Cover image for At the Margins of the Renaissance : Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Art of Survival By Giancarlo Maiorino

At the Margins of the Renaissance

Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Art of Survival

Giancarlo Maiorino


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02279-6

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05846-7

200 pages
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12 b&w illustrations

Studies in Romance Literatures

At the Margins of the Renaissance

Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Art of Survival

Giancarlo Maiorino

“This scholarship is clear, concise, pithy, and powerful.”


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Winner of the 2004 Modern Language Association's James Russell Lowell Prize

Published anonymously in 1554, Lazarillo de Tormes upset all the strict hierarchies that governed art and society during the Renaissance. It traces the adventures not of a nobleman or ancient hero, but rather of an ordinary man who struggles for survival in a cruel, corrupt society after growing up under the care of a blind beggar. Giancarlo Maiorino treats this picaresque narrative as a prism for exploring econopoetics, a term he uses to foreground the ways in which literary and economic modes of production feed off one another. His approach introduces readers to the turbulent world of common people of Renaissance Spain even as it affords abundant insights into the historical significance of this literary classic.

Although literary historians generally connect the rise of the novel to the needs of the middle classes of England, Maiorino demonstrates that its deepest roots are in the culture of indigence that developed at the peripheries of Renaissance society and challenged—even parodied—its authoritarian ambitions. Seen in this light, Lazarillo de Tormes emerges as a key text in understanding the novel's purchase on visions of escape from authority into alternative modes of existence.

Maiorino grounds his far-reaching arguments in recent theories of textuality and the practices of everyday life. His book will be important reading for all those concerned with the Renaissance, Spanish history and culture, and, more generally, theories of the novel.

“This scholarship is clear, concise, pithy, and powerful.”
“Giancarlo Maiorino's new book is an important, complex, and suggestive study that foregrounds the many contexts of the picaresque. . . . The book will become a standard reference for all students of picaresque narratives.”
“Maiorino successfully shifts the discussion of Renaissance texts in particular and of literature in general from heroes of the upper or even the middle classes to the ‘common people.’ He accomplishes this by returning us to an early form of the novel and the prototype of picaresque fiction, the Lazarillo de Tormes, taking this early ‘novel’ as the starting point for a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of various tropes and images that will lead toward a greater understanding of the ways in which aesthetic and socioeconomic factors figure in literary texts.”

Giancarlo Maiorino is Rudy Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He is the author of numerous books, including First Pages: A Poetics of Titles (Penn State, 2008).




Part I In the Belly of Indigence

1. Econopoetics and the Great Chain of Handouts

Part II Starved to Death

2. The Mousetrap: The Price of Staying Alive

3. Inconspicuous Consumption: Of Toothpicks and Leftovers

Part III Out of Laceria

4. The Water Carrier: From Subsistence to Prosperity

5. The Economic Culture of Toledan Provecho

Part IV The Price of Onomastics

6. Lázaro de Tormes: What’s in a Name?

7. Will Lazarus Ever Be a Wage Earner?

Part V Dividends of the Mind

8. The Cost of Education: A Tale of Two Cities

9. The Economy of Genre

10 At the Margins: Whose Renaissance?

Works Cited

Index of Names



Econopoetics and the Great Chain of Handouts

The novel . . . is part of the discursive totality of a given epoch, occupying a place

opposite its ideologically authoritative core. Its conception is itself a story about an

escape from authority, which is often its subplot.

—Roberto González Echevarría

This study centers on econopoetics, a term that considers how

socioeconomic factors are central to the poetics of literary works.

Although they may appear to be unrelated, mimesis and oikonomia bear

on the legitimacy no less than on the marketability of art. From food

and gifts to onomastics and fashion, parallels between economic and literary

modes of production turn mimesis into "econo-mimesis," which

brings to the fore those precapitalist aspects of the Renaissance that

spurred exchanges between economic signs and noneconomic signifiers.

