Lazarillo de Tormes

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Lazarillo de Tormes

as translated by Michael Alpert


A short novel set in the Spanish kingdom of Castile in the first half of the sixteenth century; published in Spanish (as La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades) in 1554, in English in 1568.


Lázaro de Tormes, a young rogue or Pícaro, tells his life story, recounting his service to a number of masters and relating how he has finally secured a comfortable position as town-crier in the Castilian city of Toledo.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novella in Focus

For More Information

Published anonymously in 1554, Lazarillo de Tormes (Lazarillo is the diminutive, meaning “little Lázaro”) enjoyed immediate popularity and was quickly reprinted by a number of publishers. However, no writer ever took credit for the novel, and not until the early seventeenth century was anyone put forward as the author. The first claim was made in 1605, on behalf of Juan de Ortega, a monk of the Order of St. Jerome, and appeared in a work on the history of that monastic order. Ortega was said to have written the tale while a student in the Castilian city of Salamanca. Ortega’s authorship, however, has been discounted by modern scholars. A more credible claim was made in 1607, when a catalogue listing Spanish writers attributed “the pleasant little book, entitled Lazarillo de Tormes” to Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–75), an accomplished statesman, historian, and poet from one of Spain’s most illustrious families (Chandler, p. 194). While, on balance, most modern scholars doubt Mendoza’s authorship, his remains the only name commonly attached to the book, and the question is unlikely to be settled one way or the other. Beyond doubt, however, is the originality and lasting influence of Lazarillo de Tormes, which literary historians view as founding a new genre of literature, the picaresque novel—that is, the novel that features a picaro or rogue as its central character.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The dawn of Spain’s Golden Age

During the early sixteenth century, Spain embarked on a period of imperial expansion and cultural vitality that lasted about 150 years, into the late seventeenth century. Later known as the Golden Age of Spain, this remarkable era is generally reckoned to have begun in 1516 with the accession of King Charles I of Spain. Several fortunate circumstances combined to favor the Spanish at the outset of their Golden Age—although it should be stressed that the very concept of a Spanish identity had not yet firmly taken hold. Instead, the Spanish peninsula had traditionally consisted of separate and often competing kingdoms. Only after the fortuitous marriage of Charles’s maternal grandparents, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, had the largest and most powerful two Spanish kingdoms been ruled in tandem, creating the basis for a unified Spanish state. Lazarillo de Tormes takes place entirely within Castile, the largest and most populous p>Lazarillo de Tormeskingdom, and the one that would take the leading role in the newly unified Spain of the Golden Age.

Their royal power strengthened by their own marriage alliance, Ferdinand and Isabella arranged a second fortuitous marriage, one that ultimately brought much of Western Europe under the rule of their grandson, King Charles I. In 1496 their daughter Joanna married Philip I, the son and heir of the powerful Habsburg ruler Maximilian I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; when Philip predeceased his father and Joanna’s mental illness made her unfit to rule, their son Charles, born in 1500, was left as the heir of both dynasties. He inherited his Spanish titles on Ferdinand’s death in 1516 (including territory in Italy conquered by Ferdinand), and his Habsburg titles on Maximilian’s death in 1519, becoming Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (including Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany). Along with his royal titles, Spain’s teenaged king—“our victorious Emperor” as Lázaro calls him at the end of the novel—also inherited Spain’s increasingly lucrative empire in the Americas, which the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus had discovered in 1492 while in the employ of Ferdinand and Isabella (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 79).

Moriscos and Conversos

Ferdinand and Isabella had further enhanced Spain’s solidarity and its self-image—among the Catholic majority, at any rate—by taking the offensive against the peninsula’s largest two non-Christian minorities, its Muslims and Jews. Since medieval times large numbers of Muslims and Jews had lived in Spain, making it the most culturally diverse of all European lands. Muslim Arabs and North Africans—called Moors—had conquered the peninsula in the eighth century, and Jews had settled there in their wake, adding to the preexisting Jewish population. The vigorous Moorish culture that resulted blended Islamic, Jewish, and Christian influences. Since the Moorish conquest, however, Spain’s Christian kingdoms, led by Castile, had waged a long and successful struggle to reconquer the peninsula, a campaign that had taken on the character of a holy war.

