Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love)

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Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love)

by Juan Ruíz, Archpriest of Hita


A poem about various types of love set in mid-fourteenth-century Spain; first published in 1790.


A Spanish archpriest narrates his amorous pursuit of a number of women; in the process, the narrator (who adopts several personas) and other characters digress frequently, telling fables, describing allegorical episodes, and uttering lengthy prayers.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

Like a number of medieval authors, Juan Ruíz emerged into the modern era solely between the covers of his book. Apart from what he says about himself in Libro de Buen Amor (the title is variously translated as The Book of Good Love and The Book of True Love), we know nothing whatsoever about him; there are no contemporary witnesses or reactions to his work (apart from a fragment in Portuguese translation), and no document from his lifetime has come to light that refers to him. Nevertheless, a number of facts (or at least strong possibilities) can be deduced or inferred from the few clues available. Given the frequent allusions to matters of judicial procedure and church law in the Libro de Buen Amor, there is no reason to doubt that he is telling the truth when he identifies himself in the poem as an archpriest. (Archpriests in fourteenth-century Spain were “ecclesiastical administrators and judges with power of correction over the entire archipresbyterate—a fairly large area surrounding the town of Hita” [Kelly, p. 8].) We also know more or less when the Libro de Buen Amor was written; internal evidence indicates that it must have been composed after 1338, and one of three surviving manuscripts of the work bears a scribal date of 1389. Since most scholars agree that the work shows signs of having been revised and augmented a number of times, we can assume that the author was working on it during this period. None of the three manuscripts is in the author’s hand; they are all probably several stages removed from any original copy. The work itself is by turns fervently pious and exuberantly profane. A diverse work, Libro de Buen Amor is not about any one thing, but the “good love” in the title, used ambiguously, reflects the preoccupation with love in all its varieties that pervaded medieval Spain.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

Spain in the fourteenth century

The history of medieval Spain has always stood apart from the history of medieval Europe in general, primarily because of the factor of Islam. While other regions of Europe had periodic brushes with Islamic aggression during the heady days of its explosive initial expansion throughout the Mediterranean region, only in Spain (and to a lesser extent Sicily) did Islamic society take root. The Moors (as Spanish Muslims were called) conquered virtually the entire Iberian peninsula in the early eighth century, and Christian Spain did not completely reconquer the domain until 1492. During the intervening centuries an unusually cosmopolitan (by western European standards, at any rate) society developed, one in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived under successive Christian and Muslim regimes that, for the most part, allowed their subjects a degree of freedom of worship and association not found elsewhere in medieval Europe. Conflict was constant and often bitter, but nevertheless the three groups forged relationships that allowed them to influence each other’s art, literature, laws, and customs.

The Christian reconquest of Spain began in earnest in the late eleventh century. By the fourteenth century the only region still under Muslim hegemony was Granada, a small kingdom in the south. Many Muslims saw no reason to move as long as their lives and property were not threatened, so they remained in the reconquered regions and were tolerated by Christian Spain as long as they obeyed the law and paid their taxes. For the most part, Jews likewise retained the rights they had enjoyed under Muslim rule, so they tended to remain as well. Thus, to Juan Ruíz, Muslims and Jews were part of everyday experience, a situation inconceivable to (say) the average fourteenth-century Englishman. For him, Muslims were a far-off and poorly understood threat; Jews a renegade and hostile people whom his country had expelled in 1290. On one hand, medieval Spain was very much a part of the larger European community; intermarriage with European aristocracy, an active mercantile class with overseas interests, and the fact that the Church was essentially its own supranational state all combined to bring Spain into the mainstream of European political, cultural, and religious life. On the other hand, it possessed a more socially diverse character than many other European kingdoms. The question of to what extent this cultural and religious diversity influenced Spain is still a subject of considerable debate. It seems unlikely that centuries of Islamic occupation would have no cultural and social impact, but it must also be recognized that medieval Christian Spain did manage to maintain its sense of identity as a part of western Christendom despite this occupation—and this sense of identity often included regarding non-Christians as dangerous aliens. Fourteenth-century Spain had not yet expelled its Jews and Muslims, but waves of intolerance and outright persecution were common.

