The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 17

Cordova — Moors of Barbary — The English — An Old Priest — The Roman Breviary — The Dovecote — The Holy Office — Judaism — Desecration of Dovecotes — The Innkeeper’s Proposal.

Little can be said with respect to the town of Cordova, which is a mean dark gloomy place, full of narrow streets and alleys, without squares or public buildings worthy of attention, save and except its far-famed cathedral; its situation, however, is beautiful and picturesque. Before it runs the Guadalquivir, which, though in this part shallow and full of sandbanks, is still a delightful stream; whilst behind it rise the steep sides of the Sierra Morena, planted up to the top with olive groves. The town or city is surrounded on all sides by lofty Moorish walls, which may measure about three quarters of a league in circumference; unlike Seville, and most other towns in Spain, it has no suburbs.

I have said that Cordova has no remarkable edifices, save its cathedral; yet this is perhaps the most extraordinary place of worship in the world. It was originally, as is well known, a mosque, built in the brightest days of Arabian dominion in Spain; in shape it was quadrangular, with a low roof, supported by an infinity of small and delicately rounded marble pillars, many of which still remain, and present at first sight the appearance of a marble grove; the greater part, however, were removed when the Christians, after the expulsion of the Moslems, essayed to convert the mosque into a cathedral, which they effected in part by the erection of a dome, and by clearing an open space for a choir. As it at present exists, the temple appears to belong partly to Mahomet, and partly to the Nazarene; and though this jumbling together of massive Gothic architecture with the light and delicate style of the Arabians produces an effect somewhat bizarre, it still remains a magnificent and glorious edifice, and well calculated to excite feelings of awe and veneration within the bosoms of those who enter it.

The Moors of Barbary seem to care but little for the exploits of their ancestors: their minds are centred in the things of the present day, and only so far as those things regard themselves individually. Disinterested enthusiasm, that truly distinguishing mark of a noble mind, and admiration for what is great, good, and grand, they appear to be totally incapable of feeling. It is astonishing with what indifference they stray amongst the relics of ancient Moorish grandeur in Spain. No feelings of exultation seem to be excited by the proof of what the Moor once was, nor of regret at the consciousness of what he now is. More interesting to them are their perfumes, their papouches, their dates, and their silks of Fez and Maraks, to dispose of which they visit Andalusia; and yet the generality of these men are far from being ignorant, and have both heard and read of what was passing in Spain in the old time. I was once conversing with a Moor at Madrid, with whom I was very intimate, about the Alhambra of Granada, which he had visited. “Did you not weep,” said I, “when you passed through the courts, and thought of the, Abencerrages?” “No,” said he, “I did not weep; wherefore should I weep?” “And why did you visit the Alhambra?” I demanded. “I visited it,” he replied, “because being at Granada on my own affairs, one of your countrymen requested me to accompany him thither, that I might explain some of the inscriptions. I should certainly not have gone of my own accord, for the hill on which it stands is steep.” And yet this man could compose verses, and was by no means a contemptible poet. Once at Cordova, whilst I was in the cathedral, three Moors entered it, and proceeded slowly across its floor in the direction of a gate, which stood at the opposite side; they took no farther notice of what was around them than by slightly glancing once or twice at the pillars, one of them exclaiming, “Huaije del Mselmeen, huaije del Mselmeen” (things of the Moors, things of the Moors); and showed no other respect for the place where Abderrahman the Magnificent prostrated himself of old, than facing about on arriving at the farther door and making their egress backwards; yet these men were hajis and talebs, men likewise of much gold and silver, men who had read, who had travelled, who had seen Mecca, and the great city of Negroland.

I remained in Cordova much longer than I had originally intended, owing to the accounts which I was continually hearing of the unsafe state of the roads to Madrid. I soon ransacked every nook and cranny of this ancient town, formed various acquaintances amongst the populace, which is my general practice on arriving at a strange place. I more than once ascended the side of the Sierra Morena, in which excursions I was accompanied by the son of my host, — the tall lad of whom I have already spoken. The people of the house, who had imbibed the idea that I was of the same way of thinking as themselves, were exceedingly courteous; it is true, that in return I was compelled to listen to a vast deal of Carlism, in other words, high treason against the ruling powers in Spain, to which, however, I submitted with patience. “Don Jorgito,” said the landlord to me one day, “I love the English; they are my best customers. It is a pity that there is not greater union between Spain and England, and that more English do not visit us. Why should there not be a marriage? The king will speedily be at Madrid. Why should there not be bodas between the son of Don Carlos and the heiress of England?”

