Cervantes Leaves His Pretty Wife and Looks for a Job

A few days after his wedding Cervantes must already have suspected that he had made a mistake.

Monument to Cervantes’ wife in Esquivias, Toledo, Spain

His wife was cheerful and  pretty and passably wealthy but he couldn’t stand her little town. How was he going to spend the rest of his life on a farm? He had wasted his youth first marching around Italy and then playing cards in an old Turkish bath in Algiers while he was a prisoner of the pirates. Would he waste the next best years being a country gentleman, hunting partridges and rabbits and husbanding vineyards?

Cervantes’ wife’s farmhouse in Esquivias, Spain

(See Cervantes’ House Restored)

Every chance he got he left the farm and went to Madrid to see old friends, including maybe his lover La Franca and their daughter.
But it seemed like it was always time to return to the damned farm.

Wasn’t he glad to see his young wife? No one knows. Perhaps he really loved her, perhaps he had only married her for her money. However that was, after nineteen months he pulled out of Esquivias.
“I’m going down to Seville to look for a job,” he told Catalina.

He had a good friend there, a former comic actor named Tomás. Tomás had decided that making monkey-shines on a stage was never going to bring him much money so he left Madrid and went home to Seville, where he ran an inn now. It wasn’t just any inn—it was probably the most luxurious one in Seville. The best people in town stopped in there—nobles, rich empresarios, high government officials. “Come on down south and stay at my place,” Tomás had written to Cervantes. “Good jobs are dealt out here at my tables over drinks. I can introduce you to some very important people. Probably in less than a week you will nail something.” Cervantes had grown up in Seville and loved the booming city. It was the biggest, the busiest city in Spain at the time. “Save me a room,” he wrote Tomás. “I’m coming.”

He stayed at Tomás’s inn for two weeks. What kind of talk did he hear? Spain had just beaten the Portuguese in a decisive naval battle and everyone was euphoric—cocky. “That’s one enemy down,” said the men at the inn. “Now let’s go get those damned English.” They had heard about the execution of the Catholic Queen Mary Stuart and wanted revenge on the Protestants. “And we’re getting sick and tired of those English pirates, who have been getting away with murder for decades. It’s time to hang the whole lot—right, boys?” And they would raise glasses of wine and vow to undo the English. King Philip saw that the whole country was in a mood of revenge and heroism and he decided to take advantage of it. “How many ships do you think we can assemble?” he asked the Duke of Alba. “The time is right to win back England for the Church.” For the Crown too.

One day while the inn was crowded with customers Tomás called Cervantes over. “See those two men by the window? The fat one is Antonio de Guevara. The King has just appointed him Head Comissary for a great Armada. That other fellow is Diego de Valdivia, Guevara’s adjutant. I’m going to introduce you to them. They are looking for commissaries to collect provisions for the fleet. The money is very good.”

The two nobles told Cervantes exactly what he would have to do. “The King needs wheat and oil to make the sailors’ biscuits. Of course the Crown cannot afford the huge sums necessary to pay for all that. But His Majesty is sure every Spaniard will want to cooperate in the undertaking, which the Almighty has surely ordained.”

“I see,” said Cervantes. “Requisitioning. The grain and oil will be collected by force.”

“Correct,” said the big Guevara. “Our commissaries will collect from each landowner an amount that we have fixed. You will simply go to his residence and present the official writ. Then at the granary you will supervise the actual transferral of the grain and oil to the King’s siloes. The Crown will pay you twelve reales a day.”

“And if the landowner or farmer refuses to open his bins?”

“As His Majesty’s commissary you will have full powers to oblige him to do so. Should the man refuse to cooperate, you will have him imprisoned.”

Cervantes was back on the farm when his offical appointment came through. What did he tell Catalina as he prepared to go south? Neither knew he would spend the next fifteen years collecting taxes in all the towns and villages of Andalucía. “Your mother wanted me to administer your family fortune, right?” he must have said. “Well, within two years I will double it—or my name is Charlie.”

He did and he didn’t. At one time he had thousands of maravedis in his hands but they disappeared mysteriously. “There are really only two ways he could have lost that money,” says a biographer. “Either he made bad investments or he gambled it away.”

Cards in the Spanish deck

“Cervantes must have been quite a card-shark,” says another of his biographers, “after all those years in the army and in the Turkish bath. In his stories he shows familiarity with all the games of the time.”
Perhaps at the gaming table they called him Charlie.