Much has been written about the art and literature of the culture of

affluence, which, from Florence to Amsterdam, upheld standards of academic

excellence as well as material wealth. This study claims that not

enough has been written about the much broader culture of Renaissance

poverty. Although indigence was widespread everywhere, only in sixteenth-

century Spain did low-life art and literature give voice to impoverished

noblemen and roguish youths—known as pícaros—who stood at

the margins of the grand narrative of the imperial Golden Age. The discourses

of poverty were social, religious, and economic. They encompassed,

to quote Anne J. Cruz’s recent study (1999, xi–xiii), reformist

treatises, state documents, and ecclesiastical writings. "From Lazarillo de

Tormes, who arrives in Toledo when the Poor Laws are enforced, to

Estebanillo Gonzáles, whose hunger compels him to join the Hapsburg

armies, the pícaros contend daily with both social disenfranchisement and

physical deprivation."

Mateo Alemán, Francisco de Quevedo, Ribera, Murillo, and

Velázquez brought to the fore folks who begged at street corners,

worked for low wages, and starved in destitute hamlets. Literary texts

made room for the best and the worst, but not for the average or

mediocre. History teaches us that destitution has always shaped the

lifestyle of what we now call "popular culture." Orations on human

dignity and praises of folly aside, no one wrote about the dispossessed

existence of common folks until the novelist gave them a voice.

Appropriately, Michel de Certeau (1988, v) dedicated his critical study

of everyday life "to the ordinary man," who is "a common hero, an

ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the street."

Because it downsizes "great men" theories of history, I extend his

emphasis to narratives that brought a new set of images to novelistic


Metaphorically speaking, Florentine anatomies of plenitude yielded

to the physiology of survival in Toledo and Seville, where artists and

writers took up the task of representing people who were never

"reborn" to the better life of material comfort. Thus I focus on the

prototype of the art of survival, the autobiographical and yet anonymous

La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (written in

1530–34 and published in 1554).o This text stands out as the first modern

European novel, appearing almost two centuries before the genre

became a commonplace production of the English middle class. Lazarillo

de Tormes is also the earliest narrative about the low culture of a vagrant

who became a protagonist in the emergent genre of the picaresque,

which grew out of a culture of utter indigence on the arid plains of


In post-Renaissance landscapes, picaresque descriptions of poor people,

empty spaces, and absent objects—furniture, tools, food, clothes—

often traded the necessary for the wishful; even mimesis was starved to

death. Miguel de Unamuno (1976, 25) reminds us that "The land which

fed Don Quixote is a poor land, so swept and lashed by the downpours

of centuries that its granite entrails have cropped out at the surface."

The accomplishments of capitalism and the industrial revolution

notwithstanding, poverty remains a central feature of most societies, so

much so that the picaresque has cast its long shadow over the twentieth

century and beyond. At the beginning of the third millennium, the rise

of global capitalism leaves no doubt that it still is with us.

Lazarillo de Tormes is about a destitute youth. Very much like the

pícaro of folklore, he embodies the lifelong toil of an outsider who rarely

transcends his impoverished circumstances.o Lázaro, the protagonist,

leaves his native hometown of Tejares after his father is arrested and sent

to prison for stealing wheat. Antona Pérez, the boy’s mother, is left

without an income and decides to move to the academic city of

Salamanca. Her hope is to mix "with respectable people"—"arrimarse a

los buenos"—on the assumption that people who own goods are good;

her standard of goodness is economic, not moral.

Things do not work out; good people are not good enough to

Antona. Finally she gives her son away to a blind beggar whose brutal

ways introduce the boy to the art of survival. "I won’t make you a rich

man," says the blind man, "but I can show you how to make a living."

Once he outsmarts his master, Lázaro moves to commercial Toledo,

where he tests will and wits, first in the service of a stingy priest and then

with a dispossessed escudero who introduces him to such values as honor,

pride, and social status. Having served a mundane friar (fraile de la Merced)

and a seller of false indulgences (buldero), Lázaro is hired by another

priest (capellán) who gives him the job of water carrier. Finally he

becomes town crier (pregonero) and marries the mistress of the local archpriest,

a woman who turns out to be the source of much of Lázaro’s

"good luck":

Y, así, me casé con ella, y hasta agora no estoy arrepentido, porque, allende de

ser buena hija y diligente servicial, tengo en mi señor acipreste todo favor y

ayuda. Y siempre en el año le da, en veces, al pie de una carga de trigo; por

las Pascuas, su carne; y cuando el par de los bodigos, las calzas viejas que

deja. E hízonos alquilar una casilla par de la suya. (131–32)

We got married and I’ve never been sorry because, besides her being

a good and attentive girl, the priest is always very kind to me. Every

year I get a whole load of corn; I get my meat at Christmas and Easter

and now and again a couple of votive loaves or a pair of old stockings.