“It would certainly tend to bring a considerable number of English to Spain,” said I, “and it would not be the first time that the son of a Carlos has married a Princess of England.”

The host mused for a moment, and then exclaimed, “Carracho, Don Jorgito, if this marriage could be brought about, both the king and myself should have cause to fling our caps in the air.”

The house or posada in which I had taken up my abode was exceedingly spacious, containing an infinity of apartments, both large and small, the greater part of which were, however, unfurnished. The chamber in which I was lodged stood at the end of an immensely long corridor, of the kind so admirably described in the wondrous tale of Udolfo. For a day or two after my arrival I believed myself to be the only lodger in the house. One morning, however, I beheld a strange-looking old man seated in the corridor, by one of the windows, reading intently in a small thick volume. He was clad in garments of coarse blue cloth, and wore a loose spencer over a waistcoat adorned with various rows of small buttons of mother of pearl; he had spectacles upon his nose. I could perceive, notwithstanding he was seated, that his stature bordered upon the gigantic. “Who is that person?” said I to the landlord, whom I presently met; “is he also a guest of yours?” “Not exactly, Don Jorge de mi alma,” replied he, “I can scarcely call him a guest, inasmuch as I gain nothing by him, though he is staying at my house. You must know, Don Jorge, that he is one of two priests who officiate at a large village at some slight distance from this place. So it came to pass, that when the soldiers of Gomez entered the village, his reverence went to meet them, dressed in full canonicals, with a book in his hand, and he, at their bidding, proclaimed Carlos Quinto in the market-place. The other priest, however, was a desperate liberal, a downright negro, and upon him the royalists laid their hands, and were proceeding to hang him. His reverence, however, interfered, and obtained mercy for his colleague, on condition that he should cry Viva Carlos Quinto! which the latter did in order to save his life. Well; no sooner had the royalists departed from these parts than the black priest mounts his mule, comes to Cordova, and informs against his reverence, notwithstanding that he had saved his life. So his reverence was seized and brought hither to Cordova, and would assuredly have been thrown into the common prison as a Carlist, had I not stepped forward and offered to be surety that he should not quit the place, but should come forward at any time to answer whatever charge might be brought against him; and he is now in my house, though guest I cannot call him, for he is not of the slightest advantage to me, as his very food is daily brought from the country, and that consists only of a few eggs and a little milk and bread. As for his money, I have never seen the colour of it, notwithstanding they tell me that he has buenas pesetas. However, he is a holy man, is continually reading and praying and is, moreover, of the right opinion. I therefore keep him in my house, and would be bail for him were he twenty times more of a skinflint than he seems to be.”

The next day, as I was again passing through the corridor, I observed the old man in the same place, and saluted him. He returned my salutation with much courtesy, and closing the book, placed it upon his knee as if willing to enter into conversation. After exchanging a word or two, I took up the book for the purpose of inspecting it.

“You will hardly derive much instruction from that book, Don Jorge,” said the old man; “you cannot understand it, for it is not written in English.”

“Nor in Spanish,” I replied. “But with respect to understanding the book, I cannot see what difficulty there can be in a thing so simple; it is only the Roman breviary written in the Latin tongue.”

“Do the English understand Latin?” exclaimed he. “Vaya! Who would have thought that it was possible for Lutherans to understand the language of the church? Vaya! the longer one lives the more one learns.”

“How old may your reverence be?” I inquired.

“I am eighty years, Don Jorge; eighty years, and somewhat more.”

Such was the first conversation which passed between his reverence and myself. He soon conceived no inconsiderable liking for me, and favoured me with no little of his company. Unlike our friend the landlord, I found him by no means inclined to talk politics, which the more surprised me, knowing, as I did, the decided and hazardous part which he had taken on the late Carlist irruption into the neighbourhood. He took, however, great delight in discoursing on ecclesiastical subjects and the writings of the fathers.

