The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day

By Gerald Brenan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
THE ARCHPRIEST OF HITA

WE HAVE now come to one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages, the equal of Chaucer and one of the most varied and interesting writers of that time. Also to one of the most representative figures of Spanish literature. Juan Ruiz was born probably at Alcalá de Henares, close to Madrid, soon after 1280. He became Archpriest of Hita, a small place some thirty miles to the cast of Alcalá, and wrote verses for singing and reciting by juglares. In 1330 he seems to have collected what he had written into a book, but, being imprisoned at Toledo in 1343 by the Archbishop for reasons that are not known to us, he brought out in prison a second recension of it with a new beginning and ending. Then he disappears from our sight and by 1351 was almost certainly dead. That is all we know of the external features ofjuan Ruiz's life, and though in form, at least, he is one of the most autobiographical of poets and though the impression we derive from his verse is intensely vivid and personal, he remains in the end a somewhat enigmatic figure.

His poems have come down to us in a collection called by him the Libro de Buen Amor, which we may translate as the 'Book of True Love', or perhaps of 'Good Companionship'. It consists of narrative poems of varying length in cuarderna vίa, interspersed with songs in lyrical metres. Among the latter one will find the first examples of the estribote or zéjel in Castilian literature and there is no trace whatever of Galician influence. The general tone is gay, ironic, buffoonish or satirical, but love is treated delicately as well as humorously and there are a certain number of hymns to God and to Our Lady; in its mixture of comic and serious, satirical and touching themes it is intensely juglaresque and medieval. The most original feature, however, is the autobiographical thread which runs through it, holding together the moralizing

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