Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” — the superior Spanish edition

"Tales of the Alhambra" by Washington Irving, Ediciones Miguel Sánchez

A wonderful book of tales that are still sold at the Alhambra gift shop; Irving is considered at least partially responsible for bringing international attention to the decrepitating condition of the Alhambra in the first half of the 19th Century, as well as rekindling the American imagination of Spain, thereby driving up tourism and solidifying Granada’s place as one of the world’s most romantic tourist destinations (Sinatra’s “Granada, I’m falling under your spell” over a century later hasn’t hurt matters either 🙂 )  Irving claimed to have heard these tales from his Spanish hosts during his ambassadorial stay at the Alhambra in 1829, but the extent of his embellishment was probably not insignificant.

While different editions are available worldwide, the Spanish-published Ediciones Miguel Sanchez is by far the most superior I’ve come across, with its thick and sturdy glossy-covered paperback binding; thick, rough, deckle-edged pages (a favorite of mine); and most of all, dozens of high-quality, glossy, full-color photos from inside the Alhambra, covering everything from landscape portraits to super-closeup shots of some of the magnificently intricate stone-carved Arabic calligraphic relief engravings that are one of the Alhambra’s trademarks and that cover the palace from floor to ceiling. I’m not sure you can acquire this edition outside of Spain (I’ll continue to scour the web) but certainly make sure you pick at least one copy up next time you are there! -JB-

“Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving [Ediciones Miguel Sanchez]

Full Online Text [Google Books]

CreateSpace Edition (U.S.) [Amazon.com]

Michel de Montaigne: descended from Spanish Jews

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne — one of the fathers of philosophical Skepticism, and “one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. He became famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography — and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as “Attempts”) contains, to this day, some of the most widely influential essays ever written. Montaigne had a direct influence on writers the world over, including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Eric Hoffer, Isaac Asimov, and perhaps William Shakespeare.

Montaigne was born in the Aquitaine region of France, on the family estate Château de Montaigne, in a town now called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, not far from Bordeaux. The family was very rich; his grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant and had bought the estate in 1477. His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a French Roman Catholic soldier in Italy for a time and had also been the mayor of Bordeaux. His mother, Antoinette López de Villanueva, was a descendant of a Spanish Jewish convert to Catholicism.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Jewish heritage: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0014_0_14134.html

La Celestina: Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea

Full Text in Spanish

First page of the Comedy of Calisto and Melibea (Burgos, 1499)

Penguin Classics Edition (English) on Amazon.com

La Celestina (used as title, synecdoche, one of the characters of the book actually called Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea or Comedia de Calisto y Melibea, in English Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea) is a work composed entirely in dialog published by Fernando de Rojas in 1499. Rojas was a descendant of converted Jews, a lawyer, and late in life served as an alderman of Talavera de la Reina, an important commercial center near Toledo.

The book is considered to be one of the greatest in Spanish literature, and traditionally marks the end of medieval literature and the beginning of the literary renaissance in Spain. Although usually considered a novel, it is written as a continuous concatenation of dialogues in what may seem some sort of theatre play. Indeed, the Celestina has been tried to be represented on stage several times, although the length and complexity of the dialogues makes it an almost impossible task.At its time, the book was said to be written against the servants of the low nobility, advising us to beware of their tricks and lies. However, it truly becomes a bitter critic against human nature and its miseries. The story tells of Calisto, who falls in love with Melibea in what at first seems to be a flawless courtly love, although as the drama advances, it is discovered that Calisto’s true intentions are not so pure. Following the machinations of Celestina their love has a tragic end after an accident in which Calisto falls off a ladder. On seeing this, Melibea subsequently decides to jump from a tower to her death. The name Celestina has become synonymous with procuress —especially an old woman— dedicated to promoting the illegal engagement of a couple; and the literary archetype of this character (her masculine counterpart is Pandarus). (Source: Wikipedia)

Devotio Moderna: winds of spiritual change across Northern and Western Europe (including Castilian Spain)

“Devotio Moderna, or Modern Devotion, was a religious movement of the Late Middle Ages. It arose at the same time as Christian Humanism, a meshing of Renaissance Humanism and Christianity, and is related to German mysticism and other movements which promoted an intense personal relationship with God. By the late 15th century the advent of the printing press increased the reach of the movement; The Imitation of Christ was printed in several languages by the end of the century. Practitioners of the Devotio Moderna emphasized the inner life of the individual and promoted meditation according to certain strictures. With the ideals of Christian Humanism, Devotio Moderna recommended a more individual attitude towards belief and religion and was especially prominent in cities in the Low Countries during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is regarded sometimes as a contributing factor for Lutheranism and Calvinism. It was also a major influence upon Erasmus, who was brought up in this tradition. The origins of the movement are bound up with the career of Geert Groote of Deventer (Netherlands). From his work two kinds of communities formed, the Brethren of the Common Life, consisting mainly of laymen, as well as monasteries in the area of Windesheim near Zwolle.

