Juan Ruiz Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Juan Ruiz c. 1283-c. 1350

(Also known as the Arcipreste de Hita, or the Archpriest of Hita) Spanish poet.

Sometimes called the Spanish Chaucer, Ruiz is the author of the Libro de buen amor (1330, revised 1343; The Book of Good Love), a classic of medieval Castilian Spanish literature. Taking carnal love as its overriding theme, The Book of Good Love is a multifaceted work that also includes adaptations of traditional fables and stories, picaresque adventures purportedly based on Ruiz's life, and devotional poems to God and the Virgin Mary.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known of Ruiz's life apart from what may be gathered from autobiographical sections of his Book of Good Love. However, commentators regard these sections as largely fictitious and regard the narrator of the work not as Ruiz himself, but as an artistic creation to which Ruiz added some elements of truth for credibility. From Ruiz's writing scholars gather that he was educated in the standard medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; there is also evidence that he was educated as a priest in Toledo, Spain, at the city's cathedral school. Whether or not he spent thirteen years in prison is still debated by scholars.

Major Works

The opening words of Ruiz's work—“Now let us begin the Book of the Archpriest”—have led some scholars to argue that the correct title of The Book of Good Love should be The Book of the Archpriest. Others contend that to disregard the popularly accepted name as its title is pedantic. Ruiz's only known work survives in two manuscripts—one from 1330 and another, in revised and expanded form, from 1343. The latter manuscript, thought by many to be unfinished, opens with prayers and a sermon and includes a plea for release from prison, although it is not certain if this refers to Ruiz himself. In the course of the work, Ruiz describes numerous love affairs as well as unsuccessful seductions of women, many involving the character Trotaconventos as a go-between. Ruiz's characters are for the most part commoners rather than aristocrats or royalty, as was typical for literature of the time. His sources were many and varied. They included the classics of antiquity, the Bible, Arabic works, and popular fables and folk songs.

Critical Reception

Most critics observe that portions of The Book of Good Love are self-contradictory. Furthermore, many historical references have been lost over the centuries, making it sometimes difficult to determine whether Ruiz is being serious or is engaging in parody. Catherine Brown writes: “It is plain that the Libro contains both doctrine and jest; the difficulty lies in understanding which is which.” In a structural analysis of The Book of Good Love, Oliver T. Myers objects to the narrowly-focused interpretations of some critics, decrying their careful selection of evidence that in his view serves only to bolster preconceived readings. María Rosa Lida de Malkiel notes: “Within the Christian environment of mid-fourteenth-century Spain, the autobiography of The Book of Good Love is entirely unique.” She further asserts that Ruiz chose the form of fictitious autobiography because it allowed him to express his views on moral conduct. Francisco J. Hernández presents a study of a document Ruiz signed as a witness, a paper that states the ruling in a religious jurisdiction dispute. Hernández writes that it is the only document known to exist that links Ruiz's name with his title, Archpriest of Hita, and that the linkage indicates the veracity of at least one level of the book. Anthony N. Zahareas studies Ruiz's sources and contends that the Spanish author appropriated the works of Aristotle only to the extent that they served his ends; the remainder he either altered or ignored. M. K. Read finds a major conflict of Ruiz's work to have its basis in differing philosophies of language, one of which holds that words are God-given and correspond with the things they signify while the other assumes that the meaning of words derives from context and convention. Read believes that Ruiz attempted to synthesize religious and secular views of language and that, although he failed, he offered useful insights into certain linguistic problems. Jeremy N. H. Lawrance studies the question of Ruiz's intended audience and argues that it was as educated and literate as its author. The slang employed in The Book of Good Love has interested several critics, including Sanford Shepard, who analyzes the sexual implications of certain words, and Louise O. Vasvari, who emphasizes their humorous connotations. Both agree that these meanings would have been obvious to perceptive readers of the time but require some scholarship to understand today—a task made more difficult by early expurgations of the text. Daniel Eisenberg asserts that the hidden meaning and warning of the text has to do with the difference between loco amor (mad love) and buen amor, which normally would mean love for God.