- Islamic Traces in the Cancionero de Baena
The Cancionero de Juan Alfonso de Baena (ca. 1430) is remarkable as a record not only of the broad spectrum of poetic production in the early Trastamaran period, but also of the complex sociocultural realities that would bend to the breaking point by the second half of the fifteenth century. Among these realities is the continued presence of Jews and Muslims in the cultural, commercial, and even political spheres, this despite mounting efforts to restrict their access and agency. Of these two minority communities, it is the Jews who boast far greater visibility in the pages of the Cancionero de Baena, and so attract far greater attention in subsequent scholarship on Trastamaran courtly culture.1 And yet the few cases of Muslim intervention are no less intriguing. One notable example is Maestro Mahomat el Xartosse de Guadalajara, identified by the rubric as a physician in the household of the Grand Admiral Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. Although we know little else [End Page 149] about Maestro Mahomat, Baena saw fit to include him among the “grandes sabios letrados d’este reigno” who respond to a poetic challenge to debate the thorny issue of free will versus predestination.2 Notable as well is Garçi Ferrández de Gerena, a dependent of the court of Juan I whose conversion to Islam sent shock waves through the poetic community. Branded by his contemporaries as “renegado” and “traidor”, Garçi Ferrández’s backstory elicits even today far greater interest than his poetic works, this despite the uneasy fit of these works within the broader cancionero corpus3. My purpose here is to rescue Garçi Ferrández’s poetry from critical disinterest, read it through the experience of his conversion to Islam, and make the case for situating both poet and works at the interstice between courtly poetic culture and a Spanish-speaking Muslim community that had by the fourteenth century already begun to define its literary voice.
Among the earliest of the poets represented in the Cancionero de Baena, Garçi Ferrández belongs, together with Alfonso Álvarez de Villasandino, to the generation of Spanish courtly poets who had cut their teeth in Galician-Portuguese before settling on Castilian as the default language for lyric production. His collected works, in the main courtly and devotional compositions, would likely have gone unnoticed had it not been for the rubrics composed to introduce them. Based in great part on hearsay and a speculative reading of the works themselves, these rubrics weave together a biographical narrative that begins with the poet’s marriage to a Moorish juglara:
Aquí se comiença las cantigas e dezires que fizo e ordenó en su tiempo Garçi Ferrández de Jerena, el qual por sus pecados e grand desaventura enamoróse de una juglara que avía sido mora. Pensando que ella tenía mucho tesoro e otrosí porque era muger vistosa, pedióla por muger al Rey e diógela, pero [End Page 150] después falló que non tenía nada.(439)4
In subsequent rubrics Garçi Ferrández contrives a ruse to escape from Christian territories and settle with his wife and children in Muslim Granada, where he not only converts to Islam, but begins a sexual dalliance with his sister-in-law. Thirteen years later he would return to Castilla with his children in tow and once again embrace Christianity, this according to rubrics found elsewhere in the Cancionero.5 The sum tale is one of apostasy, border-crossing, and perversion that earns for Garçi Ferrández a ready place as “mahometizante” (and all that the term implies for a conservative readership) in Menéndez y Pelayo’s Historia de los heterodoxos españoles (653–54).
Interestingly, this narrative stands in almost absolute disconnect with the poems themselves. Of the dozen pieces authored by Garçi Ferrández, five (nos. 555–558, 565) develop the stock courtly themes of love and loss of favor, while a sixth (566) assumes the voice of the moralist to take on the vanities of this world. Of the remaining pieces—all devotional—one (559) is a...