prayer for release from incarceration in Libro de buen amor

old prison window

A prayer for release from incarceration has partially survived from the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor.  Even just a few stanzas from the prayer convey its anguish and its urgent pleading:

Oh Lord, who from the lions saved the Prophet at his cry,
Who saved St. James’s relics when the Gentiles’ grasp was nigh,
Who let not St. Marina in the dragon’s belly die,
Deliver me, my God, out of this prison where I lie.

Oh Lord, the lovely St. Susanna you did liberate
From false witness of the elders, with scorn and full of hate;
Deliver me, my God, out of this sorely anguished state,
Give me your mercy now, your wrath against me now abate.

Jonah the Prophet, too, out of the belly of the whale
Wherein he spent three days amid the ocean’s stormy gale,
You brought, as from a cozy dwelling, whole and sound and hale.
Saviour, save me without blame and pain from jail! [1]

This prayer for release from incarceration forms the beginning stanzas of Libro de buen amor. Libro de buen amor identifies its author as Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita.  Concluding paratext declares that the Archpriest of Hita wrote Libro de buen amor while imprisoned by order of Cardinal Gil, Archbishop of Toledo.  Cardinal Gil de Albornoz was Archbishop of Toledo from 1337 to 1350.[2]  However, the paratextual declaration that the Archpriest of Hita was imprisoned exists in only one of the three surviving manuscripts of Libro de buen amor.[3]  Scholars have debated whether the author of Libro de buen amor actually was incarcerated.  Perhaps the prayer for release from incarceration refers metaphorically to being bound by personal sin or oppressive social circumstances.

Whether the author of Libro de buen amor actually was incarcerated is relatively unimportant.  Much more important is for readers to imagine the anguish and pain of persons incarcerated.  That’s particularly true in the United States.  The United States currently has an extraordinarily high level of incarceration within a practically lawless criminal justice system.

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[1] Libro de buen amor, s. 3-5, from Old Spanish trans. Daly (1978) p. 21, with some minor changes that I’ve made.  The Old Spanish text is available online here.  For the last verse quoted above, Daly has “Saviour, save me without guilt or penalty from jail!”  The Old Spanish is “Mexías, tú me salva sin culpa e sin pena.”  From a Christian perspective, the salvation that Christ (the Messiah / Saviour) offers encompasses both guilt and penalty.  To convey a broader understanding of salvation, a literal translation of “e”, and a round-vowel-sound echo of the previous verse, I substituted, “Saviour, save me without blame and pain from jail!”  Stanza 4, verse 2 in Daly has “scorned and full of hate.”  Scorned refers to Susanna; full of hate, to the elders.  I’ve clarified the implicit references by using “with scorn” rather than “scorned.”

[2] Willis (1972) p. xxxix.  Recent studies identify Juan Ruiz as Juan Ruiz de Cisneros.  Juan Ruiz’s father, Arias Gonzalez de Cisneros, is thought to have spent about twenty-five years in prison in Grenada.  Juan Ruiz was born to Arias in Grenada and lived there under Muslim rule until age nine.  For a brief review in English of recent studies on Juan Ruiz’s biography, see Monroe (2011) pp. 28-30, and Haywood (2004) pp. 24-6.

[3] The three surviving manuscripts of Libro de buen amor are called the Salamanca, Gayoso, and Toledo manuscripts. Only the Salamanca manuscript contains paratextual section headings and concluding paratext.  The concluding paratext is in the hand of Alfonso de Paradinas.  He copied Libro de buen amor early in the fifteenth century.

[image] adapted from photo of old prison window in Bullfrog Jail in the ghost town of Bullfrog, Nevada; thanks to Wikipedia and Finetooth.


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

Haywood, Louise M. 2004. “Juan Ruiz and the Libro de buen Amor: Contexts and Milieu.” Pp. 21-38 in Louise M. Haywood and Louise O. Vasvári. 2004. A Companion to the Libro de buen amor. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis.

Monroe, James T. 2011. “Arabic literary elements in the structure of the Libro de buen amor.” Al-Qanṭara. 32 (1): 27-70; 32 (2): 307-332.

Willis, Raymond S., ed. 1972. Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita. Libro de buen amor. Princeton N. J: Princeton University Press.

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