Medieval Spanish Satire Still Resonates

The Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea, also known as La Celestina, was published in 1499 by Fernando de Rojas and is one of Spain’s most famous tales of courtly romance. On the surface, La Celestina seems to follow the archetypical patterns of medieval love stories. Calisto, an aristocrat, upon seeing Melibea for the very first time, declares his love for her in a grandiose monologue, comparing her beauty to that of God and all the saints. Despite his lengthy proclamations, Melibea rejects him – more as a requirement of courtly romance’s norms than an indication of her feelings for Calisto. Calisto, lovesick, falls into a deep depression and deliberates his next move with his servant, Sempronio.
 
It is here that La Celestina departs from the plotline of the typical medieval romance. It soon becomes clear that Calisto’s intentions are not as pure as they seem. In his discussions with Sempronio, Calisto speaks disparagingly of Melibea and reveals that his desires are more sexual than romantic. Instead of helping Calisto plot ways to further seduce the lovely Melibea, as would be customary of the medieval romance, Sempronio seeks out the services of Celestina, a brothel owner with a penchant for “uniting” lovers. Although Celestina helps convince Melibea of her love for Calisto, she also plots with Sempronio and Pármeno, another servant, to take as much money as possible from the lovesick nobleman.
 
Whereas it was common for medieval romance stories, novelas pastoriles, to end with a series of weddings, La Celestina ends with a series of deaths. After Calisto and Melibea’s much-awaited tryst is cut short by an unexpected intruder, the servants head to Celestina’s house to split their earnings. However, Celestina refuses to share her riches, so Sempronio and Pármeno murder her. They are caught and executed while trying to escape. The next night, Calisto returns to Melibea’s house to complete his unfinished business, but he falls to his death while climbing a ladder to her balcony. Melibea, unable to live without Calisto, confesses the affair to her father and leaps to her death.
 
It’s okay if you laughed while reading that paragraph – La Celestina is called a “tragicomedy” for a reason. Although the less-than-discerning reader may interpret the deaths of Calisto and Melibea in the same tragic context as William Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet, Rojas intended these deaths humorously. The tragedy of the story is in the very last act, when Melibea’s father is left to lament the misery of life on his own.
 
Although it closely mimics the tropes of medieval Spanish romance literature, La Celestina is, in fact, a critique of such literature and, more importantly, of the reality of the era. Calisto and Melibea’s courtship seems unrealistically convoluted and ridiculous – and, for the sake of comedy, it is. But it is also a reflection of the way Spanish society expected men and women to conduct their romantic interactions. La Celestina takes place in a society where discussing sex, or even acknowledging that sex might occur without in the absence of romantic love, was entirely taboo. Men were expected to be direct and romantic to the point of absurdity. It was well acknowledged that their desires were, for the most part, sexual – the romanticism was merely a façade, intended to comply with the code of courtly romance. Women, on the other hand, were expected to remain aloof and reject these advances. Pursuing sexual desire was considered inappropriate, as women were expected to remain virgins until marriage.
 
La Celestina was intended to draw attention to these ridiculous expectations, the “tragic” deaths of the main characters serving as absurd example of what might happen if society continued to follow such norms. Such a critique was not unique to Rojas or La Celestina – a great deal of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quijote also focuses on similar expectations. However, the first part of Don Quijote was published in 1605, a full 106 years after La Celestina. That Cervantes might make the same critique of society more than a century after Rojas indicates either that the critique fell on deaf ears, or that it was entirely misinterpreted.
 
Although both may be true, I believe that the latter option is more to blame. Today, I visited el huerto de Calisto y Melibea, a garden in Salamanca, Spain that is said to have been Rojas’ inspiration for La Celestina’s garden scenes. Promises of endless love have been spray-painted on the walls and locks, inscribed with dates and pairs of initials, hang by the hundreds on wrought-iron fences. The location has been assigned a romantic importance that indicates an utter misunderstanding of La Celestina’s true intentions.
 
Interestingly enough, many of the aspects of courtly romance that Rojas intended to critique can still be seen in modern Spanish society. A female friend of mine has reported that, while out at bars or discotecas, Spanish men offer to sing her love songs, or promise that they will be together forever, or describe her in ways not unlike the way Calisto describes Melibea. She scoffs as she tells me this, noting that she knows what the men “really want.”
 
She has also enlisted me on a number of occasions to help fend off suitors who have begun to touch her inappropriately. This a common occurrence. A slang term for these men is “pulpos” – octopi, because it can seem like the men have eight arms. But women are not the only victims of these octopus attacks – I, too, have found myself being grabbed by men too drunk to speak.
 
Pérez also explained that women who don’t immediately reject their suitors will find themselves very popular with the men but with a reputation among the women of being easy – or worse. Consequently, I’ve noticed that “no” is rarely interpreted as meaning just “no.” Instead, “no” is seen as an invitation that an aggressive suitor persist in his “seduction.” It is not uncommon in bars, and especially in dance clubs, to see a girl struggling to escape the persistent kisses of a suitor who, in many cases, has pinned her against the wall.
 
Coming from a place that emphasizes respect for all people, especially in social situations, it makes me uncomfortable to watch this sort of behavior. However, I understand that this culture is not mine and that such behavior has its roots in a history centuries older than my home country. 
Associate Editor Nicholas Bradley is a College junior from Skillman, N.J.
 
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