By the fourteenth century, only the southern city of Granada remained in Moorish hands. Ferdinand and Isabella finally conquered it in 1492, and both they and their successors would press the attack to Moorish island outposts in the Mediterranean and even into North Africa. Commanding the siege of Granada was the grandfather of Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, the man alleged to have written Lazarillo de Tormes. In the novel, Lázaro’s father is killed while serving in one of the subsequent campaigns against the Muslims. Having reconquered Moorish territory, Spain’s Christian rulers energetically sought to convert their Muslim and Jewish subjects to Christianity. Under threat of expulsion from Spain, many did indeed become Christians: Muslims who converted and their descendants were called Moriscos; Jews who converted and their descendants were called Conversos. After Lázaro’s father is killed, his mother becomes the concubine of a Moorish stable hand who is a Morisco. It has furthermore been suggested that the unknown author of the novel itself may have been a Converso or a Jew.

Known as the Catholic Monarchs for their strict piety, Ferdinand and Isabella were gravely concerned about their subjects’ religious purity. They were aware that many Moriscos and Conversos had become Christian in name only, accepting baptism but secretly continuing to observe their original faiths. With the Pope’s blessing, the Catholic Monarchs had established a special court known as the Spanish Inquisition, with broad powers (which eventually included censorship) to ensure that the Moriscos and Conversos worshipped according to Catholic standards. Muslims and Jews who refused to convert were ultimately expelled from Spain. In 1492, for example, the same year that Columbus discovered America and that Granada was captured, Ferdinand and Isabella also expelled Spain’s remaining Jewish population, amounting to some 170,000 people.

Throughout Spain’s Golden Age, both Moriscos and Conversos were subject to continuing persecution by such institutions as the Inquisition, whose methods ranged from confiscation of property to torture and execution by fire. Moriscos in particular made up an underclass in Spain’s Catholic society, generally serving in the most menial positions, for as one modern historian writes, “no one believed in the sincerity of their conversion” (Domínguez Ortiz, p. 162). These social outcasts were routinely punished more harshly for common crimes than Christians would be for the same crimes. In the novel Lázaro’s Morisco “stepfather,” Zaide, works in a stable (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 26). After stealing food and supplies from his employer to help support the household, Zaide is both “whipped and basted with hot fat,” while Lázaro’s mother receives “the usual hundred lashes” —though it is unclear whether her culpability lies in the crime or in taking up with a Morisco in the first place (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 26). Lázaro says that the stable owner’s investigation was prompted when he heard about the relationship, suggesting that cohabitation between a Morisco and a Christian could by itself automatically excite suspicion or hostility.

Germanías and comuneros

Charles V had been raised in the Netherlands, arriving in Spain for the first time in 1517 to claim his inheritance as the king of Aragon and Castile. Spaniards at first perceived him as a foreigner, and many resented his ostentatious retinue of Netherlanders, who

took the most desirable offices in Charles’s government. In the early years of his reign, Charles was forced to overcome two extensive rebellions, one in Aragon and the other in Castile. The Aragonese rebellion broke out in 1519, in the Valencia region of southern Aragon. Led by the Germanías, or Christian brotherhoods (associations of tradesmen who opposed the Aragonese nobles), it was suppressed in 1521 by troops under the command of Charles’s aristocratic viceroy in Valencia, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, a cousin of the alleged author of Lazarillo de Tormes. Sporadic resistance in the countryside around Valencia continued until 1524.

