An Early Self: Jewish Belonging in Romance Literature, 1499-1627

An Early Self: Jewish Belonging in Romance Literature, 1499-1627

by Susanne Zepp


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What role has Jewish intellectual culture played in the development of modern Romance literature? Susanne Zepp seeks to answer this question through an examination of five influential early modern texts written between 1499 and 1627: Fernando de Rojas's La Celestina , Leone Ebreo's Dialoghi d'amore , the anonymous tale Lazarillo de Tormes (the first picaresque novel), Montaigne's Essais , and the poetical renditions of the Bible by João Pinto Delgado. Forced to straddle two cultures and religions, these Iberian conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) prefigured the subjectivity which would come to characterize modernity.
As "New Christians" in an intolerant world, these thinkers worked within the tensions of their historical context to question norms and dogmas. In the past, scholars have focused on the Jewish origins of such major figures in literature and philosophy. Through close readings of these texts, Zepp moves the debate away from the narrow question of the authors' origins to focus on the innovative ways these authors subverted and transcended traditional genres. She interprets the changes that took place in various literary genres and works of the period within the broader historical context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, demonstrating the extent to which the development of early modern subjective consciousness and its expression in literary works can be explained in part as a universalization of originally Jewish experiences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804787451
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/19/2014
Series: Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Pages: 271
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susanne Zepp is Chair for Spanish and Portuguese Literature at Freie Universität Berlin and Deputy Director of the Simon-Dubnow-Institute for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University.

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An Early Self

Jewish Belonging in Romance Literature, 1499â"1627

By Susanne Zepp, Insa Kummer


Copyright © 2010 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9314-8


Skepticism and Irony

La Celestina (1499)

Few texts in Spanish literary history had such a lasting impact as the closet drama Tragicomedia de Calixto y Melibea. This "tragicomedy," which is considered a key literary work in Romance Europe's transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern age, has become known under the title La Celestina, based on the name of the procuress who unites Calisto, the protagonist whose love is unrequited, with Melibea, who rejects him at first. To this day, hardly any other early modern text is edited and translated as often as this one. The history of its reception includes several film adaptations as well. For a text written in the year 1499, it is unusual in many respects. This is true of its form, which combines elements of both drama and the novel, yet even more so of its linguistic innovations, and not least with respect to its content. This explains why the peculiarities of this text, which in part cannot be explained immediately, have led to the most diverse attempts at explanation and interpretation in the course of Romance literary studies.

On Fernando de Rojas's Authorship

In 1902 the account of a trial mentioning a lawyer named Fernando de Rojas was found during research in the archives of the Inquisition tribunals. According to the historical document, he had written La Celestina in his youth and had wanted to represent his father-in-law, Álvaro de Montalbán, in an Inquisition trial in 1525. Because of his status as a converso, however, he had been rejected as counsel by the tribunal. The author's name had been known to be Fernando de Rojas since La Celestina's second edition of 1505, because he had revealed himself through an acrostic in a dedication poem. The dedication was prefaced by a letter in which the author described his work as the sequel to a literary discovery, the first act of Celestina, a text that according to the letter's author could only have been written by an author such as Juan de Mena or Rodrigo de Cota. It is not only because of this literary game regarding authorship—the first act does indeed differ from the rest of the piece—that, despite the archival discovery from the Inquisition files, it has not been decided to this day whether the text was written by one or several authors, nor has the identity of Fernando de Rojas, obscured by a play on words, been established beyond a doubt.

Nevertheless, following the archival discovery, many studies have striven to complement the interpretation of this early modern text with a consideration of its historic origins as well as a focus on the author's identity. One of the first essays of this kind was an article by Louis G. Zelson titled "The Celestina and Its Jewish Authorship," which appeared in the journal Jewish Forum in December 1930. In it Zelson demands acknowledgment of La Celestina as a work of Jewish literature. Rather than discussing the content of the literary text, he describes the discussion among scholars about the alleged author, which an article by Manuel Serrano y Sanz had triggered in 1902. Zelson also refers to a brief study by Julio Cejador presenting further archival finds on the ancestry and origin of Fernando de Rojas, which declared him a Hidalgo and thus a so-called Old Christian. In the following decades, the archival-based discussion about the Jewish, converso, or Christian origin of Celestina's author grew into a veritable research tradition.

