Libro de Buen Amor inverted Secret of Secrets mirror for princes

Mirrors for princes were books that provided knowledge and ethical instruction for rulers.  They also provided examples of clearly specified good and bad kings to allow a ruler to judge himself who was his mirror. Secret of Secrets, compiled in Arabic about the eighth-century in present-day Iraq, became in various translations and adaptations the most popular mirror for princes in medieval Europe.  Libro de Buen Amor, written in Spanish early in the fourteenth-century, inverted the generic characteristics of mirrors for princes and parodied Secret of Secret’s account of astrology. Libro de Buen Amor was an audacious, carnivalesque attempt to popularize the personal love of the Christian prince, Jesus of Nazareth.

Libro de Buen Amor and Secret of Secrets have contrasting generic characteristics.  Secret of Secrets is a prose text providing authoritative knowledge and ethical instruction for a king aspiring to be good and live well.  Secret of Secrets presents Aristotle providing instruction to Alexander the Great.  It’s serious, direct, and styled for an elite audience.  Libro de Buen Amor, in contrast, consists of diversely patterned, highly literary poetry ranging from vulgarly comical to prayerful.  Libro de Buen Amor is written in the person of an unknown, fallen cleric, Juan Ruiz.  Its text declares its aim to please a wide audience.  It describes signs and examples of good and bad love.  Libro de Buen Amor, however, continually warns its reader about the difficulty of reading signs.  Polysemic and full of ambiguity, it doesn’t provide direct ethical instruction.  It insists on the reader’s own choice of how to incarnate personally love.

Aristotle teaching Arabs as

Astrology provides a revealing subject for comparison between Secret of Secrets and Libro de Buen Amor.  The Arabic source of Secret of Secrets defended and advocated astrology in its royal counsel:

if it may be possible for you do not rise nor sit nor eat nor drink nor do anything except at the time chosen by astrology, for thus you will prosper … do not listen to those fools who say that the science of astrology is false and useless, and that one who predicts future events by means of astrology is an impostor.  I say that it is necessary to pay due regard to astrology.  For although man cannot avoid his fate, yet by knowing it beforehand he prepares himself for it and makes use of the remedies calculated to avert it.  … neither take medicine, nor open a vein except at the time chosen by astrology.  For truly, the benefit of therapy is considerably augmented in this way.[1]

The astrological circumstances of a person’s nativity, counseled Secret of Secrets, determine a person’s profession:

Every one is born at a certain hour, and his subsequent proficiency in arts and his successes or failures in his undertakings depend upon the influence of the stars ruling over his nativity.  Even if his parents try to turn him to engage in some other art or profession, he will turn to the one decreed to him by his stars. [2]

The illustrate that claim, Secret of Secrets recounted the story of a weaver’s son.  The weaver entertained astrologers passing through his village on the night that the weaver’s wife gave birth to a son.  The astrologers examined the son’s horoscope and determined that he would be “learned, dexterous, and of sound judgement, and that he would manage the affairs of kings.”  That’s a rather unusually profession for the son of a weaver:

They {the astrologers} wondered at it, but did not inform his father.  The boy grew up, and his father desired to teach him his own craft, but the boy’s nature was averse to it, and he refused to learn it.  His father tried compulsion and beat him until he was tired; but it was of no avail, so he left him alone.  Then the boy turned towards men of learning, studied sciences and histories, and acquired the arts of government, until at last he became a minister.  His fame spread, and his story became public. [3]

Astrology thus predicted a path from weaving to high office, rags to riches.