While the Germanías’ revolt grew out of class conflicts between the tradesmen and the nobles, the Castilian rebellion was a more direct political challenge to the king himself. Called the co-munero movement, it began in May 1520, after Charles left Spain to claim his Habsburg inheritance following Maximilian’s death. Led by Toledo, Castile’s most important urban center, the Castilian cities rejected the authority of the king’s officers (called corregidores) and demanded recognition instead as self-governing republics or comunidades. Only when Charles won the support of the Castilian nobles, many of whom had earlier sided with the rebel comuneros, was he able to quash the revolt. Toledo held out until October 1521, and its resistance represented the last opposition in Castile to Charles’s rule.

Over the course of the novel, Lázaro, born in a small village near the city of Salamanca (site of Spain’s leading university), gradually progresses to Toledo, and the novel concludes there in “the same year as our victorious Emperor entered this famous city of Toledo and held his Parliament there” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 19). Charles chose Toledo as his imperial capital, and critics observe that Láazro’s humble arrival in Toledo parodies the Emperor’s more majestic entrance into the imperial city, though they disagree on the date of the latter. Some scholars believe this passage refers to the Cortes, or parliament, held after Charles’s entry into the city in April 1525, when, several years after stamping out the two revolts, the Emperor returned from defeating a French army in Italy. Alternatively, others argue that it refers to the Cortes held in Toledo in 1538–39, three years after Charles’s victory over the Muslims in a successful raid on the North African port of Tunis.

Historians have also disagreed on the nature of the revolts, particularly that of the comuneros, which was a complex political movement involving disparate and ultimately conflicting elements. Historians do agree, however, on the significance of the movement’s failure, which resulted in a much stronger monarchy in Castile. In Aragon, by contrast, the monarch’s power remained weaker compared with that of the nobles. Castile’s shift toward monarchical absolutism contributed to its central role in Spain’s Golden Age empire, for that empire was based on the monarch’s power and prestige, which it also in turn enhanced.

Imperial riches, persistent poverty

The Spanish did not conceive of their empire as a source of raw materials to be used in industrial manufacture, as, for example, the British would later see their colonies in North America. Spain remained primarily an importer of manufactured goods and an exporter of raw materials. Instead of a spur to industry, the Spanish saw the Americas as essentially a treasure trove from which the Spanish crown—and the nobles, who relied on lucrative royal appointments to overseas positions—might make easy and unlimited withdrawals. Pearls, emeralds, luxury dyes, and above all gold and silver were the chief cargoes of the Spanish ships that plied the Atlantic. At first, gold predominated, but in the 1540s the Spanish developed


Like the rest of Europe, Spanish society in the Middle Ages was divided (tn theory at least) into a rigid hierarchy of three levels. At the top were the nobles or aristocracy, then the clerics or church officials. These two classes owned virtually all the land. At the bottom were the peasants who worked the land and paid rent to their landlords. Traditionally, these social classes are known as the “three estates.” As illustrated by the character of the hidalgo, or country squire, in Lazarillo de Tormes, each estate had its own upper and lower levels; the novel’s poor but proud hidalgo is a low-level aristocrat who jealously guards his honor and social rank. As trade expanded throughout Europe during the early Renaissance, a fourth group, the newly wealthy merchants, jostled for influence with the nobles, who despised the merchants as their social inferiors.

rich new silver mines at Potosi, Peru (in 1545), and Zacatecas, Mexico (in 1546). Silver soon surpassed gold as the main cargo of the treasure ships, particularly after the advent of new refining techniques in the 1570s. Between 1500 and 1650, Spanish ships transported around 16,000 tons of silver, as compared with about 181 tons of gold (Elliott, p. 19).

Imperial wealth meant little to most Spaniards, however, who took no share in it. Instead, the bulk of the cash flowed rapidly out of Spain, either to foreign merchants for imported manufactured goods, or to the German and other bankers who financed Spain’s continual and expensive wars against enemies such as France. For the majority of Spaniards there was no “Golden Age” at all, but an often bitter daily struggle to survive that absorbed virtually all of their attention. Poverty in Spain was persistent and widespread. Furthermore, historians have generally agreed that poverty’s effects were worsened rather than ameliorated by the influx of American treasure, which helped drive prices up by creating an increase in the cash supply without a corresponding increase in production.