He arranged to rent a house next to his. (78)

Job and marriage are intertwined, and Lázaro accepts the assets and liabilities

of a "profit-sharing agreement" that makes cuckoldry profitable.

After years of modest prosperity, a high ecclesiastical authority, identified

as Vuestra Merced, levels a vague indictment (caso) against Lázaro,

presumably having something to do with his unusual marital arrangement.

Lázaro answers the charge by writing his life story, producing in

the process the first extant picaresque novel. His defense, in short, is that

individual responsibility cannot be assigned without also acknowledging

the collective guilt of society. He narrates his social ascent as the

inevitable by-product of an economic system in which a parasitic aristocracy

exploits workers by using its hereditary privileges and the religious

institutions of Christendom to its advantage.o It would be unjust

to indict a lowly town crier, Lázaro argues, without indicting the culture

in which he was allowed first to starve and then to prosper.

As it deals with a blind man’s boy who becomes the town crier, the

story is one of unrelenting toil and modest achievement within a population

that has turned expediency into a way of life.o The protagonist’s

journey begins in Salamanca, the city of learning, and ends in Toledo,

the city of business.o The picaresque narrative thus depicts the common

migration from the peripheral countryside to the commercial hub of

society, where an enterprising "new Christian" bourgeoisie began to

erode the power and privilege of the landed aristocracy.o It was in the

city that resourceful outcasts stood a chance to build a better future for


Street smarts were needed to survive in neighborhoods where economic

improvements were modest and education was a luxury that few

could afford. At the periphery of accademie, studioli, and patrician palaces,

the picaresque art of survival represented a popular kind of humanism,

which Boccaccio introduced in the opening words of his Decameron:

"Umana cosa è"—"It is human." Here umano meant humane at the

ground floor of existence, not humanist in the academic enclaves of

learned scholarship. In this world of the streets, we roam with

Andreuccio through the Malpertugio neighborhood in Naples

(Decameron II, 5), witness Celestina pointing out familiar whorehouses,

and wander by the escudero’s ghostly lodgings in a Toledan district

crowded with weavers and prostitutes. This is the world of Cervantes’s

Seville, the criminal underworld of Rinconete and Cortadillo.o Against

all odds, Lázaro masters the art of survival and goes on to lead a secret

life of learning. His mimesis of "life-as-is" yields unhoped-for dividends

in the world of literary currency.

Especially in Spain, the literary corollary to the life of the street

included poesía cancioneril, teatro primitivo, refranes glosados, diálogos, as well

as imitations of Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina, which gave tragicomic

form to the bleak view of human life as mere doing. We thus confront

a literatura desesperanzada rooted in philosophical pessimism and

economic dispossession.o In fact, material and artistic modes of production

were as intertwined in the pit of economic destitution as they were

in the high culture of mercantile affluence and aristocratic privilege.oo As

Michel Butor (1964, 96) put it, the new genre exposed "the guts, the

underside, the margins of society." Because it was known as the fountainhead

of the real as well as of the literary picaresque, Toledo represented

Spanish society at its cultural "lowest" as well as at its unproductive


In 1492, the Catholic kings discovered the future on a new continent

where indigenous people had to pay dearly for the dubious gifts of a

new language and religion. Like the great navigators of this era, picaresque

writers charted journeys through the vast geography of poverty,

giving literary form to the indigent humanity that nobody wanted to

discover because everybody knew it. It took a long time to map the

outer reaches of the picaresque on the home front, where Lázaro and

Guzmán, the most popular of the pícaros, made omelettes with eggs as

rotten as their corrupt society. In the same year that Christopher

Columbus set out to discover new routes to old markets, a whole population

of productive non-Christians was forced into exile unless it

denied its religious beliefs. Accounts of imperial conquest were popular,

but few attempted to justify the materialist enslavement of indigenous

Spaniards on Spanish soil. Arab peasants and Jewish craftsmen and merchants

who became Christian to avoid persecution were called conversos,

and it is generally agreed that the nameless narrator of Lazarillo de Tormes

was one of them. These indigenous people were as radically marginalized

as their counterparts in the New World. In The Unfortunate Traveller

(1594), Thomas Nash wrote of picaresque vagrants who roamed the

seedy back alleys of derelict neighborhoods. Their tribulations proved

that the longest journeys often take place in the shortest distances.