Secret of Secrets paired with the story of the weaver’s son becoming king a story of reverse occupational mobility.  An Indian king’s son was born under signs that foretold that he would become a smith.  The king’s astrologers, perhaps not wanting to bring the king unwelcome news, said nothing.  The king sought to teach his son royal matters.  But the son lacked royal ambition; his interest was in the craft of a smith.  The king, upset with his son’s direction, sought the advice of astrologers.  The astrologers confirmed that the boy’s nature was to be a smith.  That counsel apparently satisfied the king.  What will be must be accepted.[4]

Libro de Buen Amor extravagantly amplified Secret of Secrets’ understanding of astronomy.  Libro de Buen Amor tells the story of a Moorish king who had a son, his only son.  The king sent for astrologers to determine his son’s nativity.  Among the astrologers who came were “five most absolute and brilliant sages on the earth.”[5]  Based on the moment of the son’s birth, one said that the son will be stoned.  Another said that he will be burned.  A third said that he will be thrown from a high cliff.  A fourth said he will be hanged on a tree.  The fifth said that the son will die by drowning.  The king, hearing these contrasting prophesies, judged them to be lies.  He imprisoned the astrologers as punishment for their lies.

The king’s son wanted to go hunting.  When the son had reached his first majority, the king allowed him to go hunting.  The young prince and his tutor set out on the hunt under clear skies.  When they came into the mountains, a fierce hail storm sprung up.  They were pelted with stones.  The prince’s tutor remembered the prophecies of the wise astrologers.  The prince and his tutor sought to escape the danger:

And then they tried to find a shelter where they all might hide.
But this is always true and never can be otherwise:
Whatever God ordains must come to pass just as he wills,
As if by natural course, and this cannot be turned aside.

While it was pelting hail, the young prince spurred ahead, exposed,
And as he crossed a bridge the lightning struck him blazing blows;
The bridge caved in and he was hurled into the gorge below
And on a tree beside the river hanged by his own clothes.

The tree bent from his weight and fell, as all his friend could see,
And in the river he was drowned — they could not set him free.
Each of the five predictions now had been fulfilled at last.
Indeed, the wise astrologers had spoken truthfully. [6]

That’s an incredible story.  It parodies the Secret of Secrets’ assertion of nativity’s significance. It makes learned knowledge a matter of an entertaining folktale.[7]

In Libro de Buen Amor, astrology is a form of law and prophecy.  Immediately following the story of the five astrologers is a figure of God as a whimsical person who can “make things work as he may wish,” without respect to God’s own laws of nature.  A king and a pope can act in contrast to royal law and church law, respectively, as a result of particular personal relations and motivations.[8]  The narrator Juan Ruiz explains:

In this same way our Father, when he formed the starry skies
And set in them his signs and planets with their ordained rounds,
Prescribed their power and influence, but for himself — most wise —
He kept the greater power which they can never exercise. [9]

Dante poignantly described that greater power as “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”[10]  The first line in Libro de Buen Amor is “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  That declares that Jesus, the personal love of God incarnate, has become the new ruler of God’s people.  The one who loves has fulfilled the law.

What love truly means is the central question of Libro de Buen Amor.  The narrator Juan Ruiz declares that he was born under the sign of Venus.  The sign of Venus means to Ruiz an irrepressible urge to love women.[11]  As incredible as the story of the five astrologers’ prophesies is the claimed effects of Venus-determined love:

Love makes now subtly smooth the fellow who was rough and rude;
It makes the gallant, mute before, soon murmur soft sweet words;
It makes the coward fearless with a daring attitude;
It makes the slothful idler brisk, alert and unsubdued.

Characteristically in Libro de Buen Amor, claim and counter-claim generate laughter, confusion, and introspection:

For him who is in love, however ugly he may be,
And for his sweetheart too, though she be uglier than he,
There’s no one else on earth that either one will ever see
Who seems such fine, desirable and lovely company.

A bore, a homely dolt, a pauper or a charlatan
Seems to his ladylove a count, the finest nobleman,
More noble than all the others.  That’s why every man at once,
When he has lost a love, rakes up another if he can. [12]

Lovers are so special to each other that a replacement is immediately sought if one is lost.  That can’t be true.  What is true love?

The Libro de Buen Amor’s section on the five astrologers begins and ends with subsections of five verses.  The introductory subsection begins by asserting knowledge: ancient astrologers, reasoned science, and knowledge worthy of reliance.  Yet the claim to learning is associated with a counter-claim of futility:

Ptolemy said it first, and later Plato gave it heed,
And many other scholars in this notion have agreed:
Whatever his ascendant sign and constellation be
When man is born, such will control his fate, his life, his deeds.

