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The Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz
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The Book of Good Love

by Juan Ruiz

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In the past couple of months, I've read a handful of medieval Spanish texts. They've all been great. I've been taking a class on medieval literature one evening a week, and I've enjoyed not only reading the books, but learning more about medieval Spain and the culture in which they were born. I had taken this class with the rather specific idea that learning more about Spain's medieval literature would help me better understand Don Quijote, one of my favorite books, as well as the picaresque novels and Golden Age plays that I've read and loved in the past. I do think that the next time I read El Quijote, I'll have plenty more to think about; but I've also found books that I will appreciate and enjoy in their own right for years to come. The Libro de buen amor, written by Juan Ruiz (also know as the Archipreste de Hita) has piqued my interest most of all: it is a book, like Don Quijote, so complex that one couldn't expect to understand and appreciate it all the first time through. It's a compendium of medieval thought, but it also has some surprisingly modern characteristics. Its two manuscripts date to 1330 and 1343, and as the title suggests, it is a book about love, about how to serve women and how to love God.

After an extensive preamble in both verse and prose, the Book of Good Love begins with a story about Greeks and Romans. The Greeks, possessors of laws and knowledge, are approached by the Romans, who want them to share their learnings. The Greeks aren't sure the Romans are ready for their knowledge. They decide that, since they don't speak the same language, they'll have a non-verbal debate with both sides choosing a representative to speak in gestures. The Greeks choose a learned scholar, and the Romans choose a fool. The wise Greek points one finger in the air, and the Roman retorts with three raised fingers; the Greek then displays his open palm, and the Roman responds with a closed fist. The debate ends with the Greek debator concluding that the Romans are indeed worthy of the Greeks' knowledge. Afterwards, both men are asked for their interpretation. The Greek explains: I said there was one God, and the Roman reminded me about the Holy Trinity. I showed him my open palm to remind him of God's mercy and benevolence, and his fist reminded me that God is all-powerful. These Romans are obviously on the same page as us. The Roman, on the other hand, interprets it like this: he threatened to poke my eye out, so I showed him that if he did, I'd poke both his eyes out and knock his teeth out with my thumb. He threatened to slap my ears with his palms and deafen me, and I raised my fist to let him know that I'd beat the crap out of him if he tried anything. One story, multiple interpretations. The poet has already called attention to this multiplicity by stating that his book will provide a series of examples on how to practice good (virtuous, spiritual) love; but since many people who read its pages may not be so virtuous, the sinner can also find a multitude of information on the practice of erotic love as well. I'm sure it was important for him to establish this early on, for perhaps not all possible readings of his book would have been smiled upon in medieval Spain. Without establishing these things from the get-go, this book might not have survived to the present day.

Over the next 1,600 quatrains, the author/protagonist has a series of amorous adventures, first on his own, then with an untrustworthy go-between who cleverly usurps his desired lady, then finally with Trotaconventos (Convent-trotter), his procuress par excellence, who uses reason and many, many allegorical examples to convince women to agree to a romantic rendez-vous with her employer. Her greatest conquest is Doña Endrina, whom she wins for Don Melón (for a while the protagonist is Don Melón instead of the Archipreste, perhaps because the poet wouldn't want to associate his own name with Don Melón's behavior). They go back and forth about whether or not it would be a good idea for Endrina to get with Melón for quite some time, with both women utilizing exempla to illustrate arguments for or against joining with the man. The Melón/Endrina story is based on a 12th century Latin text, Pamphilus de amore, and the fate of Endrina is similar to that of Galatea in the Pamphilus story (they are taken advantage of by their suitors). Unfortunately, the meeting between Melón and Endrina was removed from the manuscripts for one reason or another. After their meeting, the amorous protagonist takes a trip to the countryside, where four country lasses have their way with him, inverting the traditional gender roles and taking the sexual lead in their meetings with the Archipreste. Later, Trotaconventos convinces Juan Ruiz that what he really needs is a nun, and she once again debates the good and the bad of a potential love relationship with a nun in a convent. The nun, too, is won over, but she won't let her suitor cross the bounds of morally good love. This time, there is no consummation.

Many other things happen too: the Archipreste has a conversation with Don Amor, where he complains about all the bad consequences that love has, relating love's negative effects to the cardinal sins. It's not really a debate, because Don Amor doesn't respond to the Archipreste's attacks; he instead explains exactly how he should act toward the women he's interested in and how he can serve them in love. After their conversation is finished, Doña Venus comes along and basically repeats what Don Amor said. Later in the play, there's an allegorical showdown between carnal pleasures and lenten chastity, with Don Carnal leading an army of meats against Doña Cuaresma and her army of fish and crustaceans. Doña Cuaresma wins the battle, driving Don Carnal out of town for a while (around forty days). However, he escapes and comes roaring back on Easter Sunday, accompanied by Don Amor. Outside of the major narrative blocs, there are also songs and poems praising the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and a few other odds and ends, such as a short section that explains why small women are ideal.

