Review: Dialogismo teológico: devotio moderna, “Celestina” & “Quijote”

It has been two years, soon three, since Martha García published her Dialogismo teológico: devotio moderna, “Celestina” & “Quijote” at Academia Editorial del Hispanismo. When I first read the title I was terrified; not in vain my doctoral research at the time dealt with the topic of the relationship between Celestina and the devotio moderna, and I feared someone had reached the same conclusions I had, if not better ones, and turned my research useless and unoriginal -a quite common fear among doctoral candidates. However, García’s work could not be more different to my own dissertation.

In the first place, García’s book is a book on literary theory, and not so much on Celestina, Quijote or the devotio moderna. Its debt to Bakhtin’s interpretation of the genre of the novel in dialogic terms is evident from the title itself, and I have myself never been able to understand why certain scholars are so enthusiastic about this particular approach, but I must admit my dislike for literary theory in general is well-known and, therefore, I am not well-equipped to comment on the bakhtinian background of the study, so that I will not comment on this aspect. However, a bakhtinian reading is (fortunately for me) not everything García’s work is about.

For example, I was pleased to see that the author resorts, like I did in my own dissertation, to the editorial history of the Imitatio Christi in the Iberian Peninsula to demonstrate the presence of the devotio moderna prior to 1500. However, I was disappointed to see that García proceeded with an absolute lack of bibliographical awareness. First, she does not count editions, but existing copies of the Imitatio Christi at the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE), so that she does not really ascertain the popularity of the work, but the amount of copies that have survived until the present day in a particular library. Second, she does obviously neither distinguish if copies were printed in the Peninsula or abroad, that is, if they were imported or not, thereby overlooking the question of the availability and distribution. Third and last, she does not supply the bibliographical details of any of these copies, so that readers have to check themselves the catalogue of the BNE without a single shelfmark or a title to rely on.

This procedure is particularly reprehensible because, provided that the most popular works tend to be the ones with the less existing copies in proportion to the number of known editions, belonged the fifteen incunabula she mentions to the same edition, their survival would be a proof of a quite restricted distribution and, therefore, counter-productive for her argumentation. Moreover, if these incunabula had all been printed in foreign printing presses, it would be complicated to justify that they were readily available in the Peninsula and not restricted to a selected group of wealthy readers. Finally, her not distinguishing between Latin and vernacular versions overlooks the fact that the existence of vernacular editions of the Imitatio Christi prior to 1500 is the most convincing evidence of it being a popular text, available to and possibly read by everyone, unlike if it were exclusively printed in Latin. Luckily enough, the incunabula of the Imitatio Christi kept at the BNE are representative of the distribution of the text at the time and belong to a variety of editions1: Burgos, Fadrique de Basilea, 1495 (INC/2183); Sevilla, Meinardo Ungut and Estanislao Polono, 1493 (INC/521(1)); Zaragoza, Pablo Hurus, ca. 1488-90 (INC/2157), all three of them in Spanish; Strasbourg, Martin Flach, 1487 (INC/1279(3)), Nürnberg, Caspar Hochfeder, 1494 (INC/191) in Latin; and Valencia, Pedro Hagenbach and Leonardo Hutz, 1491 (INC/2376), in Catalan. To reach the number of fifteen, we suppose García has also counted the editions Strasbourg, Martinus Flach, 1494 (INC/2313, INC/2314 and INC/2520 to INC/2523), and Nürnberg, Georgius Stuch, 1489 (INC/2358, INC/2359 and INC/2461) of the Opera of Johannes Gerson, although this would actually leave us with twelve copies, as INC/2520 to INC/2523 in fact conform one only copy of the Opera. Perhaps this inaccuracy is the reason why García states that there are “aproximadamente 15 ejemplares incunables de la Imitación de Cristo” (69), instead of giving a final number.

The most alarming example of a lack of bibliographical awareness, however, is that García does not seem to know essential databases such as Phiblobiblon or the ISTC, just to mention the two most incomprehensible omissions. Her reliance on the catalogue of the BNE and secondary sources that include Maximilian von Habsburg’s Catholic and Protestant Translations of the Imitatio Christi, 1425-1650: From Late Medieval Classic to Early Modern Bestseller (Farnham: Ashgate, 1988) but overlook the very same printed version of the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue would maybe have been justified twenty years ago, when working with on-line tools was still not considered an essential part of bibliographical research, but not today. Had García used them, she would have come up with five incunable editions of the Spanish translation (the three of which there are copies at the BNE, and the editions Sevilla, Compañeros alemanes, 1496, and Toledo, Pedro Hagenbach, 1500) and at least two incunable editions of the Catalan translation (the one kept at the BNE and Barcelona, Pedro Posa, 1482), and no incunable edition of the Latin text printed in the Peninsula, but at least copies of eigtheen foreign incunable editions in Latin with copies in Spanish libraries (according to the ISTC). These figures are, apart from more accurate, quite more impressive and convincing.

