Celestina: heroine of the first European novel

The sleep of reason in reading Celestina

The first European novel and the first Spanish best-seller first appeared in 1499 under the title Comedia de Calisto y Melibea. By 1518, its title had become La Celestina. That title change indicates the attraction of one of the work’s characters, the celestial Celestina. A leading scholar of Spanish literature recently explained:

{Celestina} is an old whore and procuress who runs a brothel, restores virgins, arranges for clandestine sexual encounters, and corrupts young men and women. Yet, for all these unsavory characteristics and immoral activities, Celestina is a self-possessed, willful, and courageous character whom the reader cannot but admire. She is a modern tragic heroine [1]

Under a global trend toward repressive orthodoxy in thought and expression, imaginative literature like Celestina now might be regarded as dangerous and unacceptable. Yet Celestina remains “as fresh and relevant a work of fiction as if it had been written today.”

The original title characters Calisto and Melibea are much less interesting than Celestina. Calisto is a young, rich, well-educated noble completely immersed in the foolish delusions of courtly love. Calisto loves Melibea. Calisto’s religion is courtly love of Melibea. He explains:

I am a Melibean, and I worship Melibea and I put my faith in Melibea and I adore Melibea. … She is a goddess! A goddess! [2]

Calisto declares that the sight of her beautiful hair can turn men into stone, while the sight of her breasts rouses them.[3] Calisto perceives Melibea in a mash of classical myth and mundane reality:

Has her equal ever been born in the world? Did God create a sweeter form? Can such features, a model of beauty, be painted? If Helen were alive today, the one for whom so many Greeks and Trojans died, or the beautiful Polyxena, they would obey this comely mistress for whom I pine. Had she been present in that contest among the three goddesses for the golden apple, they would never have given it the name discord because, without dissent, they would have agreed that it be given to Melibea, and thus it would have been called the apple of concord. For women who know of her curse themselves. They wail to God because he did not remember them when he made this my sweet mistress. They use up their lives, envy gnaws their flesh, they inflict brutal martyrdom upon themselves, thinking that with artifice they will equal the perfection nature effortlessly bestowed on her. They thin their eyebrows with eyebrow pluckers and plasters and fine cords; they look for golden herbs, roots, branches, and flowers to make bleaches so their hair will be like hers; and they maul their faces, covering them in various hues of unguents and ointments, acid lotions, white and red paints, and powders that for the sake of brevity I will not detail.

Calisto considers himself unworthy of Melibea. Nonetheless, he intensely desires her.

Melibea lacks an ethical core. Her behavior rapidly shifts across extremes of values and desires. She presents herself as a genteel woman concerned for her reputation and her parents. When Celestina tells Melibea of Calisto’s deep devotion to her, Melibea viciously attacks her:

May you burn at the stake, you deceitful procuress, you vile convent-trotter, you witch, you enemy of decency, you cause of secret sins! Jesú, Jesú! Lucrecia! Take her from my sight. I am through; she has left no drop of blood in my body! The person who gives ear to such women deserves this and more. Were it not that it would reflect upon my purity, and spread the word of the audacity of this brash man, I would, you wicked drab, have seen that your words and your life were quickly ended. [4]

Melibea also cruelly disparages Calisto:

Jesú! I do not want to hear another word about this crazed wall jumper, this night specter, this leggy stork, this badly woven figure in a tapestry, lest I drop dead on the spot! This then is the man who saw me the other day and began to rant and rave and act the gallant. Tell him, my good woman, that if he thought everything already won and the field his, I listened because I thought it better to listen than to publicize his flaws; I wanted more to treat him as a madman than to spread word of his outrageous boldness.

Melibea’s attitude toward Calisto changes rapidly as Celestina spins out a story of Calisto’s toothache and his many noble attributes. Soon Melibea is suffering from exhausting swoons and heartaches. She urgently seeks a return visit from Celestina. Melibea prays to God:

I humbly ask you to bestow upon my wounded heart the patience to conceal my terrible passion! Do not strip away the fig leaf I have placed before my amorous desire, pretending my pain to be other and not what is tormenting me. But how shall I be able, when I am so cruelly aggrieved by the poison dealt me at the sight of that caballero. O shy and timid womankind! Why are women not given the power to reveal their anguishing and ardent love, as men are? O that Calisto should not live with a complaint, nor I with pain.

Subsequently meeting with Celestina, Melibea confesses her love for Calisto:

O my Calisto, my señor, my sweet and gentle joy! If your heart feels as mine does now, I marvel that my absence allows you to live. O Mother, Señora Celestina, if you want to save my life, find the way for me to see him soon.

Melibea subsequently relishes illicit sex with Calisto. After he dies in an accident, she commits suicide by jumping off a tower in the presence of her distraught, loving father.