“I have got a small library at home, Don Jorge, which consists of all the volumes of the fathers which I have been able to pick up, and I find the perusal of them a source of great amusement and comfort. Should these dark days pass by, Don Jorge, and you should be in these parts, I hope you will look in upon me, and I will show you my little library of the fathers, and likewise my dovecote, where I rear numerous broods of pigeons, which are also a source of much solace and at the same time of profit.”

“I suppose by your dovecote,” said I, “you mean your parish, and by rearing broods of pigeons, you allude to the care you take of the souls of your people, instilling therein the fear of God, and obedience to his revealed law, which occupation must of course afford you much solace and spiritual profit.”

“I was not speaking metaphorically, Don Jorge,” replied my companion; “and by rearing doves, I mean neither more nor less than that I supply the market of Cordova with pigeons, and occasionally that of Seville; for my birds are very celebrated, and plumper or fatter flesh than theirs I believe cannot be found in the whole kingdom. Should you come into my village, you will doubtless taste them, Don Jorge, at the venta where you will put up, for I suffer no dovecotes but my own within my district. With respect to the souls of my parishioners, I trust I do my duty — I trust I do, as far as in my power lies. I always took great pleasure in these spiritual matters, and it was on that account that I attached myself to the Santa Casa of Cordova, the duties of which I assisted to perform for a long period.”

“Your reverence has been an inquisitor?” I exclaimed, somewhat startled.

“From my thirtieth year until the time of the suppression of the holy office in these afflicted kingdoms.”

“You both surprise and delight me,” I exclaimed. “Nothing could have afforded me greater pleasure than to find myself conversing with a father formerly attached to the holy house of Cordova.”

The old man looked at me steadfastly; “I understand you, Don Jorge. I have long seen that you are one of us. You are a learned and holy man; and though you think fit to call yourself a Lutheran and an Englishman, I have dived into your real condition. No Lutheran would take the interest in church matters which you do, and with respect to your being an Englishman, none of that nation can speak Castilian, much less Latin. I believe you to be one of us — a missionary priest, and I am especially confirmed in that idea by your frequent conversations and interviews with the Gitanos; you appear to be labouring among them. Be, however, on your guard, Don Jorge, trust not to Egyptian faith; they are evil penitents, whom I like not. I would not advise you to trust them.”

“I do not intend,” I replied; “especially with money. But to return to more important matters:— of what crimes did this holy house of Cordova take cognizance?”

“You are of course aware of the matters on which the holy office exercises its functions. I need scarcely mention sorcery, Judaism, and certain carnal misdemeanours.”

“With respect to sorcery,” said I, “what is your opinion of it? Is there in reality such a crime?”

“Que se io 13?” said the old man, shrugging up his shoulders. “How should I know? The church has power, Don Jorge, or at least it had power, to punish for anything, real or unreal; and as it was necessary to punish in order to prove that it had the power of punishing, of what consequence whether it punished for sorcery or any other crime.”

“Did many cases of sorcery occur within your own sphere of knowledge?”

“One or two, Don Jorge; they were by no means frequent. The last that I remember was a case which occurred in a convent at Seville: a certain nun was in the habit of flying through the windows and about the garden over the tops of the orange trees; declarations of various witnesses were taken, and the process was arranged with much formality; the fact, I believe, was satisfactorily proved: of one thing I am certain, that the nun was punished.”

“Were you troubled with much Judaism in these parts?”

“Wooh! Nothing gave so much trouble to the Santa Casa as this same Judaism. Its shoots and ramifications are numerous, not only in these parts, but in all Spain; and it is singular enough, that even among the priesthood, instances of Judaism of both kinds were continually coming to our knowledge, which it was of course our duty to punish.”

“Is there more than one species of Judaism?” I demanded.

“I have always arranged Judaism under two heads,” said the old man, “the black and the white: by the black, I mean the observance of the law of Moses in preference to the precepts of the church; then there is the white Judaism, which includes all kinds of heresy, such as Lutheranism, freemasonry, and the like.”

“I can easily conceive,” said I, “that many of the priesthood favoured the principles of the reformation, and that the minds of not a few had been led astray by the deceitful lights of modern philosophy, but it is almost inconceivable to me that there should be Jews amongst the priesthood who follow in secret the rites and observances of the old law, though I confess that I have been assured of the fact ere now.”