While the economic base of society was changing throughout

Europe, aristocratic privilege rested on nobility of blood, which was

anchored at the unproductive center of the Spanish monarchy, where

old Spanish Christians enjoyed a kind of twilight splendor. The Holy

Roman Empire had vanished, and Charles V’s ecumenical mission

proved to be a bankrupt myth. At least for a while, the wealth coming

from the New World kept dreams of grandeur alive for the ruling class,

and voyages of discovery gave way to expeditionary armies whose mis-

sion was to conquer new territories. The upshot was the creation of

imperial languages, empires without sunsets, and Christian kingdoms

that gave an altogether modern resonance to experiences of, and escapes

from, authority.

While they lasted, imperial dreams were built on the exploitation of

the working classes and on the ingenuity of bankers and businessmen.

While the workers never got to share the wealth they produced, the

bankers never gave up on profitable ventures. A mercantile elite as wide

as Western Europe and more powerful than states and empires emerged

in the down-to-earth republic of money—republica del danaro. Its heritage

was in Florence and dated back to financial powerhouses such as

the Peruzzi, the Bardi, and the Acciaiuoli, whom the historian Giovanni

Villani (Cronica xi) called the "pillars of Christendom." Bankers such as

the Medici, Welser, Hoechstetter, Lomellini, Centurione, Grimaldi,

Spinola, and Ruiz introduced a commercial mindset that challenged the

old, aristocratic concept of wealth as rooted in land ownership.

Spain was less receptive to such a development. By the turn of the

seventeenth century, Sancho de Moncada recommended that trading

companies should be organized according to the Dutch or Italian

model. Even the all-powerful Conte de Olivares conceded that

Spaniards had better learn to become merchants—this at a time when

Jakob Fugger was so powerful that Spain under Charles V became

known as the Age of the Fuggers. In spite of precious metals coming

from the New World, Spain eventually plunged into an unstoppable


Having visited Spain, the Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini

(1971, 32–34) wrote between 1512 and 1513 that Spaniards did not

"care to dedicate themselves to commerce—non si danno alle mercatantie"

because they scorned business activities that were censored by the

Church.oo While most artisans at court were foreigners, people in the

countryside "till the land and engage in trade only to satisfy need—così li

artifici loro lavorano quando la necessità li caccia, di poi si riposano che abbino

speso il guadagnato." Prejudice against commerce and lack of mercantile

ingenuity spawned impoverishment. The population toiled in great

poverty—"con una somma strettezza"—and living conditions were harsh.

People "are extremely stingy, and, because they have no commercial

skill, they also are prone to stealing." Modern scholars such as Castro

and Maravall have made less severe appraisals. According to Bennassar

(1979, 118), "Francesco Guicciardini—who wielded a venomous pen,

to be sure—wrote that Castilians although subtle and astute, were not

distinguished in the mechanical or liberal arts; all the artisans at the

court, if we believe him, were foreigners. He obviously exaggerated

when he claimed that Castilians regarded commerce as shameful, for at

the time he wrote the merchants of Burgos were looked up to in

Flanders. But his claim that the country’s poverty sprang not from the

quality of its soil but from the dislike of its inhabitants for labor has the

support of Spanish witnesses." And Gonzáles de Cellorigo wrote at the

time, "the things that most hinders our people from engaging in the

legitimate activities so important to the public weal is the great honor

and authority enjoyed by those who shun labor."

