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Law and History in Cervantes’ Don Quixote by Susan Byrne (review)

From: Revista de Estudios Hispánicos
Tomo XLVII, Número 2, Junio 2013
pp. 342-344 | 10.1353/rvs.2013.0039

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Learned and insightful, Susan Byrne’s book provides a new look at Cervantes’s masterpiece through the lenses of law and history in order to highlight and clarify how the novel engages in specific arguments that foreground these topics. Her book is one more testimony of Cervantes’s wide learning and willingness to engage in the important issues of his day as he composed what came to be considered as the first modern novel. In many ways, it follows the lead of Roberto González Echevarría’s ground-breaking Love and the Law in Cervantes, but is more attuned to very specific models and issues. Each of the seven chapters of Law and History in Cervantes’ Don Quixote highlights specific concerns and genres, while together they form a collage that fully engages the reader. For those not versed in early modern jurisprudence, it may come as a surprise that there was a major dispute raging between the adherents of the mos italicus and the mos gallicus. The first one argued that Roman law was applicable as such even in the present moment; while the second, a new approach on the subject, espoused by thinkers such as Jean Baudouin, entailed a knowledge of history since an understanding of a law’s original circumstance was needed in order to contextualize it in later eras. Susan Byrne proposes a third kind, a mos hispanicus to be located in the writings of the historian and jurist Gaspar de Baeza who “saw the values, strengths, and worth in the old laws (mos italicus) instead of dismissing them out of hand as dated (mos gallicus)” (19).

Byrne’s thoughtful and discerning study uses for its foundations the perceptions of Paulo Giovio along with the insights of his translator and jurist, Gaspar de Baeza, in order to better understand the questions that are being raised in Cervantes’s novel. The book presents a clear and precise analysis of both of these thinkers and how their works would have been known to the Spanish novelist. Giovio’s Histories were quite controversial in the sixteenth century—and much of the debate had to do with how a historian tells the truth. His work is multi-layered including first-hand knowledge as well as interviews with soldiers and emissaries. The result was at times less than flattering to Spain, as in the atrocities committed by Spanish soldiers in the Italian wars. In spite of this, Baeza translates his work from Latin and dedicates it to Philip II. It should come as no surprise that many objected, minimizing the violence of the Spanish soldiers—and this included a former soldier, Gonzálo Jiménez de Quesada, in his polemic entitled AntiGiovio. Even Bernal Díaz del Castillo includes Giovio in his catalogue of those who exaggerate the violence that takes place in conquest. Giovio was also the author of the Elogia, which were character sketches of some of the 484 portraits that hung in his personal museum. The many portraits gave rise to a number of volumes of Elogia divided according to the types of persons depicted: warriors, men of letters, etc. Baeza translated a volume dedicated to the first group, and published it in Granada in 1568. Byrne points to a number of figures in this volume that are also praised in Cervantes’s novel (Alexander, Charlemagne, Hernán Cortés, Preste Juan)—her hints at similarities call for an extensive analysis of painting, ekphrasis, and Cervantine allusion.

Gaspar Baeza was a lawyer who “rewrote the laws on debt and debtors” and published texts relevant to Cervantes (35). Indeed, Byrne shows that Baeza and his family had explicit ties to Miguel de Cervantes and to his father Rodrigo, and his uncle Andrés. Cervantes and Baeza also had many friends in common. Byrne goes on to show how questions of dowry in Baeza impinge upon Cervantes’s work; and how his comments on the insane impinge on Don Quixote. Furthermore, Baeza gave his opinion on the laws of the land, arguing that the Leyes de Toro should be favored over Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas. After that the fueros might be invoked and failing any determination, Roman common law...



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