Like Lázaro’s family, the poorest families in Golden Age Spain commonly arranged for one or more children to leave home as domestic or private servants for a period of time before beginning their adult lives. Historians call this phenomenon life-cycle service. Most rural life-cycle servants worked for better-off peasant families in a nearby village, but many also worked for merchants, artisans, or priests (in the novel, Lázaro’s masters include a blind beggar, a priest, a hidalgo, and a monk). In poorer villages, however, often only the priest had a servant. Life-cycle service most commonly began at around age 12, which is about the age that Láazro leaves home in the novel, but documentary evidence records some children leaving home as young as 7 and others as old as 20. Treatment also varied widely, although historian David E. Vassberg suggests that “social pressures in a small village community might have prevented employers from being excessively abusive or unfair to their charges” (Vassberg, p. 91). Lázaro’s harsh treatment by several of his masters contrasts sharply with this picture, but may simply reflect the anonymous author’s desire to entertain his readers.

From 1500 to 1550, prices in Spain more than doubled, while between 1520 and 1550—roughly the period of time covered by the novel—real wages fell by 20 percent (Lynch, pp. 126–27). At the same time the gap between rich and poor widened dramatically, as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. These trends would continue throughout the Golden Age (though at slower rates than in the time of the novel), in an inflationary spiral that historians have called “the price revolution” (Lynch, p. 121). Lazarillo de Tormes clearly and colorfully illustrates the oppressive effects of this price revolution, for nearly all the characters portrayed in the novel—from Láazro’s parents, to several of his employers, to Láazro himself—are dirt poor. Those of Láazro’s masters who are not themselves poverty stricken turn out to be ludicrously stingy. Indeed, throughout the story Láazro’s major preoccupation is his constantly gnawing hunger, and much of the book’s humor comes from the ingenious tricks he devises to obtain food, often at the expense of one of his miserly masters. As one critic notes of Lazarillo de Tormes, while other novels followed it in the picaresque tradition, “it alone makes us stare at poverty” (Dunn, p. 294).

The Novella in Focus

Plot summary

Lazarillo de Tormes runs to just over 50 pages in the English translation featured here. In a brief prologue Láazro addresses the narrative to Vuestra Merced (translated as “Your Honour” or “Your Grace”), an unnamed noble who, it appears, has solicited information about Láazro for an unspecified reason: “Your Honour has written to me to ask me to tell him my story in some detail, so I think I’d better start at the beginning, not in the middle, so that you may know all about me” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 24). Láazro continues that the accident of noble birth means little, concluding the prologue by declaring “how much more worthy are those who have endured misfortune but have triumphed by dint of hard work and determination” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 24).

The narrative itself is divided into seven trata-dos or chapters, which vary in length from about 15 pages to a single paragraph. Critics have observed that the first three chapters are longer and more fully fleshed out than the following ones, which may consist partly of an outline meant to be filled in later. Chapter One begins with an account of Láazro’s background: the son of a miller, he was born in his father’s mill on the river Tormes, from which he takes his surname, and raised in the nearby village of Tejares, near Salamanca. When Láazro is eight, his father is caught bleeding wheat from the sacks that neighboring farmers have brought to be milled into flour, and as part of his sentence, he is sent on an expedition against the Moors, where he is killed. Working as a cook and a washerwoman before becoming a mistress, the boy’s mother begins a relationship with a Morisco named Zaide, and the two have a child. When Zaide is arrested for stealing to help feed Láazro and his half-brother, as part of their mother’s sentence the court forbids her to go near him. To escape gossip she goes to work at a nearby inn, taking her children with her. Láazro runs errands for guests at the inn, until one of the guests, a blind man, offers to take the boy on as a servant and guide. Láazro and his mother bid each other a tearful farewell, and the boy embarks on his new life with the blind man.