Unlike Melibea, Celestina is a strong, independent woman, a professional, and a business-owner. One of Calisto’s servants engages her to arrange for Calisto to have sex with Melibea. The servant explains:

From some time now I have known a bearded old crone who lives at no great distance from here. A witch, astute, wise in every wickedness that exists, she calls herself Celestina. I understand that in this city over five thousand maidenheads have been restored and undone by her hand. If she puts her mind to it she can move rocks and stones to lust.

Celestina has six trades:

seamstress, perfumer, wondrous concocter of paints and powders, and restorer of maidenheads, procuress, and, on occasion, witch. The first office was cover for the others, under which pretense many girls, among them servants, came to her house to be stitched and to stitch neck coverings and many other things. None came without a rasher of bacon, wheat flour, a jug of wine, and other provisions they stole from their mistresses. And other thefts of even greater worth were hidden there. Celestina was friend to many students, and stewards, and servants of clerics, and to these she sold the innocent blood of the hapless girls who foolishly took risks on the basis of the restitution she promised them.

Celestina is the leading sex trafficker in the city. She declares:

Few virgins, praise God, have you seen open shop in this city for whom I have not been the agent of their first sale. When a girl is born I enter her name in my register in order to know how many escape my net. What were you thinking? Do you think I live on air? That I inherited an estate?

When Celestina is out walking, a hundred women call out, “old whore.” Dogs bark it, birds sing it, donkeys also bray out “old whore.” So too proclaim frogs. Craftsmen wielding tools of every shape and size hammer out that name. All of creation, even two rocks touched together, proclaim Celestina an old whore.[5]

Celestina is filled with wisdom. She is an expert on the ways of women. To a colleague questioning her ability to get Melibea to have sex with Calisto, Celestina explains:

For even if Melibea is a fierce opponent, she is not, may it please God, the first I have choked the cackle out of. They are all a bit skittish in the beginning, but after they have once been saddled they never want a rest. … And even as old as I am, God knows my longings. How much more these girls who boil without fire!

To a whore affecting reticence toward a suitor, Celestina says:

How plump and fresh you are! What breasts and all so lovely! … Do not be miserly with what has cost you so little. Do not hoard your loveliness, for it is by its nature as good an exchange as money. … Do not believe that you were created for no reason; when a she is born a he is born, and when a he, a she. Nothing is superfluous in the world, nor anything that nature does not provide for. What a sin it is to weary and torment men when they can be helped.

Celestina collects and concocts for medicines and cosmetics a wide array of exotic substances: root of aphodel, bark of sienna, benzoin, serpents’ venom, ointments from bears, horses, camels, whales, and other beasts, fruit pips, St. John’s wort, rosemary, musk, and many different types of threads.[6] Celestina is so learned that she speaks of love in rhetorical contrasts arising from learned Latin literature:

Love is a hidden fire, a pleasant wound, a delicious poison, a sweet bitterness, a delectable hurting, a happy torment, a sweet, fierce wound, a gentle death.

When Celestina tells Calisto that Melibea is in love with him and at his command, Calisto responds naively:

But speak to the conventions of courtly love, Mother. … Melibea is my beloved. Melibea is my goddess. Melibea is my life. I am her captive, I her servant.

Unlike Calisto, Celestina perceives and rejects men’s fruitless subordination in courtly love. She chides Calisto for his lack of self-confidence in relation to Melibea. Wisdom knows that to arouse women, nothing is more important for men than self-confidence. Celestina knows what many men don’t.

Celestina is a treacherous, self-centered, gluttonous schemer and liar. She lies to everyone effortlessly. Her words have no meaning other than her intent to manipulate. She dines on food that others have stolen. To ease her loneliness at night as an old whore, she drinks jugs of wine.[7] She has a knife scar on her face that seems to tell of a scheme gone wrong. When she attempts to cheat two of her men co-conspirators out the share of the booty from procuring Melibea for Calisto, they kill her. These men in turn are killed for their crime. Men’s lives matter much less than the life of the magnificent, admirable, modern tragic heroine Celestina.

Spain’s greatest living writer has applauded Celestina as representing our current world. In a text written about 2009, he declares:

Celestina portrays with disturbing lucidity and precision the fast-approaching universe of chaos and strife we now endure. … The only laws that rule the pitiless universe of Celestina are the sovereign edits of sexual pleasure and the cash nexus. … Does human life exist outside the laws of the market, or is it just one more product for sale? To the anguished question posed by growing inequalities, a close reading of Celestina brings us an inexorably negative answer from five hundred years ago: nature and its blind laws reduce us all to the status of an expendable commodity in a godless, iniquitous world. [8]

Such hackneyed bombast generates warm feels for today’s literary elite. No market has performed worse than the status market for literature and imagination. Celestina no longer represents an aberrational world.

