Cervantes’ Picaresque Tale About Criminal and Moral Disorder in Seville’s Underground

Dr. Robert Hickson                                       24 October 2019 Saint Raphael the Archangel

Epigraphs

“He is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He was a soldier for many years and a captive for five and a half, an experience that taught him patience in adversity. In the naval battle of Lepanto [1571 A.D.] he lost his left hand as the result of a harquebus shot, a wound which, however unsightly it may appear, he looks upon as beautiful, for the reason that it was received on the most memorable and sublime occasion that past ages have known or those to come may hope to know; for he was fighting beneath the victorious banner of the son [Don John of Austria] of that thunderbolt of war, [Emperor] Charles V of blessed memory.” (Cervantes Self-Description as found in the Prologue to his Two Exemplary Novels—in Samuel Putnam, The Portable Cervantes (1951), page 706.)

***

“And, finally, he [Rinconete] was astounded by the careless manner in which justice was administered in that famous city of Seville, with people so pernicious as these [in Monipodio’s covert academy and picaresque brotherhood of thieves] and possessed of such unnatural instincts carrying on their pursuits almost openly.” (Cervantes, Rinconete and Cortadillo, in The Portable Cervantes (1951), page 758.)

***

During the recurrent disturbances and prevarications coming from Rome outside (and sometimes even within) the 6-27 October 2019 Amazonian Synod, I consolingly thought to turn to Cervantes and his Picaresque Tales, especially one of them: Rinconete and Cortadillo,1 a generous and forgiving tale which was set mostly in Seville, Spain in early seventeenth century. Characteristically, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Cervantes vividly and magnanimously depicts both life as it is and life as it ought to be.

Let us therefore now consider the refreshing three-page ending of Cervantes’ Picaresque Tale as he deftly shows us the more mature second thoughts of his two young now experienced protagonists: those two young and very resourceful teenage rascals once known as Pedro de Rincón and Diego Cortado, the younger one of the two inimitable homeless rogues.

“Then turn on,” Monipodio directed him [Rinconete], “to where it says ‘Memorandum of Common Outrages.‘”

Rinconete [who was not illiterate] turned the leaves until he came to this inscription [concerning “Outrages”]….

“Don’t mention the house,” said Monipodio, “for I know where it is.”….

“Don’t read that [passage] either,” Monipodio admonished him; “the house and the address do not matter. It is enough to commit the offense without speaking of it in public, for it is a great burden upon the conscience. I would rather nail up a hundred horns [of infidelity or alleged cuckoldry] and as many sanbenitos [penitential garments], providing I was paid for it, than mention the [true] fact a single time even to the mother who bore me.”….“Give me the book, lad. I know there’s nothing else [to consider]. Business [the brotherhood’s thievery] is a bit slack just now, but times will change, and it may be we shall have more to do than we can take care of. There’s not a leaf stirs without God’s will, and we cannot force people to avenge themselves [by retaining our services], especially seeing that everyone is now so brave in his own behalf that he doesn’t want to pay for having something done that he can just as well do with his own hands.”

That is the way it is,” said Repolido….

What is to be done,” said Monipodio, “is this. You are all to go to your posts and stay there until Sunday, when we will meet in this same place and divide everything that has fallen into our hands, without cheating anyone. Rinconete the Good and Cortadillo [who earlier had also been called “Cortadillo the Good”] will have for their district until the end of the week that part of the suburbs [of Seville] that lies between the golden Tower and the Castle Postern. There they will have no trouble working their tricks, for I have seen others who were not nearly so clever come back every day with more than twenty reales in small change, not to speak of the silver, and all this with only one deck and with four cards missing. Ganchhuelo,” he [i.e., Chief Monipodio] went on, addressing the youths, “will show you the lay of the land, and even though you go as far as San Sebastian and San Telmo, it will not make much difference, although it is only right that no one [not even those clever two young and sympathetic rogues] should trespass on another’s territory.”

The pair kissed his hand in return for the favor he had done them and [they] promised to fulfill their [admittedly picaresque] tasks faithfully and well, with all diligence and discretion. (754-756—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

After this preparatory sample of the life of our two young rogues, we shall now more understandably be able to consider the specific “honors” that Rinconete and Cortadillo received from Monipodio—although the two lads will soon thereafter also mature a little more and then experience some quite resonant disillusionments:

Monipodio then took out from the hood of his cloak a folded sheet of paper containing a list of members [in the brotherhood] and directed Rinconete to put down his own name and that of Cortadillo; but since they had no ink there, he told them they might take the paper with them and attend to the matter in the first apothecary’s shop to which they came. The entry was to read: “Rinconete and Cortadillo, full members; apprenticeship, none; Rinconete, card sharper; Cortadillo, sneak thief.” They also were to note the day, month, and year, but were to say nothing about their parents or place of origin….

