Book of Good Love: Libro de buen amor. What is it about?

The Book of Good Love: Libro de Buen Amor.

Nothing about the 14th-century The Book of Good Love (Libro de buen amor) is as simple as the title might suggest, not the identity of the author, not the manuscript authority, not even the title itself.  And as for its interpretation, it is probably the most controversial work of medieval Spanish literature.

The Author.
The text informs us (stanzas 19, 575, and an inscription after stanza 1709,  that the author’s name was Juan Ruiz (or variants: Joan Ruyz, Johan Ruiz), and that he was Archpriest of Hita (a town on the Castilian plateau to the north east of Madrid). But next to nothing is known about the Archpriest and what little we can confidently say about him has only recently been unearthed.

Documents from the Cathedral of Toledo tell us that a “venerable” Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita appeared as witness in a dispute registered in the Cathedral about 1330, but nothing more. The inscription, inserted after stanza 1709 of the poem, states that the Archpriest of Hita composed the poem while imprisoned on the order of Cardinal Gil, Archbishop of Toledo.

The poem does indeed open with references to “this prison” but whether the imprisonment was real or metaphorical (the body or life as prison was a common image) has been much debated.  What is not in doubt is that one Gil de Albornoz was Archbishop of Toledo from 1337 to 1350.

The matter of manuscript authority need not delay us. Briefly, there are three manuscripts, designated G, T and S.   G, named after Benito Martínez Gayoso, who once owned it, is now in the library of the Real Academia Española. T is so called because it came from the Cathedral of Toledo; it is now in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. S was discovered in the library of the Colegio Mayor (College) of Salamanca, where it remains.

Both G and T (dated 1330) are shorter versions.  S is the longest and most complete text; it is dated 1343, which suggests that the Arcipreste revised and enlarged his 1330 version.

The biggest problem for scholars is that none of these manuscripts is from the years 1330-1343. In other words, they are copies. The handwriting suggests that they are from the late 14th and early 15th centuries, but we are not exactly sure of the source or sources they come from.

Still, putting aside the textual puzzles, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that the Libro de buen amor was composed some time before 1330 and revised and expanded before 1343, and that its author was Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita.

None of the manuscripts has a title, but there is now general consensus that the text itself gives us a clue of what the Archpriest had in mind: Libro de buen amor.  The expression buen amor turns up frequently in the poem, but it is stanzas 13 and 933 in particular that clinch the argument. 

Stanza 13 reads: You, my Lord God, who created man/ instruct me and help me, your archpriest,/ to write this book of good love/ to gladden the body and sustain the soul.  

In stanza 933we read: Out of love for the old woman and to speak wisely,/ I called both her and the book ‘good love’ for all time… Still, it was only in 1898 that the book was definitively given the title Libro de buen amor (by Spain’s leading medieval scholar, Ramón Menéndez Pidal).

There is no serious objection to the title Libro de buen amor.  But with that, we enter a minefield of conflicting interpretations which, with differing emphases and perspectives, are centred primarily on what is meant by buen amor and its opposite, loco amor (mad love, i.e. lust, sexual gratification). 

For some the poem is a profoundly edifying, didactic work on the pitfalls of immorality and excess, for others it is essentially comical, a parody of medieval didacticism, albeit set in a moralistic framework. 

It has been argued that it is a criticism of contemporary society, of the use of go-betweens, a commentary on the 14th-century state of Church celibacy, a parody of St. Augustine’s Confessions, or a development of Augustine’s thoughts on reading.

Loco amor has also been interpreted as homosexuality, and the detailed instructions on how to win a woman are the antidote to the pursuit of young men. Another reading proposes 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.

What does the Archpriest himself have to say about his book? In the prose preface he claims to have written his “small scripture” ( p.9) in order to reveal some of the deceitful guiles of loco amor so that man might be directed to buen amor, which is the love of God (p. 7).

Following St Gregory, he rationalises that man can better protect himself from the arrows he sees than from those that arrive unseen. In other words, the pitfalls of pursuing loco amor are presented so that readers and listeners can be forewarned.

But in the same preface, the Arcipreste appears to undermine his good intentions when he acknowledges that it is human to sin, so that if anyone wants to follow the path of loco amor –which he does not advocate, he adds in the same breath!–  they will find advice on how to do it in his book. 

The amorous adventures (i.e. loco amor), then, are merely the externals behind which the true meaning (buen amor) is hidden, an idea which is supported by a number of images in stanzas 16-18: e.g. “in an ugly (feo) book can be found pleasing knowledge,” “behind the thorn lies the rose,” “behind unpleasant words is hidden valuable knowledge.

The Archpriest was clearly educated, drawing his inspiration from a wide array of sources.  They include the Bible, sermons, liturgy, medieval Goliardic Latin verse (satirical songs dedicated to wine, women and other worldly pleasures, sung by wandering students or clerics), fables, popular tales from oral tradition (e.g. blind men’s songs, jokes, dances, riddles), Ovid, the anonymous 12th-century pseudo-Ovidian comedy Pamphilus de amore,  the anonymous 13th-century, elegiac comedy De vetula (About the Old Woman), Provencal courtly love and debate poetry.

In view of the Moorish culture of al-Andalus, there has long been considerable debate over Islamic influences in the Libro de buen amor, with the general consensus being that the Libro is mainly indebted to Classical sources. Comparative scholarship over the last twenty five years, however, suggests that the contribution of Islamic thought on love and sexuality is more profound than previously believed.