Posted in 1, Cervantes, history, literature, Spain, Spanish Armada | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Emperor Meets His Natural Son

carlosv_i1The Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain)

“Put my leg up.”

The servant stooped down to see that the board holding up the Emperor’s left leg was solid, then cranked it higher. The orthopedic chair was an invention of his doctor’s.
“And throw this damn shawl over my shoulders. It’s chilly this morning.”

That he couldn’t manage such a simple thing himself made the Emperor Charles cross. Gout had begun to ruin him years ago already but he would never get used to being an invalid.
And now an unspeakable sadness hit him when the servant drew back the drapes and he saw the brilliant day outside. I can’t walk in that sun anymore! I will never walk in that sun anymore!

Tranquilo, he told himself. You know what Soto would say: “Resignation, Sire”. Soto was his confessor.
Remember why you came to Yuste. You were going to renounce the world.
Yeah, but who is renouncing who? I don’t FEEL like renouncing the world, damn it!
…It’s not as though you had much choice, old man.

He popped a couple of marzapan horses into his mouth for consolation and swallowed them down after just one bite. His bite was no good because of his protruding Habsburg jaw. Unchewed food caused him endless problems of digestion and also occasional embarrassment during audiences.
“Are they out there?” he asked his servant.

“Senor Quijada and his son arrived early this morning from Cuacos, Sire. They have been waiting in the antechamber for some time now.”

“Send Quijada in alone. Tell the boy we won’t be long. Give him something to play with. Show him that silver ship from Amberes.”

Quijada barged in as soon as the door was open, went right up to the Emperor, and kissed his hand. “Sire.”
“How are you doing, old friend?” Charles asked.

Quijada was his mayordomo and Master of the Horse. He was closer to the Emperor than many of his royal relatives, though Quijada was from peasant stock. They had been together for thirty-odd years, through most of Charles’ wars, in camps as well as palaces, and Quijada had more than once saved the Emperor’s life, shielding him from crossbow bolts and escaping with him from enemy traps. For his service the Emperor had made him a knight and given him an encomienda near Valladolid.


Ruins in García del Campo (Valladolid) of Quijada’s castle

Quijada lived there in a castle with his wife and the boy and had not yet been to Yuste since Charles’ was installed.
“You’re getting too fat, Sire,” he told him now.

Quijada said what he thought and often said it without tact. Charles, who was surrounded by flatterers and pretty-spoken courtesans, liked Quijada for his blunt and truthful ways. He smiled. “I don’t get much exercise anymore. It’s not like our campaigns in Flanders when…”
“Who’s your doctor? Still that idiot Matisio?”
“He’s a great doctor.”
“He’s a coward. Why does he allow you to have all those damned sweetmeats?”
Quijada looked with disgust at Charles’ sweets table. “Gout is cured by closing your mouth, Sire. He knows that or ought to. So do you.”

The Emperor kept smiling. “Try one of these dried figs my daughter sent from Oran. Or one of her raisins.” He enjoyed teasing Quijada.
Suddenly he got serious. “What’s the boy like, Quijada?”

“He’s a good one, Sire,” said Quijada. “Quick to learn. Rides like a little elf and you should see him with a sword.
Not bad at books, either, they tell me, though you know I’m no judge there.”

Quijada was the only one in all of Spain who knew that the boy was the Emperor’s natural son by the daughter of a Salzburg comic.
When she had sent word that she was pregnant, Charles had quickly found her a husband and had them married. But after only three years the woman died and Charles gave the boy to the faithful Quijada to raise.
Not even Quijada’s wife knew. She assumed the lad was her husband’s own bastard. But she loved him and set about raising him as a great nobleman as soon as he turned up at the castle. She taught him French and Latin and court manners. Quijada himself saw to it that the boy learned riding and hunting and was skilled with weapons.

His enthusiastic report made the Emperor impatient. He had never met the boy. “Tell him to come in. I guess we’ve kept him waiting too long. Waiting is hard on a child.”
“Let him learn patience, Sire. That is also part of being a man.”
“You stay away for a few minutes, Quijada. I want to meet him alone.”

Juan de Austria’s presentation to Emperor CarlosV  atYuste by Eduardo Rosales (Wikicommons public domain photo)

(Meet the boy in The Emperor Meets His Natural Son II)


Posted in books, history, Spain, travel | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

How Xenophon Saved His Army

“So—is this the end?” Xenophon asked himself. “You asked for it and now you got it.”