A lot of people strive for learning that the Church provides;
They study years and years and spend great quantities of cash,
And know but little in the end; their destiny still guides.
They cannot contravene the fate their horoscope decides. [13]

The great astrologer Ptolemy was born much later than Plato, the great philosopher of earthly and divine love.  The order of great knowledge in the end comically doesn’t matter.  The concluding sub-section for the five astrologers warns:

That which looks grand and noble isn’t really worth a straw.
What seems to be is not: you’d better soak up this good sense! [14]

A horoscope can be read no more surely than the signs that the Greeks and Romans made to each other in their miscommunication about the transfer of the law.[15]  The narrator Juan Ruiz, acting under the sign of Venus, sought to love many women.  He tells the stories of his failures to realize lasting love with any.

Before Ruiz sets out on his Venus-determined path of failures to love, he recounts wisdom of Aristotle.  This wisdom of Aristotle is directed not to Alexander the Great, but to every man:

Wise Aristotle says, and what he says of course is true,
That all men struggle most for two things: first, what he must do
To feed himself and keep alive, and second, in this view,
To have sex with a pleasing woman who is compliant, too.

If I myself had said it, I’d be heaped with slurs and shame,
But this philosopher said it, and I can’t be held to blame.
No need to have much doubt of what the wise man has proposed;
His words are proven by our acts, no matter what we claim. [16]

Secret of Secrets rewrote Aristotle’s advice to Alexander to support the position of elite administrators and court intellectuals.  Ruiz, in contrast, seems to be presenting the wise Aristotle for ridicule.  Ruiz’s cited statement of Aristotle is Ruiz’s own invention.  That underscores Ruiz’s ironic assertion “what he says of course is true.”  Recognizing men’s animal desires for food and sex wouldn’t generate slurs and shame.  Men’s higher desires for “a pleasing woman who is compliant, too” is male fantasy, not Aristotelian philosophy.  Aristotle in medieval Europe was figured as providing hypocritical advice to Alexander about the danger of becoming carnally preoccupied with a woman.  The truth and impracticality of Aristotle’s advice was proven in Aristotle’s own acts.  Neither reasoned knowledge nor ethical instruction leads to true love in Libro de Buen Amor.

True love in Libro de Buen Amor requires a free, personal choice.  That choice occurs within the context of external law.  Jesus was born of a woman and born under Jewish law.  Christian belief in salvation also encompasses astrological law.  In the Gospels, a star marked the birth of Jesus.  When the present world is about to be destroyed, “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.”  Within Christian eschatology, personal choice remains.  One choice is that of Judas: “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!”[17]  Every person can choose the personal love of Jesus.  Libro de Buen Amor recognizes divine plan, human nature, and the cultural construction of men’s socio-sexual servitude to women. Libro de Buen Amor nonetheless insists on readers’ free, personal choice in realizing love.[18]

Secret of Secrets promises to make the king great through secret knowledge and ethical instruction.  The fundamental claim of the Gospels is that eschatology is personal.  The medieval institutional Christian church did not obliterate the Gospels’ fundamental personal claim.  That claim is at the heart of Libro de Buen Amor.

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[1] Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets), from Arabic trans. Ali (1920) pp. 192, 216.  The inconsistency “cannot avoid his fate … calculated to avert it” is a matter of religious doctrine and court politics.  It isn’t a literary device.  In the early Islamic world, astrology was not generally distinguished from astronomy.  Astrology was closely associated with medicine.  Astrologers and physicians both provided services that rulers valued highly.

[2] Id. p. 233.

[3] Id. pp. 233-4.