After a brief stay in Salamanca, Lázaro and the blind man, who makes his living by begging and offering to pray on behalf of passers-by in exchange for cash, set out on the road for Toledo. (A blind man’s prayers were believed to be especially effective.) As they cross a bridge outside Salamanca, they encounter the stone figure of a bull. In one of the novel’s most famous episodes, the blind man tells Láazro to put his ear up close to the bull and he will hear a noise inside. Láazro does so—and the blind man hits him hard on the head, slamming his head into the stone. “You silly little nitwit! You’ll have to learn that a blind man’s boy has got to be sharper than a needle,” the man says, cackling (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 27). Though his head hurts for days, Láazro feels as if his eyes have been opened. The blind man, Láazro says, is himself “sharp as a needle,” for he knows “hundreds of prayers off by heart,” and makes “more in one month than a hundred blind men usually do in a whole year” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 28). Yet despite the blind man’s steady income, he is tight-fisted and gives Láazro barely enough food to survive on. Taking the lesson of the bull to heart, he quickly learns to fend for himself: “It’s a fact that if I hadn’t used all my cunning and the tricks I knew, I would have died from hunger more than once” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 28).

For example, Láazro learns to unpick the threads of the bag in which the blind man keeps the food, to help himself from it, and then to sew the bag back up. He and the blind man conduct an escalating contest over the blind man’s wine jug, as the blind man foils Láazro’s progressively more devious techniques for sneaking wine out of the jug. Finally, as Láazro worms his way under the jug to catch the stream from a hole he has drilled in it, the blind man suddenly lifts the heavy clay jug and with great violence lets it fall—ostensibly by accident but actually with deliberate intent—onto the boy’s mouth, knocking him out, lacerating his head and face, and breaking several of his teeth. After recovering from his injuries, Láazro decides to leave the blind man after exacting revenge. They continue to wrangle over food, having a heated altercation over a sausage, and the blind man beats the boy. The next day, when they need to cross a broad open stream, Láazro positions the blind man right in front of a solid post, facing it. He then tells the blind man to jump as hard as he can, and the blind man crashes into the post and falls to the ground with his head split open. Only then does Láazro leave the old blind man.

The following day Láazro reaches Maqueda, a town northwest of Toledo, where, as he says, “for my sins I fell in with a priest” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 38). He becomes the priest’s servant, but to his dismay his new master turns out to be even more parsimonious than his old one. The priest keeps all the bread offerings collected at the church in a locked chest in his house. There is nothing else to eat in the house, except for a string of onions; Láazro’s ration is one onion every four days. By contrast, the priest himself eats very well, sending Láazro to buy meat for his lunch and dinner every day. Occasionally he gives Láazro a crust of bread or some well-gnawed bones from his plate. Only when the priest conducts funerals does Láazro eat well, at the feasts held after the ceremonies. Láazro prays to God to forgive him for wishing that people would die more often.

One day a tinker (an itinerant metalworker who mends household utensils) comes to the door. Pretending that he has lost his master’s key, Láazro gets the tinker to make a key to the bread chest, paying him with one of the votive loaves. When the priest becomes suspicious, Láazro makes it look as if mice have gotten into the chest. Again he and his master engage in an escalating contest over food, as the priest struggles to mouseproof the chest while Láazro maintains false mouseholes in it to give his story credibility. In a complex and humorous series of incidents, the escalation once again results in Láazro’s being clubbed violently in the face, when, in the dark, the priest mistakes him for a snake that he believes has been stealing food from the traps. (The priest hears a snakelike whistle made by Láazro because of the key in his mouth.) After Láazro recovers from his wounds, the priest dismisses him, crossing himself and saying he can’t match the boy’s craftiness. He could only have been a blind man’s boy, such boys being known for their slyness.