When the merchant, lured by the certain profits which the bonds will

yield, gives up his business, the artisan his craft, the laborer his field,

and the shepherd his flock; when the nobleman sells his lands in order

to exchange the amount they are worth for five times that sum in

Government bonds, then the real income from their patrimonies will

be exhausted, and all the silver will vanish into thin air, at the same

time as for his own needs, for those of the lord of the estate, the rentier,

the tax-farmer and so many others who have some claim to

make on the land. Thus, from the bottom of the scale to the top, one

may calculate that the ratio of those who work to those who do

nothing is of the order of one to thirty. . . . Wealth has not taken root

because it has remained, and still does remain, etherialized in the

form of papers, contracts, bonds, letters of exchange and gold or silver

coinage, and not in the form of goods able to bear fruit and to

attract wealth from abroad by virtue of the wealth within.oo

Guicciardini spoke in the name of economics, whereas most Castilians

spoke in the name of Christian righteousness and imperial pride. The

socioeconomic landscape was split along the divide that separated the

tradition-based caste from the modern class structure. In a legalistic culture

that was vastly parasitic, the values of caste and ghost money were

pitted against those of class and material goods. The concept of commercial

profit is alien to the caste system, which places ultimate value on

social hierarchy. The Spanish social system, writes Anthony Cascardi

(1997, 1–3), slowed the pace of cultural change at a time when the

emergence of capitalism in the rest of Europe "tended to reorient social

differences along class lines." And Américo Castro (1971, 365–66) asserts

that "the caste-determined condition was not a temporary or accidental

phase of Spanish life, but an introverted mode of perceiving that one

existed that way, as a person of one faith, of one law."

On the mainland, the ostentatious display of wealth was prized over

the commercial ingenuity and diligence that characterized the bourgeoisie

in other European countries. The arrogance and lack of productivity

of the Spanish nobility created negative perceptions abroad that

generated what came to be known as the Black Legend. Commenting

on the materialist background of the "Age of Discovery," Jules

Michelet, the nineteenth-century historian who gave critical currency

to the term Renaissance, liked to quote Christopher Columbus, who

believed that gold could buy paradise itself. In Spain the "golden century"

drew strength from the "cycle of gold" that financed it.oo Many

Spanish soldiers spent most of their lives in Italy and the Low Countries

defending the grandeur of the golden century, but they never got to

know what was so precious about the age in which they lived.oo Similar

experiences took place on both sides of the Atlantic.oo In spite of military

conquests, the gold and silver coming from the New World quickly lost

their luster and raised the rate of inflation, to the financial ruin of many

escuderos and hidalgos. There were times when the king himself could not

pay the bills—not that this curtailed the conspicuous consumption of

the court and the nobility. Scholars have probed the role that wealth has

played in the creation of a "high culture" based on the alliance between

business and aristocracy under the blessing of the Church. This powerful

elite ignored the mediocre, overlooked the normal, and exaggerated

the best.oo The parasitic nobility was bound to tumble, and tumble it did.

Guzmán de Alfarache, at the apex of the picaresque genre, set out to


Un hombre perféto, castigado de trabajos y miserias, después de haber bajado

a las más ínfima de todas, puesto en galera por curullero della. (467)

A man, perfect in his parts and person, punished with troubles, and

afflicted with miseries, and falling afterwards into the basest roguerie.

(3, 5)

But the travails of existence dragged him to the Gallies, "where his

wings" were clipped. Guzmán had no choice but to trust the "basest

roguerie" amid the trabajos y miserias of existence, which reduced the

perfect man to a poor wretch weighed down by the same fortunas y

adversidades that Lazarillo had endured. Whereas the Renaissance writers

Leon Battista Alberti and Pico della Mirandola glorified human perfection

in treatises and orations far removed from life at street level, Mateo

Alemán opted for the novel; theory gave way to practice, and grand

ideas were abandoned in favor of life as it was lived by the majority:

Es el pobre moneda que no corre, conseja de horno, escoria del pueblo,

barreduras de la plaza y asno del rico. . . . Nadie le ayuda, todos le impiden;

nadie le da, todos le quitan. (353–54)

The Poore man is a kinde of money, that is not currant; the subject

of every idle Huswives chat; the off-scumme of the people; the dust

of the street, first trampled under foot, and then throwne on the

dung-hill. In conclusion, the Poore Man is the Rich mans Asse. . . .

None helpe him, all hinder him; none give him, all take from him.

(2, 128)

Alemán’s subject is not man in general, but man as an economic subject:

homo oeconomicus.

The discourse of money is the discourse of both empowerment and

enslavement, which weigh one’s social standing on the scales of appreciation

and depreciation. In De subventione pauperorum, the pious Luis

Vives, whose Jewish family had migrated to Bruges, called for a sharing

of basic goods in the belief that God had given everything in common

to everybody. On more practical grounds, he also recommended that

the poor should be registered and interrogated as to why they begged.

