24 September 2021
To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections.
Eleanor O’Kane in her collection of medieval Spanish proverbs musters 21 dogs, 19 wolves, nine lions and one lonely bear.
Felipe Maldonado in his compilation of printed Spanish proverb books of the early modern period has captured 23 dogs, 14 wolves, two lions and no bears
The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs has tamed 176 dogs, 40 wolves, nine lions and a magnificent 23 bears.
Now, I’ve not been very careful with my sums, and the actual data can be misleading, but it’s very interesting to me that the order of the beasts is the same in all three sources.
Bear with bees and bee hives, Harley 3448, f.10v
You might recognize some English bears:
Like a bear to an honey-pot
As cross as a bear with a sore head
To sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear
Call the bear ‘uncle’ till you are safe across the bridge (‘an excellent Turkish proverb’, according to the Times Weekly of 1912)
But what of their solitary Spanish cousin?
The proverb occurs in the Poema de Alfonso Onceno (Epic of Alfonso XI). He reigned 1312-50, and the Poema was probably written by some tame court poet for propaganda purposes. It was never finished, which suggests that the poet wrote until the patronage was cut off at the king’s death.
First page of ‘Poema de Alfonso Onceno’. Source: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
Picture the scene: the year is 1350. Alfonso (Castile) is fighting Yusuf I (Granada) allied with Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman (Morocco) for Gibraltar. The siege was dragging on, and the Granadan and Moroccan leaders were considering a settlement involving the surrender of castles and tribute. We are at their council of war:
Este rey luego provemos
Que dexe aquesta guerra
Mensageros le enbiemos,
Que salga de nuestra tierra.
E diga que le daremos
Buenos castillos fronteros.
La costa la pagaremos
En doblas e en dineros …
E de fanbre muy cuytados
Ayna se bençeran
E nos seremos honrrados.
Fablo el rey de Granada
E dixo: ‘Mal rasca el oso’ (Janer stanzas 2372-77)
Let us test this king immediately
To abandon this war;
Let us send him messengers
That he leave our land;
And tell him we will give him
Good frontier castles.
We will pay him tribute
In doubloons and dinars.
They are impoverished
And stricken with hunger;
They will be soon defeated
And we will be honoured.
The king of Granada spoke
And said: ‘Ill scratches the bear’.
Translated by Barry Taylor
He continues at length, and Yusuf I and Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman change tack.
I’m sure ‘Ill scratches the bear’ refers to a bear scratching his back on a tree. I suppose it means something like ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree’.
As I say, it’s unique in Old Spanish. It could conceivably reflect an Arabic proverb. And it needn’t be an existing proverb but a newly minted coinage.
But all bears are precious, especially to the paremiologist.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Eleanor S. O’Kane, Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la Edad Media (Madrid, 1959) X.900/4431.
Felipe C. R. Maldonado, Refranero clásico español (Madrid, 1970) X19/7679
F. P. Wilson, Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (Oxford 1970) X.981/1907.
‘Poema de Alfonso Onceno’, ed. F. Janer in Poetas castellanos anteriores al s. XV (Madrid, 1864) 12232.f.1/57. Available online
More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:
14 September 2021
Today, 14 September 2021, we mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. His main work, the Divine Comedy, is widely considered one of the most important works of literature. His vision still informs our idea of afterlife: how Hell, Purgatory and Paradise look like. His poetry still moves and inspires.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.
This video offers the rare opportunity to look at the circulation of one work of literature across seven centuries. Nothing survives in Dante’s own hand. The manuscripts of the Divine Comedy are, for this reason, even more important. The invention of printing shows how Dante was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, and his limited fortune during the Baroque and Enlightenment eras.
The Romantic era, the Risorgimento and the Italian unification sparked a new and increased interest in Dante as national poet. The Divine Comedy was acknowledged as the greatest work of poetry in Italian and became the subject of studies in Italian schools and universities. Translations started to become popular outside of Italy (we have editions of the Divine Comedy in about 40 different languages in our catalogue) and Dante studies became a subject in itself.
