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  • Chapter 6 Seducing Slander:Hernando de Talavera on Eliciting Disparagement of Others
  • Mark Johnston

Seduction, as an exercise of human language, rarely enjoyed a positive reputation in Western medieval culture, to judge from its representation in most works of literature or moral philosophy from the Middle Ages. One has only to remember the roles of Male Bouche [Evil Tongue] and Faux-Semblant [False Seeming] in the Roman de la Rose to see that seduction typically attracted bad company.1

Seduction was, simply, an exercise of what medieval moral theologians typically counted among the vitia linguae [sins of the tongue]: cursing, gossip, mockery, obscenity, loquacity, fatuity, fraud, flattery, dissimulation, hypocrisy, slander, and so forth.2 For many authorities on moral theology in the thirteenth century, these verbal offenses were grave enough to merit classification as an eighth cardinal sin, most famously in Guillaume Perault’s widely circulated Summa de virtutibus et vitiis.3 The subtypes of the vitia linguae cataloged by Perault and his contemporaries rationalize and organize the many abuses of language commonly treated in the vast corpus of medieval conduct literature, in both Latin and the vernaculars.4 Scarcely any mirror for princes, compilation of gnomic wisdom, treatise on moral theology, manual of chivalry, courtesy book, or guide to estate management (to name only a few genres that provided advice on conduct) failed to warn against the misuse of language. Although the vitia linguae did not survive, after the thirteenth century, as an eighth cardinal sin, attention to them remained keen and inspired a number of Latin and vernacular treatises devoted exclusively to the sins of the tongue, such as the Pungilingua by the fourteenth-century Italian Dominican Domenico Cavalca.5

In the Iberian Peninsula, Castilian authors of the Middle Ages made almost no contributions to conduct literature on speech, perhaps because mirrors for princes and compilations of gnomic wisdom, often adapted from Oriental sources, were already hugely popular in medieval Spain.6 To my knowledge, only one Castilian author, Hernando de Talavera, wrote a treatise on the sins of the tongue: this is his [End Page 83] Contra el murmurar o maldezir [Against Gossip and Slander], which is the subject of this essay. At first glance, Talavera’s treatise appears to be simply a generic summary of conventional doctrine, without reference to any particular circumstance or occasion. Talavera nonetheless included the text in a collection of his writings, intended as a guide to pastoral care and printed in 1496 at Granada, where he was serving as the city’s first archbishop. Considering the highly conflictual environment of Granada in the 1490s, I would argue that Contra el murmurar o maldezir in fact offers Talavera’s attempt to provide social policy for managing that difficult environment, and an intervention, from the archiepiscopal pulpit of his moral and spiritual authority, against the many forms of violence that plagued the city in its first decade under Christian rule.

Hernando de Talavera

Hernando de Talavera (1430?–1507) was a prolific author of vernacular works on moral theology but is best known today for his political career.7 Originally a professor of moral theology at the University of Salamanca, he abandoned this academic post in 1466 to join the Hieronymite Order and quickly rose to prominence in its ranks, thanks to his talents as a preacher and reformer. In 1470 he became prior of the order’s most important house, Santa María del Prado in Valladolid,8 where his talents soon attracted the notice of Queen Isabel of Castile, whose court was resident there at the time. The rest, as we say, is history. Talavera subsequently served almost twenty years as Isabel’s personal confessor and as one of her most trusted political agents, responsible for managing some of the most important events of her reign, such as reclaiming the lucrative privileges conceded to the nobility by her brother and predecessor, King Enrique IV; heading the commission that reviewed Columbus’s plans for overseas exploration; and negotiating with the papacy almost total royal control over ecclesiastical affairs in the future new territory of Granada.9 His reward for these, and for his many other accomplishments, was appointment in 1492 as the first...


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