Alonso Martínez de Toledo's Arcipreste de Talavera, known popularly as Corbacho within a short time after its initial appearance in 1438, occupies an important place in the history of late medieval Castilian prose literature. Influenced by the Archpriest of Hita's Libro de buen amor (1343), and influential on Fernando de Rojas's Celestina (1499), the Arcipreste de Talavera deals with the topics of carnal and spiritual love, sin, social relationships and their effects on the individual, as well as the planets and constellations and their effects on the human temperament. Its popular title evokes Giovanni Boccaccio's antifeminist treatise Il Corbaccio (1355), though, as Eric Naylor and Jerry Rank explain, "the contents of the Spanish work have little relation to the Italian work" (12). It fell squarely in line with other European literary works of the time that dealt with fate, the will, and predestination, and scholars often include it within the category of pedagogical exemplum literature, especially that aimed to teach young courtiers about the deceptions of love.
In 1959 the University of California Press published Lesley Byrd Simpson's English translation of Martínez de Toledo's book, under the title Little Sermons on Sin. That title is somewhat misleading since the author's stories and lessons resemble more the first-person gossip of a grumpy old man than the learned discourse of a late medieval sermon. One sees the influence of homiletic rhetoric in the first half of the work, and the author's division of half of Part I of the book--nineteen very short chapters--into subsections related to the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins likely contributed to Simpson's election of his English title. However, to refer to the work as a series of sermons is, to be sure, inaccurate. Even more, Simpson's translation, though very good, reflects an antiquated English that resembled more that of the late Victorian period than that of the period in which he produced it. Naylor and Rank's translation is, then, a welcomed, more accurate and complete updating of the English edition.
Naylor and Rank begin their introduction to The Archpriest of Talavera with the required brief biography of Alonso Martínez de Toledo, who lived during the turbulent reigns of Enrique III (reigned 1390-1406), Juan II (1406-1454), and Enrique IV (1454-1474), a period of social upheaval and constant intrigues among the Castilian, Aragonese, Portuguese, French, and English royal houses. Martínez de Toledo himself likely died in 1468, the year in which a new archpriest was named for Talavera. We know little about the archpriest's life, though various scholars have pieced together evidence that places him among the ecclesiastic elites and the nobility. Naylor and Rank outline those studies in the first three pages of their introduction. As the translators point out, Martínez de Toledo wrote other works that include a summary of royal chronicles from the Visigothic period to his own day, a biography of Saint Ildefonso, an ascetic treatise about the evils of the world, and a Castilian translation of Saint Ildefonso's On the Virginity of Our Lady.
The remainder of Naylor and Rank's introduction briefly treats various literary aspects of the Archpriest of Talavera. They offer a concise comparison of the author's supposed literary intention with that found in Juan Ruiz's Libro de buen amor, pointing out humorous elements found in both as well as passages where the vocative form indicates the readership of each work--both male and female. As the two scholars point out, the author's frequent mention of Juan Ruiz's book "makes clear his admiration for this fascinating Castilian poem" (9). As I have already pointed out, Martínez de Toledo, like Juan Ruiz, organized part of his book around the deadly sins and the Ten Commandments. He mentions the seven virtues as well, and gives ample first-person testimony to show the unhappiness caused by giving oneself over to the temptations of women. Although the archpriest carefully points out that his exempla are taken from the lives of family, friends, or acquaintances, we know that he also relied on Andreas Capellanus's Reprobatio Amoris. There is, however, such a large number of grossly exaggerated exemplary tales and anecdotal gossip that I have always wondered how much of the narration came from the author's own attempts at illicit love.
Whereas the first two parts of The Archpriest of Talavera point out "the personality flaws and sins which are the most characteristic of wicked women, who represent one of the principal causes of the damnation of the immortal soul" (12-13), the third and fourth parts deal primarily with the four complexions, predestination, and astrology. Part three takes as its source the Secreta secretorum Aristotelis and attempts to show how each of the four complexions-- phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, and melancholic--contribute to an unhealthy appetite for sex. The archpriest condemns those who give in to base instincts, saying that those who do so will live a "life of hell on earth" (13). In the fourth part of the book, based in part on various Augustinian works as well as Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, the author speaks against predestination, stating--as did Juan Ruiz a century before--that each man has the power to differentiate good from evil and to choose for himself the actions that he will perform. In no way can unbridled lovers blame their failures on the stars, as they are wont to do. Though Martínez de Toledo recognizes the virtues of a select few women, he exacerbates the ages-old religious belief that through Eve mankind finds its downfall in "the sexual perversity of women" (19).
The translators end their introduction with comments on "the attraction of the Archpriest of Talavera for the twenty-first century." Briefly, they relate the work's antifeminism to modern cultural issues related to gender and sex, explaining the importance of introducing students to discourse and ways of thinking other than their own. One of the translators offers an anecdote from his own class, stating that the book once caused such anger in a female student that she planned to "burn the book on the lawn of the university and [condemn] the professor for promoting a work of such appallingly politically incorrect views of women" (19). The misogyny that students confront in the archpriest's work is, admittedly, appalling from a modern point of view--so ridiculously appalling that one would expect to hear it today only from a stand-up comedian in the raunchiest of male-centric nightclubs. But, as Naylor and Rank point out so well, the archpriest's book touches on human emotions, beliefs, and morality in such a way that few readers can close the book without having confronted themselves in some way. Though written for the Castilian society of the fifteenth century, the Archpriest of Talavera is a book for all times and places since it reminds us of past--and even current--attitudes regarding gender and sexuality and forces us to ponder the evolution of beliefs and practices both during the centuries since its appearance in 1438 and within our own individual lives. Insulting as it may be to modern sensibilities, Martínez de Toledo's book is, in my opinion, surprisingly modern, most especially when read with the tumultuous state of modern politics and political correctness in mind.
Eric Naylor and Jerry Rank have provided students and teachers of the late Middle Ages a superb translation of one of Spain's less-studied works of literature--one that I believe should be researched more thoroughly and taught more often. Compared to the numerous clerecía works of the thirteenth century, to those of Don Juan Manuel and Juan Ruiz in the fourteenth, and even to contemporary works of the fifteenth, Alonso Martínez de Toledo's Corbacho has received little attention. My hope is that, with the availability of this new, well-annotated, translation, this fascinating work of moral and social commentary will gain importance not only among Hispanists but also among scholars of comparative literature and historical sociology.