Amos Nattini, Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII
Dante became popular in the mass media: for example, the first Italian feature length movie, commissioned in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification, was inspired by the Divine Comedy and titled Inferno.
The political importance of the Divine Comedy is shown by the number of editions published in the 20th century, many directly sponsored by the Italian government.
Two of them are shown in the video. La Divina Commedia novamente illustrata da artisti italiani a cura di Vittorio Alinari (Firenze, 1902-3; 11420.k.11.) is the first. This lavish edition includes works of 59 young artists who had won a contest to produce new illustrations for the Divine Comedy. Two of them, Duilio Cambellotti and Alberto Martini, both in their early twenties at the time of the competition, distinguished themselves with a work of great graphical interest that shows their Symbolist style and anticipates the development of Art Nouveau.
Duilio Cambellotti, Inferno, Canto X
The second work that I show is La Divina Commedia / illustrazioni di Dalì ([1963-64], awaiting shelfmark). On the occasion of this anniversary the British Library had the opportunity to acquire a precious edition of the Divine Comedy illustrated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalì. This edition was commissioned on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, in 1965. The painter took nine years to complete this work. In this collection of 100 watercolour woodcuts, Dalì adds elements of his iconic and unique imagination to Dante’s vision: desolate landscapes, crutches, spiders, figures with drawers.
Salvador Dalì, Purgatorio, Canto I
We couldn’t include them all in the video, but here are some other remarkable editions:
La Divina Commedia. Illustrazione su cento cartoline eseguita da artisti fiorentini, ideata e diretta dall’ingegnere Attilio Razzolini. (Milano, [1902, 03]). 11421.e.23. This is a collection of 100 postcards, one for each canto, in Gothic revival style. Each of them is decorated with miniatures by the illustrator.
La Divina Commedia, with plates by Amos E. Nattini. (Turin, [1923-41]). Cup.652.c.
La divina commedia. Introduzioni ai canti, di Natalino Sapegno. Disegni a colori di Antony de Witt. (Firenze, 1964). L.R.413.w.37.
Interested in learning more on Dante? Join us tonight for the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30).
Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections
14 December 2020
‘If we should not judge books by their cover, can we judge people by their clothes?’ In anticipation of the fashion competition due to be launched by the British Library and British Fashion Council in the New Year, here are some thoughts on the importance of fashion. For those looking for the inspiration, it can be found anywhere: mythology, paintings, even literature.
In mythology, Strife threw an apple marked ‘To the fairest’ among three goddesses: Juno (queen of the divinities), Pallas Minerva (goddess of war and learning) and Venus (goddess of love). To settle the matter they went to the shepherd Paris, who reasonably said he couldn’t judge their beauty with their clothes on.
For the artists of the Renaissance such as Rubens, this was an excellent excuse for studies in the nude.
The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens
But not everyone thought like Rubens. One contemporary critic said that Rubens had made the goddesses ‘too naked’.
Among the poets, Ovid has no description of the goddesses. Fifteen hundred or so years later the Valencian poet Joan Roís de Corella wrote his version of the Judgment of Paris. Corella (or doubtless his sources) tells it as follows.
Paris says, ‘It will not be possible for me to judge this case unless I can contemplate your persons without any veil …’
First up is Pallas Minerva, who says,
‘As the ambition of vanity of human praise has captured us and made us subject to the judgment of this young man, we are obliged to obey the laws which he as judge determines.’
And, while talking, she began to untie the belt of a skirt of dark red damask, whose decoration was picked out with great skill in emeralds, which, mixed with sapphires, dazzling human sight, transported her from this world. And the skirt was sprinkled with foliage of green and fertile olive; the olives, covered with black and green enamels, which invited the viewers to stretch out their hands to take the fruit of the painted tree. And on her shoes, of purple satin, were embroidered sharp-flowered thistles, which made show of true spikes, so that you would not dare to pick the raised olives from the broad skirt. And a motto in golden letters among the thorns clearly read, ‘Open your eyes to the harm which can ensue.’ And the excellent queen bore on her bosom a gleaming carbuncle which hung from her neck on a cord of golden thread, so fine that human sight could grasp only its colour and not its quantity.