He was lying in a tent in the middle of the Persian Empire. He was with a batallion of Greek mercenaries, though he was no soldier, just a rich kid from Athens. Tomorrow the whole bunch of them, soldiers and rich kid, would probably all be killed, and not very humanely.

“How did you get yourself into such a mess?”

Rhetorical question. He knew. It was his buddy Proxenos’ idea. Proxenos was a general and he had asked Xenophon to join the mercenaries. “We’re going to go over to Asia and help Prince Cyrus take the throne from his brother Artaxerxes,” he explained. “It shouldn’t be too hard. Cyrus says he will reward us all very liberally too, so there’s good money to be had.
I hope you weren’t planning to sit around all your life here in Athens, inventing puzzles with your friend Socrates. It’s time to do something you can tell your grandchildren about.”
So Xenophon had signed on. He went along for the ride, for good old adventure.

The first part of the expedition had been fun. The batallion of mercenaries had crossed over from Greece to Turkey, joined Cyrus’s army, and marched into the Persian Empire without opposition. Xenophon kept a diary and wrote down everything he saw. He admired the brave Prince Cyrus. He sat in on the meetings of the Greek generals and learned a lot about an army and leading men.

But then the day of the great battle came. Cyrus’ forces met Artaxerxes’ royal army in a fierce battle and the intrepid Prince Cyrus got killed. That was the end of his revolt. His army fell apart. The little Greek batallion had fought well for him but now they were in a very ugly situation. They were 1500 miles from home, without food and without money.

Artaxerxes told them to lay down their arms but they decided it would be better to die fighting him than to become his slaves, and they refused. For a few days while Artaxerxes made up his mind what to do with them, nothing happened. Finally he agreed to a truce and asked the Greek generals to come and parley. As soon as they got to his camp he murdered them all. One was Xenophon’s friend Proxenos.

The king then sent a messenger to the Greeks. He ordered them one last time to lay down their weapons and serve him. Xenophon stepped forward as a spokesman for the batallion and told the messenger to go to hell. “And remind your boss that by killing our generals he has broken his oath and made himself despicable to the gods.” The messenger galloped away. That was last night before bed.

Now it was the middle of the night and Xenophon had just had a terrible dream where he saw his Athenian house on fire, struck by lightning.

“Is there really no way out of this?” he asked himself. “Artaxerxes will come to get us first thing in the morning—that’s sure. Are we going to keep lying here doing nothing the rest of the night?

The thing was, the soldiers had no leaders anymore. All the generals were dead. No one was preparing the army to fight or do anything at all.
“SOMEBODY has to do something!” Xenophon declared to himself. “And you?”
“Me? I’m not a soldier. And I’m not old enough to take charge.”
“Oh–you’re waiting until you grow old enough. Well, buddy, if the enemy comes tomorrow you won’t get any older.

Everything points to you and to NOW.”

And in this world by Bruegel, where the great happenings of history and myth happen like only one more common event in a corner of the picture while great inscrutable Nature stirs the earth and simple, ignorant people carry on, there were no drums, no hero music while Xenophon stood up from his sleeping bag and hurried over to the tent where his dead friend Proxenos’ officers lay, to rouse them. “Listen,” he told them. “I have a plan. We’re going to save ourselves…”

Read Your Time to Be a Hero 2 and learn how he got that little Greek army home.


The full story is in Xenophon’s famous classic The March Up Country or The Persian Expedition.


Posted in books, history, literature, The Greeks, war, warfare | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Hércules en Cádiz

El santuario más famoso de todo el Mediterráneo occidental estuvo en Cádiz, en el actual islote de Sancti Petri.

Cádiz (Gades) Mapa de Cádiz ( DP imagen de HansenBCN)
Bahía de Cadiz con la ubicación del islote de Sancti-Petri

Bahía de Cadiz con la ubicación del islote de Sancti-Petri


Estaba consagrado al Hércules Gaditano, y el mismísimo dios, decían algunos, yacía en su cripta.

Herakles Farnese MAN Napoli Inv6001 n01CC BY 2.5

Herakles Farnese MAN Napoli Inv6001 n01CC BY 2.5

Pero ¿Hercules no era un dios griego?