Building upon the writings of his academic mentor, Américo Castro, Stephen Gilman has compiled essential studies that interpret La Celestina as a document of the author Fernando de Rojas's "Jewish-Christian split consciousness." While Gilman stresses overall that he does not want to unambiguously declare the literary text an inevitable result of the historical conditions of the author's existence, he interprets the tragicomedy's uniqueness from the "archivally imagined perspective of Spanish conversos," namely, the biographical experience suffered by Fernando de Rojas that was reflected in this text. This and other attempts, following Gilman, at a conjoined consideration of the author's affiliation and the extraordinariness of the text have led to a reading of La Celestina that recognizes in it a pessimism informed by true hardship as displayed by the conversos, whose only form of expression remained skeptical distance and irony. However, not one of the characters in the text is explicitly referred to as a converso, nor are questions of religious affiliation central to the plot in any way.

The passages analyzed in this chapter are taken mainly from the first and last acts of La Celestina, the latter of which has been perceived as that part of the text in which a "Jewish Skepticism" (Castro) finds its central expression in the above-mentioned interpretative tradition. My aim is to open up an alternative approach to La Celestina beyond the exclusively biographical one.

In 1499 the text of La Celestina first became available in print. This edition contained fourteen acts; in 1502 another edition with five additionally inserted acts was published, on which most editions are still based today. The text is difficult to categorize in terms of genre. Its division into acts and dialogical form point to the theater, yet, as Manfred Tietz has rightly pointed out, there was no such institution as the theater and no stage on which such a complex play could have been performed in Spain at that time:

The piece ... was probably meant for communal reading with assigned roles, yet not at court, in a mostly female dominated milieu, but instead at university, in a mostly male dominated context. This audience helps explain several stylistic traits of Celestina's truly new literary language: the use of numerous elements of education ..., but also the use of many sexual allusions as well as directness. Despite a connection to the theater, La Celestina is considered a novela dialogada today, and thus a precursor to the Spanish novel.

The plot of this dialogical novel can be summarized as follows: While out hunting with his falcon, young nobleman Calisto finds himself in the garden of Pleberio's family and falls in love with his daughter Melibea. When she rejects him, Calisto, acting on the advice of his servant Sempronio, charges the old procuress Celestina with gaining him access to Melibea's heart and bedchamber. The plan succeeds, even though Calisto's second servant, Pármeno, warns him against accepting the procuress's services. Both servants know Celestina, and when she guarantees them regular relations with Elicia and Areusa, two girls in her charge, even Pármeno yields, not least because both servants hope to receive a share of the procuress's fee. Celestina manages to gain access to Melibea, and after having refused his advances at first, she confesses to the procuress that she is in love with Calisto. Celestina arranges a first meeting, for which the two lovers agree to a tryst through a half-open door. Calisto is so happy with Celestina's services that he gives her a gold necklace. On the night that Calisto enters Melibea's bedchamber with the help of a ladder, Pármeno and Sempronio demand a share of her generous fee from Celestina, but when she refuses to share with them, she is murdered by the two servants. They are executed for their crime. Meanwhile Calisto visits Melibea as often as possible, but one night he falls from the ladder leading to her chamber and dies from the fall. Melibea's despair over her lover's dying drives her to leap to her death.

The drama's ending, Melibea's suicide, was interpreted in pointed words as "deeply un-Spanish" by Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo as early as 1915. In his introduction to an edition of La Celestina appearing in the series Clásicos Castellanos, its editor, Julio Cejador, stated: "Knowledge of the fact that the work's author was a converted Jew explains a lot. I doubt that such an ending would even have occurred to a Christian from the old Spain."