I was very happy to have read this book immediately after Don Juan Manuel's Conde Lucanor. Don Juan's book is a series of exempla, 51 in total, which seek to entertain and at the same time educate the reader on how to live morally. In a way, the Libro de buen amor is no different: there are fables, parables and assorted tales wielded by the various characters in their interactions with each other. This book seeks to educate and entertain. And, a moral model is presented. However, from the beginning the Archipreste makes it abundantly clear that there is more than one way to read this book, and the lessons that are taken from it will depend entirely on the reader. There is, essentially, one way that Conde Lucanor is supposed to be read. It's a serious book, the moral lessons are serious, and the reader will become a seriously good person if he follows the advice that Patronio gives Lucanor in exemplum after exemplum. The Book of Good Love can also be read seriously, and moral lessons can be taken from it; but it can be read in other ways as well. The multiplicity of readings and the ambiguity of its moral lessons make the Archipreste's book different from any other medieval book I've read. It has an extra dimension that the books I've read up to now haven't possessed.

One of the secondary articles I've read in my class is Hans Robert Jauss's "The alterity and modernity of medieval literature." He mentions that in many cases, the texts that appeal the most to our modern sensibility are often the ones that are most unique and least representative of the medieval literary mindstate. To the modern reader, the medieval writer often appears to be rather unoriginal, relying on source material to create new versions of stories that aren't really new at all. Originality had a different meaning then, and artists were more concerned with perfecting the known than delving into the new and unfamiliar. In our time, we love it when somebody comes along and does something that feels truly new. This may make it more difficult to appreciate a book like Conde Lucanor, where Don Juan Manuel takes a bunch of stories whose sources have been determined by academics and joins them under the fairly straightforward mold of an advisor responding to the questions of a nobleman. On the other hand, it's remarkable to find a book from the 14th century like the Libro de buen amor that requires an active reader, much like the modern reader, to make choices about how to interpret the text. ( )
  msjohns615 | Mar 23, 2011 |
It is quite a difficult book to read, but one has to wonder if the confusing, ironic composition says more of the author than the book itself. ( )
  ladymacbeth86 | Aug 19, 2010 |
Mediæval Spanish romantic verse.
  Fledgist | Jul 18, 2007 |
Showing 3 of 3
'The words of good love are secret words...', he wrote. But Juan Ruiz revealed them to the world.

Love is the life-giving spirit, the axle on which the world turns. The infinite tenderness of God for His creation; the Christian's yearning for his Lord. Yet following—at times parodying—this heavenly model, comes the love between women and men. Desires ethereal, ardent—even animalistic: The Book of Good Love honours them all.

Spiritual and scurrilous, romantic and rumbustious: Joan Ruiz's enormous technical versatility is matched by his astonishing variety of tone. Arabic, Jewish and Christian influences jostled and intermingled in the heaving crucible of fourteenth-century Spain. In the Archpriest's incomparable masterpiece, this culture found unforgettable voice...
added by aquaticus | editback of book blurb [Everyman edition]
 
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This translation is dedicated
to the memory of

COLIN SMITH

dear friend and guide
who first opened my eyes to the medieval world
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Este ebook presenta El Libro de buen amor , con un sumario dinmico y detallado.El Libro de buen amor, tambin llamado Libro de los cantares, es una obra del maestra de clereca del siglo XIV. Es una composicin extensa y variada de 1728 estrofas, cuyo hilo conductor lo constituye el relato de la autobiografa ficticia del autor - Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita. El Libro del Buen Amor es una obra escrita con nimo moralizante y de divertir, de manera que los amantes escarmienten en cabeza ajena. Para ello, adoptando el recurso de hablar en primera persona, su autor, el Arcipreste de Hita, nos cuenta una serie de aventuras amorosas enlazadas por los comentarios y digresiones del propio autor que prestan la suficiente cohesin para mantener la unidad del relato, pero que, por otra parte, dan cierta independencia a cada historia, lo que permita a los juglares de la poca llevar en su repertorio trozos del Libro del Buen Amor y recitar o cantar uno u otro aisladamente. Juan Ruiz (c. 1284 - c. 1351), conocido como el Arcipreste de Hita, fue el creador de una obra miscelnea predominantemente narrativa en verso que constituye una de las obras literarias ms importantes de la literatura medieval espa?ola, el Libro de buen amor. A Juan Ruiz se le supone nacido en Alcal de Henares para luego cursar estudios en alguna de las ciudades cercanas, como Toledo o Hita. Tambin parece claro que fue encarcelado por el Arzobispo de Toledo y que fue durante su cautiverio que escribi su obra ms conocida.… (more)

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