Fray Luis de León 1527-91. Life and Work.

Fray Luis de León 1527-91.
Born in the village of Belmonte (in the province of Cuenca, Castile-La Mancha), Fray Luis de León is regarded as a key literary figure in Spain’s Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700): an outstanding scholar and influential exponent of humanistic thought and one of its most celebrated poets, even though his poetic output was very modest.

Fray Luis de León. By Francisco Pacheco c. 1599.

At the age of 14, he entered the University of Salamanca where, with the exception of a short period at the University of Alcalá de Henares, he spent all his academic life.

In 1544, he took vows as an Augustinian friar and over time held various chairs and a vice rectorship at Salamanca.  In 1551, he attended the Council of Trent (Trento, in Northern Italy), a series of meetings between 1545 and 1563 called by the Catholic Church to counter the spread of Protestantism.

Pugnacious by nature, Fray Luis found himself caught up in academic controversies and petty jealousies, including sharp tensions between the Augustinians and their arch rivals, the Dominicans. This came to the fore especially following his unauthorised translation with commentary of the Song of Songs into Spanish between 1561 and 1562, and over his defence of the superiority of the Hebrew text over the Vulgate (the Latin Bible used by the Catholic Church) to clarify matters of ambiguity, doubt or perceived error in the Old Testament. He himself alludes to the unfriendly atmosphere and narrow-minded jealousies when he says “we all lived as if at war on account of the claims and competitions, and for that reason we all had enemies (Mirrer-Singer, 42. Transl. mine.)

The questioning of the authority of the Vulgate, particularly at a time when Protestantism was a threat to the Catholic Church, left Fray Luis open to accusations of heresy, especially since he was a converso (i. e. of Jewish descent). In 1572, he was denounced to the Inquisition and imprisoned in Valladolid for over four years, during which time his health suffered owing to the harsh conditions. His only consolation was that he was allowed to read and write in his cell; out of this emerged several poems and chapters of De los nombres de Cristo (On the Names of Christ, pub. 1583, revised 1585), on the meaning of Christ’s various names taken from both Old and New Testaments.

Fray Luis’s lecture room,  Salamanca.

On his return to Salamanca, Fray Luis is said to have begun his first lecture with the words: “As I was saying yesterday … “ If true, these words signalled that he was prepared to continue as he had before his imprisonment, ready once again to defend himself and his ideas.

Despite his controversial academic career and combative personality, in 1579 Fray Luis was elected to the University’s most prestigious chair, the professorship of Theology/ Holy Scripture.

During his lifetime, Fray Luis’s only published work in Spanish was De los nombres de Cristo. Around 1580, he collected but did not publish his poetry. It was eventually published in 1631 by Francisco de Quevedo as an antidote to the perceived excesses of culteranismo or gongorismo (the poetry of Luis de Góngora, 1561-1627, and his followers).

Fray Luis spent the last years of his life editing the works of St. Teresa de Avila (1515-82), Carmelite nun and prominent religious reformer who, with San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), is considered the leading mystic writer of Spain’s Golden Age.

Fray Luis and the Dissemination of the Bible’s Message.
Although a classical scholar, Fray Luis felt the need to popularise the message of the Bible in a way that was accessible and understandable to a wider cultured audience with little or no knowledge of Latin. That meant translating the Bible into Spanish, or at least parts of it.  His unauthorised translation of the Song of Songs (1561-62) was an example of this; it was a translation into Spanish written for a cousin, Isabel Osorio, a nun who could not read Latin..

However, since the Council of Trent reaffirmed that the Latin Vulgate was the only authorised version of Holy Scripture allowed, translations of the Bible or parts of the Bible were inadmissible. And within the University of Salamanca, there was strong opposition from conservative factions, the result of which was for Fray Luis, imprisonment, as we have seen.

Nevertheless, Fray Luis did not stop writing commentaries in Spanish of biblical texts, which may be seen as his way of circumventing direct opposition to the Council of Trent’s authority while at the same time exposing a wider audience to the Bible’s message in their own language. Such is the case of his Exposición del Libro de Job, Explanation of the Book of Job, a translation and extensive commentary composed over several years, beginning in 1571. De los nombres de Cristo is not a translation of a biblical text but a treatise in Spanish in which, through the dialogue of three friends, readers might understand the significance of the various names attributed to Christ in the Bible, e. g. shepherd, road, mountain, husband, prince of peace…  

But although Fray Luis was an exponent of popularising the Bible, he was at the same time careful to underline the dangers inherent in unsupervised reading and was especially conscious of the threat of Protestantism which offered false interpretations of the Bible. Hence the importance of the commentaries, which were in effect guides for the uninitiated.