“Plenty of Judaism amongst the priesthood, whether of the black or white species; no lack of it, I assure you, Don Jorge; I remember once searching the house of an ecclesiastic who was accused of the black Judaism, and after much investigation, we discovered beneath the floor a wooden chest, in which was a small shrine of silver, inclosing three books in black hogskin, which, on being opened, were found to be books of Jewish devotion, written in Hebrew characters, and of great antiquity; and on being questioned, the culprit made no secret of his guilt, but rather gloried in it, saying that there was no God but one, and denouncing the adoration of Maria Santissima as rank idolatry.”

“And between ourselves, what is your own opinion of the adoration of this same Maria Santissima?”

“What is my opinion! Que se io?” said the old man, shrugging up his shoulders still higher than on the former occasion; “but I will tell you; I think, on consideration, that it is quite right and proper; why not? Let any one pay a visit to my church, and look at her as she stands there, tan bonita, tan guapita — so well dressed and so genteel — with such pretty colours, such red and white, and he would scarcely ask me why Maria Santissima should not be adored. Moreover, Don Jorgito mio, this is a church matter and forms an important part of the church system.”

“And now, with respect to carnal misdemeanours. Did you take much cognizance of them?”

“Amongst the laity, not much; we, however, kept a vigilant eye upon our own body, but, upon the whole, were rather tolerant in these matters, knowing that the infirmities of human nature are very great indeed: we rarely punished, save in cases where the glory of the church and loyalty to Maria Santissima made punishment absolutely imperative.”

“And what cases might those be?” I demanded.

“I allude to the desecration of dovecotes, Don Jorge, and the introduction therein of strange flesh, for purposes neither seemly nor convenient.”

“Your reverence will excuse me for not yet perfectly understanding.”

“I mean, Don Jorge, certain acts of flagitiousness practised by the clergy in lone and remote palomares (dovecotes) in olive grounds and gardens; actions denounced, I believe, by the holy Pablo in his first letter to Pope Sixtus. 14 You understand me now, Don Jorge, for you are learned in church matters.”

“I think I understand you,” I replied.

After remaining several days more at Cordova, I determined to proceed on my journey to Madrid, though the roads were still said to be highly insecure. I, however, saw but little utility in tarrying and awaiting a more tranquil state of affairs, which might never arrive. I therefore consulted with the landlord respecting the best means of making the journey. “Don Jorgito,” he replied, “I think I can tell you. You say you are anxious to depart, and I never wish to keep guests in my house longer than is agreeable to them; to do so, would not become a Christian innkeeper: I leave such conduct to Moors, Christinos, and Negroes. I will further you on your journey, Don Jorge: I have a plan in my head, which I had resolved to propose to you before you questioned me. There is my wife’s brother, who has two horses which he occasionally lets out for hire; you shall hire them, Don Jorge, and he himself shall attend you to take care of you, and to comfort you, and to talk to you, and you shall pay him forty dollars for the journey. Moreover, as there are thieves upon the route, and malos sujetos, such as Palillos and his family, you shall make an engagement and a covenant, Don Jorge, that provided you are robbed and stripped on the route, and the horses of my wife’s brother are taken from him by the thieves, you shall, on arriving at Madrid, make good any losses to which my wife’s brother may be subject in following you. This is my plan, Don Jorge, which no doubt will meet with your worship’s approbation, as it is devised solely for your benefit, and not with any view of lucre or interest either to me or mine. You will find my wife’s brother pleasant company on the route: he is a very respectable man, and one of the right opinion, and has likewise travelled much; for between ourselves, Don Jorge, he is something of a Contrabandista and frequently smuggles diamonds and precious stones from Portugal, which he disposes of sometimes in Cordova and sometimes at Madrid. He is acquainted with all the short cuts, all the atajos, Don Jorge, and is much respected in all the ventas and posadas on the way; so now give me your hand upon the bargain, and I will forthwith repair to my wife’s brother to tell him to get ready to set out with your worship the day after tomorrow.”

13 “How should I know?”

14 Qu. The Epistle to the Romans.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32