Linda Martz (1983, 9) tells us that "anyone who claimed infirmity as a

cause for begging was to be inspected by a doctor, and anyone who

resisted these proceedings was to be put in jail." Fray Domingo de Soto,

Fray Juan de Medina, and Miguel Giginta argued that riches carried

moral responsibilities, and their writings on the culture of poverty

included arguments against the Poor Law (1540), which ruled on the

expulsion of the poor from the cities.oo Poor laws were one more burden

on the poor throughout Europe.

Historical and fictional writings by Procopius of Cesarea, St. Basil,

Angelo Beolco, Raimundo Llull, and Giovan Battista Segni have highlighted

the role of hunger in the dynamics of history.oo Throughout the

Renaissance, people starved to death. Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted

the Battle between Carnival and Lent, and Tommaso Garzoni wrote about

"Re di Cuccagna" in Piazza Universale, in the knowledge that poverty,

not prosperity, was the rule of life. Luigi Pulci and François Rabelais

linked food to outsized figures with outsized appetites. Literary descriptions

of the poor concerned themselves with food intake, whether food

actually eaten or only conjured up by the imagination. Because food

defines humanity in itself as well as in relation to life at large, picaresque

diets have been indicators of social status.oo In fact, the economics of

food consumption are an apt, if pitiless, barometer of communal habits.

What Italo Calvino has called the dialectic of sapore (flavor) and sapere

(knowledge) has been central to a genre as complex and eclectic as the


However bright the veneer of imperial grandeur, more than onethird

of the Spanish population was destitute. Mateo Alemán called

Seville the Babilonia de pícaros, and the new genre alerted readers to the

causes of poverty as well as to the exploitive thinking of those who bore

some responsibility for it. Even Erasmus (1965, 1:251, 211) wrote, "for

living well, it’s particularly important that a man accustom himself to

being content with little." To Erasmian praise of folly, the picaresque

added its own praise of the low-life world of vida buscona. Since no

rhetorical currency was available for sketching a portrait of the "valueless"

as such, the poor were presented as the negative of the socially

"valuable." Without calling for open revolt, the picaresque was both

parodic and revolutionary in its depiction of strategies of survival that

turned humanist education on its head.oo

By and large, paupers took deprivation as a fact of life, and Peter

Dunn (1993, 295) writes that, among picaresque texts, Lazarillo de

Tormes "makes us stare at" poverty, which the majority of people

accepted as the given lot of humankind. In the consumption-oriented

economy of Renaissance Spain, the power of labor never gathered

enough strength to instigate changes of any consequence for the lower

classes. When legitimate employment was not available, people resorted

to temporary, if not clandestine, work, which introduced the world of

beggars, cutpurses, parasites, and the seedy humanity of germanía. In

their midst, the culture of the picaresque broke ground and produced

artworks about people who spent most of their lives on the edge

between the lawful and the lawless. While Francisco de Quevedo

instructed anyone who would "attend to the lesson" of low-life behavior

(género de Picardía), picaresque and Cervantine characters proclaimed

that stealing was "a free trade," and some of them played center stage in

the Prologue of Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1499). For Buscón’s

father, Clemente Pablos, "esto de ser ladrón no es arte mecánica sino liberal"

(being a thief isn’t just a job, it’s a liberal profession) (86).

At issue here are ingrained attitudes toward work itself. Throughout

the Middle Ages society was divided between maiores et potentiores and

minores et infirmiores. Physical work and mechanical arts were held in low

esteem vis-à-vis intellectual ingenuity and moral strength. The Spanish

nobility lived on inherited wealth and enforced socioeconomic discriminations.

Thus we can pit the profitable arte della mercatura (art of business)

and the aristocratic arte della cortigiania (art of courtiership) against

the picaresque arte de furtar (art of stealing), which also produced a mock

encomium on the freedom of the beggar’s life.oo The traditional rhetoric

of praise was based on exaggeration. Its counterpart, the rhetoric of

blame, reversed direction without mitigating its intensity.

In Spain the anticanonical discourse of the picaresque gave voice to

criminals, prostitutes, water carriers, town criers, and outsiders at large.