Medieval Spanish literary culture

The same problem that confronts students of medieval Spanish history exists in the realm of literary studies as well. Was medieval Spanish literature simply a subset of the larger European literary culture, or did it have a unique quality, derived from non-Christian Spanish elements? For much of the mid-twentieth century, this question was at the heart of critical debate about the Libro de Buen Amor. In a long chapter of his seminal work España en su Historic (1948), Américo Castro applied his general thesis about Spanish culture to the work of Juan Ruíz, arguing that in both form and content the Libro de Buen Amor is dependent upon Islamic models—specifically, upon the eleventh-century The Dove’s Neck Ring of Ibn Hazm. Castro is certainly right in noting that Jewish and Muslim literature circulating in Spain in the fourteenth century exhibited many of the qualities to be found in the Libro de Buen Amor —a mix of religious piety and eroticism, a blend of prose and verse, the use of fables to make thematic and narrative points, and so forth. However, these qualities appear in the Latin and vernacular literature of western Europe as well, and it is only to this body of writing that Ruiz refers specifically.

Like England’s Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400), Ruiz shows considerable familiarity with the work of the Roman poet Ovid and his medieval imitators on the subject of love, and he also makes use of the collection of beast-fables attributed to “Aesop,” which circulated throughout Europe in various forms. The Libro de Buen Amor is a collection of tales contained within a larger narrative framework, and so are the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer and the Decameron of the Italian poet Boccaccio (1313-75). Furthermore, the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lor-ris and Jean de Meun (completed c. 1275) was an immensely popular long poem on the subject of love, containing many short tales within the narrative proper. Like the Libro de Buen Amor, the Roman de la Rose focuses on a lover in pursuit of physical gratification, though Ruiz shows far less of the pervasive misogyny than the Roman de la Rose and other thirteenth- and fourteenth-century works on love. Setting the Libro de Buen Amor against this larger background makes obvious the kinship between its main thematic, stylistic, and structural qualities and those of other European works. For instance, Ruiz follows a venerable tradition in western medieval literature in his use of allegory, featuring characters who are simply personified abstractions, such as “Lord Flesh” and “Sir Love.” Not characters in the modern sense, these figures act out the human impulses that their names indicate, usually for some overarching didactic purpose. Thus, the battle between Sir Flesh and Lady Lent is not meant to be taken as a literal battle between two realistic characters, but as an allegory of the warring impulses of appetite and abstinence in the human soul.

A quality of the Libro de Buen Amor that has given some readers pause is the seeming lack of tension between its religious and erotic material. The prayers and sermons are sincere and fervent, and the expressions of sexual longing unashamed in their unrestrained libidinousness. How is this to be read? The answer is not entirely clear, but two factors should be remembered. First, the literary culture of the fourteenth century permitted such incongruity; it appears in the works of Chaucer, Boccaccio, and others, many of whom were churchmen of unimpeachable sanctity. Sermon literature that heaped condemnation upon the erotic impulse was readily available, but literature celebrating physical love also had an audience, one that did not seem to find sensuality threatening or morally dangerous. This audience (composed largely of the nobility, the wealthy merchant class, and members of the clergy and court bureaucracy) appreciated the fine sensibilities exhibited by the grand lovers of courtly romance, and seemed to do so in a manner to some degree divorced from the Christian sexual morality. Second, as Ruiz periodically reminds his readers, there are many ways to profit from literature; one must not necessarily model one’s behavior on that of literary characters. One can simply enjoy the poetic art; one can laugh at the follies of impassioned lovers; and one can take the portrayal of illicit sexuality as a negative example—a helpfully detailed account of the path to be avoided. With this last interpretative mode in mind, countless medieval authors composed exempla, that is, short narratives (often featured within sermons), to illustrate a moral point. Whether an illustration of virtue or vice, an exemplum sought to point the way clearly to the path of wisdom and morality. Collections of exempla were quite common in literary and ecclesiastical circles in Ruiz’s day; an important example is The Book of Count Lucanor and Patronio (c. 1335), written by Don Juan Manuel (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times).

The Church and the law

The Church occupied a role so central to the lives of medieval Spaniards that it is difficult to provide something analogous in the modern world. A great many individuals joined religious orders, and the church exercised full legal sway over basic aspects of peoples’ lives. There were two legal systems in play at the time. Civil law, promulgated by the monarch, covered such secular matters as rights of property, treason, the coining of money, and so forth. Canon law, the law of the church, went far beyond regulating the behavior of churchmen and women. All Christian citizens were subject to its power. The cases of those in holy orders were adjudicated solely in its courts, and laypeople appeared there regularly too, to be judged on matters that the Church considered under its purview. Any issue relating to the sacraments was a matter for the canon-law courts. The sacrament of marriage, for example, was a common locus of legal wrangling; since questions of inheritance often hinged on whether or not a marriage was valid, the law of the Church was powerful indeed. Sexual offenses were also punished in canon-law courts, since illicit sex was considered an offense to the sacrament of marriage. Despite the separate legal systems, the Crown exercised a great deal of power over the Church in fourteenth-century Spain, with the king naming the officials in its canon-law courts.