How are we to judge such patterns of explanation? A comparative glance at Italian and French literary history of the same era shows the consequences that the archival discovery suggesting the experience of a converso with regard to the author's religious affiliation had: In Giovanni Boccaccio's Decamerone (1348), the character Ghismunda poisons herself out of love (first novella of the fourth day), yet thus far no interpreter of this work has ever suggested this to reveal "crypto-Judaism" on Boccaccio's part. The same is true for the story of the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe in Christine de Pizan's Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405), in which the two lovers take their own lives because of a misunderstanding—Pyramus kills himself with a sword when he believes Thisbe to be dead; Thisbe, seeing her lover dead, then kills herself with the same sword. There have been no known attempts in this case, either, to understand this passage by way of speculation about Christine de Pizan's religious affiliation. The case is very different with the text discussed here, however: "The author is a converted Jew who has poured out those emotions in the entire work that the forced renunciation of the faith of his forefathers, and the failure to put down roots in his new motherland, has instilled in him."

All of the distinctive features of La Celestina, which is indeed a singular document of literary innovation, have been ascribed to the author's religious affiliation in this interpretative tradition. The entire plot was interpreted as a coded portrayal of the impossibility of love between an "Old Christian" (Calisto) and the daughter (Melibea) of a "New Christian" (Pleberio), which represented the "spiritual reality in Spain at that time," the "complex society of converts and 'Old Christians' full of differences, hate, and incompatibilities."

There have been several attempts to interpret individual protagonists of the text as representations of conversos, in one case with regard to Calisto's ancestry and in another regarding Melibea's lineage. In his study The Evolution of Converso Literature, Gregory Kaplan has rightly stated that a definite attribution of individual protagonists in La Celestina as representations of conversos is impossible and has further posited that the text mainly stages doubts about the ancestry, origin, and affiliation of all the characters in a virtuosic manner. Kaplan's study is one of the most interesting attempts to free the scholarly study of La Celestina from an exclusively biographical approach. Kaplan analyzes the semantic signifiers in the text and identifies dominant, recurrent semes that belong to the semantic fields of ancestry, origin, and affiliation and that, most important, raise doubts about a clearly assignable religious identity for the novel's characters. Kaplan interprets this consciously employed ambiguity as de Rojas's reflection on his contemporary social reality and as evidence for the interpretation of the text as a converso allegory.

Thus the archival find, which marked the religious affiliation of the alleged author Fernando de Rojas as converso, continues to dominate the text's interpretation, despite the focus on the autonomy of the literary text prevalent in reception aesthetics theory. In an allegorical reading, the dramatic novel's individual plot elements become symbols and metaphors of skepticism and despair. Marcel Bataillon, too, has interpreted La Celestina as a literary treatment of the converted Jews' distaste for the practices of procuring and prostitution widely accepted in the Christian world.

This kind of reading of La Celestina might offer some clues for a more precise definition of what it is that distinguishes those literary texts whose peculiarity has thus far been explained by their author's ancestry from other texts of this epoch. In my thesis, it is less the author's origin but rather a specific kind of literary writing. In the view represented here, this kind of writing is characterized by a varying yet always specific literary treatment of the biblical text and Christian orthodoxy of the time, which will be described in its variations and shown in the textual analyses in the following sections. Thus any reference to the authors' religious affiliation will at most be an abstract dimension.