Without uprooting either economic privilege or social injustice, the

anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes started a novelistic discourse

that pushed the material concerns of the lower classes to the forefront of

art. At its most prosaic, the semantics of picaresque "insignificance"oo

described the economic condition of the underprivileged. Ordinary

folks survived the rise and fall of empires as well as the waning of the

Renaissance exactly because they had mastered the art of survival under

the most adverse circumstances.

In his recent study of Cervantes’s material world, Carroll Johnson

(2000, 16–17) confirms that labradores and villanos represented 80 percent

of the total population. While treatises and dictionaries associated them

with "everything gross, malicious, and lowly," Fray Benito Penalosa de

Mondragón wrote that such common folks "are the objects of city people’s

amusement, and they are depicted on the stage in a way that makes

them seem even more unfit for society, with their coarse mannerisms

exaggerated for the amusement of the audience." More educated readers

were perhaps less amused. Then as now, not everyone read pica-

resque texts as comic stories. What is funny to some can be deadly serious

for others; in Lázaro’s own words, "one man’s meat is another man’s

poison—lo que uno no come, otro se pierde por ello" (23, 4). Mikhail Bakhtin

(1981, 23) also warns us that laughter itself "means abuse, and abuse

could lead to blows." Likewise, José Antonio Maravall (1990, 156)

agrees that picaresque laughter has worked as an instrument of social disintegration.

And we know that parody and satire mark the first lines of

attack against the established order. The "abused" may have been slow

to see themselves as such, but when they did, picaresque literature

helped them to become conscious of socioeconomic discrimination in a

new way. Even those in charge of the master narratives must have realized

that Lázaro’s autobiography was more than a simple "comic" story,

or why else was it placed on the index of forbidden books in 1599?oo

Lazaro’s story exposed and at times discredited the wealthy and powerful

at a time when nobody paid much attention to the lives of ordinary

people. Picaresque novels tested "canonical" boundaries by celebrating

the unremembered, their joys, pains, and struggles to survive. Yet the

poor looked at their ordinariness as the negative sign of the humanist

ideal described in Florentine panegyrics or in those chivalric romances

which, to Don Quixote’s dismay, were printed by the hundreds in


Popular culture stood beneath the exclusive center of aristocratic

privilege. But the materialist "flowering" of the Renaissance was rooted

as much in mercantile ingenuity as in profiteering off manual laborers.oo

George Boas’s (1969, 74) reminder is instructive: "The People are not

always the poor, but the poor are usually an important part of the

People. . . . If the People are the plebs or the vulgus or the multitudo,

they will almost by definition be those men who have no inherited

property, no individual political power or influence, no experience of

the arts or pastimes of the leisure class, and none of the prestige that

comes from wearing the proper clothes." Praises of poverty were at

once inspirational and incongruous. By blending together the discourse

of social privilege with that of religious purity, Petrarch (1991, 3:35)

sounded rather awkward when he put his rhetorical skills at the service

of religious propaganda: "She [poverty] is an ever watchful sentinel

against burglars and pleasures . . . against the shame of greed or extravagance

which seldom dwells anywhere else than in the doorways of the

rich." Both the acquisition and the ownership of things encourage theft,

vice, and sin. As long as poverty occupies one’s house, Petrarch went

on, "there will be no space for pride in it, nor for envy, nor for disastrous

losses . . . nor for deceit, indigestion, and the gout, which are permanent

guests in the house of the rich." In its alleged deliverance from

moral shortcomings, indigence drew on biblical references in which

temptation upheld the dualism of survival and steadfastness. Having

equated material loss with spiritual gain, these rhetorical strategies were

meant to convince the poor that poverty was a blessing after all.

Affluence, conversely, was an institutional attribute of the nobility

and, however disguised, of the Church. The clergy preached the rightness

and naturalness of social and economic inequality, and promised a

heavenly reward for the dispossessed poor. Ordinary people accepted

poverty as their reality, and the rich viewed it as a social disease that was

to be kept under control; it could be alleviated but not eliminated. And,

of course, charity was the approved means of dealing with poverty,

which conveniently kept the poor poor and created a cheap labor

force.oo At the same time, the institutionalized practice of begging was a

reminder that one could fall into destitution. In Spain and elsewhere,

workers and artisans were seen as crowds to be flattered or to be threatened

—but always to be taken advantage of. As a source of cheap manpower,

the poor were crucial to everyone else’s prosperity. Charity was

the flip side of exploitation; the hand that gave a little had taken a lot to

begin with. Compassionate reformers such as Luis Vives, Juan de

Medina, Miguel Giginta, and Cristóbal Pérez de Herrera favored

employment over charity, which would have the benefit of curing idleness.