The Libro de Buen Amor is intimately concerned with legal matters, both civil and canon. It contains a full-fledged trial episode that, however humorous (the litigants and judge are animals, and the offense is chicken-stealing by a fox), conforms strictly to the standards of legal procedure. Juan Ruiz himself is in the legal profession; he identifies himself as an archpriest, that is, a priest responsible for seeing to it that the Church’s law is kept within the geographical area to which he has been assigned. He is not a pastor with a church and parishioners—his job is to identify malefactors and see them brought to justice. The question of why he would choose to write a long poem featuring an archpriest named Juan Ruíz who vigorously (and illegally) seeks partners in fornication cannot be finally answered, but the incongruity of such a scenario would have been readily apparent to his readers. As if to emphasize the point, the narrator’s pursuit of the nun Lady Garoza is a case study in what an archpriest should not be doing. Medieval handbooks on penance customarily organized sexual sins in order of seriousness, with simple fornication between unmarried laypeople being the least sinful. Generally the most sinful was sex between a priest and a nun—more so than between a priest and a married woman—because nuns were considered to be brides of Christ. In the case of the narrator and Lady Garoza, the fact that the priest was an archpriest (whose job was to enforce the law, not break it) made his attempt a virtual worst-case scenario.

The narrative voice

The narrative “I” in The Book of Good Love is usually (but not always) an archpriest of Hita named Juan Ruiz. At the outset, it should be noted that this person should not be identified with Juan Ruíz, the author of The Book of Good Love. Like many other medieval authors (such as Chaucer and Dante), Ruiz inserts a fictive version of himself into his poetry, a strategy that imparts an air of credibility to his narrative. This fictive persona is a subject of the story just like the other characters, and his knowledge, unlike the author’s, is limited. Further complicating the issue in this poem is the fact that the “I” who tells the story does not maintain the same character throughout. Sometimes he is prayerful and pious. At other times he is sexually predatory and seemingly indifferent to moral norms. At one point he is a different person altogether, a layman by the name of Don Melón, who marries (an impossibility for an archpriest). This ever-shifting narrator must simply be accepted as part of how the story is told; at various points throughout the story, the “I” may refer to the protagonist, the narrator, the author, or even simply a representative of man in general. This shifting “I,” sometimes called a composite “I,” can be compared to an author’s use of the pronoun “he” in a story with reference to a number of different persons. The composite “I” serves also as a literary device, indicating that a number of sometimes overlapping characters speak with one voice. Ruiz, like many medieval authors, uses the composite “I” as a literary device rather than simply as a pronoun indicating the authorial or narrative self.

The Poem in Focus

Plot summary

The Libro de Buen Amor has no plot, at least not in any sense that the word “plot” is now generally understood. It does tell a story (in fact it tells many stories), but in a manner that most twenty-first-century readers would find strange. Essentially it is a collection of poems assembled into a book. Some poems are prayers, many are beast-fables, and a number have little evident relation to the overall story being told—that of the narrator’s episodic quest for sexual partners. Yet each individual poem has a role to play, and the reader should not be disconcerted by seemingly disjointed narrative leaps.

The book begins with a prayer; the speaker (who identifies himself as an archpriest) begs God and the Virgin Mary to free him from prison and protect him from the lies of his enemies. Nothing more is said of imprisonment in the poem (apart from a probably nonauthorial statement at the very end, which claims that the Libro de Buen Amor was composed by Juan Ruiz while imprisoned by the archbishop of Toledo), and it is unclear whether a literal or metaphorical prison is meant (i.e., the soul’s imprisonment by sin). The latter is certainly possible, for after the conclusion of the prayer, the speaker goes on to discuss at some length (in prose, with regular quotations from the Bible) the nature of true wisdom, which consists of fearing God, following the commandments, and avoiding evil. It is in accordance with this, says the speaker, that he has written “this little piece of writing”:

And I composed this new book in which are written down some of the methods and arts and deceitful, cunning tricks of foolish love of the world, which some people practice in order to sin.

Reading and heeding which, a man or woman with true understanding, who wishes to be saved, will choose and act upon it.

And he will be able to say with the Psalmist: I have chosen the way of truth, et cetera.

On the other hand, those of little understanding will not be lost, for … in discovering that their most clever, deceitful practices, which they use to sin and to deceive women, are made public, they will arouse their memory and not despise [besmirch] their reputation.… However, inasmuch as it is human to sin, if anyone should wish (which I do not advise) to have a taste of this worldly love, here they will find some models for doing so.

(Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, p. 27)

Thus, by writing about wicked love, the speaker intends to make the idea of good love more plain, and to make wicked love readily avoidable by those seeking to be virtuous. The book also has a practical side:

And I composed this book also to give people a lesson and example in counting verses and rhyming and composing poetry; for the songs and rhymes and lyrics and ballads and poems, which I have made here, are completely according to the rules this art requires.

(Libro de Buen Amor, p. 28)

Turning back to verse, the speaker directs another prayer to God, in which he identifies himself as Juan Ruiz, archpriest of Hita, and his book as the Libro de Buen Amor, and begs his reader to consider it carefully; there is also a great deal of pious wisdom hidden beneath the seemingly foolish exterior.

After several more prayers and an extended discussion of how the meaning of a text lies more with what the reader brings to it than with the content set down in words, the narrative proper begins. In a brief section entitled “How the Arch-priest Fell in Love,” the speaker describes having fallen in love with a beautiful and accomplished lady. Unable to approach her himself, he sends a go-between with a message of love. What follows sets a pattern that will be repeated throughout the Libro de Buen Amor, the object of the speaker’s love responds by telling a story (usually a fable on the Aesopian model), the “moral” of which serves as her reply to the speaker’s overture. In this case, the lady is aware that the go-between is experienced at convincing young women to succumb to love’s allure, and so maintains her guard. She tells a story about a lion who was ill; all the other beasts came to pay their respects to their sick lord. The King of Beasts soon recovered, and his subjects planned a celebratory feast. A bull was slaughtered, and the wolf was chosen to carve and serve. Feigning concern for the lion’s health, the wolf kept the carcass for himself, and served the lion the bull’s entrails, explaining that this was all the lion’s delicate constitution could probably handle. The lion was very hungry and, angered at the wolf’s duplicity, struck him a blow across the head, severely injuring him. Now the fox was ordered to serve, and she acted much more wisely, giving the lion the lion’s share. In response to the lion’s wonderment at her perfectly judicious division of the bull, the fox replied that she had learned her lesson from the fate of the wolf. Concluding her narrative, the lady threatened the go-between with the same fate as the wolf if she did not learn her lesson, as did the fox; no more messages of love, she commanded. The speaker’s rebuff and discomfiture was the subject of gossip far and wide, and his misery knew no bounds until another woman, Dame Cross (he was not so ambitious this time—she was the wife of a baker), found a place in his heart. His friend Ferránd García now served as go-between, but proved faithless, and obtained Dame Cross’s love for himself.

After a brief period of introspection, during which the speaker meditates on astrology (he was born under the sign of Venus, and so must forever seek the love of women) and the fact that love encourages delusional behavior, he falls in love again, this time with a noblewoman of surpassing beauty, grace, and virtue. In hopes of winning her, he sends her love poems, but she rejects them and him out of hand, exclaiming, “I won’t lose my reward in God and his paradise / For sinful love” (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 67). Her refusal is accompanied by a story, concerning a faithful guard-dog. One day a thief enters the house, and, when confronted by the dog, offers him a loaf of bread secretly poisoned with arsenic. The dog is not tempted, and replies:

For this small hunk of food, which my big jaws tonight may seize on,
I’ll not give up the meat and bread that every day I feed on.
If I ate your foul food, I would soon choke to death, I reason.
You’d steal what I am here to guard and I’d commit great treason.
         (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 67)

With this brief allegory, the lady perfectly expresses the moral foundation for her refusal of the speaker’s offer of love. She likens the dog to herself, the dog’s master to God, the thief to the speaker, and her chastity to the valuable goods in the house. Faithfulness is not only its own reward, but it brings the promise of much greater rewards in the future, and the temporary pleasure of the loaf of bread (i.e., illicit love) is soon gone and is mortally harmful.

At this point, the speaker is visited by Love himself—the very personification of his own amatory impulse. With a sudden outpouring of hatred, the speaker assails Love at great length as a liar, a cheat, a rogue. The speaker even accuses Love of being responsible for each of the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth are all rooted in covetousness, and all stem ultimately from Love. The crafty and duplicitous appeal of Love is illustrated by the speaker with a story about a lawsuit involving a wolf, a fox, and the judge Sir Monkey. This story, also a satirical portrait of lawyers, is presented as an actual courtroom event, in which the rules of judicial procedure are carefully observed. The wolf catches the fox stealing a rooster from Sir Billygoat, and hypocritically brings a legal action against her (he, of course, is guilty of the same crime). Wolf and fox are represented by counsel (greyhound and sheepdog, respectively), and a lengthy trial ensues. Despite the efforts of the two lawyers, Sir Monkey, a just and competent judge, recognizes that both parties to the action are poultry thieves, and renders a just verdict. The point of the story is that language can easily be used to pervert truth and justice, and this is how Love manages to convince people that wrong is right.