[4] Id. p. 234.  Yehudah ben Shelomo al-Harizi translated Kitab sirr al-asrar from Arabic into Hebrew between 1190 and 1218.  That translation includes the paired stories of the weaver’s son becoming a royal counselor and the king’s son becoming a smith.  For an English translation of the Hebrew text, see Gaster (1908) p. 133. Translations of Secrets of Secrets into other European vernaculars also included those stories.  See, e.g., The Governance of Lordschipes, MS Lambeth 501 (written soon after 1400), Ch. 97, printed in Steele (1898) pp. 99-100.  In Latin, the Secret of Secrets was called Secretum Secretorum.  As Petrus Alfonsi’s Epistola ad peripatetics indicates, Islamic astrology was more developed than twelfth-century European astrology and largely instructed European astrology.  In the Arabic life of Buddha (from about the eighth century), a wise astrologer, calculating the nativity of the king’s newly born son, declared that the son would achieve a new height of religious piety and asceticism.  The king, strongly opposed to such a way of life, sheltered the boy to avoid him having any thoughts of life, death, religion, and asceticism. See Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf (Bilauhar and Budasaf), from Arabic trans. into French, Gimaret (1971) pp. 72-3.  Here’s some analysis of the early Arabic life of Buddha and the European Barlaam and Josaphat.

[5] Libro de Buen Amor, s. 130, trans. Daly (1978) p. 57.  All subsequent quoted translations, unless otherwise noted, are from id. and will be cited by only the stanza number.  Libro de Buen Amor, which is a conventional title for the work, is variously translated into English as The Book of Good Love, or The Book of True Love.  A draft is thought to have been written in 1330 and expanded in 1343.  The author is identified as Juan Ruiz only within the work itself.  Juan Ruiz describes himself as the Archpriest of Hita.  Writing about a century later, Alonso Martínez de Toledo described himself as Archpriest of Talavera.  Martínez de Toledo seems in part to have been responding to the work of Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita. José Antonio Serrano Segura provides extensive online analysis of Ruiz’s book (in Spanish).

[6] Id. s. 136-8.  Scholars commonly call the story of the five astrologers the exemplum of King Alcaraz and the Astrologers.  That pushes the story toward the genre of mirror of princes.  Ruiz pushed the story from the mirror of princes toward folktale.  Similar stories exist in widespread folklore.  See Knowlton (1974), which cites the “Tale of the Doomed Prince,” from the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt (c. 1550-1292 BGC); the medieval Latin epigram “Hermaphroditus”; and a (probably ancient) Persian folktale recorded early in the twentieth century, “The Story of the Fate of the King’s Only Son.”  For the Persian story, see Lorimer & Lorimer (1919) pp. 333-4.  All these stories have three, rather than five, predictions/alternative fates.  After the paired stories of the weaver’s son becoming a royal counselor and the king’s son becoming a smith, the eighth-century Arabic Secret of Secrets declares: “There are many other stories of this kind and those resembling it are well known.” Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets), from Arabic trans. Ali (1920) p. 234.

[7] Haywood (2008), p. 39, describes the story as an exemplum conveying the message that astrology is reliable, but astrologers, as fallen humans, are necessarily fallible.  That interpretation misses that the exemplum has been ridiculously amplified. Secret of Secrets includes much astrological advice.  John of Seville translated Secret of Secrets from Arabic into Latin in Toledo about 1145.  The Franciscan Friar and leading Spanish intellectual Juan Gil of Zamora (c. 1241-1318) appealed to Secret of Secrets’ defense of astrology.  Williams (2004) pp. 409, 417-8, 425.  Given Libro de buen amor’s wide scope of knowledge, it almost surely encompassed Secret of Secrets.

[8] The king’s and pope’s acts in disregard for law are not just acts of virtuous mercy.  The king’s acts arise through cronyism and pay-offs:

But if important favorites, who are working on his side,
Will intercede before the king, he’ll pardon him this time.

Or if perchance this fellow, who has done some evil thing,
On some occasion in some way did service for the king

Libro de Buen Amor, s. 143-4. The pope can impose “dire punishment” at whim with an edict and grant forgiveness in exchange “for kind offices.”  Id. s. 146.  Cf. Haywood (2008) p. 40.

[9] Id. s. 148.  The previous short quote is from s. 140.

[10] That’s the last line of Dante’s Paradiso, trans. Ciardi (1970) p. 365.

[11] Ruiz’s description of the sign of Venus muddles astrological knowledge:

Juan Ruiz arbitrarily mixes the terms “sign,” “ascendent,” “constellation,” “planet”; it would seem he feels them to all be the same.