Another biblically inspired work in Spanish, La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife, 1583), is an extended commentary on Chapter 31 of Solomon’s Proverbs. Written for his newly married niece, La perfecta … was intended as a moral and practical guide to a wife’s duties within marriage, both as spouse and mother. It quickly became a popular wedding gift for young women. 

Fray Luis’s biblical and theological scholarship was based on a formidable knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, both the languages and their cultures, as well as Italian Renaissance thought. He translated Virgil’s Eclogues and part of his Georgics in addition to selected Odes by Horace (including the famous Beatus ille… “Blessed is he…”), fragments of the Greeks Pindar and Euripides, and a few pieces by Petrarch and Pietro Bembo. Platonism, “Christianised” by the Neoplatonists of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, lent itself well to Fray Luis’s view of nature as a reflection of an ideal, higher moral and spiritual beauty or harmony. His retreat to the countryside in, for example, De los nombres de Cristo and many poems, also allows him to combine Neoplatonic and Christian ideas with the Horatian (Latin) praise for the simple life while condemning political corruption, commercial avarice, and moral failings.

Fray Luis Intellectual, Escapist or Mystic?
The theological and intellectual disputes Fray Luis was engaged in confirm his combative personality but his works, especially his verse, betray a strong inner need for the peace and tranquility of the natural world, which can be found in the countryside, or the ordered and harmonious progression of the heavens. The serenity of the countryside offers an escape from the pettiness and avarice of urban life as does the contemplation of the mysteries of the heavens.

Fray Luis’s escapism, however, had a purpose: it was a withdrawal from worldly life with its trivialities in order to argue for spiritual values or to lead an active, intellectual pursuit of knowledge. For Fray Luis was an enormously curious individual, which is one of the main reasons why it is an oversimplification to call him a mystic poet. There are moments when he seems close to the mystic union with God but his intellectual curiosity asserts itself, so that God in effect becomes the answer to the numerous questions that are unanswerable in our earthly life. When he sees God, he will be given the answers to all the questions that surround him on earth. Fray Luis was a religious and very spiritual Christian but as a mystic he is quite far from his great contemporary, San Juan de la Cruz.

Fray Luis and Language.
Although his knowledge of biblical and classical cultures made Fray Luis one of Spain’s most celebrated humanistic scholars, his success also owed much to his command of the Spanish language. His prose is direct, logical and elegant, and accessible to or understandable by ordinary people, which was his aim. He was, in short, a master at communicating his message.

Likewise, his poetry –although imbued with classical and biblical spirit— combines clarity of thought and expression. Nevertheless, this clarity did not suppose simplicity of ideas. For example, in perhaps his most famous poem, De la vida retirada (“On the Withdrawn Life”), the image of the “hidden/path” with which the poem opens can allude to 1. the literal path/road to La Flecha, the retreat outside Salamanca belonging to the Augustinian Order, 2. the hidden path by means of which the soul escapes, or 3. the symbolic image of Christ as the true path.

The attention/ care Fray Luis gave to his translations reflected his humanistic interest in his own language. Respect for the ancient languages did not mean disdain for his own. On the contrary, Fray Luis vigorously defended the use of the vernacular, like many of his contemporaries. In his dedication to Book 3 of De los nombres de Cristo, he expressed surprise that some readers of the first two parts were amazed that a theologian like him had written about religious matters in romance (i. e. Spanish/Castilian). Some refused to read his works for that reason, but would have read them had they been written in Latin. Fray Luis attacked this linguistic snobbery and the low esteem in which some held their native language and their assumption that to speak romance was to speak like common people. Nevertheless, at the same time that he defended his native tongue, he recognised the need to write well, choosing words carefully for their suitability, musicality and proportion, i. e. knowing how to “select and how to put words together” (escoger y saber juntar las palabras, to paraphrase a contemporary of his, Ambrosio de Morales, 1546).

Gies, David T. ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambrdige, New York 2009.
Mirrer-Singer, Louise  “Fray Luis de León’s Rhetoric in the Exposicion de Job” Pacific Coast Philology. Vol 13 (Oct. 1978), pp. 51-59. Accessed via JSTOR. Trans. Mine.
Rivers, Elias Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, Prospect Heights, Illinois 1966, reissued 1988. (Has very useful English prose translations).
Walters, D. Gareth  The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry Cambridge 2002.
Image of Fray Luis:
Fray Luis’s Lecture Room: