The anonymously-authored Lazarillo de Tormes was first published in Spain in 1554. It is a picaresque novel – a term derived from picaro meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’. The genre emerged in Europe at a time when the gradual breakdown of feudalism was occurring: the old bonds of loyalty and fealty which each class owed to one another were disintegrating in the face of emergent capitalism and individualism. Picaresque novels such as Lazarillo de Tormes, then, often took socially marginal figures as their protagonists and depicted their struggles to survive in a new social and economic order. By the sixteenth century, money mattered just as much as birth in Europe, and to succeed one has to work hard – a sentiment expressed by Lazarillo himself in the introduction when he makes a snipe against the aristocracy:
I’d also like people who are proud of being high born to realise how little this really means, as Fortune has smiled on them, and how much more worthy are those who have endured much misfortune but have triumphed by dint of hard work and ability.
Personally, I find the argument that the genre was ‘a response to the breakdown of feudalism and the culture that sustained it’ much more convincing than those scholars who say the form was merely adapted from Arabic literature, in particular the Arabic maqama, and through it try to claim an Arabic origin for the birth of the novel (I have, however, given the citation to one work which makes such an argument in the interests of balance). Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila weighs up the arguments for an Arabic origin in his new book and concludes that some limited influences from the Arabic maqama can be found in the picaresque novel, but that the maqamas simply were not popular enough to have ever had any significant influence upon the picaresque.
Lazarillo’s Early Life
The whole novel is told from Lazarillo’s point of view. He was born in Tejares, a village near Salamanca. When he is young, his father is arrested for ‘bleeding the sacks’ of the townsfolk’s grain. His father is punished by being conscripted to serve in the army, where he dies. Lazarillo and his mother then move to Salamanca and she makes money by cooking meals for students and washing stables boys’ clothes. His mother gets to know one of the stablemen quite well – a black slave who is always coming to the house and bringing his mother gifts such as bread and pieces of meat. Lazarillo soon finds himself with a mixed race baby brother. Eventually, the slave’s master catches him stealing food to give to Lazarillo’s mother. The slave is whipped and basted with hot fat as punishment, and his mother is also given 100 lashes and ordered never to approach the slave again.
Lazarillo and the Blind Beggar
Lazarillo’s mother finds new employment at inn and there she raises her two sons. One day a blind man comes to the inn and asks if he might take Lazarillo off her hands and serve as his guide. Without much compunction, Lazarillo’s mother agrees and says to him that ‘now you must look after yourself’. The blind man and Lazarillo then set out to leave Salamanca. As they reach the edge of the city, the man gives Lazarillo a beating, for no other reason than to ‘show him who’s boss’ and to make him ‘sharp’. After another few days, the blind man starts to teach Lazarillo thieves’ slang, and says:
I won’t make you a rich man, but I can show you how to make a living.
Under the ‘protection’ of this man, Lazarillo experiences what we now call child abuse or neglect. Although the blind man obtains some not inconsiderable sums of money, he keeps poor Lazarillo half-starved. So Lazarillo has to learn how to use the man’s blindness to his advantage. As it is Lazarillo who has to prepare and cook both their meals, he makes sure that he gets the best bits of bread and meat, while leaving the inferior cuts to the blind man. The blind man, furthermore, keeps the pair’s bread supplies in a padlocked sack. Lazarillo simply bleeds the sack and eats some of the bread while the man is sleeping, and sews it back up. In addition, the blind man is a con man – he pretends to be a Holy man who says prayers for people who are sick and dying (all for a fee, of course). But the man’s customers always give payment to Lazarillo, who is supposed to check the amount, so Lazarillo simply siphons off funds to keep for himself. While at meal times the blind man keeps a tight hold of his wine cup, Lazarillo finds a long straw and sucks some of the wine out of it. Eventually the blind man cottons on to this trick, and starts keeping the cup of wine between his knees at meal times. So Lazarillo devises a new plan: at every meal he complains about being cold and asks to sit on the floor between the man’s knees for warmth. While sitting on the floor, Lazarillo makes a small hole in the bottom of the wine cup and sits there drinking the drops which fall out. After a few weeks, the blind man catches Lazarillo out again, and one day as he is sitting between his master’s knees waiting for the wine to drop out, the blind man simply smashes the cup between Lazarillo’s teeth, knocking several of his teeth out and cutting him in the face quite badly.
After the incident with the wine cup, Lazarillo vows to get revenge on his master. This often takes the form of leading his blind master over very uncomfortable and rocky roads, which hurts his master’s feet. One day his master throws Lazarillo a scrap of bread while he is cooking a nice fat sausage. Lazarillo is then commanded to go and buy wine for him. While the blind man is fumbling around for coin in his pockets, Lazarillo quickly grabs the sausage and replaces it with a rotten turnip and goes off to but some wine. When Lazarillo returns having eaten the sausage, the man guesses what he has done and starts to beat him, accusing Lazarillo of eating the sausage. Lazarillo protests his innocence but the blind man is not convinced, so he sticks his nose right into Lazarillo’s mouth to smell whether he has eaten the sausage. Lazarillo’s nerves, as well as the fact that a smelly old man has his nose stuck in his mouth, get the better of him and Lazarillo ends up vomiting in the blind man’s face. All the village people laugh at the blind man for this. Soon after this Lazarillo finally gets sweet revenge upon the blind man – one day it is raining heavily in the town square, and the blind man says that Lazarillo must guide him to a place of shelter. Led by Lazarillo, the pair starts running, and Lazarillo allows the blind man to run head first into a marble pillar, and afterwards taunts him saying:
You could smell the sausage but you couldn’t smell the post?
After this, Lazarillo abandons the blind man, and runs to the city gates to get out before they close and he makes his way to Torrijos.
Lazarillo and the Priest
Lazarillo spends a few days begging in Maqueda, and then a priest passes by. He asks Lazarillo if he would like to be employed as a servant, to which Lazarillo enthusiastically says yes. But the priest is even more stingy than the blind man, especially with food. The priest keeps all of the good food locked in a wooden chest, and Lazarillo is only permitted to eat one onion every four days, although the priest himself dines on the finest food. One day while the priest is out a tinker calls and asks Lazarillo if anything needs repairing in the house. Nothing needs repairing, but Lazarillo begs him to try and open the chest. Luckily, the tinker has a key which just about fits the lock on the food chest, and he kindly leaves it with Lazarillo. For the next few weeks Lazarillo takes little bits of bread at a time, which greatly restores his strength and health after having lived on a diet of one onion every four days. Eventually, the priest begins to notice the gradual depletion of the bread:
If I hadn’t locked this up myself, I’d swear someone stole it.
So the priest begins to meticulously record every morsel of food that goes in and out of the chest. Lazarillo now has to come up with a new scheme – he decides to make little holes in the side of the chest and make it appear as though mice have been getting in and eating the bread. The priest finds these holes and simply covers them up. But then more holes appear, making the priest think that he has a mouse infestation – this continues for a matter of weeks and eventually the chest is full of many holes. The priest lays many mousetraps but they catch nothing, all the while more and more bread is going missing. The priest asks his neighbours for advice and they tell him it is most likely a snake that is getting in and making the holes, which understandably makes the priest even more worried. Eventually Lazarillo’s scheme is discovered, however: at night Lazarillo sleeps with the key in his mouth; however, the key drops partially out of his mouth while he is sleeping with the consequence that his breathing begins to sound like hissing. The priest is awakened by this hissing noise and panics, thinking that it is the snake. He gets his club and walks towards where the noise is coming from, and he sees that Lazarillo’s key matches the padlock to the food chest. He beats Lazarillo with a stick for this and puts him out of doors, and Lazarillo’s six months with the priest thus comes to an end.
Lazarillo and the Gentleman
Lazarillo then makes his way to Toledo and begs for a few days. The people of Toledo appear to be quite stingy towards beggars, and all that he gets is advice ‘to get a job’:
Because charity not only begun at home but stayed there too.
Eventually, a gentleman comes to speak to him who offers him a job as his servant. Lazarillo gets excited because he thinks that the gentleman is rich and that he will have all the food in the world that he wants. However, when he gets to the gentleman’s lodgings, it is bare and there is no food in there. Moreover, there is only a single bed in the apartment, and Lazarillo has to sleep in the same bad with his new master. Lazarillo soon realises that he has fallen in with an impoverished aristocrat who only ‘keeps up appearances’ by wearing fine clothes and walking about town.
However, the gentleman is never cruel to Lazarillo like his previous two masters were. Lazarillo gladly tends the house while his master goes out, fetches water from the river, and when Lazarillo goes begging for food outside he always shares what he gets with his master. One day Lazarillo comes home with 4lbs of bread, a cow’s foot, and some wine for which his master is very grateful. Lazarillo muses upon his life so far, and decides that he likes this master best – the other two masters had plenty of food but were cruel and never shared it, but the gentleman cannot give what he has not got, and never tries to steal the food from Lazarillo. As they are talking over their ‘feast’ of bread and wine, Lazarillo asks the gentleman about his history. Lazarillo is told that the gentleman was forced to move here after a dispute with another man of lower rank in his home town. The man in question apparently spoke too casually to him, even though the man of lower rank was actually richer than the gentleman. When the gentleman came to the town, his original thought was that he might obtain a salaried position as another nobleman’s servant, but upon second thoughts he deemed such a position to be beneath him, and there were no positions available anyway. This is essentially a critique of the aristocracy – Lazarillo finds it strange that an aristocrat could be so vain as to endure virtual starvation because certain jobs which entail dealing with certain people are deemed to be beneath him.
Lazarillo’s time with the gentleman eventually comes to an end, however, when the rent collectors arrive at the lodgings. They demand two months’ rents, and the gentleman asks them to return later that evening and he shall give them the money. During this time the gentleman simply absconds. A constable is summoned and Lazarillo is arrested in his master’s place, as the rent collector thinks that he has colluded with the gentleman to hide away his money, but luckily Lazarillo’s neighbours vouch for his innocence and he is set free.
Lazarillo and the Pardoner
Lazarillo’s fourth employer was friar, but he does not spend very much time with this one and eventually he falls in with a Pardoner – a man who sells papal indulgences. A papal indulgence was a printed piece of paper that people could buy in order to ‘reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins’. This employer, Lazarillo discovers, is a real rogue:
He studied the salesman’s art, and he knew some really clever tricks.
One trick of the Pardoner’s, for example, was to heat a metal crucifix before saying Mass. When people came to Mass and kissed the crucifix it would burn them. The Pardoner would then say that the people who have been burned by the cross have been punished by God, and that the only way to mitigate this punishment would be through the sale of indulgences. Whenever the Pardoner entered a new town, he made friends with the local priests by giving them little gifts such as oranges, lemons, apples and in turn they would direct their parishioners to buy indulgences from him. In Toledo, the Pardoner has a lot of difficulty trying to get the townsfolk to buy indulgences. One day the Pardoner is seen arguing in the market square with the constable, who accuses the Pardoner of being a fraud. A physical fight almost breaks out between the two men but the townsfolk separate the two brawlers and lead them away. The next day the Pardoner is giving a sermon in the local Church and in walks the constable and repeats his accusation. The Pardoner does not reply but starts praying fervently to God that he will expose and punish his false accuser. Suddenly the constable begins to have a seizure and is foaming at the mouth. The parishioners beg the Pardoner to pray for the constable’s forgiveness. He does so and the constable apologises for ever having falsely accused the Pardoner, and suddenly everyone rushes to buy indulgences! Of course, it was all a trick: the charade was planned by the constable and the Pardoner.
The sale of indulgences really highlights the perceived corruption of the Church in sixteenth-century Spain. And criticism of these business practices was not limited to Spain – it was the sale of indulgences, or the ‘aggressive marketing practices’ of Pardoners such as Johan Tetzel that partially inspired Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, thereby initiating the Protestant Reformation. The episodes which Lazarillo recounts of the cruel priest, as well as the evidently corrupt practice of the sale of indulgences, amounts to a scathing critique of the Catholic Church – a risky thing to write in sixteenth-century Spain, whose government was a leading light in the Counter-Reformation, and a country in which the fearsome Inquisition had long flourished also.
Lazarillo the Civil Servant
Eventually Lazarillo’s fortunes do improve: he stays with an artist briefly, and then is hired by a priest to deliver water to people’s houses. He eventually saves up enough money to buy nice new clothes and leaves that employment because his ability to buy nice clothes means that he is more respectable. He does briefly serve as a constable’s apprentice, but after seeing his master get beaten up by two criminals one night, he decides that a policeman’s life is not for him. Finally, he gets a job in the Civil Service as a town crier and regulator of all the trade in Toledo. Naturally, all the merchants in the city have to be on his good side, and he takes a cut of every merchant’s profit, and becomes very wealthy. Even the Bishop of Toledo eventually notices him, and proposes a marriage between him and one of the Bishop’s maids, to which Lazarillo agrees, and the narrative ends with Lazarillo saying that he is now ‘at the height of my good fortune’.
Why, then, is this seemingly minor work of literature even worthy of discussion? This work marked the emergence of picaresque fiction. The genre spread throughout Europe and quickly made its way to England where it evolved even further into the rogue novel. From here its influences spread into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century criminal biography and also contributed to the birth of the novel in England. The picaresque marked a departure from established modes of fiction writing – instead of depicting heroic leaders or aristocrats, picaresque writers dealt with something resembling ‘real life’. This is something which the authors of sixteenth-century rogue literature, as well as later authors such as Richard Head, Alexander Smith, and Charles Johnson would carry into their narratives, and the examination of ‘problematic lives’ reached its apex in the works of Daniel Defoe, whose novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) told the story of marginalised people, as well as the works of Henry Fielding, whose Joseph Andrews (1742), Jonathan Wild (1743) and Tom Jones (1749) similarly dealt with subjects from low life. Even in some of the Victorian era’s famous novels can the picaresque be felt, for example, in both Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844). Thus what we witness in Spanish picaresque fiction is nothing less than the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist society, as well as the birth of (in a limited sense) the novel.
1. Quotations used in this essay are taken from the following critical edition: Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ in Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels Michael Alpert, Trans. (London: Penguin, 2003).
2. See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2001), p.34.
3. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.4.
4. Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.34.
5. See Jareer Abu-Haidar, ‘Maqāmāt Literature and the Picaresque Novel’ Journal of Arabic Literature Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 1-10
6. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Maqama: A History of a Genre (Harwassotwitz Verlag, 2002), pp.298-299.
7. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.7.
8. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.8.
9. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, pp.16-17.
10. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.23.
11. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.29.
12. Edward Peters, A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching (Hillenbrand, 2008), p.13.
13. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.48.
14. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.60.
Header Image: Wikimedia Commons
Goya: Wikimedia Commons
Indulgences Woodcut: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/361/361-08.htm