The other goddesses follow suit. Juno feels that as queen of Olympus she shouldn’t have to demean herself before younger women: but she still wants to be the fairest. Venus locks eyes with Paris as she drops her cloak. You’ll remember that Venus cheated by promising Paris Helen of Troy. And that led to the Trojan War.
Detail of a miniature of the Judgement of Paris, between Athena, Juno and Venus, in Christine de Pizan ‘L’Épître Othéa’. Harley 4431, f. 128v
So it’s clear that although Paris thought the goddesses’ beauty was in their bodies, for Corella their clothes were much more worthy of attention. I think this isn’t unusual in medieval texts, probably because the medievals thought clothes could bear social or symbolic meaning which bodies couldn’t. Corella says nothing about the body, he says little about the cut of the clothes (which by the way are medieval rather than classical), he says little about the cloth that makes the clothes, but says a lot about the metals and jewels which adorn them, and even endows each garment with a verbal message picked out in gold.
So that’s the importance of fashion.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Joan Roís de Corella, Proses mitològiques, ed. J. L. Martos (Alacant, 2001) YA.2002.a.20285
Marisa Astor Landete, Valencia en los siglos XIV y XV: indumentaria e imagen (Valencia, 1999) YA.2002.a.17891
Isidra Maranges i Prat, La indumentària civil catalana, segles XIII-XV (Barcelona, 1991) Ac.138.dc.
Fashion competition details will be available in January, via this link, which also has information about previous years’ competitions and related activities.
07 October 2020
We’re all too young to remember this joke from ITMA.
Posh lady: ‘There’s nothing my little Jimmy likes better than snuggling up in front of the fire with Enid Blyton.’
Louche voice: ‘Beats reading any day.’
Authors are often conflated with their books, sometimes through ignorance. In the Middle Ages Policraticus/Policratus was often cited as an author rather than the work by John of Salisbury.
Other authors made a point of naming their books after themselves: Orme (the 12th-century Augustinian) called his exegetical work Ormulum.
Thiss boc iss nemmnedd. orrmulum; / Forr tha orrm itt wrohhte.
[This book is named Ormulum; for that Orme it wrote.]
Similarly, Emmanuele Tesauro named his biblical compendium the Handy Treasury, so that on the title page it came out as Emmanuelis Thesauri Thesaurus Manualis. Manuel and Manual of course aren’t related. But note that crazy chiasmus.
Title-page of Thesauro Manual en el Conde Manuel Thesauro … (Madrid, 1674) 4226.dd.33
When Dutch mapmaker Jacob Aertsz Colom wanted a title for an atlas to guide the seafarer, he thought back to his Bible reading and recalled Exodus 13:21-22. When Pharoah let the Israelites go they went out:
through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea … And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (King James Bible)
And so Colom called his book De Vyerighe Colom (Amsterdam, 1654; Maps C.8.c.3.), translated into English in 1648 as Upright fyrie colomne … wherein are described and lively portrayed all the coasts of the west, north and east seas.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
16 June 2020
This post is part of our ‘Inheritance Books’ series, where colleagues choose an ‘inherited' item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to ‘pass on’ to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they’re important to us. Today, Barry Taylor, responsible for our Spanish and Portuguese collections, makes his selection.
I first encountered the book I ‘inherited’ on the reading list for my second year undergraduate course on medieval Spanish literature. The Waning of the Middle Ages: a Study of the Forms of Life, Thought, and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by Johan Huizinga was translated from the Dutch of 1924 by F. Hopman (BL 09073.d.20.), so well you’d never know it was a translation. The college library copy was sparsely illustrated in black and white, but that was essential to Huizinga’s argument and an added attraction for me. (My Penguin edition (BL X.708/8266), bought years later, doesn’t have any pictures, which leaves me as disappointed as Alice.) The British Library, of course, holds a number of editions both in English and Dutch.
