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  • History of a Bite:Cleopatra in Thirteenth-Century Castile
  • Javier Jiménez-Belmonte

Inspired by an encyclopedic aim to exhaust all known history, the compilers involved in Alfonso X's historiographic project did not hesitate to provide the reader with multiple versions of the same historical event. This is the case with the famous suicide of the last queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII:

unas de las estorias dizen que fueron dos culebras e que se las puso a las tetas e que la mordieron e la empoçoñaron de guisa que murió luego; pero cuenta Paulo Orosio que una fue la serpiente e que gela pusieran en el braço siniestro sobre la vena principal e que allí la mordió e la empeçoñó, donde la fallaron luego muerta.

(Alfonso X, General estoria 458)

The ambitiousness of the Alfonsine General estoria justifies the meticulous narration of Cleopatra's suicide, but by providing two endings to Cleopatra's estoria, the royal scriptorium was also implying two different moral readings of the historical exemplum. To the medieval reader, the image of a woman bitten by an asp on her arm did not carry the same connotation as that of a woman bitten by two asps, one on each breast. In fact, it could be argued that the Western history of Cleopatra is the history of that bite and its power [End Page 5] to reformulate the queen's royal body by inscribing on it different meanings. This is, of course, also true for the Hispanic renditions of the history of the Egyptian queen.

This article has a twofold goal. First, it aims to explore the rhetorical and cultural contexts that facilitated the coexistence of different Cleopatras in thirteenth-century Castilian historiography. The choice of historiography was deliberate. It was mostly within the limits of this broad and inclusive genre that the Western Cleopatra was shaped and reshaped; it is not surprising, from the perspective of the Iberian context, that she became an object of interest in a moment in which Castile was producing its most ambitious historiographic projects, both in Latin and the vernacular. The second, and broader, goal of this article is to establish and analyze the genealogy of Cleopatra in Hispanic literature and culture, a field that -in contrast to its English, French, German or Italian counterparts- remains almost unexplored.1 Although the beginning of an early modern history of Cleopatra has been traditionally linked to the great Italian humanists' interest in the queen (particularly in Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris and in De casibus virorum illustrium) and their further impact on other Continental literatures, the Iberian fortune of Cleopatra can be dated at least a couple of centuries earlier. A Hispanic history of Cleopatra, therefore, would not be complete without attending to the prehumanist trajectory of the queen on Iberian soil. Needless to say, the study of such a trajectory will be incomplete without considering the gen(d)eric, political, social and cultural conditions that particularized the production of such history.

The discursive centrality of Cleopatra's own body and femininity in the queen's Western trajectory and the way it was narrated in thirteenth-century Castilian historiography delimits the approach of the following pages. [End Page 6] Two general questions could summarize that dual approach: What kind of sociocultural issues resonate in the fascination held by medieval Castilian historians with regard to Cleopatra's dead, eroticized body? How did the inclusion of this body (and the story it embodies) fit into the thirteenth-century Castilian historiographic discourse, and what does it tell us of that discourse? Anyone who has read any classical, medieval or modern description of the queen's final moments or has seen any of the numerous baroque paintings or movies that represent it would agree that this fascination is not restricted to the Middle Ages.2 Cleopatra's body is always placed at the core of the queen's representations, functioning as the depository of its potential moral, political or even religious meanings; this is also true for the numerous medieval accounts of the story. Yet the importance of the body -particularly of the female body- in the ideological discourse that shapes those...


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