El Gaditano era originariamente un dios fenicio, llamado Melkart.
Los primeros colonos trajeron su culto desde su tierra unos mil doscientos años antes de Cristo. Con el tiempo y a consecuencia de su contacto con el dios griego Herakles, Melkart iba cambiando de carácter y atributos. Llegada la época romana, ya no se hablaba de Melkart como divinidad de Cádiz (Gades) sino de Hércules. Y le representaban como tal.

¿Quiénes eran los peregrinos y qué hacían allí ?

Desde su inicio el santuario tenía unos devotos comerciantes y marineros, quienes iban con ofrendas destinadas al dios por haber llevado algún negocio con éxito, o antes de un viaje, o después de él, en agradecimiento por haber llegado sanos y salvos. Los miles de peregrinos provenían de todas las clases sociales.

Había un oráculo residente. A las preguntas de los peregrinos daba una contestación profética e interpretaba sus sueños. Algunos de los personajes más famosos de la Antigüedad le consultaron.

Collier oracleThe Oracle of Delphi by John Collier

Aníbal no dudó en consultar el oráculo antes de emprender su viaje a través de los Alpes para conquistar Roma.

Julio César pidió al oráculo que le interpretara un sueño que le preocupaba. (Agredió a su madre. “Estáte tranquilo,” dijo el oráculo. “Esa no fue tu madre sino la tierra. El sueño significa que vas a conquistar al mundo.”)

Allí pararon Políbio, Dión Casio, y muchos de los emperadores romanos, como Trajano. El emperador Caracalla hizo asesinar a Aemiliano por preguntar al oráculo de Cadiz quién sería su sucesor.

Un centro financiero

Además de su carácter religioso el santuario tenía una función comercial. Escribe Francisco Javier Jiménez Martínez:  “Como institución ciudadana, y respecto a las actividades comerciales de Cádiz, ejercía, en cierto modo, un control y fiscalización de las actividades mercantiles y el comercio marítimo… El templo sería algo muy similar a una Cámara de Comercio actual…
“Bajo el amparo del templo y la deidad, los mercaderes y comerciantes pactarían sus empresas y negocios, y en caso de discrepancias entre ellos, es muy posible que el propio templo ejerciera una función de arbitraje en la resolución del conflicto. Dicho de otro modo,… era un espacio ideal para que las transacciones comerciales se realizaran con total seguridad, lo que en su esencia, explicaría el precoz surgimiento dentro de los contextos fundacionales.” (de”Gadir y el templo de Melkart. Su papel económico y religioso en el ámbito cultural”)

¿Cómo era?

En su origen, era probablemente una réplica del templo dedicado a Melkart en Tiro, la ciudad fenicia al otro extremo del mar Mediterráneo, de la que era su dios tutelar.

mediterranean-map 3 Cádiz (Gades) y Tiro en los dos extremos del mar Mediterráneo (mapa gratuito de Owl and Mouse)

Puede que tuviera un parecido con el templo de Salomón, construido en el mismo período por un arquitecto fenicio.

El Templo de Salomón

Patio interior del Temple de Salomón CC BY-SA 3.0 Original uploader: Epictatus -Talk Gabriel Fink. theholyhouse.org -I Gabriel Fink created this work entirely by myself.

Pero con los siglos cambiaba y las descripciones de los historiadores antiguos recuerdan más bien un templo griego.

Por fuera, su edificio principal tenía un frontón triangular. Se subía unos cuantos escalones empinados, se pasaba por unas columnas centrales, y se entraba en el santuario por dos enormes puertas de bronce con figuras que representaban los doce trabajos de Hércules.


«Twelve Labours Altemps Inv8642» de Marie-Lan Nguyen – Marie-Lan Nguyen (septiembre de 2009). Disponible bajo la licencia Public domain vía Wikimedia Commons –

«Twelve Labours Altemps Inv8642» de Marie-Lan Nguyen – Marie-Lan Nguyen (septiembre de 2009). Public domain vía Wikimedia Commons

Las columnas

Los escritores antiguos no coinciden en sus descripciones de las columnas. Para Posidonio, por ejemplo, eran de bronce y medían ocho codos de altura, mientras que para Filóstrato, eran de una aleación de oro y plata y su altura era de sólo un codo. Tenían una inscripción antiquísima, ya ilegible en tiempos de los romanos.