Cover of the 1972 edition of The Waning of the Middle Ages
Huizinga explained, with plenty of quotations, themes such as courtly love, the attitude to death, and religion. One of his points which stayed with me was that medieval people were so familiar with everyday religious practices that they weren’t offended when these practices were played with by the poets who likened their lady love or the queen to the Virgin Mary.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Huizinga (1872-1945) was inspired in his multidisciplinary approach by seeing a big exhibition of medieval art. I also learned that he had been kicked out of his university job by the Nazis.
Why did our far-sighted teachers ask us to read him? After all, he wasn’t going to figure in an exam on medieval Spanish literature, was he? Except that he was everywhere. The glittering display culture of France and Burgundy was the model for court life in Spain. Only later did I read El Victorial, the life of Pero Niño (1378-1453), who attended such festivities in France. And I got a tick in the margin for mentioning in an essay the depiction of St Joseph as ‘Joseph le fou’ when noting the poor figure that the saint cuts in a medieval religious play.
Illustration of a man in medieval clothing from Costumes Historiques de la France..., vol. 1 (Paris, 1852; 2260.f.4.)
People are revisionist (i.e. sniffy) about Huizinga nowadays, and blame him for relying too much on chronicles (always gussied up for propaganda purposes) rather than archival documents (dull but worthy). But his appeal was that he was a cultural historian avant la lettre. Critics are also quick to point out that ‘Waning’ in the English is ‘Autumn’ in the Dutch and pretty much all other translations, signifying autumn fruits.
The Waning of the Middle Ages obviously doesn’t feel now like the book I read at 19, but it made me a medievalist in my heart if not in my tights.
Pages from Diogo de Teive’s Epodon siue Ia(m)bicorum carminum libri tres [...] Ad Sebastianum primum, inuictissimum Lusitaniæ Regem (Lisbon, 1565) RB.23.a.23815.
The book I can pass on is a volume of Latin poetry by Diogo de Teive, in Latin Jacobus Tevius (1513 x 1515 – 1565 x 1579). I’d been working on proverbs and sententiae (the more learned type of proverb) and also on bilingual editions. I knew as a frustrated researcher that Tevius’s book included some sententiae of his own devising, with a facing Portuguese translation. There were also epithalamia on the marriages of various noble houses. I also knew it was nowhere to be found in a complete copy, so when this edition appeared in a bookseller’s catalogue I jumped at it. I catalogued it and wrote it up promptly (hem hem) and it was quickly picked up in an Oxford thesis.
Tevius (rather like Huizinga) lived at a turning-point in history. At the beginning of his career the Portuguese universities were recruiting actively all over Europe, bringing in distinguished professors like the Scot George Buchanan. King John III invited Erasmus, but he wouldn’t be tempted. Not long after the tide turned: in came the Jesuits and that was the end of international Latin culture in Portugal.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
A digitised version of the first English edition of The Waning of the Middle Ages from the University of Michigan Library is available via the Hathi Trust website
Peter Arnade [et al.] Rereading Huizinga: Autumn of the Middle Ages, a Century Later (Amsterdam, 2019). Available via JSTOR
23 December 2019
Everybody needs a patron, nobody more than the medieval or early modern author.
Erasmus dedicated one work to four successive patrons (Carlson 85; also 45). The assumption was that the patron would respond with a payment, sometimes delivered on the spot (Carlson 85). Hence the delicious title of Richard Firth Green’s Poets and Princepleasers: literature and the English court in the late Middle Ages.
Title-page of Juan de Mena, Las ccc (Seville, 1499) G.11274
Here we see the poet Juan de Mena doffing his cap to King John II. (Of course, the woodcut obviously comes from some other work, but such reuse was commonplace.)
Another popular scene shows the patron, the author and the book. It’s probably the norm for an author to be shown presenting his work to his patron.