With regard to García’s interpretation of individual scenes in Celestina, the other aspect her study is devoted to besides the demonstration of the presence of the devotio moderna in late-medieval and early-modern Spain and the development of the bakhtinian background of her analysis, I was not surprised -but still disappointed- to find a perspective largely influenced by scholarship supporting heterodox readings of Celestina. Basically, conventional religious transgressions such as sacred hyperbole, the religio amoris and religion-based rhetoric are interpreted as serious manifestations of heterodoxy and transgressive thought. They are even put in relation with religion losing the central place in the Renaissance, thereby showing a quite reductionist perspective on both, the late Middle Ages and the Early-Modern, which García reduces to the opposite attitudes of theocentrism and religious orthodoxy, and secularism and religious heterodoxy.

For example, in her analysis of the opening scene, García does not take into account the sensual application of the language of courtly love and of the religio amoris, but presents Melibea as if she really were a prude lady fighting Calisto’s indecent proposal instead of a self-conscious young woman playing her role in the game of flirting and enjoying herself showing-off her mastery of the coded language of love, as I prefer to imagine her (in general, the characterisation of Melibea in this book is quite candid). In any case, García understands and highlights very well that there is a dialogue between religious imagery and the sensual intentions of Calisto, but she does not interpret it as something customary, even not a parody of a reprehensible social behaviour, but does read it seriously, as an example of impiety, and assigns to it the responsibility for the tragical ending. The same applies to her analysis of the first dialogue between Calisto and Sempronio, in which the religiously coloured sexual jokes are interpreted in the same way, ignoring that, for instance, Aristotelian premises are also used with the same witty, rhetorical purpose: or is Sempronio’s joke on Sodom much more naughty than Calisto’s application of Aristotle’s theories on matter and form? According to this analysis, it would seem so.

Moreover, the interpretation of the dialogue between Celestina and Melibea as an apology seemed interesting at first, however, it is not very clear up to which extent it is an apology and even not what the author understands under “apology”. Apology of what? Human love? Hedonism? Of cours it is, but, actually, I do not agree with García’s insistence in Celestina applying “magistralmente el discurso teológico” (98) in every occasion, as she rather resorts to it with quite conventional rhetorical intentions, behind which there is not a serious questioning of the doctrine, but merely a manipulative discursive purpose.

Finally, the analysis of Pleberio’s monologue from the perspective of the concept of grace is also disappointing and not convincing at all. I could understand García’s point to a certain extent in a more “reformed” context, but not at the end of the fifteenth century, in which natural born grace inclined men to be good but they were held responsible of dealing with passions and good and bad choices, as long as it concerns Augustine and not the justification through faith, a favourite matter of Protestantism. In fact, it feels sometimes as if it were the Protestant concept of grace the one García is applying to the analyisis of the text. The only thing I agree and find interesting of her analysis of Pleberio’s monologue is the statement that characters in Celestina have no internal virtue, contrary to devout men, but García does not see this as a criticism or an exhortation to become pious, but merely as another diversion from orthodoxy.

In my opinion, García’s work analyses well the dialogue of Celestina with religious language (in courtly speech) and with the idea of virtue (not so much with that of grace), but fails when it comes to interpreting it on account of a somehow anachronistic approach to the text in two senses. First, she obviates the customary nature of certain religious transgressions, and gives too much importance to others that can be interpreted as mere rhetorical resources, thereby forgetting that the end of the fifteenth century in Castile is far from being as orthodox as it would become in the sixteenth, and that extremely religious societies tend to use religion as their point of reference for many secular matters, even for humour and manipulation. Second, she seems to apply post-tridentine (or, at least, leading-to-Trent) criteria to a clearly pre-tridentine work, which in my opinion are at the basis of most heterodox readings of Celestina. García admits that characters are failed Christians, however, she does not assign this any moralising value, but sees this as a further evidence of the lack of grace and, therefore, as the manifestation of a heterodox ideology. For that reason I think that, at the end, the greatest contribution of this work is its brief introduction to devotio moderna in Europe and, particularly, in the Peninsula, and its intuition to put it in relation with Celestina, despite missing the point afterwards.

1Unfortunately, the catalogue of the BNE does not provide permalinks to its records, so that we cannot link them properly.