Una gran torre se alzaba al lado de su altar principal. Es fácil imaginar una de nuestras iglesias pero el templo estaba cubierto sólo en parte: el altar estaba abierto al cielo. Un fuego perpétuo, recordando la presencia del dios, ardía en un tripodio. Todos los días unos sacerdotes, con la cabeza rapada, descalzos y con túnica blanca, rociaban el altar con la sangre de una paloma u otra víctima que sacrificaban.

Había más altares. Uno de ellos estaba consagrado a Héracles en las versión griega y allí se hallaba un famoso exvoto de Pigmalión, el cinturón de Teucro, y un olivo cuyos aceitunas eran esmeraldas. Los otros altares estaban dedicados a la Vejez, a la Pobreza, a la Muerte, al Arte, al Año, y al Mes. En ellos se depositaban los exvotos de los fieles, figuras de cera, armas, y otros recuerdos.

Estatuillas votivas en el Mueo de CádizEstatuillas votivas del templo de Hércules Gaditano Dominio público de Antonio M. Romero Doradoself-made / obra personal hecha en el Museo de Cádiz.

Gran tesoro

Como recibía donativos, herencias, y ofrendas varias de todas partes y durante siglos su tesoro guardado era enorme.  Los cartagineses mandaron tributos allí durante siglos y algunos de sus comerciantes ricos depositaron su fortuna allí antes de la destrucción de su ciudad por los romanos.

Así, su tesorería debía tener un aspecto impresionante, como el silo del Tío Scrooge, con dunas de oro que llegaban hasta el techo.


Uncle Scrooge by Walt Disney Productions (a free-use Wikipedia photo)

El Tío Scrooge de Walt Disney Productions (a free-use Wikipedia foto)

Y ¿qué hacían con todo ese dinero?

Lo prestaban. El santuario financiaba empresas de todo tipo. Algunos estudiosos piensan que financiaba, a través del gaditano Galbo, a Julio César en su conquista del poder, por ejemplo.


Para cualquier general o rey o consul con un ejército, el oro del templo era un botín muy tentador.
El primero en expoliarlo fue Magón, un familiar de Hannibal, en 206 a. de C., y lo hizo más de una vez.
Bogud, rey de Mauritania, intentó apropiarse de él en 38 a. de C. pero no lo logró.
El consul romano Varron, sin ningún reparo, se llevó el famoso tesoro pero Julio César le obligó a devolverlo.

¿Y después de la desaparición de los romanos y su dios Hércules?

Durante casi mil quinientos años el santuario servía a los hombres de todo el Mediterráneo occidental y estuvo funcionando hasta al menos el año 400, cuando lo visitó el poeta Avieno.
Hay una leyenda que dice que el apóstol Santiago viajó a la isla de Sancti-Petri con el fin de erradicar el culto pagano en el templo. Lo consagró al cristianismo en honor a San Pedro, y el nombre actual de la isla viene de ahí.
Una vez destruido, el santuario se convirtió en una gran cantera de sillares que se llevaban de la isla; y poco a poco, las ruinas quedaron en nada. Los cristianos levantaron allí un faro y, en el siglo XIII, un castillo (el castillo de Sancti Petri).

Castillo de Sancti-Petri

Castillo de Sancti-Petri

Castillo de Sancti PetriCC BY-SA 3.0  “Pablo Jones. Peejayem” – Fotografía tomada por el usuario Peejayem.

En el Museo de Cádiz, se hallan expuestas algunas estatuas encontradas en el templo, pero queda poco más de su antigua gloria.


Fuentes:  la  Historia de la Hispania Romana by A. Tovar and J.M. Blazquez, Alianza Editorial, 1975 ; y el excelente artículo “Gadir y el templo de Melkart. Su papel económico y religioso en el ámbito cultural”, de Francisco Javier Jiménez Martínez publicado REHA: Red Española de Historia y Arqueología



Posted in Hercules, history, oracle, Romans, sanctuary, Spain, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caesar’s Greatest Battle

The most exciting thing in Caesar’s Commentaries?

Commentarii de Bello Gallico, an account written by Julius Caesar about his nine years of war in Gaul (public domain photo)

The battle of Alesia.
What is so exciting about it?
Caesar was so daring; so much was in the balance.
What happened?

He had eighty thousand Gauls trapped inside a town with a deep river-gorge around it. Since he couldn’t storm it, he built a wall to fence the Gauls in.
He knew they had food for only about thirty days.

Yet just before he closed the ring around the town, the Gallic cavalry escaped and ran to get help.

