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Don Juan Manuel and El Conde Lucanor

Updated on March 2, 2015

Icon Of Don Juan Manuel, Cathedral of Murcia

Medieval Wisdom Literature: The Cheesy Kind

Don Juan Manuel, a prince, contributed greatly to Spanish political world in 14th century Spain. The grandson of Ferdinand the Second and nephew of Alfonso el Sabio, he grew up to be a highly learned man. He became influenced by the deep tradition of the Dominican order, while also living and thinking as a man of the world. Spain stands as the first country in Europe to have prose writings in the vernacular, and Don Manuel was the "first to have his own personal and artistic style" (Schwartz). His most famous work, El Conde Lucanor, contains four parts, only one of which is famous. It is a collection of didactic writings, a composite of short stories, or exempla, where the Count Lucanor asks his counselor, Patronio, advice on various pragmatic dilemmas. In each, Patronio responds by telling a story meant to instruct, ending with a short maxim, often in rhyming verse. The collection of 51 exempla suggests elements of wisdom literature, drawn from a polygenesis of different traditions. This paper will seek to suggest that one of these stories, Exempla XXXVII, reflects a variety of cultural, autobiographical, and historical influences.

Certainly, these stories had previous equivalents in the oral tradition of Spain and in the ancient legacies of Rome, Greece, and the Arab and Jewish worlds. Yet Don Manuel's unique stamp is strong, distinguishing it from others of its time. Throughout his life, Don Manuel maintained close contact with the Dominicans, even stashing manuscripts with them in safety vaults: his literary ambitiousness to preserve his legacy marks the pages of El Conde. Here we find an analogue to Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," and El conde lived on to influence future important works, like "Calderon's La Vida Es Sueno...' (64). The particular exempla that will be discussed in this paper will be Exempla XXVII. In it, Patronio tells a story of a Count at battle to illustrate a precept on the importance of honor. The purpose of this paper will be to suggest that this exempla exhibits themes of various cultural traditions, and marks itself with a tension between the ideas of the religious world, and the secular traditions of folklore.

The story sets the stage with the Conde Lucanor returning from a difficult situation, from which is "much wearied and worn, and poorly off (66), and because of this he is encouraged to take some time to "refresh himself" (64). In doing so, he consults Patronio with the matter. Patronio, as always, answers with another story, teaching by example, a technique popular with the Dominicans of the time, and of course, with folklore and spiritual maxims of antiquity until his own time. Patronio recounts a story of Count Fernan Gonzales, who had gone into battle against King Almanzor. Although victorious, his men were extremely exhausted, and their horses were in bad condition. At the same time, Count Gonzales learned that King Navarre had just invaded his land, and he felt it imperative to defend himself promptly, bring his men again into battle with him. But the count's "honor grieved him more than his body," and he rallied his men, telling them that the new victory would make the current pains much better. So they went into battle, and the victory was won. Here, of course, is chivalric courage, of a leader, serving his King, his army, his honor. Putting aside his own concerns for that of both integrity and social appearance. The knightly and the importance of courage and bravery are seen here. As Dr. Boonxe has pointed out, "these answers can be perplexing for the modern reader because they are so "rounded" (349). A confluence of many cultural heritages weave into one, making the exact meaning less apparent to the contemporary reader.

The maxim that Patronio gives as the sum-total lesson of the story is indeed equally cliché and elusive:

Hold this for certain and fact,

For truth it is, and truth exact,

That never Honour and Disgrace

Together sought a resting place (65).

There is in this duality an imperative that one has to choose, and the decision is permanent: a 'resting place' implies some sort of last memory of a person or event. Here, historical legacy is also at stake. A quality pointed to often by scholars, again, was the extreme literary ambition of Don Juan Manuel himself. Through Manuel's writings, he quotes himself, and makes an argument for his literary reputation to live on. This self-conscious motive can be seen as something more from the angle of the social status of an aristocrat than as a learned man who has taken the best cultural history for the sake of imparting holy counsel to posterity. This is didactic literature, or rather, fiction diguised as didactic literature. As Boonxe has pointed out, the "he uses an interpretative story as literature to prove that his vocation for literature is the best means of interpretation" (389).