Chapter Three opens with Láazro’s arrival in Toledo, where he meets his next master, a proud, kindly, and well-dressed hidalgo, or country squire, who comes from a notorious Jewish ghetto but masks this fact as he does others in his life. After happily agreeing to be the hidalgo’s servant, Láazro walks with him through the city’s market, thinking that the man is about to do his shopping or stop for a tasty lunch. As the day progresses and the hidalgo buys no food, Lázaro assumes they will eat when they get home. When they arrive at the hidalgo’s house in the early

Priests And Anticlericalism

Though a devoutly Catholic people, by the sixteenth century a select group of Spaniards, like others throughout Europe at the time, had begun to resent what they perceived as the excesses of a corrupt and oppressive Catholic Church. Called anticlericalism, such resentment is reflected in the appearance of hypocritical priests in many of the folktales that influenced Lazarillo de Tormes. The anticlerical bent reflects a larger movement in Spain at the time, Erasmianism, named after the Dutch reformer Erasmus. Erasmus criticized church corruption, defended personal faith, and championed a return to primitive Christianity. His teachings influenced a number of Spanish thinkers in the 1520s. “In the churches, in the convents, even in the inns and on the highways,” everyone was reading Erasmus in Spanish, though much of the clergy remained hostile to his ideas (Kamen, p. 122). Centers of Spanish Erasmian ism flowered in Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Valencia. The movement’s heyday in Spain was short-lived, though. Erasmianism dwindled, then was crushed in the 1530s; as religious positions in Europe became polarized, Castile adopted a reactionary stance to Erasmus and to followers such as the philosopher Juan Luis Vives. Born of Converso parents who practiced Judaism in secret, Vives lived in exile in the Netherlands. His father was arrested by the Inquisition for Judaizing and burned alive in 1524, while his dead mother’s bones were dug up and burned postmortem. The next decade the Inquisition would quash Erasmianism in Spain, concluding by then that it threatened the orthodoxy of the Catholic religion. The Inquisition identified Erasmus with the upstart Martin Luther, instigator of the Protestant Reformation that was leaving its mark elsewhere in Europe at the time. This is not to say that no reform movements existed in Spain at all. In the late fifteenth century, a Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Gsneros had begun a movement of cleaning up the Church, and reform efforts would continue in sixteenth century Spain. There, as well as in other Catholic countries, the Counter-Reformation attempted to remedy clerical abuses without abandoning Catholicism.

afternoon, however, the hidalgo says that he has eaten early and won’t eat again until supper. Lázaro produces a few pieces of bread that he has begged from strangers, and only then does he realize that his new master is ravenously hungry.

In fact, as Lázaro gradually comes to understand, the hidalgo’s proud manner cloaks poverty that is as dire as Lázaro’s own:

Who would not be deceived by his demeanour and his smart cloak and jacket, and who would think that that noble gentleman spent all day yesterday without taking a bite of food except that crumb of bread that his servant Lázaro had carried for a day and a half under his shirt and where it couldn’t have kept very clean, and today, when he washed his hands and his face and didn’t have a towel, he used his shirt-tail?

(Lazarillo de Tormes, p.54)

Lázaro feels sorry for the hidalgo and grows fond of him, feeding the hidalgowith what he begs on the streets, even when it means going hungry himself. All the while, the hidalgo keeps up the pretense of plenty, offering frequent platitudes on the virtues of eating lightly, and holding a straw in his mouth as if picking his teeth after a full meal. “There’s only one thing I had against him,” Lázaro says: “I wished he wasn’t quite so vain and would come down to earth and face the facts a little more” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 58).

Lázaro learns that the hidalgo has a country estate that could supply him with an honorable income if it were in better repair. The reason he left was to avoid taking his hat off first to a neighbor of higher social rank than himself. He had done so many times, but thought the other man should take his hat off first occasionally as well. After Lázaro has been with the hidalgo for about ten days, the hidalgo flees town to escape his creditors, leaving Lázaro to explain as best he can to the city constable, who arrives to put a lien on the hidalgo’s property because of his debts.