Harley MS 4431 (c. 1410-c.1414), f. 3r, for example, shows Christine de Pizan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria:
But in other cases the patron is pretty unambiguously doing the presenting.
Here Henry VIII is handing out his Great Bible (London, 1540; C.18.d.10) to the clergy and directly to the people.
Henry‘s iconography is probably the older, as it has been traced back to images of Justinian handing down the law.
Here we have Fray Antonio de Montesino kneeling before Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. The book is his Spanish translation of pseudo-Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi (Alcalá de Henares, 1502-03; C.63.i.1.).
Lyell (385, n. 150) thinks the presenter is the patron Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, the recipients the patron’s patrons the King and Queen, and that the humble translator, Montesino, is literally sidelined.
The tug-of-love between King and Cardinal makes it hard to see who is giving and who is receiving.
So just remember that this festive season.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
David R. Carlson, English Humanist Books (Toronto, 1993) YA.1995.b.12352
Richard Firth Green, Poets and Princepleasers: literature and the English court in the late Middle Ages (Toronto, 1980). 80/17195
James P. R. Lyell, La ilustración del libro antiguo en España (Madrid, 1997). YF.2009.a.21979. (First published in English as Early book illustration in Spain (London, 1926) 11907.g.58.)
07 December 2017
The medieval archives of the Crown of Aragon are generally said to be richer than those of neighbouring Castile. They’re an invaluable source for scholars of all aspects of cultural history, including the history of the book.
And of weird stuff.
In the inventory of the goods of Martin I (1356-1410) we find the following treasures: the arm of St George (p. 461); ditto St Barbara (461); and he must have had over 100 pieces of church vestments.
He had the Cid’s sword:
item una spasa ab son pom de jaspi apellada ne tisona sens fouro bo (p. 524)
[Item a sword with a jasper pommel called The Tizona without a good scabbard]
He had a piece of cloth decorated with the magical sign or seal or knot of Solomon:
primo una tovallola de lens prim brodada de fil d aur e de sede de diverses colors ab .IIII. baboyns de fil d or e de sede en mig VII. senyals salamons squinsada (p. 507)
[first, a fine linen cloth embroidered with gold thread and silk in various colours with four baboons in gold thread in the middle of seven signs of Solomon, torn]
A version of the seal of Solomon from Pertus de Abano, Claviculae Salomonis, seu Philosophia pneumatica … (Bifingen, 1974). X.529/17795
Even these apparently harmless references to items showing the Armed Man turn out, as explained by Joan Evans, in her study, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England, to be amulets: “in many instances those [stones] that include figures of armed men confer courage and victory in battle” (p. 49), “for alectorias, for instance, the sigil of an armed knight and consecration by nine masses is prescribed” (p. 71):
item una bossa de vellut carmesi dins la qual ha Ia empremte o ymatge pocha de I. hom qui te una spasa en la ma e un cap tellat en l altre ab un cordo de seda vermeya (p. 491)
[item a bag of carmine velvet in which is a small impression or image of a man with a sword in one hand and a detached head in the other with a red cord]
Carved gems for use as amulets, from, Johann Martin von Ebermayer, Capita Deorum et illustrium hominum ... nec non Hieroglyphica, Abraxea et Amuleta quædam, in gemmis antiqua partim, partim recenti manu, affabre incisa (Frankfurt, 1721). 139.g.11.
There are nine or so references to “serpents’ teeth”. These were actually prehistoric arrow heads or fossils, and were used to test food for poison. Martin had some mounted on a branching piece of coral, to form what in English we call by the French name of languier:
item diversos trosos de branchas d coral ab algunes lengues de serps encastades en argent (p. 528)
[item various pieces of coral branches with some serpent’s teeth set in silver]
Coral was used as a teething ring, because it too was thought to have protective powers:
item una brancha de coral ab una virolla d argent per a portar a infants (p. 490)
[item a coral branch with a golden ring for children to wear]
And how could he fail to have:
item .I. tros de unicorn encastat en .I.a virolla d aur ab son cordo vermey (p. 541)
[item a piece of unicorn set in a gold ring with its red cord]
As Roca tells us, citing a letter of 1379, unicorn horn too was proof against poison : “la qual val contra verí” (p. 54).