Verse forms.
Although the prose preface is primarily concerned with the Archpriest’s avowed wish to guide sinners away from loco amor towards buen amor, he also claims to have composed his work as a lesson in how to write poetry: “I composed it as a lesson and example of how to write verse and rhymes and poems … as is required by this science i.e. art form.”

The Libro contains diverse poetic forms drawn from popular lyrics and learned sources. The bulk is written in cuaderna vía, i.e. stanzas of four fourteen-syllable lines (even so the number of syllables could vary), with each stanza having a single rhyme: e.g. stanza 3: lago/ Santiago/ drago/ yago i.e. AAAA, stanza 4: Susaña/ conpaña/ maña/ saña i.e. BBBB, and so on. 

Primarily a narrative form of verse,  cuaderna vía enjoyed considerable prestige in the 13th and 14th centuries, and was normally reserved for serious, elevated poems, dealing, for example, with the lives of saints, the Virgin Mary or secular heroes such as Alexander the Great. Juan Ruiz was no mere imitator, however, using the cuaderna vía for a wide variety of topics (colloquial conversation, comical love adventures, fables etc.) and endowing it with greater metrical flexibility and a wider assortment of rhyme.

What is the Libro de buen amor about? It cannot be summarised in the usual sense because it has no sustained or unifying plot. It is a long poem (with a strong theatrical underpinning) whose narrative thread hangs mainly on the autobiographical love adventures of the narrator, the Archpriest of Hita.

It begins with an invocation to God and the Virgin Mary to free the Archpriest from prison, followed by a type of learned sermon (the only part written in prose) where he outlines his didactic and aesthetic aims. After a brief prayer to God to help him in writing his work, followed by some songs on the joys of the Virgin, and a fable about a dispute between some Greeks and Romans over sign language (stanzas 44-70), the Arcipreste begins his narrative proper. 

There are some 13 amorous adventures, involving young ladies (stanzas 78-81, 910-44) , a baker-girl (stanzas 117-22), a noble woman (stanzas 166-80), three widows (the long episode of Doña Endrina**,  stanzas 596-891, the “sprightly widow” of stanzas 1318-20, and the widow who remarries in 1321-31), four lecherous mountain-girls (stanzas 950-1042), a nun (stanzas 1344-1507) and a Moorish woman (stanzas 1508-12).

**Although the autobiographical “I” is retained in the episode with Doña Endrina, the narrating voice here turns out to be that of Don Melón, Doña Endrina’s suitor.  It is the only episode which ends in marriage (Stanza 891),which may explain why there is a change of narrator;it would be unacceptable for a church member to marry.

The racy, bawdy love thread is regularly broken by a stream of other –sometimes loosely related– material:
a dispute between the Archpriest and Love (stanzas 372-574), which includes a scurrilous parody of the canonical hours (stanzas 372-87);
a critique of the power of money and the properties of wine (stanzas 490-548);
a consultation with Venus (stanzas 585-648), religious lyrics addressed to the Virgin on the passion of Christ (stanzas 1043-63);
a wonderful mock epic battle in which Lady Lent and her troops of fish defeat Lord Flesh and his forces of meat and fowl (stanzas 1067-1127);
a disquisition on penance and confession (stanzas 1128-72), followed by the triumphant return of Lord Flesh and Love, joyously celebrated by clergy, monks and nuns (stanzas 1210-1314)!

Interspersed in most of the major sections are numerous exempla, short, moralising fables and tales used in the form of debate to buttress arguments and counterarguments.  The poem ends with a miscellany: a denunciation of death, a commentary on the weapons Christians need to arm themselves with in their struggle against worldly sin, praise of small women, a reminder of how to interpret the poem, more songs to the Virgin, a satirical look at concubinage as witnessed in the protestations of the clergy of Talavera, and a final pair of blind beggars’ songs.

It seems likely, given the variety of topics and lack of a unified structure, that parts of the poem were composed independently and probably at different times. The work is brought together by a narrating “I” whose experiences and opinions are the grist for the reader or listener’s benefit.

But it would be a mistake to read the Libro de buen amor as an autobiography, even if the Archpriest may have dipped into his own life for some details. For one thing, the longest and best known episode, the one with Doña Endrina and Don Melón (stanzas 596-891), is really a loose adaptation of  the Pamphilus de amore, which is itself a reading of Ovid.

This is literature and not life, and the Libro de buen amor is full of literary allusions, and in that sense is an erudite and exuberant dialogue with many earlier texts. The first-person narrative is really, then, a unifying technique  but it was also one medieval readers and listeners were well acquainted with, since it was commonly used by medieval preachers in their sermons to add a realistic flavour to the message they were preaching.

Blecua, Alberto ed.  Libro de buen amor Madrid 1996
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
Eisenberg, Daniel “Juan Ruiz’s Heterosexual ‘Good Love’.”  In Queer Iberia  eds. Gregory Hutcheson and Josiah Blackmore Duke Univ. Press 1999, 250-74
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

For arguments in favour of Islamic influence, see
Márquez Villanueva, Francisco  Orígenes y sociología del tema celsestinesco  Barcelona 1993
Robinson, Cynthia and Rouhi, Leyla eds.  Under the Influence: Questioning the Comparative in Medieval Castile  Leiden 2005 It contains four articles on the Libro de buen amor, three of which discuss the closely woven relationship between Islamic and Christian cultures in medieval Castile and al-Andalus.
Rouhi, Leyla  Mediation and Love: a Study of the Medieval Go-Between in Key Romance and Near Eastern Texts  Leiden; Boston 1999
A very informative site in Spanish is