In its single paragraph, Chapter Four recounts Lázaro’s brief service with a friar, whom he leaves after a week because of all the running around the friar makes him do. The paragraph hints at the friar’s being a homosexual. Chapter Five covers Lázaro’s employment with his fifth master, a buldero or pardoner, a man who sells papal indulgences (which Catholics believed would prevent God from punishing them in this world or in purgatory for their sins). The bulderoknows “some really clever tricks” to get people to buy his indulgences (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 67). For example, in one village, he stages a loud public fight with an accomplice, after which he asks God to strike down whichever of them was in the wrong. When the accomplice falls to the ground in a fit, people rush to buy the buldero’s pardons. Lázaro stays with the buldero for four months, happy that he has finally found a master who feeds him enough.

Chapter Six consists of only a few paragraphs but spans four years, in which Lázaro, “a well set up young man by now,” works first for an artist who paints tambourines. He next works for another priest, selling drinking water that he carries around the city on a donkey, the priest here serving more as a small businessman more than as a leader of the faith (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 76). Lázaro quits this profitable job as soon as he can afford some decent clothes, however. The last chapter, a few pages long, briefly sketches the events leading to Lázaro’s current position as town crier. His duties include making “public announcements of the wines that are to be sold in town, and of the auctions and lost property. I also accompany criminals being punished for their misdeeds and shout out their crimes” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p.77). He makes a comfortable living, and has married a woman who works as a maid for the priest of a nearby church. The priest in fact arranged the marriage—for his own convenience. While Lázaro enjoys the priest’s frequent and generous gifts of food, he has decided to ignore the gossip that his wife is the priest’s concubine, and “as a result, … there is peace at home” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 79). Lázaro concludes his tale by saying, “I will inform Your Honour of my future in due course” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 79).

Spoil over toil

“I came down to this city hoping to find a good position,” the proud hidalgo tells Lázaro (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 62). Though claiming that it is simply “bad luck” that he can’t find a decent employer, he unwittingly reveals that employment itself, and not the particular behavior of any employer, inevitably entails intolerable blows to his pride: “I’m often asked to be the right-hand man of minor noblemen, but it’s very difficult working with them because you’re no longer a man, just a thing they use. If you don’t do what they want then it’s ’Good-bye to you’” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 63). Doing “what they want,” however, defines employment: in the end the hidalgo would rather go hungry than humble himself to work. Significantly the hidalgo also links his independence to his manhood and to his all-important honor, which he says is “all that decent men have left today” (Lazarillo de Tormes, p. 62). He herein reflects the tenor of a time in which Castilians were so obsessed with honor that they would even purchase false genealogies.

Historians have long found Lazarillo de Tormes’s hidalgo to symbolize the social attitudes that led to Spain’s rapid commercial eclipse in the seventeenth century by nations such as the Netherlands and Britain. As historian John Lynch observes, the mania for noble status “produced a contempt for trade and a restless anxiety to join the aristocracy which were ruinous for Spain and her people.… The starving hidalgo of Lazarillo de Tormes was, indeed, a symbol of a real situation” (Lynch, p. 106). Religion, given the Christian injunction against usury, reinforced this contempt for trade. Nobles generally conceived of the desire for lucre, that is, money or profits, as beneath them. Even successful merchants often wished to leave business as soon as possible and invest instead in land, which was viewed as theonly honorable source of wealth. As Lynch notes, “the odium attached to manual work and to business” was reflected in a contemporary phrase, el deshonor de trabajo, or “‘the dishonor of work’” (Lynch, p. 106). Spanish tradition thus militated against the emergence of a commercial middle class, by suppressing the trade and industry upon which such a class might be based.

These issues can be linked to larger pictures, both of the novel as a whole and of Spain’s worldempire. Historians have stressed the central rolethat the hidalgoclass played in building the empire, which was based on the same preference for spoils over industry that prevailed within Spain. Preferring to live by his wits rather than by toil, Lázaro himself reflects this approach. Scholars today see such attitudes as a primary cause not just of Spain’s internal economic decay, but also of its imperial decline at the end ofthe Golden Age.

Sources and literary context

Unlike previous literary prose tales popular in Spain, Lazarillo de Tormes focuses not on a courtly aristocratic hero but on a poor commoner who lives by his wits. It furthermore depicts his adventures with a humor and grittiness lacking in the flowery chivalric romances of early Renaissance Spain. For this reason, the novel is credited with bringing a new degree of realism to Spanish literature, for the world depicted in the romances was one of idealistic knights errant, gentle damsels, and impossibly educated shepherds who sing ornate, poetic songs.