Unicorns, from Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694) 37.h.7.
Martin wasn’t some dark-age wizard who crammed his palace with superstitious rubbish, although he might have been unduly afraid of poisoning. He was also a patron of medical schools in the modern sense, and it’s likely many of these gewgaws were family heirlooms, as they also appear in the inventory of James II (1267-1327), his great grandfather. And these old beliefs died hard and in the 1720s the existence of the unicorn was still a matter of debate.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies
J. Massó Torrents, ‘Inventari del bens del rey Martí d’Aragó’, Revue Hispanique, 12 (1905), 413-590. PP.4331.aea
J. M. Roca, La medicina catalana en temps del Rey Martí (Barcelona, 1919) YA.1990.a 16394
Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England (Oxford, 1922) W2/7263
You can discover many more magical artefacts in our current exhibition Harry Potter: a History of Magic, which runs until 28 February 2018
13 November 2017
Did you have to hand in your wand when you came to the British Library to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic? There’s a reason for that.
When Arnau de Cabrera entered judicial combat with Bernat de Centelles in Barcelona in 1274, both parties had to declare before King Jaume I “I swear I am carrying no magical weapons” [quod non deferebant aliquid quod haberet virtutem].
Mediaeval knights in combat from Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine, c. 1450. MS Harley 4418, f. 56.
Arnau de Cabrera however denounced his opponent for bearing the sword of Vilardell: no-one who bore it could be defeated or killed [“portavit ensem de Villardello, qui quidem ensis habet virtutem ut nullus subcumbere vel superari possit qui illum in bello detulerit”]. It also had the quality that if it was put point down it righted itself.
Apparently, Bernat’s father, like any good parent, had bought the sword for him for 500 maravedis. He had also asked the Prior of St Paul’s in Barcelona for a shirt which again prevented its owner from being vanquished in battle.
And what’s more Bernat was wearing an iron cap which contained a precious stone called diamas, supplied by his brother Gilabert: the bearer’s bones could not be broken.
The king found for Arnau.
The Sword of Vilardell acquired its powers because it was forged at a particularly propitious astrological conjunction.
Relief from Barcelona Cathedral showing Vilardell fighting a griffin with his magical sword. (Photograph by Pere López from Wikimedia Commons.
The sword’s original owner, Vilardell, went out one day with an ordinary sword to cut wood. He did a kind deed for a poor man who replaced his old sword with a new one and then disappeared. Vilardell tested the new sword by splitting a rock with it (still to be seen) and then slayed a dragon. So in the early accounts it was a holy weapon not a magic one.
The sword eventually found its way to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, where you can see it.
Virtually nobody in the Middle Ages doubted the existence of magic, or its efficacy. What the Church for instance objected to was the use of magic for evil ends.
Modern-day surveillance equipment will (hopefully) pick up any concealed weapons, but magic ones (and I don’t want to alarm you) might be beyond its reach.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies
Martí de Riquer, Llegendes històriques catalanes (Barcelona, 2000) YA.2001.a.38498
Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1988) YC.1988.a.7138
18 July 2016
80 years ago today, on 18 July 1936, Spanish generals, later led by Francisco Franco, staged an uprising . By 1 April 1939 what became the Spanish Civil War was over and Franco made a triumphal entry into Madrid. Three years of war and 40 years of dictatorship (the Generalísimo finally died on 20 November 1975) turned Spain from what had been a progressive republic with a programme of mass literacy and the most liberal divorce laws in Europe to a pseudo-medieval dictatorship, priest-ridden, vindictive and subject to famine.
Regressive regimes often look back into history to legitimise themselves, and Franco’s was no exception. The regime’s appropriation of three historical symbols is described below:
1. Yugo y flechas
Francoism – motto [España] ‘Una, grande, libre’ – looked back with nostalgia to the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, who united Castile and Aragon by marriage in 1469 and won Granada from the Moors in 1492. What better emblem for the new-old Spain than the Yugo y flechas, Yoke and arrows?