Love does not take this attack lying down. He does not so much dispute the accuracy of the speaker’s charges, but implies that the only reason the speaker is upset is because he has been unsuccessful in love. Stop slandering me and listen, Love says, and I can show you the way to obtain any woman you desire. Love’s advice is eminently practical—there is no moral dimension to it. There are many ways to obtain the love of a woman, and Love recounts them all, cheerfully indifferent to the fact that he is giving instruction in the art of lying and deception. Most important, he counsels, is to use a go-between, ideally an old woman who knows how to appeal to a young woman’s vanity:

Try one of these old crones: the use of herbs they have refined;
They go from house to house and pose as midwives—of a kind.
With pots of fancy makeup, soft face powder and bright rouge,
They case an evil eye on girls and really make them blind.…
These convent-trotters manage many deeds in secret done.
          (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 131)

A “convent-trotter” (trotaconventos in the original Spanish), it seems, refers to a woman who knows her way around convents, which housed potentially (though illicitly) available nuns and the young women they educated. The idea of the convent-trotter is an important one for much of the rest of the Libro de Buen Amor; such a character in fact serves as the speaker’s go-between for an extended period. She is simply referred to as Convent-trotter throughout, though we learn that her name is Uracca.

Convinced by Love’s arguments, the speaker (who now is seemingly no longer the archpriest of Hita, but Don Melón, a lawyer and layman) proclaims his allegiance to Venus (the goddess of sex), and selects a go-between to approach his new love, Lady Plum. The task is formidable. Lady Plum is a widowed aristocrat, far above the speaker’s station, and has already spurned his advances. Convent-trotter is nevertheless confident they will prevail:

I’ll go now to the house where your good neighbor lives,
And tell her such sweet charms and such a honeyed balm I’ll spread,
That your deep wound will soon be cured by my shrewd medicine.
I have this lady whom you named beneath my thumb, you see.
No man in all the world can ever have her, save through me.
          (Libro de Buen Amor, pp. 189 and 191)

Her confidence is well-placed, for after a bit of persuasion (Convent-trotter tells a story about a bustard and a swallow, and the wary Lady Plum responds with a fable of her own), the Lady is brought around, and Don Melón obtains her love—and marries her.

The archpriest returns as speaker of the narrative, and his pursuit of love resumes. Convent-trotter continues to be of good service, at least until he takes her for granted and makes jokes at her expense. In revenge, she spoils his prospects with a lady to whom he has been sending love poetry and makes him beg her forgiveness. She will serve him, she promises, but he must treat her with respect (“don’t apply cheap names or any ugly word to me. / Call me True Love and I will give you my true loyalty” [Libro de Buen Amor, p. 239]). This he promises to do. In fact, he names his book after her (“From love of that old woman and to speak in simple truth, / I called my book True Love and her the same” [Libro de Buen Amor, p. 239]). Thus, in a sense, the Libro de Buen Amor is the book of Convent-trotter.

The narrator then takes a journey that leads through a mountain pass. Here (and again on his return trip) he meets a succession of mountain girls, strong and lusty cowherds who compel him (he is unwilling, because they are frighteningly ugly) to have sex with them. Bruised and shaken from this experience, he attends a vigil in honor of the Virgin Mary at a shrine, and offers two long, heartfelt prayers in the form of poetic meditations on the passion of Jesus.

There follows an extended allegorical episode in which the narrator has little role to play other than telling the story. The episode involves Lent—the period of fasting and moral reflection that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday—and its never-ending conflict with appetite and the celebratory impulse. Since it is an allegory, the reader naturally encounters a host of personifications. Sir Shrove-Tuesday (the French would call him Sir Mardi Gras) is a guest at the speaker’s house a week before Lent is to begin, when threatening letters arrive from Lady Fast. She accuses Lord Flesh of misbehavior and commands the speaker to summon him to battle in seven day’s time. Fearing his frivolity will soon come to an end, the speaker does as directed, and on the appointed day Lord Flesh arrives equipped for combat. His army consists of opulent dishes of food, and the night before battle is engaged he and his forces glut themselves into insensibility. In the morning (i.e., on Ash Wednesday) Lady Fast makes short work of Lord Flesh, wounding him with the more abstemious fare of fast-days, such as leek soup and fish. After being fettered and handed over to Lady Fast, he is forced to confess his sins and submit to her strict dietary regimen. He nevertheless escapes, and seeks out his Jewish friends, who, not being bound to Lenten observance, have plenty of the meat he craves. In any event, Lent is soon over, and Sir Love and Lord Flesh (who seems none the worse for his experience) together celebrate the Easter season.

It is in the midst of these Easter festivities that the narrator again turns his thoughts to Love. He sends for his faithful Convent-trotter, who agrees to help him find feminine companionship. After several leads do not pan out, she advises him to set his sights on a nun, for they are safe and discreet:

Friend, now listen to me for a trice.
Make love to some young nun, believe me, this is good advice.
She can’t get married later or let what she does be known;
You’ll have a love of long duration, more than may suffice!
          (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 333)

She goes on to explain that she knows the nuns’ world very well, having lived in a convent as a serving-woman for ten years.


The following letter (c. 1404) from King Enrique III of Castile concerns Teresa de Ayala and Maria de Ayala, two nuns of noble blood who planned to journey outside their convent The king warns all his subjects, on their peril, to treat them honorably.

I, by the grace of God, King of Castile … Greetings and grace. You are all hereby notified that doña Teresa de Ayala, prioress of the monastery of Santo Domingo el Real de Toledo, and doña Maria, her daughter, are traveling through various parts of my kingdom. I therefore order you all and each one of you to receive them, and any persons who may be with them, whenever and at whatever places of yours they may appear. You are to welcome them and provide them with decent lodgings, not unsuitable inns. You are to supply them with food and anything else they may require, for which they have money to pay. See to it that no one is permitted either to harm them or to attempt to injure or disturb them in any way. And let anyone who does, or tries to do so, be punished in a manner appropriate to the evil deed intended.… Let no one of you do them any harm whatsoever, on penalty of my curse, and that of God.… I, the King

(Constable, pp. 302-303)

With an attractive prospect already in mind, she visits the place of her former employment, sits down with the nun Lady Garoza, a noblewoman whom she formerly served, and immediately states her business:

Since I left you I’ve been in service with a fine archpriest,
A young man, bold, high-spirited; I live now by his aid.
And so that he might court you, I enflame his mind each day—
My lady, do not make him shy of your convent, or afraid.
          (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 337)

A woman of intelligence and virtue, Lady Garoza will have nothing to do with Convent-trotter’s proposal. She responds by telling a story of a farmer who charitably nurses a near-frozen snake back to health, and is squeezed to death for his pains. Just so, exclaims Lady Garoza, has Convent-trotter been to her; she took Convent-trotter into the convent when she was poor and despised, and how she returns to repay this kindness by tempting her to mortal sin! Convent-trotter is unfazed; she responds with a story about a greyhound who, after a long and productive life as a hunting dog, grows old and feeble, and is beaten and despised by the master he had served so well. This goes on at considerable length; in all, five stories are told by each, until Lady Garoza finally agrees to see the narrator. They meet at mass, and the narrator is transported with desire:

Though in a way it be adultery against our Lord
When any gallant lover commits sin with a good nun,
Oh God, I wish that I myself might be that sinner now!
How gladly I’d do sweet penance once that sweet sin had been done!
          (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 373)

Their love becomes mutual, and they embark upon an intense, but seemingly chaste, love affair. Though the language is a bit obscure, the implication is that the narrator has at last found “true” (in the sense of “godly”) love, in the person of a nun who will not submit to his carnal appetite but instead prays for him and encourages him in virtue. He is devastated when, two months later, she dies. His newfound virtue is evidently soon forgotten, for he summons Convent-trotter to find him a concubine to help assuage his grief. She approaches a Muslim girl, but is rebuffed when the girl pretends to speak only Arabic. This is Convent-trotter’s last adventure; she dies, and the narrator embarks on a long tirade against death: “Oh, Death, may you be dead, just dead and wretched and in shame! / For you have killed my go-between! Would you had killed me first!” (Libro de Buen Amor, p. 379). In a paroxysm of grief, the narrator continues in this vein at great length. He ends by praising her memory, imagining her in heaven, and composing her epitaph. Seemingly still in a contemplative mood, the narrator then lectures his audience on the nature of Christian moral duty. Death took away Uracca, and it will take us all away as well; woe betide the sinner who dies in a state of sin! The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to realize our damnation, and so energetic spiritual warfare must forever be waged against this unholy trinity. The hour of our death cannot be known; therefore we must avoid sin at all times, as if each moment were our last.

By now the reader will not be surprised to learn that the narrator’s piety is short-lived. Indeed he follows this sermon with an account of the pleasing qualities of small women, and a brief description of his replacement go-between, Sir Ferret. A low-born scoundrel, Sir Ferret has none of Convent-trotter’s skill, and only succeeds in repelling the women he attempts to entice. With this, the narrative portion of the Libro de Buen Amor comes to a close, and the narrator encourages his readers to respect and value his book; it contains, he says, much fine poetry, as well as wisdom and sanctity, and he requests that his readers pray for him.

The rest of the work consists primarily of prayers to and about the Virgin Mary, though there are also poems narrated by blind men and poor students seeking alms. It concludes with a short narrative about the clerics of Talavera, who are told by their archbishop that they must put away their concubines, on penalty of excommunication. They are outraged and plan an energetic appeal.

The many faces of love

“Love” was as multi-faceted an idea in medieval Spain as it is now, in that amor could refer to anything from the love of God towards his creatures to the services sold by a prostitute to her customers, and everything in between. The ambiguity of the word was convenient for poets, who wrote about love as much as anything else in the Middle Ages, and were evidently quite interested in exploring its various shades of meaning. For Juan Ruiz, the narrator’s quest for love is something all men experience, though perhaps not quite to the same degree of variety. God, of course, is the source and embodiment of infinite, perfect love; all loves other than divine fall short somehow. Even sinful love, though, is not unrelated to the love of God; through misdirected affection, the sinner seeks comfort and happiness in a place where it cannot be found, with someone who cannot provide it. This love, even if achieved, is but a pale reflection of the love God can provide, and only temporarily eases the longing that only God can address. In his more temperate moments, the narrator of the Libro de Buen Amor realizes this, as in the Lady Garoza episode; here, his sexual goal is not met, but her charitable love and holiness leave him far more satisfied than if she had submitted to his lust.

Even apart from the idea of God, human love in the Libro de Buen Amor is complex. The women pursued by the narrator come from many walks of life, and his love for them consequently takes different forms. At one extreme is the love he experiences with the girls of the mountains; they force themselves upon him, and the resulting activity is semi-bestial and wholly without refinement. He feels no physical relief, only relief at escaping their clutches. This evidences a preference on his part for the polished and cultured love to be found with women of the upper classes, and indeed it is to such women that his most ardent addresses (usually in poetic form) are tendered; these are the lovers that fire his soul, that make him feel noble and significant. Ideas of love in the Middle Ages support him in this; love was thought of as an ennobling emotion, one that could impel lovers to feats of knightly bravery and heroic virtue. The standard example can be found in the Arthurian legends (well-known in Spanish literary culture since the twelfth century), in the character of Lancelot. His love for Guinevere was adulterous, to be sure, but it nevertheless helped make him the best knight in the world. Alongside Iberian adaptations of Arthurian material (many of the classic stories involving Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere were translated into Castilian, Catalan, and Portuguese in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), readers in Ruiz’s day also had a chivalric romance of authentically Spanish origin. El Libro de Cauallero Zifar (The Book of the Knight Cifar) is a prose romance of the early fourteenth century, featuring a full-fledged romantic hero (Cifar) who pursues the love of noble women, and performs deeds of great valor in the process. It is probably due to the influence of such models that Juan Ruiz is careful to note the social class of each woman that his narrator is pursuing, because it in many ways determines the quality of his love.

Sources and literary context

The sources of the Libro de Buen Amor fall into two categories: secular and religious. Probably the most important secular source text is the Pamphilus, a twelfth-century Latin play that was extremely popular and widely disseminated throughout Europe. In it, the title character (the name means “all love” or “wholly in love”) falls in love with Galathea, and after being advised by Venus and assisted by a crafty bawd, attains his desire. The seduction episode involving Lady Plum in Libro de Buen Amor is directly modeled on the Pamphilus, with Venus appearing in both narratives. The role of Don Melón echoes that of Pamphilus, Lady Plum owes much to Galathea, and Convent-trotter takes on the character of the bawd. The endings, however, are different—in the Pamphilus, Galathea is raped, and regrets having listened to the bawd, while in the Lady Plum episode, the two lovers are happily married. Pamphilus presents love in the unsentimental, even cynical manner characteristic of the Roman poet Ovid. (Ovid too has an “old woman” character in his poetry [Dipsas in Amores], and he as well as his medieval imitators probably also influenced Ruiz directly.)


Galathea: Through the rites of Venus, a virgin can lose her honor.

Love’s fiery madness knows no restraint.

The shafts of Cupid inflict grievous wounds, vilely seducing the unwary girl

I should agree to what you seek if I did not fear gossip, which brings to light even the most secret affairs of the heart.


Whispers, rumors, worries, I shall remove all fear of them;

I shall discreetly conceal you and your sport.

I know the rites of Venus and her ways.

