Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
by Elaine Wertheimer
Retired Professor of Spanish, New York
from HaLapid, Winter 2009
Rodrigo de Cota, was a 15th century poet with a major social identity crisis, one of the desperate conversos , who did not have a comfortable place in this world. So often when we are dealing with authors of this period, we suspect that they may have been conversos , or we perceive a converso influence in their writings and then we have to defend our positions, often against acerbic criticism. In the case of Rodrigo de Cota, however, we have no doubt, neither of his Jewish origin nor of his convert status. In fact, Francisco Cantera Burgos entitled his amply documented book " El poeta Ruy Sanchez Cota (Rodrigo Cota) y su familia de judios conversos ." (The poet ... and his family of Jewish converts.)
Cota was born in Toledo sometime between 1430 and 1440 and died about 1505. The varied fortunes of his family and the persecutions they suffered over the years led to the anguished social identity, which is reflected in his work.
We know from the investigations of Cantera Burgos, and earlier from those of Emilo Cotarelo, that Cota's family was of high social rank. His father, Alonso Cota was a treasurer who founded an entailed estate, inherited by his oldest son Rodrigo. Other family members were legal experts, scribes, members of town councils. The importance of the family is proven by these responsible positions as well as by the interest, which Princess Isabela took in the family affairs. We know that Cota was an escribano (scribe) and tax collector, and that he invested in land, features which he had in common with other conversos wishing to assimilate to their new environment.
However, in spite of the high social position of the family members and the interest of the Princess, the Cota family endured persecution. Cota's father Alonso was a victim of the riot of 1449 when the family home was set on fire. Many years later, several members of the family were accused of Judaizing, with tragic consequences. It is a matter of record that Beatriz Alonso Cota, the author's aunt, was burned at the stake as an heretic in 1495, and that doctor Alonso Cota, legal expert and Rodrigo's brother suffered the same fate in 1496. Other family members who were adjudged "heretics" were reconciled with the Church: Juan Cota in 1486, and Rodrigo Cota el Mozo, the author's nephew in 1496. A list of Judaizers from 1495 and 1497 mentions fourteen Cotas as condenados , habilitados or reconciliados .
In an attempt to disassociate himself from the family, Cota changed his name, using at times the names of Ruy Sánchez Cota and of Ruy Sanchez de Toledo. He married a cristiana vieja (Old Christian) Isabel de Peralta, and gave his descendants the name of Alarcón which they kept until the 17th century.
Rodrigo Cota himself was also personally involved with the Inquisition but we don't know much of the details. Although there is no evidence that he was a Judiaizer, he was brought before the tribunal and listed as a condenado sometime before Sept. 30, 1499. This biographical fact does not appear to be well known. I did not find it in Cotarelo or in Cantera Burgos. However, Gregory Kaplan cites a royal decree listed in the catalogue of Pilar Leon Tello. In this document (#1725 in the Cathedral of Toledo) the reyes catolicos (the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella) give permission to an inquisitor in Toledo to dispose of property belonging to Rodrigo Cota who had been condenado . We do not know the outcome of Cota's case, nor if he was acquitted before being required to appear in an auto da fe . However, the accusation had a definite affect on his family since two of his sons, Martin de Alarcon and Juan de Sandoval omitted the name Cota when referring to their father, whom they designated as Ruy Sanchez de Toledo. Obviously they were trying to avoid the perils of associating themselves with a condenado .
Cota's total literary production which has come down to us consists of four short works, but one of them, the Dialogo entre el Amor y un Viejo ,(Dialogue between Love and the Old Man) is of capital importance in the development of the Spanish theater. This work was not published during his lifetime. It appeared anonymously in the Cancionero General of Hernando del Castillo in 1511 in Valencia and was reissued in 1569 in Medina del Campo by Francisco del Canto.
The dialogue form, which Cota uses, occurs frequently in medieval Castilian literature. Among the many examples are Juan de Mena's La razon contra la luxuria , (reason against licentiousness), the Marques de Santillana's Bias contra fortuna , (Bias against fortune), Juan Ruiz' Pelea (Strife) and many anonymous disputas , debates and controversias , but there is an important difference. The salient features of medieval dialogues, are their moral lessons, their didactic intent. Here there is no moral, as we shall soon see. There is no lesson. Cota's intent is not to provide moral instruction but to protest a hopeless situation.
The work is a mixture of lyric poetry and drama. At that time literary genres were not rigidly delimited. Although clothed in allegoric form, it has an atmosphere of reality for the life force behind it. The clash of two wills in conflict, of two points of view which meet and shoot sparks, make of it a profoundly human work in spite of its allegorical costume.