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[1] Roberto González Echevarría, Introduction, in Peden (2009) p. xiii. The subsequent quote is from id. On the title becoming La Celestina in 1518, id. p. xv. Bush & Goytisolo (2010), back cover, describes Celestina as “the first-ever Spanish bestseller.” See also Translator’s Afterword, id. p. 218. About seventy editions of Celestina were printed by 1605. Snow (2008) p. 82. Celestina was translated into Italian in 1505, adapted into English about 1525, and by the end of the seventeenth century translated into French, Flemish, German, Hebrew, and Latin. Celestina had considerable influence on Spanish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ayllón (1958) pp. 284-5, Snow (2008).

[2] Celestina, from Spanish trans. Peden (2009) Act 1, pp. 10-2. Calisto’s servant Sempronio tries to enlighten Calisto with a brief review of themes from the literature of men’s sexed protest. Sempronio explains that women taught him that literature. Sempronio also asserts NAWALT:

Listen to Aristotle, look at Bernard. Gentiles, Jews, Christians, and Moors, are all in agreement. But despite what is said, and what women may say, do not commit the error of supposing all women are like that, for they are many, and some are saintly, virtuous, and noble, and their shining crowns exempt them from vituperation.

Act 1, pp. 13-4.

Celestina is available online in the original Spanish. Early editions of Celestina exist in shorter (16 acts) and longer (21 acts) versions. Peden’s translation is the longer version and includes paratext from early editions. In her Translator’s Note, Peden declared:

I wanted what appears on the English language page to be as close as possible to the original Spanish … I wanted to change as little as possible the tone of the original, which would be the inevitable effect in creating a more readable version.

Id. p. viii. Peden also expressed belief in the “true meaning” of words and in the existence of a “perfect translation.” Id. p. viii, x. Even for readers who lack such beliefs, they inspire confidence in Peden’s translation. I find her translation more readable and more enjoyable than that of Bush (2010).

All the subsequent quotes from and references to Celestina are based on Peden’s translation, cited by act and page. The quote sources: Act 6, pp. 95-6 (Has her equal …); Act 4, pp. 67-8 (May you burn …); Act 4, 68 (Jesú! I do not want to hear … ); Act 10, p. 141 (I humbly ask … ); Act 10, p. 149 (O my Calisto …); Act 1, p. 18 (From some time …); Act 1, p. 24 (seamstress …); Act 3, p. 49 (Few virgins …); Act 3, pp. 51-2 (For even if Melibea …); Act 7, 106-7 (How plump and fresh …); Act 10, p. 147 (Love is a hidden fire …); Act 11, p. 154 (But speak to the conventions …).

[3] In Greek myth, Medusa was a woman with a hideous face and venomous snakes for hair. Anyone who looked her in the eyes was turned to stone. Calisto incongruously adapts the Medusa myth in conjunction with a much more naturalistic claim about men’s sexual response.

[4] The epithet “convent-trotter” alludes to Trotaconventos of the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor.

[5] Celestina, Act 1, p. 23. Cf. Psalm 19:1-4. The description is from the servant Parmeno, who grew up with Celestina. Celestina describes much differently how the world addresses her. Act 9, p. 137.

[6] Celestina, Act 1, pp. 25-6; Act 7, p. 107. Other medieval texts similarly describe women collecting exotic materials for medicines, cosmetics, and witchcraft. See, e.g. the Mirror of Jaume Roig. Celestina uses letters written in blood on paper, serpent’s venom, and thread to conjure Pluto. Act 3, p. 55. Her actions in invoking Pluto are similar to erotic spells described in the Greek Magical Papyri, dating from the second to the fifth centuries.

[7] Celestina, Act 9, p. 129. Celestina’s extravagant praise of wine echoes an Arabic poetic tradition (wine poetry, in Arabic khamriyyah) dating from the sixth century. The ninth-century Arabic literary genius al-Jahiz made an important contribution to wine praise.

[8] Juan Goytisolo, Introduction, Bush (2010) pp. x, xi, xvi.  The biography blurb inside the front cover of id. describes Juan Goytisolo as “Spain’s greatest living writer.” In 2014, he won the Miguel de Cervantes Prize.

[image] The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos). Etching by Francisco Goya, no. 43 in the series Los Caprichos.  Dated 1797-8.  See also no. 7,  Even Thus He Cannot Recognize Her (Ni así la distingue). Thanks to Museo del Prado (Madrid) and Wikimedia Commons.


Ayllón, Cándido. 1958. “A Survey of Celestina Studies in the Twentieth Century. ” Pp. 283-99 in Mack Hendricks Singleton, trans. 1958. Celestina; a play in twenty-one acts, attributed to Fernando de Rojas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bush, Peter R., trans. and Juan Goytisolo, intro. 2010. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New York: Penguin Books.

Peden, Margaret Sayers, trans., and Roberto González Echevarría, ed. 2009. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Snow, Joseph T. 2008. “Notes on Cervantes as a Reader/Renewer of Celestina.” Comparative Literature. 60 (1): 81-95.

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