Caesar had fifty thousand soldiers, which was strained but acceptable for this siege, but now there was a chance that a new Gallic army would come to help their trapped countrymen before he could make them surrender. What should he do? Give up the siege?
Soon spies informed him that there was indeed a huge army a-building: 200,000 or 250,000 Gauls marching to relieve Alesia. Any general but old Gaius would have abandoned his siege and gotten out while the getting was good. Imagine: eighty thousand enemies in front of you and 250,000 coming from your back.

But Caesar hated to run away. In the town with those eighty thousand Gauls was their great king Vercingetorix. This was just too good. And anyway he reasoned that, in a way, he still had an advantageous position—or he could make himself one. Of course it took a Caesar to reason like that. And a Caesar to pull off one of the most daring plans in military history. If it hadn´t worked and he had gotten away alive he would surely have been court-martialled. After all, he did have enough time to break camp and look for a less apparently compromising position.

He had been studying siege techniques and defense-works. He was satisfied that his great 18-kilometer wall around Alesia would hold in the enemy. Why shouldn’t a similar wall and ditch be able to hold off another one, however big?

He ordered his men to start building a second wall BEHIND them. And to put towers every fifty yards and to lay clever traps everywhere in front of the wall and pointed sticks and all kinds of defense works and machines a few soldiers could handle when the enemy came. The work was hard—the soldiers had just finished the first wall and were exhausted. Maybe there wouldn’t be enough time to complete the second wall before the relieving enemy army showed up. But Caesar guessed there was. He kept his men cheerful with his famous pep-talks; and they had fun making the new booby traps and giving them names.

A reconstruction of Caesar’s outer wall and trenches (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo).

And his hunch was right. When the huge army of Gauls showed up the new wall was finished except for one small place where because of a stream there was no way to close it.

Caesar’s twin wall around Alesia, thought to be the modern Alise Sainte-Reine, France (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license photo).

Read what happened when the Gauls attacked and stumbled onto those booby-traps. Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 2)


Posted in archaeology, Caesar, history, Romans, war, warfare | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Don Quijote’s Evil Giants

When you first see the windmills on the great hill of Consuegra you will remember Don Quijote.

windmills at Consuegra, Spain

windmills at Consuegra, Spain

He thought they weren’t windmills but evil giants standing haughtily in front of him; and he bravely tilted his lance and charged.
They do look very strange.

Here is Gustave Doré’s engraving of the mad charge, seen by thousands of readers of Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha.

Doré gives a terrible-giant appearance to his windmill, which is good illustration; but his windmill is way off.  Spanish windmills don’t look like that.  That is a Dutch or a French one.

Here is a Spanish windmill, the kind Don Quijote charged.

Windmill in La Mancha

Windmill in La Mancha

It is a very, very modest building—in fact, no greater architecture than a child’s sand-castle made with his pail. A simple cylinder of mud and stone, whitewashed, with a cap on it. And of course the propellers or blades, without their sails now because no one makes flour with a windmill anymore.

The propellers are fixed to the hood, which can revolve. Hanging down at the back is a long pole. The miller pushes it to make the propellers face the wind.

Spanish windmills date from the days when Spain “owned” the Netherlands, so the idea came from there.  But the people of La Mancha skipped the fancy decoration and did the minimum to hold up the propellers and house the millstone and the flour. And the miller and his family, of course.

What is a windmill like inside?

Here is a drawing.

The miller and his family lived on the second floor—a very small apartment with a tiny window. Spanish peasants had to choose between light, which brought in awful heat from the sun, and darkness, which meant cool or cooler; and they chose darkness. So their windows were all as small as castle loopholes.

The miller climbed the stairs to the third floor when it was time to work.  That feels like a kind of hot attic. Here he had no choice but to drill half a dozen little windows around so he could see to work. The millstone, a big, flat, stone disk, lies in the room like a table. It revolves on top of another one. The miller pours the grain between the disks and they grind it to a powder. It is very simple.

How do the propellers make the millstone revolve?  A couple of big wooden gears with hand-carved teeth change the direction of the movement from the vertical of the propellers to the horizontal of the millstone.


Before starting to work in the morning the miller had to dress the propellers with canvas, as though they were the sails of a ship. The guides who show you the windmills nowadays love to fascinate with the old jargon. There were names for all the parts of the great “ship” and the millers were experts in wind and weather, like sailors.