The argument is simple: an old man retired from the world, lives in a ruined orchard, in a desiccated garden. Amor, the god of Love, approaches and tries to seduce him. At first the old man resists, but soon he is persuaded by the subtle arguments and flattering promises of the god of Love. When at last, he succumbs, Love turns on him, insulting him and mocking him pitilessly.
Athough the later editions of the work have stage directions lacking in the original, much of the movement can be deduced from the dialogue itself. For example, when the Viejo expresses his surprise at the approach of Amor to disturb the solitude of his life:
Cerrada estaba mi puerta,
¿A qué vienes? ¿Por do entraste?
Di, ladrón, ¿por qué saltaste
las paredes de mi huerta ?
(My door was closed.
Why are you coming? How did you get in?
Tell me, Thief, why did you jump over
the gates of my garden?)
Then Amor begins to entice him, the Viejo roughly rejects the proposition, denying the hope of recovered youth which is being offered and gives his reason for suspicion of Amor's motives:
Pues traydor eres, amor,
de los tuyos enemigo,
y los que viven contigo
son ministros de dolor:
sábete que sé que son
afán, desdén y desseo
tormento y desesperanca,
enganos con ceguedad,
lloros y catiuidad,
congoxa, rauia, mudanca,
(You are a traitor, Love,
an enemy of your own,
and those who live with you
are ministers of grief.
I know that they are
worry, disdain and desire
torment and despair,
deceit with blindness
tears and captivity,
anguish, rage and change,)
The god answers his complaints by speaking to him sweetly and reassuringly until the old man agrees to listen to his reasoning:
Pero dímelos de lejos
el aire no me inficiones .
(But tell me from afar
don't poison my air.)
We suppose that Amor has advanced one step. This technique of action implicit in dialogue will be seen later in the Celestina. Amor tries to allay the Viejo's suspicions, but the Old Man remains adamant, calling Love " blanda cara de alacrán ". (soft face of a scorpion). Listen to the music in that line. For the lyricism as well as the dramatic force, Menendez y Pelayo called the Dialogo " joya preciosa de nuestro tesoro poetico del siglo XV ". (a precious gem of our poetic treasure of the 15th century) Now why precisely does Cota use the image of the scorpion to describe Amor's blandishments? Elisa Aragone in her critical edition of the Dialogo , gives us an answer, quoting Gessner, the naturalist of the 16th century that the scorpion was likened to a woman since it has a soft and almost girlish face but a poisonous sting in its tail. This image was common in medieval iconography.
Amor proceeds slowly, tempting the Viejo with promises of happiness, of renewed beauty, of restored masculine vigor. Amor says:
Por ende, si con dulcura
me quieres obedecer,
yo hare reconoscer
en ti muy nueua frescura:
ponert'e en el coracon
este mi biuo alboroco
seras en esta sazon
de la misma condicion
qu'eras quando lindo mozo.
(So, if you will obey me
I will let you see in yourself
a very new freshness;
I will put in your heart
my own lively joyfulness
you will be at this time
in the same condition
as when you were a handsome young man.)
Amor says to the Viejo: I will make you young again. I will make you handsome again. I will make you potent again. What man could resist? And thus, the two move as in a dance, one step forward, one step back. The figures appear more human than allegorical. It is not a question of good and evil here. There are no heroes and villains. The two are equally reprehensible, the Viejo anxious to sin once again and Amor anxious to make a fool of him. At some moments, it seems as if the old man will win. At others, it is Love that is ahead. The Dialogo appears to move toward a happy ending when suddenly the action takes a new turn. At the moment when the Viejo is about to achieve his purpose, he suddenly feels that something horrible is happening. His reason warns him to desist, but it is already much too late. When Amor asks him gently:
Hete aquí bien abrazado.
Dime, ¿qué sientes ahora?
( Now you see yourself well embraced.
Tell me, what do you feel now?)
The Viejo responds:
Siento rabia matadora
placer lleno de cuidado
siento un fuego muy crecido
siento mal y no lo veo .
(I feel a murderous rage.
a pleasure full of troubles
I feel a raging fire
I feel the presence of evil but I can't see it.)
He is seized with an ineffable terror. He senses evil all around him but cannot see it to defend himself. The dream of happiness has become a nightmare. Amor not only deceives him but also confronts him with the miseries of his age, taunting him for his gullibility in believing that an ugly old man could possibly evoke passion.
¿ Cual error pudo bastar
que te avia de tornar
ruvio tu cabello cano?
Y esos becos tan sumidos,
dientes y muelas podridos,
[creias] que eran dulces de besar ?
(What error could be enough
to turn blond your white hair?
and those sunken cheeks
rotten teeth and molars,
did you think they were sweet to kiss?