He [Monipodio] embraced Rinconete and Cortadillo and dismissed them with his blessing, charging them that they should never have any permanent lodging or stopping place, as that was best for all concerned. Ganchuelo went with them to show them their post, and took occasion to remind them once again that they should not fail to put in an appearance on Sunday, since he believed that Monipodio intended to give [the two of] them a lecture on the things that had to do with their trade. He then went away, leaving the two lads quite astonished at all they had seen. (756-757—my emphasis added)

With this implicit transition, we shall now witness our two picaros‘ critical observations of the Seville underground and the varied brotherhood of thieves (and helpers) amidst all their fresh adventures and abiding astonishment. (We also think of the Rome-Vatican underground today and its own networked and privileged brotherhoods—and their very effective demoralizations, as it seems.)

In support of this view, let us consider how the talented Rinconete expresses his new and more distant (even somewhat derisive) reflections about his own challenging and morally compromising way of life. For, Cervantes, through his tale’s narrator, refreshingly says to us the following, while also showing us the illusions:

Although a mere boy [of some fifteen or sixteen years of age], Rinconete had a naturally keen mind, and having accompanied his father in selling papal bulls [in Latin], he knew something about the proper use of language [to reveal, not to conceal, reality!]. He had to laugh loudly as he thought of some of the words [malapropisms or solecisms] that Monipodio and the rest of that foolish community had employed [e.g., “to keep my promise and follow destructions,” instead of to “follow instructions”! (751)]. In place of per modum suffragii [about spiritual intercession] Monipodio had said per modo de naufragio (“by way of shipwreck”)….Then there was [the prostitute] Chubby Face’s remark…(He [Rinconete] was especially amused by her [Chubby’s] hope that the labor she had expended in earning the twenty-four reales would be counted by heaven against her sins.) (757-758—my emphasis added)

But, the final two paragraphs of the Picaresque Tale (758-759) are most important:

Above all, he marveled at the absolute assurance they all felt of going to Heaven when they died so long as they did not fail in their devotions, and this in spite of all the thefts, murders, and other offenses of which they were guilty in the sight of God. He laughed also as he thought of the old woman, Pipota, who leaving the stolen hamper at home, went off to place her wax candles in from of the [sacred] images; by doing so she doubtless was convinced that she would go to Heaven fully clothed and with her shoes on. He was no less astonished at the obedience and respect they all showed Monipodio, that coarse, unscrupulous barbarian. He recalled what he had read in the latter’s memorandum book of the practices in which they were all engaged. And, finally, he was astounded by the careless manner in which justice was administered in that famous city of Seville, with people so pernicious as these and possessed of such unnatural instincts carrying on their pursuits almost openly.

He made up his [perceptively keen] mind to persuade his companion [the younger rascal, Cortadillo] that they should not continue long in this desperate and evil way of life, one so free and dissolute and marked by such uncertainly. But in spite of it all, being young and inexperienced, he did continue it for a number of months, and in the course of that time had certain adventures which it would take too long to set down here. Accordingly, we must wait for another occasion to hear the story of his life and the strange things that happened to him, as well as to his teacher Monipodio, along with other events having to do with the members of that infamous academy, all of which should be very edifying and well might serve as an example and a warning to those who read. (757-759—my emphasis added)

The magnanimous Miguel Cervantes has so much more to teach us still, and not only about the generous forgiveness and affectionately chivalrous illusions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Moreover, my Special Forces Team-Sergeant in the late 1960s once very memorably said to me: “Sir, no one is completely useless; you can always serve as a bad example.”

Meditating on Cervantes’ final two paragraphs above (758-759) has somehow also reminded me of the recent Amazonian Synod in Rome and its often covert preparations and some dubious fruits and prevarications. However, what has been going on in Rome is not a Picaresque Tale, much less a tale in the spirit of Miguel Cervantes.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Samuel Putnam, The Portable Cervantes (Don Quixote, “Rinconete and Cortadillo,” et al.)—Translated and Edited, with an Introduction and Notes by Samuel Putnam—(New York: The Viking Press, 1951), 854 pages. The text of “Rinconete and Cortadillo” will be found on pages 709-759, from which text all further references will be made and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay. This Picaresque Tale is sometimes called the first of Cervantes’ two “Exemplary Novels,” the second one being entitled “Man of Glass” (760-796).

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