Yet the author of Lazarillo de Tormes did draw on an old and well-established body of common folk tales and popular dramas. The name Lázaro was a typical poor boy’s name in medieval Spanish folklore, and many of the novel’s characters are common stereotypes from such lore. For example, thieving millers, flim-flamming pardoners, and miserly priests appear in folk stories across Western Europe, as well as in other literary works, such as the Decameron (1349–53) by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. The gluttonous, hypocritical priest and the blind beggar engaged in a contest of wits with his boy is also commonly featured in various European folktales. Within Spain itself, the penniless squire with his airs and concealed hunger was already a recognizable stereotype, though after 1554 to be forever identified with the novel’s unforgettable portrait. Some of Lázaro’s own literary ancestors go as far back as the wily, conniving characters of the Latin comic playwright Plautus (third century B.C.E.), and of the Latin novels Satyricon by Petronius (first century C.E.) and The Golden Ass by Apuleius (second century C.E.).

Publication and reception

Though scholars suspect there may have been an earlier edition, Lazarillo de Tormes was published in four editions in 1554: in Burgos, Spain; in Alcalá, Spain; in Medina del Campo, Spain; and in Antwerp, Belgium. The story’s immediate popularity is confirmed both by its rapid translation into the major European languages, and by the appearance of a sequel in 1555: La Segunda Parte de Lazarillo de Tormes. This Second Part of Lazarillo de Tormes was, like the original, published anonymously, and is considered the work of a different and lesser writer. Many other sequels and imitations followed in its wake.

In 1573 a castigado, or expurgated version, of the original work appeared, with parts of the story censored by the Inquisition, although the literary historian Frank Wadleigh Chandler (writing in the late nineteenth century) attests that “the emendations of the Inquisition were not as considerable as might have been expected” (Chandler, p. 192). Philip II, son of Charles V, ordered the castigado to be printed because, despite being banned by the Inquisition in 1559 (the first year it put out a list of forbidden books), the novel had continued to be widely read. The castigado’s introduction offers the earliest critical commentary on the story, calling it “so lively and faithful a representation of what it describes with such wit and grace that in its way it is estimable and has always been relished by all,” and going on to reveal that “although prohibited in these realms, it has been commonly read and printed abroad” (in Chandler, p. 192).

Lazarillo de Tormes’s impact on subsequent Spanish literature is generally held to be second only to Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615). Picaresque novels that followed in its footsteps range from its immediate successors, Mateo Aláman’s Guzmán de Alfarache (1599) and Francisco de Quevedo’s El Buscón (The Swindler, 1626), to many later works, including Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). Lazarillo de Tormes even contributed to the Spanish language, for soon after the novel’s publication the word lazarillo entered Castilian, the major dialect of Spanish, as the common word for a blind man’s guide.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Chandler, Frank Wadleigh. Romances of Roguery. New York: Lenox Hill, 1974.

Dominquez Ortiz, Antonio. The Golden Age of Spain 1516–1659. Trans. James Casey. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Dunn, Peter. Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Elliott, J. H. Spain and Its World 1500–1700. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Ife, B. W. Reading and Fiction in Golden-Age Spain: A Platonist Critique and Some Picaresque Replies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Kamen, Henry. Spain 1469–1714. London: Longman, 1991.

Lazarillo de Tormes. In Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler. Trans. Michael Alpert. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Lynch, John. Spain Under the Habshurgs. Vol. 1, Empire and Absolutism 1516–1598. Oxford: Black-well, 1965.

Rico, Francisco. The Spanish Picaresque Novel and the Point of View. Trans. Charles Davis and Harry Sieber. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press, 1984.

Vassberg, David E. The Village and the Outside World in Golden Age Castile: Mobility and Migration in Everyday Rural Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.