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  • To Condemn a KingThe Dream of Bernat Metge and King Joan's Ties with the Occult
  • Michael A. Ryan

On May 19, 1396, while in hot pursuit of a stag in the woods that bordered the city of Gerona, the count-king of the Crown of Aragon, Joan I, suffered a grievous accident. He lost his grip on his horse, fell, and landed hard upon the ground. Not long afterward, the monarch slipped into a coma and died. Joan loved to hunt—his best-known sobriquet was "El Caçador," or "The Hunter"—but he was also interested in trendy Provençal fashion, literature, and music and spent lavish amounts of court resources on the salaries of poets and troubadours. More troublesome to some of his contemporaries, Joan, like his father, Pere III, "El Cerimoniòs" (d. 1387), was also interested in the so-called occult arts, such as alchemy, astrology, and divination. Even though both Pere and Joan frequently directed their gaze heavenward to better ascertain the future of their domains, in terms of the practical duty of ruling their kingdoms, the two monarchs had very different approaches.1

Whereas Pere was perceived by some critics as being too strong, functioning [End Page 156] almost as a tyrannical micromanager would, Joan was too weak. Whereas Pere sought to consolidate his strength in the Crown of Aragon through self-aggrandizement and the enforcement of monarchical power over regional authority, Joan undermined royal influence by frittering away the resources of the royal coffers on perceived frivolities, such as fashion and hunting. Finally, whereas to criticize Pere openly was dangerous and would have run too great a risk, Joan's prodigal nature encouraged more open criticism of the royal person. The supposed foolishness of Joan's activities, as well as his interest in them at the expense of the quotidian administration of his realms, earned him both the less-flattering sobriquet of "El Descurat," or "The Negligent," and the enmity of more than a few inhabitants of his kingdom.

One individual in particular, Bernat Metge, the personal scribe and friend to King Joan and Queen Violant le Bar, wrote a trenchant commentary that alludes to Joan's problematic pastimes. Metge's text, a dream treatise titled Lo Somni, or The Dream, has provided an opportunity for modern scholars to analyze the little-known intellectual pursuits of this supposedly flighty king. Metge's magnum opus, written entirely in the Catalan vernacular, is a significant foundational text for studying late medieval Catalan literature and history. In this work, which Metge composed to exonerate himself during his period of house arrest immediately following King Joan's death, the author touches upon a variety of themes, including current political developments in the Crown of Aragon, the emerging humanist movement among members of the social and cultural elite in Barcelona, and contemporary patterns of fashion and taste.

Most important, and my argument for this study, is that Metge illustrates the potentially dangerous and liminal space that astrology and divination occupied within late medieval culture. Metge's literary source functions as a historical record that shows some of the intellectual and cultural practices of the court of the late medieval Crown of Aragon. The author demonstrates that the sidereal disciplines of astrology and astronomy in the court, when used in an attempt to forsee future events, negotiated the permeable border between religious orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and between sound political governance and flagrant mismanagement. Especially fascinating was Metge's use of the powerful genre of the dream allegory as a vehicle for his criticism against Joan's activities. As Steven Kruger has remarked, the dream in the Middle Ages occupied its own liminal space, allied with "both the divine and the mundane, with both meaningful revelation and individual agitation."2 Through the power behind the dream allegory, Metge had the [End Page 157] character of the dead king suffer outright for his interest in the occult. Although Metge was under house arrest, a situation I discuss below, he was able to criticize the king via the relative safety of literary figures. In tapping into the emerging culture of humanism, Metge used the direct voices of authoritative figures from...


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