest throughout the poem. He constantly plays with us at the same time that he challenges us. The opening words of the prose sermon set the tone. They are in Latin and come from Psalm 31:8 (of the Vulgate): I will give you understanding, and instruct you in the path that you should follow: my eyes shall be fixed upon you” (p 5). 

Juan Ruiz undoubtedly has his amused eyes fixed on us as we try to weave our way through the labyrinth he sets up for us.  He tells us to love God, which is “good love,” but his instructions on how to seduce women, which is “bad love,” make up the bulk of the book! 

There are, it is true, generous sprinklings of devout songs and moralising fables (e.g. on the deadly sins, stanzas 217-317), but it is the wonderfully lusty, ribald advice, racy descriptions (e.g. of small women, stanzas 1606+) and scandalous parodies of religious texts  (e.g. the Canonical hours, stanzas 374-86) that catch our attention.

How can we reconcile his stated intention with the profuse advice on how to pursue and seduce a woman? This is no easy task.  We get a measure of the difficulty with the delightful tale of the Greeks and Romans (stanzas 44-63) which immediately precedes the first “autobiographical” adventure. 

Lacking laws of their own, the uneducated Romans ask the cultured Greeks to provide them with some laws.  The Greeks suggest a debate using sign language to test the Romans’ intelligence. The Romans call on a ruffian whom they dress in expensive clothes, the Greek representative is an elegant doctor. First the Greek lifts up one finger, the Roman responds by raising three fingers.  The doctor then shows the palm of his hand, the ruffian shakes a fist. Upon which the Greek declares that the Romans deserve the laws. 

Asked to explain, the doctor interprets the “conversation”: when he lifted one finger, it was to show that there was but one God, the Roman had responded with the sign of the Trinity, the open palm meant that everything obeyed God’s will, the Roman’s clenched fist showed that God held the world in his hand.  The Roman, however, had quite a different understanding of the signs: the single finger was a threat to poke out his eye, his three-finger reply was to poke out both eyes and break the doctor’s teeth with his thumb; the open palm was a threatened slap, the clenched fist promised a thorough beating.

Clearly, both Greek and Roman “read” each other’s signs “incorrectly”; each proves to be wrong; each is limited to understanding the other according to his cultural inclination or personal experience; the uncouth Roman actually gets what he wants –the laws–, the cultured Greek loses out but doesn’t realise it, and both Romans and Greeks go away happy. 

Intention, perception and interpretation are at odds. Applied to the poem, the tale implies that there is more than one way it can be read, depending on what the reader or listener (there are numerous allusions to “listening” to the text) brings to it. Here we have the fundamental problem with interpreting the Libro de buen amor

We humans are all different, we are ambiguous creatures; we are not always what we seem to be (e.g. the expensively dressed Roman ruffian) or what we say we are. We deceive, we lie, we flatter, we bribe etc., as the fables make clear, and as Love and Venus show behind all the rhetoric of love! The way we communicate can be very misleading –whether by intention or otherwise— and easily misinterpreted.

The Greek/Roman tale sets the tone early, but it is but one of many examples of how easy it is to misconstrue from appearances or cultural prejudices or preconceived ideas: “a poor leather purse can hold great wealth/ a plain-looking book can hold complex wisdom” (stanza 16cd), a sapphire may be hidden in a dung heap (stanzas 1387+), “a small thing of little value may/ do much good and bring great benefit” (stanza 1434), a modest book can contain a profound message (stanza 1631).

The ambiguity of the text mirrors the ambiguity of life, and in this sense, the Libro is a wonderful rendering of the complexity of our human condition, and anticipates one of the other great medieval literary works of Spain: La Celestina.

As a result of our ambiguous nature, the words we use, like the hand signs between the Roman and the Greek, have different, shifting or hidden values which basically render any text unstable. Even buen amor –which the prose prologue defines as love of God– can mean something very different. 

For example, in stanzas 440-43,  Love advises the Archpriest to engage a go-between (of the kind friars and nuns and pious women use!) and show her buen amor (i.e. by befriending her through inducements to her to get her on his side). In stanza 932, buen amor alludes directly to a go-between, Urraca. 

The bawd tells the Archpriest not to malign her, but call her buen amor, which will ensure her loyalty.  And so, the Archpriest adds, “To please the old woman and speaking openly,/ I called her and the book ‘good love’ at the same time” (stanza 933). Finally, in stanza 1331, another go-between, Trotaconventos, refers to herself in the same terms: “She (Trotaconventos) approached me smiling, and  said ‘here I come, “Good Love,” who like a good friend has looked for ‘good love’ –here a girl– for you.

So what does buen amor really mean?” Love of God, inducements, a go-between, or a woman (i.e. with sexual implications)?  The elusiveness of the meaning of buen amor is suggested as early as stanza 68, where we read that “The arguments for good love are hidden.” This is what has caused so many problems, and the Archpriest plays with the hidden meaning of things throughout the poem.  “Behind each tale, something else is understood/ other than what is claimed by pretty (i.e. surface) meaning,” the Archpriest says towards the end of the Libro, stanza 1631. 

These hidden meanings and the shifting values of signs and words complicate our understanding of the work and oblige us  –readers/ listeners– to engage ouselves actively with the text.

It is true that parts of the Libro read like allegory, a favourite medieval device which entails recognising truth through symbolic representation. The battle between Lord Flesh and Lady Lent, for example, might be conceived as an allegory of the battle between the spirit and the body (allegory, however, need not preclude parody, and the battle between can also be read as a parody of epic battles).  Nevertheless, Juan Ruiz insists, too, on the open nature of his poem which tends to go against the purpose of allegory.

What is strikingly refreshing and “modern” in the Libro de buen amor is not only the freedom to interpret but the difficulty we are faced with when we attempt to understand our multifaceted world. What the Greek sees one way the Roman sees another, but that does mean that either is right… or wrong!  The book is, as he says near the end, “full of advice on holiness/ but also a brief breviary of play and jest” (stanza 1632).

When play, jest and holiness come together we are faced with a dilemma in determining the “right” way to interpret their relationship. If we say, for example, that the Libro is a didactic work, or conversely a bawdy poem wearing a thinly disguised religious veneer, are we sure that we have understood it? We’ll leave the last word to the Archpriest “Many read a book, and have it in their possession/ who don’t know what they read, nor can they understand it” (stanza 1390).

Blecua, Alberto ed.  Libro de buen amor Madrid 1996
Brownlee, Marina S  The Status of the Reading Subject in the Libro de buen amor Chapel  Hill: North Carolina 1985
Burke, James F  Desire Against the Law: The Juxtaposition of Contraries in Early Medieval Spanish 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
Haywood, Loise ed.  A Companion to the Libro de buen amor  Woodbridge (England) 2004
MacDonald, Elizabeth D (trans)  The Book of Good Love London: 1999
A very informative internet source in Spanish: