Juan Ruiz

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Juan Ruiz

The Spanish poet Juan Ruiz (c. 1283-c. 1350), the archpriest of Hita, was the author of the "Libro de buen amor," one of the most extraordinary poetic creations of the Middle Ages.

Practically nothing is known of the life of Juan Ruiz except for what can be reconstructed from his poem. However, since the history of literature repeatedly proves that such a biographical technique is dangerous, it is best to carefully weigh all such evidence. In his poem he says that he was born in Alcalá de Henares (V: 1,510), a fact that agrees with the knowledge of geography shown in the poem. He gives an alleged self-portrait in stanzas 1,485-1,489, but scholars have pointed out that before these lines can be accepted as a physical picture of Ruiz, the weight of rhetorical tradition in literary portraiture—the physical correlates that medieval medical sciences attributed to psychological characteristics—and the fact that the description is made by a go-between, Trotaconventos, must be taken into consideration.

Lastly, the colophon to one of the manuscripts in which Ruiz's poem has survived explains that the work was composed while its author was in prison by order of Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz, Archbishop of Toledo. Since the poet also mentions a prison at the beginning of the Libro de buen amor (The Book of Good Love), scholars have argued that the reference in the poem is to the symbolic prison of Christian man and that this reference was interpreted literally by the scribe. Documentary proof gives evidence that by 1351 Ruiz was no longer archpriest of Hita. It is assumed that he died sometime earlier.

The Libro has survived in three main manuscripts, each one incomplete at different points. Two of the manuscripts represent a version of the poem finished in 1330. The third one represents an amplification of that version finished in 1343. Some fragments are also extant, including one of a Portuguese translation. Leaving aside the prose introduction (the Libro contains four different preliminary pieces before it expounds its propósito, or purpose), the poem has 1,728 stanzas, mainly narrative and in cuaderna vía (a learned 14-syllable poetic form) but with frequent lyrical outbursts in a variety of meters. The poem is supposedly an erotic autobiography written with a moral purpose, more in the medieval Ovidian tradition (as evidenced in the Pamphilus de amore, and mainly in the still-unpublished De vetula) than in the tradition of the Arabic and Hebrew works that have been pointed out as possible models. Spiritually, the poem is a hybrid product, typical of 600 years of coexistence of Christians, Moors, and Jews on the Iberian Peninsula.

Ruiz's poetic imagination and individualism were such, however, that no poetic tradition or literary theme employed by him has remained the same after his treatment of it. He was "one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages, the equal of Chaucer," according to one modern critic.

Further Reading

E. K. Kane's notorious 1933 translation of The Book of Good Love was reissued in 1968. The Libro is analyzed at length in Anthony N. Zahareas, The Art of Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita (1965). Américo Castro, The Structure of Spanish History (1948; trans. 1954), and María Rosa Lida de Malkiel, Two Spanish Masterpieces (1961), are good presentations of the case for Semitic influences; and Otis H. Green, Spain and the Western Tradition, vol. 1 (1963), presents the case for Occidental influences. □

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Juan Ruiz

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