You will be safe, thanks to my skill.

(Elliott, p. 13)

As shown, the influence of the beast-fable tradition is evident throughout the Libro de Buen Amor, the characters use these animal stories to argue with each other, and their morals are applied to the human issues being debated. Also, Ruiz is clearly familiar with Spanish vernacular poetic traditions; the poems involving the narrator’s adventures with mountain girls represent a fairly widespread genre in medieval Spain. Usually humorous, these poems (called serranilla) tell of a man’s journey into the mountains, whereupon he is waylaid by a wild shepherdess or cowherd and compelled to provide sexual favors.

The influence of religious texts upon the Libro de Buen Amor is more difficult to pin down, probably because religious motifs were generally commonplace, appearing in many different sources. Nevertheless, certain statements can be made with confidence. The author, whether or not he was actually an archpriest named Juan Ruíz, was clearly familiar with the texts of canon law. These laws were circulated in standard collections, usually accompanied by explanatory glosses, and an educated canon lawyer would also be familiar with standard commentaries on the laws. One such commentary, the Novella of John Andreae, is quoted in the Libro de Buen Amor. Scriptural texts of course appear with some regularity, and in the narrator’s more pious moments, he explains moral and religious doctrine in a manner wholly consistent with the dictates of standard fourteenth-century sermon manuals. His evident devotion to the Virgin Mary is also characteristic of his time; the later Middle Ages saw a huge upsurge in the veneration of the mother of Jesus, and the many prayers in honor of Mary contained in the Libro de Buen Amor express the basic elements of this veneration perfectly. Mary is the intercessor, the sinless human intermediary between man’s sinfulness and God’s avenging justice who can effect salvation for those sufficiently devoted to her. She is also the perfect model of human behavior. Christ’s own perfection is a behavior model, but his divinity poses an insurmountable barrier. Mary, on the other hand, is fully human; she understands human frailty, and (like a good mother) is more ready to forgive than judge.


The Libro de Buen Amor was first published in 1790. Its editor, Tomás Antonio Sánchez, was somewhat troubled by the work’s racier passages, which prompted him “to justify its publication as a document for the study of historical Spanish grammar, medieval customs, and metric forms, and to suppress those less morally enlightening passages which did not readily lend themselves to such research” (SeidenspinnerNúñez, p. 1). Much modern criticism of the work has devoted itself to answering the questions raised by Sánchez’s bowdlerizing; how serious is it? How can a reader profit from the religious material in the face of such ribaldry? If the ribaldry was the purpose of the work, why dampen the reader’s enjoyment with moralization? These questions show no signs of being answered definitively as of yet, but several approaches to them should be considered.

One answer is to see the work as fundamentally satirical, either in the service of conventional morality (as posited by the scholar Amador de los Rios) or countercultural iconoclasm (the view of Menéndez Pidal). However, most modern critics see such approaches as too simplistic. The Libro de Buen Amor possesses many voices: some satirical, some fervently religious, some cynical, and some starry-eyed with love. Each voice seems sincere, and many critics regard it as unreasonable to expect a unified voice from a work that so clearly does not mean to provide one. An important contribution to the recognition of this multivoiced quality was made by the great scholar of medieval French literature Felix Lecoy in 1938. Later critics were more inclined to see the Libro de Buen Amor as a legitimate artistic whole, in spite of its many voices and segmented structure.

—Matthew Brosamer

For More Information

Amador de los Rios, José. Historica critica de la literatura a española. Vol. 4. 1863. Reprint, Madrid: Gredos, 1969.

Castro, Américo. España en su Historia. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1948.

Constable, Olivia Remie. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, ed. and trans. Seven Medieval Latin Comedies. New York: Garland, 1984.

Gybbon-Moneypenny, G. B., ed. “Libro de Buen Amor” Studies. London: Tamesis, 1970.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Canon Law and the Archpriest of Hita. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984.

Lecoy, Félix. Recherches sur le “LBA” de Juan Ruíz, Archiprétre de Hita. Farnborough: Gregg International, 1974.

Menéndez Pidal, Ramón. Poesia juglaresca y origines de las literatura romanicas: Problemas de historia literariay cultural. Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Politicos, 1957.

O’Callaghan, Joseph. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Ruiz, Juan. The Book of True Love. Ed. and trans. Saralyn R. Daly and Anthony N. Zahareas. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

Seidenspinner-Nùñez, Dayle. The Allegory of Good Love: Parodic Perspectivism in the “Libro de Buen Amor.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Spitzer, Leo. “Note on the Poetic and the Empirical ’I’ in Medieval Authors.” In Traditio. New York: Fordham University Press, 1946.