Not only is his desire unsatisfied, but also Amor heaps insults on him, enumerating " la boca gargajosa, los pies llenos de callos, no escupes mas derecho de cuanto ensuzias la barva " (your phlegmy mouth, your feet full of calluses, you can't even spit without staining your beard) and calls him " alma viva en seco palo, biva muerte y muerta vida " (a living soul in a dry stick, living death and dead life) The Viejo ends up scorned and beaten.
The theme of the miseries of old age was not original with Cota. Other Cancionero poets had treated it before. For example, Hernando del Pulgar had described the life of the old: " comen con pena, purgan con trabajo ." (they eat with difficulty, they purge themselves with effort.)
As Francisco Marquez points out: El tema de la vejez y el comportameniento del anciano constituye una preocupacion frequente en la poesia de cancioneros, hasta alcanzar su formulacion mas valiosa en el Dialogo de Rodrigo de Cota, que estrema con la mayor ferocidad el aspecto mas repugnante de la decadencia fisica . (The theme of old age and the behavior of the elderly was a frequent preoccupation in Cancionero poetry but it reached its highest level in Cota's Dialogo which presents the most repugnant aspect of physical decadence with the greatest ferocity.)
Americo Castro speaks of the " perversa complacencia de Rodrigo de Cota al incitar al Viejo...a rendirse a la llamada de Amor, para, inmediatemente, confrontar al hombre anciano con las miserias de su edad, con la "desrealidad" de su sueno ." ( The perverse complacence of Cota in inciting the Old Man to succumb to Love's call in order to confront him with the miseries of his age, with the unreality of his dream.)
It is perverse all right, but is it really complacence?" I do not think that this was a source of satisfaction for Cota. It seems more a protest wrenched from his heart. How can we explain Cota's apparent perversity? Here is the picture of an old man who still believes himself capable of finding sensual delights and ends up deceived and humiliated. Some may find this comical. Others may find it pathetic, but in no way should it provoke so much ferocity, so much bitterness, so much despair. Nevertheless, if we understand the drama in relation to the life of the poet himself we see a possible explanation, for the rhythm of the Dialogo responds to the rhythm of Cota's own life. The old man lived apart from the world, in the solitary exclusivity of the Jews of Spain. Love went looking for him, offered him promises of well-being, of a new and gratifying life if he would accept the new law. In spite of the admonitions of his own reason, the old man concedes, enjoys one fleeting moment of happiness and immediately finds himself betrayed.
Perhaps Cota's reference is to the way Christians forced Jews to convert and then subsequently turned on them by rejecting them for their blood impurity. The persistent rejection of nuevos once they had surrendered to the blandishments of Christian love would be a betrayal of the caritas, which St. Paul placed above other theological virtues. The Viejo thus would represent la ley vieja, la ley cansada, la ley caducada . (the old law, the tired law, the worn out law). In fact, the Viejo, initially repudiating Amor, says : " Dexa mi cansada vida ." (leave my tired life) and he complains to Amor:
Tu mestizas los linages,
tu limpieza no conseruas;
tu doctrinas de malicia,
tu quebrantas lealtad .
(You mix up lineages
you don't conserve purity of blood
you teach malice,
you destroy loyalty.)
Here we have a clear reference to the limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) doctrine, which made it impossible for cristianos nuevos to ever assimilate into the Christian community.
The Viejo's complaints against love will remind you of Pleberio's lament over his dead daughter in La Celestina. Pleberio inveighs against Love's treachery. It pursues those who have not succumbed to it, and then brings death to those who do succumb. The Viejo, on the other hand, does not spell out the nature of such perfidy but the scene does all of the communicating. The world of the Dialogo is a world in chaos, an event not ruled by a moral Providence . There is deceit everywhere. There is no love, no pity, no tenderness, no sympathy. Love has become Life, which deceives man, tempting him and seducing him only to mock him perversely.
Amor, taunting him, says:
Ahora podrás, don Viejo
conservar tu fama casta
ahora veré si te basta
tu saber y tu consejo .
(Now, Sir Old Man, you can
preserve your chaste reputation
now I'll see if it's enough for you
your knowledge and your advice.)
How do knowledge and advice fit into this? This is a story of a man looking to enjoy a woman. Whatever saber and consejo have to do with it. However, we must realize that Cota's people had always been recognized for their knowledge and wisdom. Now the Viejo sees that these qualities will no longer avail him. Cota's introduction of these words which seem discrepant reminds me of Sanford Shepherd's remark: "No literature except perhaps works of cabalistic mysticism has ever required so much foreknowledge and depended so little on literal meaning as Spanish literature."
The negation of life in this work approaches complete nihilism. Nevertheless the Viejo has the last word, expressing the little consolation, which still remains to him:
Si la alcurnia del vencido
da la Gloria al vencedor
yo de ti tan combatido
no sere debil, caído
ni tu fuerte, triunfador .