The book The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418), by Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471), a Brother of the Common Life, outlines the concepts of Modern Devotion, based on personal connection to God and the active showing of love towards Him (e.g., in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar or during mass).” Source: Wikipedia

Spirituality renewed: studies on significant representatives of the Modern Devotion by Hein Blommestijn, Charles Caspers, Rijcklof Hofman

Américo Castro: The Structure of Spanish History (1954)

Américo Castro

Américo Castro y Quesada (1885 – 1972) was a Spanish cultural historian, philologist, and literary critic who challenged some of the prevailing notions of Spanish identity, raising heated controversy with his conclusions that (1) Spaniards didn’t become the distinct group they are today until after the Islamic conquest of Hispania of 711 CE, an event that turned them into a Christian caste coexisting among Muslims and Jews, and (2) the history of Spain and Portugal was adversely affected with the success in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries of the “Reconquista” or Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula and with the Spanish expulsion of the Jews (1492).

Castro was born on May 4, 1885, in Cantagalo, Brazil, to Spanish parents. In 1890 his parents returned with him to Spain where he then grew up. In 1904 he graduated from the University of Granada, going on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1905 to 1907. After returning to Spain he organized the Centre for Historical Studies in Madrid in 1910 and headed its department of lexicography. In 1915 he became a professor at the University of Madrid.

Later, when the Spanish Republic was declared, he became its first ambassador to Germany in 1931. But when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 he moved to the United States, teaching literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1937 to 1939, at the University of Texas from 1939 to 1940, and at Princeton University from 1940 to 1953.

Among Castro’s most notable scholarly works are The Life of Lope de Vega (1919), Language, Teaching, and Literature (1924), The Thought of Cervantes (1925), Ibero-America, Its Present and Its Past (1941), The Spaniards: an Introduction to their History (1948), The Structure of Spanish History (1954), and Out of the State of Conflict (1961). [Source: Wikipedia]

READ: “The Structure of Spanish History” by Américo Castro

Modernizing the Marranos

The New York Review of Books: Volume 57, Number 4 · March 11, 2010

By J.H. Elliott

  • The Other Within: The Marranos: Split Identity and Emerging Modernity by Yirmiyahu Yovel
  • Las imágenes de la discordia: Política y poética de la imagen sagrada en la España del cuatrocientos by Felipe Pereda
  • Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500–1800 edited by Richard L. Kagan and Philip D. Morgan

The year 1391 marked the opening of a new and terrible chapter in the history of the Jewish population of the Iberian peninsula. A tide of popular hatred, whipped up by Ferrán Martínez, archdeacon of Écija and a canon of Seville cathedral, engulfed one after another of the Jewish communities of the towns of Andalusia, beginning with Seville and then spreading northward to the cities of central and northeastern Spain. There had been anti-Jewish riots and massacres before, not least in 1348, the year of the arrival of the Black Death on the peninsula, but nothing on this scale. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered, and thousands more converted to Christianity to save themselves and their families.

They, and in due course their descendants, came to be known as “converts”—conversos—or, pejoratively, as marranos, a word of uncertain origin but popularly believed to mean “pig.” The famous Spanish dictionary of 1611 by Sebastián de Covarrubias is revealing, about both the use of the word and its etymology:

MARRANO. The recent convert to Christianity, of whom we have a despicable opinion for having feigned his conversion…. The Moors call a one-year-old pig a marrano, and it may be that the new convert is called marrano…because of not eating pork.

The word might also, he suggested, derive from the “Syrian or Chaldean” phrase maran-atha, meaning “Our Lord is come.”[1] Modern discussions of its origins do not seem to have progressed much further.

In creating a large new class of conversos, the mass conversions in the aftermath of the 1391 pogrom transformed the Spanish religious landscape. By around 1410 a considerable body of Jews, perhaps numbering as many as 100,000, had been baptized into the Roman Church. This meant that the Jewish community, which had played such a creative part in the life of medieval Spain, was now split in two. On one side were those who remained true to the faith of their fathers. On the other were those who, through fear, self-interest, or genuine conviction, had become “New Christians,” nuevos cristianos, and joined the ranks of more or less practicing Catholics at a time when Western Catholicism was in a state of evolution.

The incorporation into Christian Spain of these numerous new converts inevitably upset the delicate balance in a peninsula whose religious life had traditionally been characterized by an uneasy coexistence among the peoples of three faiths: Christians, Jews, and Muslims.[2] Could the “Old Christians” really trust the sincerity of the converts, or would they soon backslide into their old Jewish practices? On the other side of the religious divide, the Jewish community saw the conversions as a gross act of betrayal. Might it, however, still be possible to win the converts back through influence and example? Continue reading

Alhambric: Dreams of al-Andalus — mission statement

By Jesse Brenner

“Wa-la ghailiba illa-Llah!”
“There is no Conqueror but God!”

Thus is it inscribed thousands of times across millions of inches of wall, ceiling, and dome in the cavernous confines of the indescribably majestic Alhambra — one of the great symbols of the medieval period of Islamic ascendence in the southern region of Spain known as al-Andalus. It is remarkable that it is this supernal line of Arabic from the Qur’an that was chosen to dominate the vast confines of the Alhambra, given the very human genius that is behind its magnificent creation.

Roaming the enigmatic spaces of the Alhambra, I found myself encountering an almost insouciant mingling of the secular and the religious, the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the hedonistic. Wandering further amid the Jewish and Christian structures that dot Granada’s diverse architectural landscape, I began to viscerally absorb what I had previously studied academically — that this historical period witnessed the evolution of new trends not only within Islamic religious culture, but also between faiths. Judaism and Christianity were the most immediate interlocutors, but Eastern religious philosophies may also have substantially penetrated the region’s spiritual expansion, thanks in part to the great wealth and extensive advances in science, trade and travel produced by the age. Continue reading