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  • Poverty at Court:The Death of Álvaro de Luna and the Coplas del menesprecio e contempto de las cosas fermosas del mundo by Pedro, Constable of Portugal
  • Ana M. Montero

On June 2, 1453, Álvaro de Luna, constable of Castile, King Juan II's chief minister and closest friend for more than thirty years, was executed by the king's command. Álvaro de Luna—the most powerful and rich noble at the time, "the greatest man uncrowned to be found in the kingdom"1—was ordered to be beheaded, and his head was displayed on a spike for nine days. Not surprisingly, this gruesome, unusual execution of a powerful figure shocked witnesses at the time and left an enduring mark on the consciousness of fellow countrymen.2 It did send the message of what would happen to others who might aspire to amass the same amount of political and economic power. It also triggered a series of political and moral reflections, of which the best known is arguably Doctrinal de privados [Doctrine for king's advisors] by Marqués de Santillana, who also dealt with the death of his acknowledged adversary Luna in a more emotional composition known as Coplas contra don Álvaro de Luna [Verses against don Álvaro de Luna].3 As it has been noticed, the Doctrinal de Privados amounts to a "literary revenge" against Álvaro de Luna, who is made to confess having violated all the ten commandments and the seven deadly sins, and who begs for mercy from God. Luna's avarice is highlighted from the very first line of the poem: "I saw treasures gathered / for the harm of his owner."4 And Luna is heard to regret "his furious hunger for gold" (IV, 25) and having accumulated "silver, jewels, gold, and silk" (V, 36) which remained useless as he stood to be beheaded. After acknowledging his greed, Luna demonstrates remorse for his lack of gratefulness to God for all his remarkable success (VI), and acknowledges his immoderate ambition for "power and absolute control" (XI, 85–87).5

A number of writers—such as: Diego de Valera, Juan Agraz, Juan de Padilla, Juan de Valladolid, Fernando de la Torre, Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo, or Berenguer Masdovelles—also reflected on the lessons derived from Luna's dramatic rise and fall.6 One of the most intriguing reactions—hardly analyzed by scholars—is [End Page 11] that of Pedro, Constable of Portugal and one of the members of Santillana's literary circle. Pedro seized this literary occasion and penned Coplas del menesprecio e contempto de las cosas fermosas del mundo [Stanzas in contempt and scorn for the beautiful things in the world; hereafter Coplas], a poem including 125 coplas or eight-line stanzas and a striking pedagogic structure with glosses and the occasional Latin sentence.7 For Pedro of Portugal, Luna's tragic end deserved "perpetua recordación"—that is, it should be preserved as "an eternal memory, most especially by those who abide by the great and extraordinary judgments of the divine."8 Without doubt, Pedro also made patent his disapproval of Luna's conduct throughout his poem. In the section dedicated to the evils of worldly riches ("De la mundana riquesa" 194ff), he deems Luna's "unbearable crimes to be appropriately punished not by judgment of an earthly king, but by the King of Kings who never fails to punish evil and reward good."9 Luna is mentioned a second time in order to give evidence of the instability of the state of privados or royal favorites; the author mentions that Luna received an income of one hundred and fifty thousand doblas, and his gruesome death is described once more.10 A third potential allusion appears in the section on continence, when the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, sodomy, is said to be practiced so unabashedly and in such new ways that the third destruction and fall of Spain is to be expected soon.11 Furthermore, the inference that Pedro had been on familiar terms with Luna cannot be missed from the fact that he had overheard Luna stating more than once that he lived in fear of his death.12

However, unlike...


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