Posted in architecture, Cervantes, engineering, great writers, Spain, travel, windmill | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giddy-up, Aristotle

This looks like a medieval version of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly singing “True Love.”

Phyllis rides Aristotle

Phyllis rides Aristotle, Cadouin Abbey, France CCA 3.0 Germany license; author Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany

But it isn’t anything like that. Those aren’t earphones or the man’s microphone but a…bridle. The woman is riding him.

She is Phyllis the Courtesan and he is Aristotle the Philosopher.

What a way to depict one of the greatest philosophers of the world!

Aristotle is complying with Phyllis’s wish, which is her price. She asked him to play horsie and let her ride him around the patio.

Why would she do that?

To humiliate him. She wanted to get back at him for telling his pupil, no other than young Alexander the Great, to stay away from her, that she was a bad influence on him. Alexander went and told her, and Phyllis seethed.

She Gets Back

The next morning, with her long hair hanging and her gown loose, she danced into the courtyard where Aristotle could see her from his study. He looked up from his books and out his window. There, beside the tall cypress trees and the splashing fountain, was interactive beauty and not for a moment could he resist it. Remember how St. Thomas in a similar plight drove away his temptress with a firebrand? Aristotle had a different approach to temptation. His way of deleting it, of getting it over with, was to fall quickly into it. When Phyllis came close to the window, he reached out, grabbed her, and declared his passion for her.

Platz, Philosopher!

“Not so fast,” said Phyllis. “First I’d like you to carry out a little fantasy of mine.” Once mounted, she began to sing a little ditty about the triumph of Love (over learning): “Master Silly carries me. / ‘Love leads on, and so he goes, / by Love’s authority’.”

There are hundreds of surviving depictions of this fantasy, some with Aristotle bridled and saddled, some with a whip in Phyllis’s hands. A few showed Alexander standing by and watching the horse show. Phyllis had told him to look into the courtyard when he heard her sing.

Engraving from Master of the Housebook (fl. between 1475 and 1500) public domain

Engraving from Master of the Housebook (fl. between 1475 and 1500) public domain

“Now I want this to be a lesson to you,” Aristotle told Alexander, ahem-hemming and straightening his beard and his professor’s toga. “If an old philosopher, skilled in self-control [sic], cannot resist the wiles of a woman, then how is a young man like yourself going to do that? All this only goes to prove the point I was making the other day.”

Alexander just nodded now with a smile in his heart. Aristotle was finished. He had lost his authority as a teacher and moral guide to the young Prince.

Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great by J L G Ferris 1895 (public domain)

Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great by J L G Ferris 1895 (public domain)

And Phyllis was seen with Alexander even more often.

Lai d’Aristote

It is a story students in the Middle Ages liked to tell about the unimpeachable philosopher Aristotle. He was taken as the great authority on almost everything and this story kicked him where (they thought) it hurt. It was made up by Henri d’Andeli, a thirteenth-century Norman poet and was called the “Lai d’Aristote”.

The Moral?

Different morals were derived from it. One was that Aristotle was a fool. Maybe scholars gave this story an extra push when, with Humanism, Plato’s teachings replaced Aristotle’s. Here is a tapestry illustration of the story:

Aristoteles_and_Phyllis tapestry

Tapestry in the Historisches Museum , Basel, Switzerland, 15th C. (public domain)

It was one of the stock misericords in the great churches and cathedrals of Western Europe. (Misericords are the carved figures on the underside of choir-stall seats).  There is a good one in the Cathedral of Toledo, Spain, but the guard would not let me photograph it.

Another lesson was that guys should avoid dolls, who were instruments of the Devil. Remember how Eve had made Adam eat the forbidden fruit and so got us all kicked out of the Garden of Eden? Here was another example. Maybe money was the root of all evil (after Satan). But higher up the plant and still underground, was Woman.

Devil helping create woman

Devil helping create woman (from The Hidden World of Misericords by Dorothy and Henry Kraus. published by George Braziller, Inc., New York)

This misericord shows the devil, with the help of another unidentified sculptor, creating Woman. She was designed to be a temptress.

A detail of a German Aquamanile from ~1400 showing the good grip Phyllis had on the Master:

Aquamanile from ~1400 illustrating the Lai d'Aristotle Free license  photo by Raminagrobis

Aquamanile from ~1400 illustrating the Lai d’Aristotle Free license photo by Raminagrobis


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