On Translating Diego de San Pedro's The Prison of Love

Title page of the Pablo Hurus edition of Cárcel de amor,
published in Zaragoza in 1493.

The translator of medieval letters faces a number of predicaments. Whereas the great moderns and even the weathered Greeks and Romans dispose of countless admirers and guardians who assure them a long and illustrious morbidity, medieval writers, with few exceptions, are seen even by the literate as exasperating, a matter for specialists. Their concerns are different from ours, their ways of reasoning perverse, and their language often grazes against opacity. The task of the medieval translator, then, is of making plain the virtues of works whose vices are often more easily seen. The modern humanist sensibility naturally rejects the Middle Ages' brutishness and casuistry, while contemporary literary tastes eschew medieval authors' fondness for an elaborate Latinate syntax often at odds with the natural rhythms of the vernaculars in which they wrote. Medieval writings are often prolix for reasons that are unclear to us, and their stock of symbols and metaphors, imbued with heraldry, Neoplatonic hierarchies and other once-esteemed cyphers, are now less discredited than simply forgotten.

If I have chosen to translate The Prison of Love despite these difficulties, it is because of the singular beauty of the text, the influence it exercised on the form of the novel, however covertly, and because it marks a dead-end in the history of literature, a direction the novel might have taken had the ribaldry of Rabelais, the mordancy of Cervantes and the candor of the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes not set into motion the chain of esthetic and moral considerations that would culminate in the rise of literary realism in the eighteenth century.

The novel treats of love both platonic and amatory: of one's duty to one's beloved, to oneself after having fallen in love, or else to love itself, as an abstract ideal; of the beloved's duty toward her wooer (I say her because active love, as the novel treats of it, is a property of the masculine spirit), and of love's status among the various obligations with which it contends.

The medieval mind was no less perplexed than our own about the nature of this emotion. Certain medical authorities explained it as an illness: there exist textbooks that warn the predisposed, outline symptoms, and suggest cures, though it was in general thought a grave disease and by some a mortal one; and when the narrator notes Laureola's changed complexion or her sudden weariness, it may reflect San Pedro's familiarity with such works. Some considered it a mere alibi for lust; Aquinas thought it a subset of friendship. A complacent reader, encountering the Prison of Love for the first time, will roll his eyes at Leriano's histrionics and fail to surmount his own distaste for the author's narrow treatment of the subject; a more sensitive one will reflect on what he himself calls love, will find it surely to be a clutter of overlooked questions and idées reçues, and will see that in a very basic way our own notions of love remain far from clear. Such a step is always necessary to appreciate the scope of a past literary achievement; particularly in the case of works of that era which, in its mentality, is often held to be further from us than that of the ancient Greeks.


San Pedro does not choose from among the assorted conceptions of love's essence available to him; Prison of Love is, in its primitive way, a novel, and it employs whatever aspects of these conceptions suit its artistic purposes without bothering to distinguish which is most valid. The book's drama is rather threaded round the ethical status of love, and specifically the contending obligations toward love and toward obeisance under monarchy, an institution very little questioned then. We are given to think Leriano incapable of courting Laureola openly; his love, therefore, in its very nature implies treason, and this latent betrayal becomes manifest when he opposes King Gaulo with arms. It may be, as he protests, that his intentions toward Laureola are merely laudatory, or else that his avowed respect for her virtue is no more sincere than similar protestations are today; regardless, one must recall first the notion that love may only be cured by its consummation, an idea of wide circulation at the time; and second that many considered what we would call love inherently suspect, so much so that Aquinas rebukes as sinful even the man who beds his wife too eagerly.

It is common to praise artists for what is called sometimes detachment and other times ambiguity or subtlety—the ability to prevent one's prejudices or the prejudices of the time from distorting the truth of one's artistic vision. The classic example is Shakespeare, whose eloquence and penetration are found no less in Richard and Shylock than in Henry and Prospero. We find something similar in San Pedro. Leriano begins the story guilty: on the one hand of lust, on the other, of the treason that any attempt to quell this lust will result in. And yet one cannot say that Leriano is an unsympathetic character, in so far as the notion of character applies to these strange named figures in the novel, who are really the mere occasions for impersonal flourishes of rhetoric and reason: his passion is described ornately, and is clearly unimpeachable in the eyes of the narrator, whom one takes to be in some measure San Pedro's surrogate in a period when the link between author and authority was still held something more than etymological. Leriano must choose to betray either his sovereign or the longing that enslaves him; society and tradition consecrate the first, the dictates of his heart the second; his dilemma is thus tragic in the Hegelian sense, comprising a conflict between two rights.

We see that, for Leriano, love proves the higher. Nor does the narrator give any indication of seeing otherwise. Yet love is never given a discourse in its defense as are good governance by the Cardinal and women by Leriano, and we must rather ascribe love's triumph to a kind of determinism than to reason. Leriano is captured, walled in, and tortured by love's minions, and it is by his conduct under duress, not by his duress per se, that the narrator recognizes in him one worthy of loyalty and admiration.

Love strikes one, in the novel, as opposed to its own consummation. Andreas Capellanus' assertion that love and marriage were incompatible comes to mind, as does C.S. Lewis's thesis that adultery provided the archetype for medieval concepts of romantic love. We may broaden this to include illicit affairs between the still-unwed, in which the offended father fulfills the role played otherwise by the cuckolded husband. And yet forbidden love is no real possibility; there are no novels of the drearily married prince or princess liberated by an unlawful and rapturous affair and sustained thereby into happy old age; love is inherently frustrated and thereby linked to that longing for death as a release from its torments that will become a slight craze in the Romantic era.

In general, the Prison of Love is a book of vestiges: of ways of believing that no longer obtain, of customs that already were dying out, of a manner of writing soon to be eclipsed by the realism of the picaresque novel. The characters are token—we do not even know what they look like—they are more properly the embodiment of moral perspectives loosely endowed with corporeal attributes, and had they been endowed with immortality and lived on into the modern age, with its perished values and wretched solitudes, their protestations of virtue and paeans to the excellence of the beloved might have devolved into the ravings of one of Beckett's monologists. One recalls that no philosophical exercise is ever terminated—and every literary artwork, it seems to me, is a kind of philosophical exercise—it is merely taken up at a certain moment and put down at another; and the ways of thinking about and representing love in the present work, though pushed aside, in literary history, by others, do not strike me as therefore unfruitful. Can we say that we are any clearer in our understanding of love than those of San Pedro's day? It is true that science has investigated the subject and provides compelling explanations for courtship rituals, the utility of monogamy, and the evolutionary history of blushing; but such knowledge tells us nothing about the interior experience of this very basic existential moment, composed of vague quantities that do not offer themselves for understanding and yet to understand which we are relentlessly impelled. In this way, I find the novel's crude characterization entirely if coincidentally appropriate; for is love not in its chief aspects impersonal, coming on us from without, like the inspiration of a demon, exhausting itself in flatteries and signals of devotion so often exceeding the merits of the beloved?

Click here to read Diego de San Pedro's The Prison of Love