But theirs were the proverbial voices in the wilderness. By and

large, the poor accepted that life without physical and cultural hunger

was beyond their reach.


As the sixteenth century unfolded, the materialist heterogeneity of lifeas-

is made time biological and space phenomenal. Once artists and writers

responded to the demands of existence, picaresque humanity began

to operate in "chronotopic" conditions, a term that highlights the diversity

no less than the dynamics of life in the making. Michael Holquist

defines the Bakhtinian chronotope as "literally ‘time-space.’ A unit of

analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of the tem-

poral and spatial categories represented. The distinctiveness of this concept

as opposed to most other uses of time and space in literary analysis

lies in the fact that neither category is privileged; they are utterly interdependent.

The chronotope is an optic for reading texts as x-rays of the

forces at work in the culture system from which they spring."oo To put

it in Bakhtinian terms (1981, 388, 84), "the testing" of Lazaro’s survival

as well as his pursuit of a place in society set off "the most fundamental

organizing idea in the novel." And "testing" occurs in spatio-temporal

conditions in which "time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes

artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the

movements of time, plot and history."oo Textuality thus responds to the

external pressures of laughter, parody, the plurality of high and low genres,

the diversity of languages, and, last but not least, the never-ending

contest between canonization and heteroglossia.oo The dynamics of

chronotopic interactions guide my approach to Lazarillo de Tormes,

which, published in the mid-sixteenth century, bridged the gap

between a waning humanism and an emergent baroque. The humanist

treatise and the system of linear perspective gave way to picaresque and

quixotic novels, illusionistic perspectives, and the phenomenal spaces of

Caravaggio and Velázquez.

Keeping in mind the novelistic lessons of nineteenth-century Realism

and Naturalism, we must view the emergence of the novel with an

awareness of its socioeconomic complexity. If we read Dickens or Zola

without paying attention to econopoetics, we will miss much—perhaps

too much. The traditional tendency to exclude economic factors from

works of art mystifies their very nature, and few would deny that the

concept of value is contingent upon one’s material milieu.oo

After Werner Sombart singled out luxury as one of the engines of

capitalism, Richard Goldthwaite (1987) found in conspicuous consumption

an opening into processes of cultural change.oo I focus on the opposite;

it is conspicuous destitution that makes Lázaro de Tormes dream of

becoming a consumer amid laborers who toil at the periphery of affluence.

oo Since I question the privileges that "high culture" enjoyed at the

exclusion of "popular culture," my aim is to call attention to those layers

of society that fall outside the bounds of humanist learning and aristocratic

elitism. Thus I intend to explore how a network of material

practices called on human ingenuity to cope with indigence. My

econopoetics weaves together literary narrativity with the politics of

narrativity, and the picaresque offers historical evidence for probing into

the nomenclature of poverty.

Since it would be difficult to deny that "official" history has represented

the past in a way that flatters and celebrates the attitude of the

dominant class, the texts that have come down to us are those that reinforce

establishment ideologies. The sheer fact that the poor have been

"established" as much and as long as the rich gives priority to the issue

of dominance over that of longevity. By drawing on treatises on mercantile

affluence that financed the humanist best, as well as from the

novelistic indigence of the Darwinian fittest, econopoetics takes a step

toward a more comprehensive assessment of the Renaissance.

Because it was so self-righteous, humanist elitism raises fundamental

questions: Was the literature that outlined "ideal types" truly representative

of society at large? How inspiring could such hypothetical figures

be for the population at street corners? Successful merchants, scholars,

and courtiers aside, what did humanist literature say about ordinary people?

Above all, how much of culture, and how many people, did

humanist texts exclude? We must keep these issues in mind before we

raise questions about the "other" Renaissance of picaresque indigence.

When the voices of "low" culture are silenced, we must probe the range

and depth of their silence. And economic concerns can effectively test

the scope of their absence.

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