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  • Toward a Political Economy of the Libro De Alexandre
  • Simone Pinet (bio)

The carefully composed and craftily pronounced stanzas of the thirteenth-century Libro de Alexandre, if mostly a (free) translation of Gautier de Châtillon’s Alexandreis, provide readers with glimpses of northern Iberia in descriptions and comparisons, but especially through curious formulations and eloquent rewritings.1 These incite the reader to reflect upon the emergence of the vernacular regime of literary composition by clerics that developed in the thirteenth century, a corpus known to us as the mester de clerecía. In this corpus, the use of the vernacular, in particular, brings with it an unproblematized sense of transparency of the context in which the works of mester de clerecía were produced, a genre of which the Libro de Alexandre is a key poetic point of origin. Next to an emphasis on a Latinate syntax and recitation techniques that underline the corpus’s clerical production, the irruption of quotidian phrases, vocabulary, figures of medievalization, and especially of Iberization, make these texts a privileged site to study the articulation of the varied phenomena that from economics to the grammatical, from Aristotle to technology, come to revolutionize medieval culture from the twelfth century onward. Of the many peculiar uses of the vernacular in the Libro de Alexandre, references that connote a sense of worthlessness through the repeated structure “not worth an X, ” especially those that express the comparison with minted coinage of little value: dinero, meaja, pepión, or sueldo, as in “not worth a penny,”2 will serve here as a point of entry. These hyperbolic [End Page 44] expressions, common to Romance languages, underline not only the moral and economic ambivalence of terms such as preçio, valor, honor, pagar(se), dar crédito, and so forth, but also the incorporation of a monetary economy within this ambivalence. These types of expressions, moreover, produce a linguistic marker for such ambiguity, as Louis F. Sas noted when he underlined the “affect” which marks, at the level of speech, the reference to abstract terms such as infinity, nothing, and zero in these types of constructions [469, 471].3

Sas notes that the vast majority of the occurrences of these phrases in the Libro de Alexandre happen “in combination with the word valer, with its synonyms, or with dar por, that is, in contexts of exchange” [475]. Many years before Sas exhaustively documented these expressions, Alois Richard Nykl had interpreted their presence as related to barter and a supposed clerical contact with local markets, which to some extent could explain their frequent use in the poem, and he especially mentioned the use of fruits and vegetables in these expressions. Nykl also suggested these were “rustic” similes, favored by men of the clergy such as Berceo, Juan Ruiz, and the authors of the Alexandre and the Fernán González, showing, in his opinion, these men’s contact with a certain world in which fruits and vegetables could serve as payment for the church or diezmo, bringing in through this curious interpretation not only a historical economic context but also its [End Page 45] qualification as something “rustic” or at least foreign to the cleric [311].4

In 1929, a couple of years after Nykl’s article appeared, George Irving Dale would correct his affirmations, noting that the expressions called “rustic” by Nykl belonged to a well-studied figure called figurative negation. Dale remarked that figurative negation appeared already in the Poema de mio Cid, and he directed the reader to the bibliography offered by Menéndez Pidal in his edition of the Poema under the title of “Refuerzo de la Negación” [Cantar de Mio Cid 1: 376 and glossary]. In his article, Dale wrote in passing that the type of adjectives used with these expressions “increases the insignificance or lack of value” [324]. Later, agreeing with Dale, Sas wrote that the emphasis added to these phrases through the use of adjectives such as vile or rotten did not point to any medieval particular practice beyond that of a peculiar affect, which has been interpreted in terms of “simplicity.” In the next pages I want to suggest some lines of...