(If the lineage of the defeated
gives Glory to the victor
I, so beaten down by you
will not be weak and fallen
nor will you be strong and triumphant.)
Gregory Kaplan calls this work a converso lament, with two parallel converso allegories: one referring to the situation of the conversos in general, and the other to the specific situation of Rodrigo Cota. In the first allegory, the ruined orchard signifies the lives of the conversos and their inferior status and low public esteem. The second allegory, with the theme of fuego (fire), reflects Cota's own experience , the burning at the stake of Dr. Alonso Cota and his own trials with the Inquisition.
Cota's family had enjoyed their moment of happiness after their conversion, but later realized that conversion had done nothing to improve their position in Old Christian society. Their efforts to disassociate themselves from their own people had not prevailed. Their attempts to be good Christians were doomed to fail since their sangre (blood) could never be limpia (pure). In spite of their high position, in spite of their wealth, in spite of all their efforts, they were still living in a broken down hut in a desiccated garden. They were still miserable Jews. In the end, they saw themselves in the horror of the Inquisitorial procedures and the " fuego muy crecido " of the hoguera . (the raging fire of the stake). The reaction of the poet to this situation is not a resigned pessimism, but a frenzy of intolerable despair.
Elisa Aragone in her introduction to the Dialogo states that the pessimistic concept of love which was typical in the Middle Ages is intensified with Biblical violence in the work of the Hispanic Semite. But we do not need typical medieval pessimism nor Biblical violence to understand what is happening in Cota's world. The years of anti- converso persecution, the impossibility of ever bettering his situation, the tragic deaths of his relatives in the autos da fe , and his own involvement with the Inquisition led to the tone of hopelessness and bitterness reflected in the Dialogo .
Cota could not openly express the agony in his heart. His situation was too dangerous to permit the luxury of an overt protest so he cleverly hid his complaint in sexual guise. He transmuted into lyricism his pain and suffering, but all of his repressed passion burst forth in this Dialogo in a chilling cry of anguish which still resonates, five centuries later.
Rene Foulche Desbosc said in 1915 " La filiación conversa de Rodrigo de Cota era entonces, como ahora,
conocidísima." Cancionero Castellano del siglo XV, vol. II, Madrid 1915, p. 588
Madrid , 1970
Emilio Cotarelo, " Algunas noticias nuevas acerca de Rodrigo Cota ". BRAE, XIII, Madrid , 1926, pp. 11-17, and " Adiciones
a las noticias nuevas acerca de Rodrigo Cota ", Ibid, pp. 140-3, Cantera Burgos, op. cit.
R. Foulché-Delbosc, " Deux letters inédites d'Isabelle la Catholique concernant la famille de Rodrigo Cota ", RH, I, 1894
Paris , pp. 85-7.One letter orders the release of two prisoners, Sancho Cota and his son Rodrigo., cousins of the author.
We do not know why they were imprisoned. The other letter orders the wife and children of the treasurer Francisco Cota to be sent to Toledo .
Eleazar Gutwirth, "On the background to Cota's Epitalamio Burlesco", RF , 97 Band, Heft 1, l985, pp. 1-14
Francisco Cantera Burgos, Judaizantes del arzobispado de Toledo habilitados por la Inquisicon en 1496 y 1497 . Madrid ,
Universidad de Madrid, 1969
Cotarelo, op. cit., p. 15
Eloy Benito Ruano, Toledo en el siglo XV: Vida politica , Madrid , CSIC, 1961, p. 35
Pilar Leon Tello, Judios de Toledo , Madrid , CSIC, 1979, #1725
Kaplan, op. cit. p. 94 and note 8.
The Sociedad de Bibliófilos españoles published an edition of the Cancionero General de Hernando de Castillo segun
la edicion de 1511 , in Madrid , 1882. The only modern edition of the work is that of Elisa Aragone, Dialogo entre el amor
y un viejo , Firenze , Felice le Monnier, 1961.
Ibid . p. 119
Aragone, op. cit .p. 73
Cited by Americo Castro, Espana en su historia , 2nd ed., Barcelona , 1983, p. 543
Investigaciones sobre Juan Alvarez Gato , Madrid , 1960, pp. 309-310
Op. cit , p. 543.
Cancionero general de Hernando del Castillo, Sociedad de Bibliofilos espanoles , I, Madrid , 1882, p.303
Ibid . p. 132
Lost Lexicon Secret Meaning in the Vocabulary of Spanish Literature during the Inquisition , Miami , FL , 1982 p. 20
Ibid . p. 136
Kaplan, op. cit, pp. 96-105
Dialogo entre el Amor y un Viejo , Firenze , 1961, p. 25