Coat of arms with the yoke and arrows motif from a 16th-century Rationale divinorum officiorum (Granada, 1504) 1474.dd.9.
The Gordian knot, attached to a broken cord, signifying that the end justified the means, was juxtaposed with the arrows bound together, a version of the Roman fasces (unity is strength).
It also represented the initials Y (Yoke-Yugo-Ysabel) and F (Arrows-Flechas-Fernando).
Inscribed half-title page of Candido G.Ortiz de Villajos, De Sevilla a Madrid: ruta libertadora de la columna Castejón (Granada, 1937) 9043.ff.30, showing the yoke and arrows.
The appeal to the political strongman of the 20th century is obvious.
After the Civil War, and when I first saw Madrid in 1975, it was everywhere – banknotes, public buildings, etc. It was added to the flag.
A law of 2007 called for the removal of Francoist insignia.
2. El Cid
There’s the Cid of history, the Cid of literature and the Cid of Franco.
The historical Cid, Rodrigo [Ruy] Díaz de Vivar (ca. 1043-1099),won Valencia from the Moors. He was probably neither more or less cruel than any other medieval knight.
His deeds are sung in the Cantar de Mio Cid (circa 1207). Here he’s praised for his moderation. His motivation is political rather than ideological: he’s no culture hero fighting for Spanish Christian values against the Moor: Moors and Christians are both his allies and his enemies.
Title-page of Cronica del muy esforçado cauallero el Cid ruy diaz campeador ([Seville], 1541). C.39.g.5
The domestic element is strong in the Cantar: The Cid takes revenge on his son-in-law princes who batter his daughters, and this was extended by Guillén de Castro (and hence Corneille in Le Cid, who focus on his marriage.
Statue of The Cid by Cristóbal González Quesada in Burgos, unveiled by Franco in 1955. (Picture by ElCaminodeSantiago09 2006 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0)
Quite a benevolent figure. But by 1939 he has regressed and has become as primitive as Franco himself, a symbol of a unified Christian Spain fighting the Crusade, which was what the Francoists called the Civil War.
3. Isabel the Catholic
She and Fernando of Aragon married in 1469: Castile and Aragon were united in person but were separate kingdoms with their own laws until 1715.
Theirs was a magnificent court, full of latter-day troubadours and Latin humanists and decorated with Flemish primitives. And obviously their reign founded various institutions of the modern state: they patronised the introduction of printing, exempting imported books from tax in 1477 ‘Because foreign and Spanish merchants have recently brought in many good books, which redound to universal benefit and the ennobling of our kingdom ...’.
And Nebrija dedicated the first Spanish grammar to Isabella.
Dedication to Isabella on the first page of Antonio de Nebrija, Gramatica Castellana (Salamanca, 1492) IA.52814.
It’s only fair to point out that the Catholic Monarchs were not wholly benevolent or modern in outlook: they also ordered the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
By 1939 the Queen had regressed. Franco made her the model of the 20th-century Catholic wife and mother, ready to make every sacrifice for church and state: she was said to have sold or pawned her jewels to finance the voyages of Columbus, and swore not to change her chemise until Granada was delivered from the Moor. In 1958 he tried to have her canonised.
This life of the Queen draws parallels between the contemporary situation in Spain and her reign. For César Silió Cortés, Isabel’s reign saw
the transformation worked in Spain as an already decadent age was being replaced by a new one, with its roots in the past [...] made gay with plumes of youthful growth, swelling with plans of growth and expansion. [...]
His book had been begun with the intention of studying these great changes – a revolution from above – in tranquility, but
the fates have wished it to be written amid the clamour and horrors of another revolution undertaken by the canaille of the river beds, in which Spain continues to be bled dry as the author writes these lines and whose significance will be given to us by the future [...]
Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies
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