One of six children, Luis de León was born Luis de León y Varela, the son of Lope de León and Inés Varela, in 1527 in the town of Belmonte. His family on both sides was extremely successful and included a professor of theology, a royal treasurer, a lawyer at the royal court, the secretary to the Duke of Maqueda, and the general Cristóbal de Alarcón, who had won fame and wealth in the Italian campaigns of Charles V. Lope de León himself was a successful lawyer in Madrid and Valladolid and was able to give his sons an outstanding classical education. When Luis was fourteen years old, he began to follow his father’s and uncles’ footsteps in the Faculty of Law at the University of Salamanca.
Perhaps because of the international reputation of the Salamancan theologians, perhaps because of a strong religious vocation, at age seventeen Fray Luis professed in the Order of Saint Augustine and, instead of studying law, began to study in the Faculty of Sacred Letters. His first public speech before the order reveals his determination that no kind of intimidation would force him to swerve from the truth as he perceived it. In that speech, Fray Luis claimed that, having given his life to Christ rather than to personal ambition, neither hypocrisy nor deception could constrain him to obedience. Within six years, he had begun the career which he would continue until his death, that of professor of theology at Salamanca.
Fray Luis was faced with winning and then every four years defending his position in public debates until he won a cátedra, or lifetime appointment to a chair with a fixed salary. These appointments became the source of fierce rivalry and heated debates between Augustinian and Dominican friars, and Fray Luis used every legal means available to guarantee his post until he had won a chair. Even then, to improve his position, he continued to challenge other professors for better-paying chairs as death provided opportunities. In one such opposition, he brought to trial Fray Bartolomé de Medina, a Dominican, for irregularities in Medina’s appointment. The Salamanca conference decided in Medina’s favor because of the latter’s popularity among his students and colleagues. Fray Luis took the case to the royal council of Philip II, which decided in Fray Luis’s favor by virtue of his seniority. This process and similar cases soon incurred his colleagues’ disfavor and mistrust.
Fray Luis remained undefeated at Salamanca until he opposed another lion, León de Castro. Fray Luis denounced the latter’s Comentarios sobre Isaias (1570) to the Inquisition and succeeded in having it suppressed. The Comentarios sobre Isaias contained a thinly veiled assault on the dangers of the Humanists’ approach to Scripture because of their reliance upon Greek and Hebrew. León de Castro preferred the traditional Scholastic method of syllogistic deduction to the literalist method of translation, claiming that the literalist approach, particularly in the work of Martínez de Cantalpiedra and Gaspar de Grajal, represented a threat to the authority of the Vulgate (vulgar Latin) Bible. On a personal level, León de Castro attacked Martínez and Grajal and, by association, Fray Luis, as heretics.
In March of 1572, the seeds of dissension bore fruit. An accusation against fathers Grajal and Martínez implicating Fray Luis was filed with the Inquisition in Valladolid, calling...
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