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  • Grotesque Bodies: Insulting Conversos and Women in the Cancionero de obras de burlas provocantes a risa
  • Barbara F. Weissberger

Louise O. Vasvári

In his 1999 book of essays titled Cogitus interruptus, Juan Goytisolo criticizes the Spanish literary canon created in the late nineteenth century by “ideólogos retrocastizos” like Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo and the generation of ‘98 (123). In particular, he laments the exclusion from that canon of Cancionero de obras de burlas provocantes a risa, a popular sixteenth-century collection of satirical poetry. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo’s prudish judgment that the verse contained therein is “cínico, grosero y soez” (126) has led to its unjustified critical neglect.1 Goytisolo rightly points out that the sexual and ethnic vilification that fills the pages of that cancionero is an hilo conductor that leads directly to the picaresque, the poetry of Quevedo, and other works [End Page 259] enshrined as masterpieces of Spanish literature (130–31). This essay responds to Goytisolo’s call to give the aggressive “dissing” contests of the Cancionero de obras de burlas provocantes a risa (= Burlas) their cultural due.2

Burlas was first published in 1511 as the final section of Hernando del Castillo’s monumental Cancionero general. Despite–or because of–being relegated to the back of the book, the inventive invectives of the Burlas section proved to be very popular. It was reprinted, with various additions and deletions, in subsequent editions of Cancionero general throughout the first half of the sixteenth century and was published separately in 1519. It is this edition that I will focus on here.3

Most of the satirical poems included in Burlas were occasional compositions by noblemen, courtiers, and professional poets associated with the court of the Catholic Monarchs (1474–1504). Like the invenciones, a courtly genre created for tournaments, and also assiduously collected by Castillo in his Cancionero general, the insult contests were no doubt first recited at festive court celebrations or entertainments.4 They were by no means simple escapist [End Page 260] entertainment, however. Rather, like the lyrics written in a higher register in the same cancionero, their composition and performance served a very serious purpose, namely the production and maintenance of masculine identity and status. As Julian Weiss has discussed, in the highly competitive environment of the royal court, demonstrating one’s ability to versify elegantly and wittily was an important means toward gaining social standing among one’s peers and possibly winning favors from the monarchs. Love lyrics are privileged vehicles for the creation of such a prestigious self-fashioning (“Álvaro de Luna”; The Poet’s Art). Written in a provocatively, at times shockingly, low register, the insults traded back and forth in Burlas by some of the very same poets who write eloquently of love, serve a similar function of building social status by disparaging others.

Given that roughly one third of all pieces in the cancioneros involve one poet writing against one another, what Mark D. Johnston has called the “fundamentally oppositional character” (249) of such verse cannot be ignored. Although, as he points out, it is difficult to construct five centuries later all of the social, economic, and political distinctions that operate in and around each occasional lyric, we can study the broad categories these literary antagonists use as strategies of “positioning” (251). Of the many categories deployed–ignorant peasant, bad poet, sexual deviant, among others–I will deal with two of the most frequent: “Jew” and “whore”.

Medievalists Kathleen Biddick and Steven F. Kruger have persuasively demonstrated the intersection of categories of identity such as gender and sexuality with others such as ethnicity and race in the discursive stigmatization of undesirable others. Biddick situates gender within a “theory of borders” that enables us to talk about the historical construction and maintenance of sexual boundaries that in turn help create cultural categories in the Middle Ages. Her theory

historicizes gender in relation to other engendered categories given as “natural” in medieval discourses and hitherto taken for granted by historians. Critical studies of medieval gender would use these tools to work simultaneously as histories of other foundational categories imagined in the invention of Europe, especially “Christendom”, Corpus Christi...


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