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From Count Lucanor; of the Fifty Pleasant Stories of Patronio, written by the Prince Don Juan Manuel and first done into English by James York, M. D., 1868;; Gibbings & Company, Limited; London; 1899; pp. iii-xii.

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manuscript letter I N introducing for the first time in England one of the choicest productions of early Spanish literature — a book written a century before the invention of printing — it may be as well to say a few words as to the author and the times in which he lived.

Don Juan Manuel was born in Escalona, on the 5th May, 1282. His father, Don Pedro Manuel, a brother of Alfonso the Wise, died when he was two years old. Don Juan was educated by his cousin, Sancho IV, and lived with him on the same familiar terms as his father had with Alfonso. He exhibited early those warlike tendencies which characterized all the great Spanish nobles of that time; in 1294, while yet a boy, he was already in the field against the Moors.

Under Ferdinand IV, who succeeded Sancho, and knew how to appreciate the qualities of Don Manuel, the latter reached, at the age of twenty-eight, to the highest employments of the State. Unfortunately, Ferdinand, dying in 1312, left his successor, Alfonso XI, only thirteen months old, which gave rise to iv a long series of disturbances and disputes for the regency, which, in those rude times, could only be settled by an appeal to arms. In 1320, Don Manuel, succeeded in having himself declared joint regent, which office he held till the king’s majority was proclaimed in 1325. During this regency much disorder and irregularity prevailed, which, however, are attributed to Don Manuel’s colleagues. It appears that he himself, as far as he was concerned, administered the kingdom wisely and firmly.

The young monarch, however, on reaching his majority, was dissatisfied with the state of things. Alfonso XI. had many of the qualities which were most appreciated in that age — courage, vigour, address, and activity. He was hardy, sober, simple in his habits, and skilled in all athletic sports. But all these gifts were neutralized and rendered unavailing by the evil counsels of those by whom he was surrounded. He chose his advisers among men whose ambition and turbulence had ravaged the country, but whose lawless deeds he attributed only to zeal for his cause. Accustomed from his earliest youth to regard them as his friends, while their sole thought was to captivate his favour and make it a stepping-stone for their ambition, he appointed them to the exclusion of Don Manuel, whose influence, though insufficient to check every abuse, had hitherto been a beneficial restraint.

But Don Juan was not a man to be trifled with thus with impunity. He retired from the court and v armed his friends against the king, who, at length, terrified by the power of Don Manuel and his adherents, who numbered among them some of the most influential men in the kingdom, with a view to effect a reconciliation, proposed a marriage with Don Juan’s daughter, Constantia. The betrothal took place, and for a time all went well. But the treacherous murder of Don Juan’s uncle, at Toro, in 1327, awakened his suspicions of the king; and quitting hastily his victorious army which was then engaged against the Moors, he retired to the kingdom of Murcia. Alphonso remonstrated and asseverated, but the one proof of his good faith — the fulfilment of his contract of marriage with Dona Constantia — was wanting. He now, indeed, accepted the hand of Dona Maria, the Infanta of Portugal; writing to Don Juan that, since he refused him his fealty, he was no longer bound to him, and at the same time giving orders for the imprisonment of Constantia in the citadel of Toro. Don Manuel, touched to the quick in his pride and affection, took arms against the king, and entered into all the alliances he could make, heedless whether it was with friends or foes. After a long and sanguinary succession of struggles, the king’s party gained a final victory in 1335. But Alphonso, who admired the brave persistence of his adversaries, took Don Manuel again into his favour, who gave the king, during the remainder of his life, the advantage of his bold arm and varied experience. Deserted Constantia was married to the heir-apparent vi of Portugal; much, however, against the wish of Alphonso, who was touched, perhaps, with a too tardy regret for his breach of faith, or with a jealous aversion that another should supersede him in the affections of her whom he had so grossly outraged. Meanwhile, Don Manuel, after waging victorious war for the king against the Moors, died, at the age of sixty-five, in 1347.

Allied by descent and marriage with nearly all the royal families of Spain and Portugal, Don Juan Manuel may be considered as a type of those ancient Spanish nobles, whose pride of lineage, whose fierce courage, and chivalrous sentiment are traditional. These characteristics, however, he shared with many others of his time, and they would hardly have served to make his name remembered. The distinguishing and exceptional fact that causes it to stand out conspicuous from the rest, is his authorship. His victories and defeats, his royal relationship and descent are nothing to us now; while the very thing upon which he probably prided himself least, or looked upon as at best an idle solace from graver toils — the collection of stories which he penned in the rare intervals of leisure between the labours of the camp and the council, and which he bequeathed in manuscript to the monks of Peñafiel — still lives to be read, and to afford instruction and entertainment to a generation that follows the arts of peace as nobler than the arts of war.