Yet this interpretation has also been frequently used in literature, and Boonxe compares it often to Proverbs in the Old Testament. It can confuse as much as it can be used to cover other motives. However, Boonxe elaborates on this by pointing out that later books in El Conde become more advanced stages of Lucanor's spiritual development. Like Virgil leading Dante, so Patronio goes "from counsellor to schoolmaster, taking him to higher and higher stages" (381). Here, then, is a story from the beginning stages. Perhaps the lessons are meant to be taken at face value: Lucanor must learn the essentials of outer behavior before he can advance to more interior psychological stages. Simply covering his primary responsibilities becomes more crucial than other concerns, and, paradoxically, ameliorates those concerns more by placing them second.

However, Dr. Adams made a comparison not to Dante (who used the poem), but to Bocaccio. "Like Bocaccio," he writes, " Juan Manuel stands as the earliest cultivator of artistic prose fiction in a great modern literature" (87) There is much artistry here, and nuanced meanings. As scholars of the Divine Comedy challenge the simplistic normative interpretations of the Divine Comedy, so too are scholars of El Conde observing much more in the work than a simple loyalty to previous traditions. This is a unique voice, especially in the way in which it is structured. Also, this piece arose more from the national lineage of Spain's cultural traditions; later, much literature would be highly influenced according to intentions some Spaniards would have towards appealing to Italy and the Vatican.

Yet the structure here carries a distinct tone, not only from the Italian traditions, but from other works of its time. While other writings veered towards a playful humor, Juan Manuel's tone is of one who "took his art seriously" (63). He "wrote in a clear and grave language and was proud of what he had done" (63). Moreover, his structure is built in layers. The home base is Don Manuel himself, who makes appearances into the work. One step removed is El Conde, talking to Patronio. The camera lens moves from one to another and back, allowing the characters to give the illusion that there is a definite unity of purpose. Rather, these characters are created artistically, as prose characters were in the traditions of Spain that followed. Here again, are the contrasts attempted to be reconciled, through a labyrinth of voices with undefined origin. Juan Manuel's "devotion to the Dominican order (for whom he founded the monastery of Penafiel, and his obsessively self-conscious ambition" become central, and the book becomes an attempt "to reconcile these conflicting impulses" (Deyermond 139).

The Psalter tradition remained important in 13th century Spain, as did other threads of influence like the cult of the Virgin, but El Conde shows little trace of these. The omission of much of these is surprising from someone with an education such as Don Manuel, but that is not to say that religious influence is absent. Arguably, the book moves towards a much more mystical and theologically centered theme towards its end, especially book 5 that describes how 'souls can be saved by taking the Roman Catholic sacraments' (Nepualsingh 38). Interesting also is the most popular book in El Conde appears to be one of the least religious at a time when most writers a century before were more obstensibly religious. This could be due to the fact that El Conde, translated and made popular much later, entered the culture in a much less religious-dominated epoch. Yet mysteries abound, from Don Manuel hiding manuscripts, to the marked influence of Arabian Nights, to the fact that many of Manuel's other writings were lost. There is room from cultural and historical study, and the writer of this text is more savvy than a first glance might indicate for a book often read by youth to learn life lessons about culture and tradition. It is hard to have confidence in El Conde, giving the changing temperament as a whole of the narrative. But the important thing is here is that this excerpt is clear and direct. The immediate pain plays second fiddle to the need for honor in an important socio-political event, where loyalties are entertwined. No national government would tend to eschew such a teaching, in fact, something like this could be used as a mythology with a specific motive to carry out, as Roland Barthes has pointed out in his essay, "Death of The Author."

In conclusion, given the historical context of the time of El Conde, themes of preserving honor find parallels in many traditions. Though pertaining more to the state and to the King than to the Church in El Cid, the exemplo here remains so vague that its large umbrella obviously includes as host of sources. At the very least, the maxim at face value finds precedents in many literary, oral, and religious traditions. To make more of a conclusion about this exempla without a more comprehensive understanding of the work as a whole would be impossible much beyond the scope of this paper. Yet at a time when the a conflux of cultures and competing groups of thought and ethnic heritage competed in the diverse society of medieval Spain, this exempla reflects well the richness of backgrounds of that time and place.

El Conde Lucanor


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