- Chapter 7 Cárcel de amor by Diego de San Pedro:An Analysis of Clemency, Cruelty, and Justice in Late Fifteenth-Century Castile
Cárcel de amor [Prison of Love], written by Diego de San Pedro, a servant of Don Juan Téllez-Girón, enjoyed extraordinary popularity in its own time.1 Its first publication in 1492 was followed by a continuation composed in 1496 by Nicolás Núñez and by “more than thirty prints and reprints in its original Castilian” in the first half of the sixteenth century, as well as five translations into other European languages—Catalan, Italian, French, English, and German—most of them done between 1493 and 1549.2 Nowadays, Cárcel de amor is studied as a complex analysis of courtly love and is often regarded as the major achievement in Castilian sentimental romance, an incipient genre in the Castile of the second half of the fifteenth century. Courtly love narratives, together with chronicles, works in verse, and other romances, provided entertainment at the court and among the nobility at a time when fiction and teaching were still deeply interconnected.
At first sight, Cárcel de amor seems to be a sophisticated work of recreation rather than the vehicle of any lesson. The plot in Cárcel de amor reenacts a courtly love affair between a perfect, irreproachable lover and a perfect lady of idealized nature.3 At the onset of the story readers are invited to contemplate Leriano, the courageous son of a duke and a victim of unrequited love. Leriano is held captive in an allegorical palace that visually conveys the agony of his magnificent love for and obsession with the princess of the kingdom of Macedonia, Laureola—a version of the traditional belle dame sans merci. Painstaking, minute attention is paid to characters’ emotions and reactions in what has been heretofore mostly analyzed as an intriguing and analytical exposition of lovesickness imbued with the psychological lore of the time.4 At the denouement, in an apotheosis of tragedy, Leriano—rejected by Laureola—dies from lovesickness, a martyr of his unrelenting devotion to his lady. No doubt it was important for Diego de San Pedro to inspire awe through the construction of a most noble knight, unswerving in his emotional [End Page 97] attachment to a woman, spurred by yearning for her affection but thwarted by lack of hope and therefore doomed to death.
Romances have generically been analyzed as an idealized, escapist form of literature for the aristocracy, a genre that vaunts the values of chivalry, courtliness, and a type of sophisticated, eminently tragic love that defied social conventions, especially Christian conventions. However, the literary ingredients that can be found in poetry and romances—such as fatal love, a highly charged masculine perspective, the cruel lady (sometimes reduced to silence), and allegory—were widely known by the end of the fifteenth century. Therefore, they may have been used as a means to encapsulate new messages under familiar themes. In fact, a few scholars have paid attention to references to ideological or historical events within Cárcel de amor, providing at least two perspectives from which this text can be discussed. First, the scholar Francisco Márquez Villanueva called Cárcel de amor a political novel and interpreted it as a literary response by a converso (a Christian convert of Jewish origin) to the launching of the Inquisition by the monarchy. Márquez Villanueva detected in Cárcel de amor “a tormented meditation on the limits of power and the right to rebellion of those mortally oppressed.”5 His conclusions have been accepted by a number of scholars, most especially by Manuel da Costa Fontes, who finds evidence in Cárcel de amor to suggest “very strongly that, besides focusing on courtly love, Diego de San Pedro is also portraying another Spain—the conflictive Spain in which he and other conversos had to live.”6 However, no definitive evidence of Diego de San Pedro’s convert status has been produced. What we know with certainty is that Diego de San Pedro was affiliated with one of the powerful noble families close to the Crown—the clan of Juan...