The Process of Narration

The prologue to the 1502 Seville edition of La Celestina points to the significance of its literary form:

Unos les roen los huessos que no tienen virtud, que es la hystoria toda junta, no aprovechándose de las particularidades, haziéndola cuento de camino; otros pican los donayres y refranes comunes, loándolos con toda atención, dexando passar por alto lo que haze más al caso y utilidad suya. Pero aquellos para cuyo verdadero plazer es todo, desechan el cuento de la hystoria para contar, coligen la suma para su provecho, ríen lo donoso, las sentencias y dichos de philósophos guardan en su memoria para trasponer en lugares convenibles a sus autos y propósitos. Assí que quando diez personas se juntaren a oír esta comedia, en quien quepa esta differencia de condiciones, como suele acaescer, ¿quién negará que aya contienda en cosa que de tantas maneras se entienda? Que aun los impressores han dado sus punturas, poniendo rúbricas o sumarios al principio de cada auto, narrando en breve lo que dentro contenía: una cosa bien escusada segffln lo que los antiguos scriptores usaron.

In contrast to a reading that considers the work a mere reflection of its author's biographical experience, the prologue treats the author in the sense of a textual implication: the reader who subordinates the story to the narrative process will find true pleasure in the text (Pero aquellos para cuyo verdadero plazer es todo, desechan el cuento de la hystoria para contar). The prologue directs the reader's attention to the specific order of plot elements and the process of narration. The dialogical form that the explicit author has chosen for creating his text is thus given an additional layer of meaning. According to the challenge offered here, the reader is to grasp this layer during the process of reading. It is only in the recognition of the narrative structure that the reader will be able to benefit from the book ("coligen la suma para su provecho, ríen lo donoso, las sentencias y dichos de philósophes guardan en su memoria para trasponer en lugares convenibles a sus autos y propósitos"). The prologue ascribes to the aesthetic process in La Celestina its own meaning.

In the above-mentioned research tradition, the ten listeners mentioned in this passage have been considered a numerical allegory of the minyan, the ten men required for a Jewish religious service. Yet the prologue points less to a spiritual reading than to a highly variable perception and interpretation of the text by those ten imagined listeners to the closet drama, who are described as being very different from each other: "Assí que quando diez personas se juntaren a oír esta comedia, en quien quepa esta differencia de condiciones, como suele acaescer, ¿quién negará que aya contienda en cosa que de tantas maneras se entienda?" The diversity of the respective readers prompts the demand to pay attention less to the rendering of events but rather to the manner in which they are presented. The text points to the process of its creation and directs the reader's attention to its specific form in a manner that seems almost "modern."

The dedication poem, which has prefaced La Celestina ever since the 1502 edition, combines this demand from the prologue with an explicitly moral aim: in the stanza with the subheading "Amonesta a los que aman que siruan a Dios y dexen las malas cogitacion[e]s e vicios de amor" (He warns all who love to serve God and abandon vain thoughts and the vices of love), the intended purpose of this literary work is described as follows:

Vosotros, los que amáys, tomad este enxemplo,
este fino arnés con que os defendáys:
bolved ya las riendas, porque n'os perdáys;
load siempre a Dios visitando su templo.
Andad sobre aviso; no seáys dexemplo
de muertos e bivos y propios culpados; estando en el mundo yazéys sepultados;
muy gran dolor siento quando esto contemplo. (75)

Following the prologue's introductory words, this stanza of the dedication poem seems ambiguous, since the safeguarding hint, which the lover is supposed to derive from the tale and take as an example for his own, comparable constellations, cannot be identified without a doubt—after all, the reader has been asked to consider the narrative rather than its contents just a few lines above. The example as form is subordinated to the narrative as the place for potential moral insight. Considered from a different perspective, however, doubts are raised about the normative content of the plot, as conjured up in the dedication poem.


Excerpted from An Early Self by Susanne Zepp, Insa Kummer. Copyright © 2010 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Skepticism and Irony: La Celestina (1499),
2. An Aesthetics of Love: Leone Ebreo's Dialoghi d'amore (1505/1535),
3. Inquisition and Conversion: El Lazarillo de Tormes (1554),
4. Marranism and Modernity: The Meaning of Form in Michel de Montaigne's Essais (1580–1588),
5. Sacred Text and Poetic Form: The Poetry of João Pinto Delgado (1627),
Conclusion: Marranic Experience as a Paradigm of the Modern Age,

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