López-Baralt (1992) p.  46, ft. 4.  Id. and Haywood (2008) p. 40 interpret Ruiz’s astrological muddle as the popularized tradition of Claudius Ptolemy and Plato, as transmitted through the Islamic world.  However, deliberating presenting astrological knowledge falsely is consistent with Ruiz’s overall devaluation of astrology as external law.

[12] Libro de Buen Amor, s. 156, 158-9 (previous two quotes).

[13] Id. s. 124-5.  Ptolemy here readily invokes Claudius Ptolemy, who lived about 90 to 168 GC.  Ptolemy wrote the highly influential astrological work Tetrabiblos.  Plato lived about 500 years before Claudius Ptolemy.  Plato wrote nothing about astrology, but Plato’s Symposium influentially explored love.

[14] Id. s. 162.

[15]  For the Greek-Roman dialogue in signs, id. s. 46-63.  On Ruiz being born under the sign of Venus, id. s. 152-3.  Martínez de Toledo’s Archpriest of Talavera also parodied sign interpretation.

[16] Id. s. 71-2.

[17] Luke 21:25, 22:22 (previous two quotes).

[18] Ruiz declares:

Believing laws of nature shape our fates is not a sin
If you believe with firmer hope in God and stay devout.

Libro de Buen Amor, s. 141. To “believe with firmer hope in God and stay devout” doesn’t mean in Libro de Buen Amor conservative, orthodox following of institutional church teaching.  Cf. Haywood (2008) p. 39, 149-51.  Jesus declares the greatest commandment:

You shall the love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.

Luke 10:27.  The most important difference from the law (Deuteronomy 6:5) is having that commandment written not on stone but in the heart. 2 Corinthians 3:1-11.  Seidenspinner-Núñez (1981), pp. 90-2, insightfully emphasizes reader choice, but doesn’t relate reader choice to Ruiz’s Christian concerns.

[image] Aristotle teaching Arab students, illustration from Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam by Al-Mubashir;  MS Ahmed III 3206, Turkish, 13th century, held in Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey.


Ali, Ismail, trans. 1920.  Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets). Pp. 176-266 in Steele, Robert, ed. 1920. Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi.  Vol. 5. Secretum secretorum, cum glossis et notulis : Tractatus brevis et utilis ad declarandum quedam obscure dicta. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ciardi, John, trans. 1970. Dante Alighieri. The Paradiso: a verse rendering for the modern reader. New York: New American Library.

Daly, Saralyn R., trans. and Anthony N. Zahareas, ed. 1978. Juan Ruiz. The book of true love. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gaster, Moses. 1907-8. “The Hebrew version of the Secretum Secretorum: a mediaeval treatise ascribed to Aristotle.”  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.  Oct., 1907, pp. 879-912 (Hebrew text); Jan., 1908, pp. 111-162 (English translation)’ Oct., 1908, pp. 1065-1084 (discussion in English).

Gimaret, Daniel, ed. and trans. 1971. Le Livre de Bilawhar et Būd̲āsf: selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Genève: Paris, Droz.

Knowlton, Edgar C. 1974. “Two Oriental Analogues of Juan Ruiz’s Story of the Horoscope.” Romance Notes. 15.1: 183-87.

López-Baralt, Luce. 1992. Islam in Spanish literature: from the Middle Ages to the present. Leiden: Brill.  Trans. by Andrew Hurley of López-Baralt, Luce. 1985. Huellas del Islam en la literatura española: de Juan Ruiz a Juan Goytisolo. Madrid: Hiperión.

Lorimer, David Lockhart Robertson and Emily Overend Lorimer. 1919. Persian Tales, written down for the first time in the original Kermānī and Bakhtiārī and translated. London: Macmillan.

Seidenspinner-Núñez, Dayle. 1981. The allegory of good love: parodic perspectivism in the Libro de buen amor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steele, Robert, ed. 1898.  Three prose versions of the Secreta secretorum. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.

Williams, Steven J. 2004. “Reflections on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum as an Astrological Text.”  Micrologus.  Natura, scienze e società medievali 12, Il sole e la Luna:  407-434.

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