El Conde Lucanor first found its way into print in 1575, when it was published at Seville, under the auspices of Argote de Molina, whose elaborate genealogy of the author would delight a heraldic mind. It was again printed, at Madrid, in 1642,* after which time, in the general neglect all over Europe of early literature, it lay forgotten for nearly two centuries.

An incomplete edition, with modernized spelling, was published at Stuttgart, in 1839, and reprinted at Paris in 1840. An edition was also published at Barcelona in 1853. But the first critical edition presenting a standard text, founded on an elaborate collation of the earlier editions and of the existing manuscripts, appeared only seven years ago (Madrid, 1860), under the superintendence of Don Pascual de Gayangos. In this edition the missing chapter, the absence of which renders the two early ones incomplete, was supplied from a manuscript in the National Library at Madrid.

It is indeed time that such a book, so full of the antique simplicity and wisdom, should be appreciated. The artless naïveté of these tales ought to delight an age surfeited with the sensational novels that pour from our circulating libraries in an uninterrupted stream. Of analysis of character, viii indeed, about which so much cry is made now-a-days, there is little. It was an age when men were not always probing their moral sensations and analysing their own minds with a morbid self-consciousness. It was a robust, healthy age, little given to fret itself with metaphysical or fine-spun distinctions; an age of muscular activity, not over prone to much speculation, and what there was of abstract thought was so clear and transparent that he who runs may read.

And so, though every tale in the collection illustrates some wise moral and closes with some pithy maxim for the conduct of life, there is no dogmatic teaching. Every reader could apply the tale in his own way, and adapt the moral to the peculiar circumstances of his own condition. And, independently of any moral, each story is a real story, artistic and interesting — nay, true in the best sense of the word, true to nature and the human heart.

The book is further a picture of the time. Any one who wishes to have a living representation of the Spanish chivalry of the fourteenth century, of the life and manners of that picturesque epoch, of the blunt nobleness and rude valour of which the Cid is still cherished in Spain as a type — will find it here, if anywhere.

What shall we say as to the literary merit of the book? Written more than a century before the invention of printing, long before modern writing became a practice and an art — at a time when the few ix scholars who wrote used Latin as the only fitting and permanent vehicle of their thoughts — it has, doubtless, what we at this day may call faults of style, with occasional needless and somewhat wearisome repetitions; these the translator found it difficult to abridge without interfering with the characteristic features of the original, as regards quaintness and clearness of detail — two qualities which constitute the charm of the book, and are essential to the force and point of able literature.

Like our Chaucer, Don Juan Manuel has a high claim to the reverence of his countrymen as one of the first who consolidated their language, and discarding ‘canine-latin’ (Ciceronian having become impossible), gave to the Castilian dialect a permanence and importance, at the same time improving and enlarging its capabilities of expression.

From the Arabic phrases which we find scattered through the book, it may safely be assumed that Don Manuel had, during his long intercourse with the Moors, become tolerably proficient in that language. This inference lends probability to the idea that some of the Eastern collections of tales were not unknown to him, and that he may have drawn considerably from such sources in some of his narratives.

Considering the general character of the literature of those times, “Count Lucanor” is singularly free from grossness. There is not, indeed, one instance of intentional impurity in the whole book; so that it may safely be placed in the hands of children without x fear of contamination. If there be any likeness to the Decameron, it is rather in the mediæval abandon and simplicity of both the narrators than in their subjects; for there is, as we say, no trace in Don Manuel of the licentiousness of his more famous Italian contemporary.

It has been the translator’s aim to preserve, as much as possible, all the characteristic features of the original. While avoiding archaic words, which would render the book distasteful and difficult to the general reader, he has purposely chosen a somewhat antique style, to correspond as far as might be with the author’s. The most laborious, and, perhaps, the least satisfactory portion of this task has been his endeavour to render the couplets which wind up the tales by corresponding English couplets, without departing too widely from the original, or adhering to it so closely as to be stilted.

The notes appended to each chapter consist principally of historical and literary illustrations necessary to the complete understanding of the tales themselves, which, from their antiquity, may easily be supposed to contain many allusions to events and to persons now grown somewhat obscure. In some of these the translator has been considerably indebted to the researches of M. Adolphe de Puibusque, whose French version of “Count Lucanor” was published in 1854.**


The advantages of fabular or allegorical teaching are too well understood to need any comment. Don Manuel, however, enjoys the distinction of being free from the cynicism and covert sarcasm which mar the instructiveness of too many writers of this class. He has been able to paint vice and folly in their true colours, without degrading human nature to point a clever epigram. For that satire only is wise and good which has in it an undercurrent of tenderness and pity for those foibles which the satirist himself shares, more or less, with his fellow-men.

We trust that “Count Lucanor” may be accepted by the English reader as a genuine, if rugged piece of ore from that rich mine of early Spanish literature which yet lies hidden and unwrought.

London, 1868.


*   The editions of 1575 and 1642 are among the rarest books in the world.

**   There exists also a German translation by Eichendorff. We are not aware that the book has appeared in any other language.



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