- Sins of the Fathers: Moral Economies in Early Modern Spain by Hilaire Kallendorf
In 1532 François Rabelais wrote a letter to his friend, the magistrate André Tiraqueau, and asked this question:
How comes it, most learned Tiraqueau, that in the present great enlightenment of our age, wherein we see all the better studies rehabilitated by a singular and almost divine blessing, there are everywhere found persons so strangely affected, that they cannot, or will not, lift their eyes from the dense and more than Cimmerian darkness of the gothic times to the bright light of the sun?1
With these words, Rabelais characterized the transition from the Middle Ages to that cultural revolution called the Renaissance. The use of the symbolic “darkness of times” to describe the period that preceded that new birth or revival finds a parallel in Petrarch’s conception of the Middle Ages as “an age of darkness” (Africa, IX, lines 453–57) in which human nature and ideals were explained exclusively in relation to the Divine Creator. Conversely, the image of the “bright light of the sun” epitomized for Rabelais and for his contemporaries what modern historians have called the “discovery of the world and of man.” What the words of the French humanist, the Italian poet and the modern historians depict is the conception of the Renaissance as a distinct break from the Middle Ages. Indeed, some scholars have applied with relative ease such a vision of the Renaissance to France and Italy. It is difficult, however, to employ such a theory to understand the literary creations of the Renaissance in Spain. [End Page 610]
Gilbert Highet’s reference to paganism in some areas of Renaissance literature and Arturo Graf’s association of the Renaissance with mundane goals and immorality—“che, se l’una non fosse stata nemmeno l’altra sarebbe stata”2—certainly cannot be applied to Spain where, on the whole, her uniquely profound Christian sentiment and Catholic consciousness was never interrupted. This has been eminently emphasized by Otis H. Green who, in his study of the Spanish Renaissance and its relation to other European countries, has clarified the special character of the Renaissance in Spain—its idealism, humanity, and attachment to Christian aspirations.
The reflection of moral-didactic concerns and of ethical values in literature is seen in all of the major literary genres of the Spanish Golden Age and in particular in the comedia of the time, as the present book written by Hilaire Kallendorf brilliantly demonstrates. This hefty volume is indeed the first to consider Spanish Golden-Age drama “as an archive of moral knowledge” (p. 200). With considerable historical, theological, literary, and critical insight, Kallendorf delves into the vital existential concerns with food, sex, work, money, and moral thought and behavior in the early-modern period of Spain as she examines the broad spectrum of humanistic drama from Lope de Vega and Guillén de Castro, to Tirso de Molina and Calderón de la Barca.
History in several and specific historical events provides a rich and informative background to much of what Kallendorf discusses in the work at hand. Her research in these and other relevant topics is thoroughly meticulous as is her interpretative and analytical examination of myriad issues of cultural complexity that enrich our understanding and appreciation of the comedia and its fundamentally instructive nature. In fact, as the author states in her concluding remarks, one possible way of summarizing her findings could be that theatrical representations of the time fostered a system of morality based on the Ten Commandments. This is a superb scholarly accomplishment.
1. Œuvres Complètes, ed. Jacques Boulenger and Lucien Scheler (Paris, 1955), p. 954. Reviewer’s translation.
2. Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (New York, 1949), p. 169; Graf, Attraverso il Cinquecento (Turin, 1926), p. 88.