To Queen Isabel

Antón de Montoro –  To Queen Isabel

montoro
Oh, bitter, sad, old ragman,
You don’t recognise your own pain!
It is seventy years since you were born
And every year you have proclaimed,
“The Virgin was conceived without sin”;
I never took the Lord’s name in vain.
I said the creed and adored
Great big pots of thick pig fat,
Half-fried chunks of bacon,
I heard Masses and prayed,
Bent the knee and crossed myself-
Yet none of this wipes out
The taint of being a convert.

Canted over on bended knee
And with very great devotion,
On the appropriate days,
I reverently counted
And prayed
The knots of the Passion,
Adoring God and Man
As my most high Lord,
For which to my  eternal shame,
I could not lose the name
Of a fucking old Jew.

I say then, peerless high queen,
montoroWho have it all to command,
It is quite right to praise
And esteem
The most holy Christian faith.
So, most valued queen,
For the Faith to grow,
Our Lord does not angrily
Demand
That the sinner should die,
But for him to live and repent.
So then, most noble queen,
Daughter of an angelic mother,
Christ crucified on the cross,
With his pierced side gaping
And looking down,
Said: “Father, forgive them.”
So, queen of authority,
This comfortless death
Should cease by your pity
And goodness,
Until around about Christmas
When we welcome the heat of the flames.

 

 

 

I am pursuing the ways in which poets in oppressed positions express their identity and, in my last post, followed the trail from Galician nationalism to negritude in Mozambique.  Now I have taken a step back in time to dig through some of my favourite reading in the cancioneros, or medieval songbooks.  The collection I am using is edited by Álvaro Alonso,  Poesía de Cancionero (Cátedra: Madrid, 2008).  Since I have been looking at the poetry of political underdogs, it seemed natural to look at Spanish Jews.

This poem is by Antón de Montoro (1404-1480) who lived through the anti-Semitic riots in Córdoba in 1473.  He was a converso Jew meaning that, although he converted to Christianity, he would always be known as a convert or marrano, the more offensive term meaning pig.  Other noble poets mocked him because he came from a line of second-hand clothes dealers and his social position led him to write verses that bristle with wounded pride and sarcasm.  He repeats his calls to the queen with exaggerated deference and reiterations of “Pues…” or “So…” that build a spluttering, incoherent argument.

This poem starts off with a reference to his family’s trade.  He then goes on to say that he has upheld the Immaculate Conception, adored pork fat, counted the knots on a Passion rosary and abased himself but that none of this wipes out his condition as converso:  what he calls viejo puto judío  It is a startlingly vulgar expression.  Puto is literally a male prostitute but is very commonly used in everyday language as an expletive adjective.  Nowadays, we would say “fucking”.  Anything else seemed too twee: I asked Carmen and she was surprised that a fifteenth century poet would use the term puto like this.  I opted to keep the shock.*

He ends by asking the queen to moderate the violence of the attacks on Jews and finishes with a devastating last line in the style of an epigram: the flames referred to clearly being the Jews burnt by the Inquisition.  This is would be a spectacularly inapt way of celebrating Christmas!

The Inquisition brought with it the odious notion of limpieza de sangre so that for hundreds of years people paid to get hold of certificates proving their families were clean (limpio) of Jewish blood (sangre).   To be an Old Christian was the path to higher social prestige, membership of select clubs and advancement in court circles.   The Old Christians loved to trace their heritage back to some noble knight who achieved fame in the reconquest.

Not all Jews or conversos wrote with the same bitter sarcasm.  Indeed the more widely studied attitude of Jewish converts is disenchantment and I would like to end this post with a beautiful poem that encapsulates this pessimistic, nihilistic view, which in time permeated Spanish literature.  Which way of responding to oppression affects you more: the sharp sarcasm of Montoro?  Or the desengaño of Fernando de Rojas translated into the lyrical rhythms of classicising love poetry?

EchoSong

Although I’m sure I sin,
Lovers, in my pride
I’ll follow the sad path
Of unlucky Echo.

It’s wrong for me to leave
Her a moment or an hour,
Yet my lady is pleased
To cast me from her side;
With no virtue, lost, dry,
Stranger to happiness,
I’ll follow the sad path
Of unlucky Echo.

 

 

  • Manuel da Costa Fontes in The Art of Subversion in Inquisitorial Spain (Purdue U.P., 2004) translates it as fag, and says that Jews were famous for sexual perversion, but that just does not seem to fit with the sense to me.  I chased down the references I was after using Googlebooks, and now I want to return to this book in print as I am intrigued by the author’s perceptions of Jewish influence on Spanish literature.

Tags:  Montoro, poetry, Jewish, Anti-semitism, Inquisition, Álvaro Alonso, cancionero, limpieza de sangre, converso, Fernando de Rojas, Spanish history, Purdue University Press, Manuel da Costa Fontes.

About Jason Preater

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4 Responses to To Queen Isabel

  1. elizjamison says:

    You research and analyze the poems and then paint the pictures to go with them? How wonderful! I teach 9th and 11th grade English, and I often use art as a way to teach writing. I love it! Those paintings are beautiful.

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    • Thanks for the comment. It is not quite as connected as that. I go out in the woods and paint every weekend. During the week I work on translations and always spend a couple of hours a day in the library, which is where I research the poems. The two sides come together when I put together a post for the blog. I enjoy blogging because I can share my enthusiasms and I love reading what other people write as well. I used to teach English and Art when I was in England, but now I live in Spain and work as a guide on the Camino de Santiago.

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  2. Fascinating post! RE: Fernando de Rojas – what or who is Echo in the context of the poem?

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    • Echo comes from a Greek myth which was most widely known in the Renaissance from the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story goes that an arrogant young man called Narcissus is spotted by the shy nymph Echo who has been cursed by Hera to only be able to repeat the last three words of whatever anyone says. He spurns her and she wastes away to a shadow but still follows him around until one day he finds himself sitting by a pool of water. He sees his refelction and falls in love with himself. Then he starts to waste away. We are left with a Narcissus flower and a disembodied voice.

      Rojas equates himself with Echo. This means that he is condemned to wander around repeating the words of the lady who has cast him off. Rojas was a converso Jew whose father-in-law, who was also a converso, was arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practise Jewish rituals. Of course this poem makes sense as a love poem, but there is sense of hopelessness that is common in converso poetry. Rojas’s most famous work is the Celestina, which is a great read, full of harsh social critique and sharply-drawn characters. It is funny too!

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