An Odd Ball in an Odd Country at an Odd Time

St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry

by Gerald Brenan, with a translation of the poetry by Lynda Nicholson
Cambridge University Press, 233 pp., $11.95

Nobody has done more to arouse an interest in Spanish literature among English-speaking readers than Mr. Brenan. His scholarship is impeccable and his prose style felicitous.

Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a very strange country and I am very glad I didn’t have to live in it. First, there was the Jewish Problem. When the rule of Islam was over, a good many Jews, whether out of conviction or for worldly reasons, were baptized and became known as the New Christians. By the middle of the fifteenth century they had become the Spanish middle class.

They controlled the silk and cloth industry, they collected the royal and ecclesiastical revenues and many of the best offices in the church, notably the canonries, were filled by them. The judges, lawyers, doctors and apothecaries came mostly from their ranks and a contemporary account gives them as numbering one third of the population in the larger cities.

(The only disability they seem to have suffered under was that they were forbidden to bear arms.) Consequently, they were more hated by the masses than those who had kept their Jewish faith.

Recent research has uncovered an interesting story. St. Teresa’s grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Cepeda, a prosperous merchant, suddenly announced his conversion to Judaism and apostatized along with his wife and children. Soon after, a tribunal of the Inquisition was set up in Toledo. Faced with the alternative of returning to the Church or being burned at the stake, he not unnaturally chose the former. Why did he renounce Christianity in the first place? Mr. Brenan suggests that, at the time, it was physically safer to be a Jew than a New Christian. In several cities there had been riots in which the merchant quarter had been sacked, while the Jewish quarter was left untouched. It is also probable, though not proven, that St. John of the Cross was partly Jewish. His uncles had been in the silk trade.

Secondly, there were in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the extraordinarily complicated goings-on in the Carmelite order, and it is with these that Mr. Brenan’s book is mostly concerned. The first positive information about them comes from a Greek monk called Phocas, who visited Mount Carmel in 1185 and found a community of anchorites living there in seclusion and great austerity. In 1258, when the Saracens were closing in, most of them emigrated, a great many to England.

The Carmelites expanded rapidly in Spain, but began to find their rule too austere, and in 1432 Pope Eugenius gave them a milder one which was general until, in 1562, St. Teresa founded a reformed branch, emphasizing poverty, fasting, and prayer. The laxer branch became known as Calced Carmelites, St. Teresa’s as Discalced. The history of the relations between them, the feuds, the intrigues would make a fascinating if very depressing movie. Much depended upon the attitude of the authorities in Italy. The Carmelite General Rubeo, who had first…

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