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Delibes and Spanish Protestants

Miguel Delibes’ last book, The Heretic (1998), is about the sixteenth century Reformation in Valladolid. Where did Delibes get his information? What was his relationship with Protestants? And what were his beliefs?

BETWEEN THE LINES AUTOR 1/Jose_de_Segovia 06 DE JULIO DE 2020 09:04 h
Delibes writes in defence of freedom of thought, over and above any religious concern.

This year marks 100 years since the birth of the Spanish author Miguel Delibes (1920–2010).

His last book, The Heretic (1998) is about the sixteenth century Reformation in Valladolid, but the Bible already holds a central place in his earlier book Five Hours with Mario (1966),1 which features Spanish Protestants under Franco.

Where did Delibes get his information? What was his relationship with Protestants? And what were his beliefs?

When I was editor of the Spanish magazine Panorama Evangélico at the beginning of the 80s, I remember that I called Delibes up one day to ask him to do an interview for us on his religious beliefs. He very kindly answered that “these things are too serious to be talked about over the phone”.

I never had the chance to meet him face-to-face, but his answers would probably have been as laconic as those given to José María Gironella in his book 100 españoles y Dios (100 Spaniards and God) where he said: “I am a simple man of faith. Although it gets harder every day, I am lucky that my faith in God, Christ and a future destination is still intact”.

For such a fervent Catholic – fond of sober Spanish Easter masses – his many references to Spanish Protestantism are remarkable. It is not only that he chose to write his last book about the Reformation in Spain, but also that he thought that the best way of starting every monologue by Carmen Sotillo – the picture of an archetypal Spanish woman – in Five Hours with Mario, was by commenting on the texts highlighted in a Bible by her late husband, who had been in contact with an evangelical church in Valladolid.

[photo_footer] The character that Lola Herrera plays in the theater watches over the body of her husband one night in 1965. [/photo_footer] 


Five hours with Mario

This book is set one night in 1965, as the main character, Carmen Sotillo, watches over the body of her late husband. Her train of thought reflects the ignorance and meanness of the social mentality wrought by the regime imposed by the Spanish Civil War.

It reveals the religious prejudice of a country that is ignorant of Scripture, but that nevertheless hates anything sounding like Protestantism.

As she watches over her husband, this woman goes back over the nooks and crannies of their marriage and the monotonous provincial life of a middle class without aspirations or luxury.

Each scene begins with a text from the Bible that her husband used to read. She is “reading over read text”, that is “only the highlighted bits”, as he used to say that these “fed and calmed him”. That is when she confesses to knowing the secret of how her husband came to know the Bible.

“One thing, Mario – just between you and me – that I never dared mention before: I won’t do anything to check whether Higinio Oyerzun was telling the truth when he said that you were meeting up with a group of Protestants to pray on Thursdays”.

But, she warns him: “If someone were to show me proof of it without me asking – even though it would pain me – you would be a stranger to me, and our children would never hear me utter your name again. Just the thought of it: I would much prefer them to think that they were bastards – and I would gladly swallow that bitter pill – than to tell them that their father was a renegade”.

She has no tolerance for that: “Yes, Mario, I am crying, but this is too much. I can take a lot – you know me. Few people are more understanding or generous than me, but I would much prefer death – yes, death – than to brush shoulders with Jews or Protestants”.

Because, she says, “if Christ ever came back, rest assured that he would not be praying with the Protestants”. Her character is scandalized by freedom of religion:

Now they are telling us that the Protestants are going to open a church here, on the corner of the street. What is going through their heads – just think of the five little ones! Who in their right mind would let them out of the house with that going on? It is unthinkable, Mario. This is what happens when people like you are not the way they should be. No one thinks of the afterlife, has principles or anything like that nowadays”.


Spanish intolerance

“The intellectuals, with their bizarre ideas, are the ones that mix everything up. They are all half-mad; they think that they know what they are talking about, but the only thing they know is how to meddle. That is all it is. That and getting poor people riled up – if they don’t turn them into communists, they become Protestants or worse”.

In bewilderment, she concludes that “the next thing they will say is that Protestants are good, and then we truly won’t know if we’re coming or we’re going”. And “the Inquisition was a good thing because it made us all think in the right way – that is, in a Christian way. And you see in Spain we are all Catholics, and Catholics to our eyeballs. What devotion! Not like those foreigners who don’t even kneel down to take communion. If I were a priest – and I’m being serious – I would petition the government send them all packing. They just come over here to flash their legs and make a scene”.

[photo_footer]It is dedicated to José Jiménez Lozano, one of the writers who has shown the most interest in Protestantism. [/photo_footer] 

What was Delibes’ relationship to Protestantism? It is worth noting that this book, which is obligatory reading in most secondary schools, is dedicated to José Jiménez Lozano (1930–2020), winner of the prestigious Spanish Principe de Asturias Prize.

This author, who called himself a Jansenist, was not only one of the few truly Catholic authors of his time in Spain, but also the one to have shown the most interest in Protestantism.

His love of the Bible led him to write, from his village outside the city of Valladolid, the greatest number of books inspired by the Scriptures in modern Spanish literature.

As a great friend of his, Jiménez Lozano’s testimony confronted Delibes with his doubts about his own faith, turning this into one of the greatest preoccupations of his lifetime.

Another Spanish author, Carmen Martín Gaite, described Delibes’ novel as “timeless”. Although it is true that anti-protestant prejudice isn’t as virulent as it was at that time, it has been a feature of many generations in Spain, taught to see Protestantism as something foreign and harmful.

In Spain, you are either Catholic or you are nothing. Mario’s wife neither reads nor understands the Bible. Everything she says about it is completely out of context. Her concerns are so materialistic that she doesn’t have the slightest interest in spiritual questions.


Delibes’ heretic

The Heretic is not the first novel written about the Reformation in Spain. Evangelicals already had books like Los Hermanos Españoles (The Spanish Brothers) by Debora Alcock, La Casa de Doña Constanza (Doña Constanza’s House) by Emma Leslie, and Recuerdos de Antaño (Memories of Bygone Days) by Emilio Martínez.

These books, however, would not be known to the wider population and would, moreover, now be labelled as religious propaganda, rather than real literature – although they are probably a lot more edifying than Delibes’ description of a sexually immoral life. No matter: who is this heretic? And what does his faith entail?

The heretic in question is a rich leather and wool merchant from Valladolid called Cipriano Salcedo. Born on the Day of the Reformation, he is drawn by the preaching of Doctor Cazalla and enters the evangelical faith, becoming part of one of the first groups of Protestants in Spain.

All this happens at a time when Spain was dominated by the Inquisition and had no religious freedom. At this time, “the love of reading has become so suspect that illiteracy has come to be seen as something desirable and honourable”.

Salcedo is a complex character, shaped by the death of his parents, abuse from his father and the failure of his marriage.

The Heretic sees Delibes’ first incursion into the historical novel genre, surprising many of his critics and admirers. One might therefore hastily assume that the book will not be very faithful to the historical context.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. The research that Delibes carried out for this novel is impressive, as is the accuracy of the language he uses and the reflection of the customs of the time.

Its status as a novel has nevertheless to be kept in mind: its main aim isn’t to reconstruct historical events, but to express fears and feelings, projected in this case on a fictional character to which Delibes dedicates his longest book.


Lutherans in Castille

This book is dedicated to Valladolid, which together with Seville was the main seat of the Reformation in Spain. We know nothing of the heretic’s origins, or of his exposure to other countries.

At the beginning of the book, he has been sent on a journey by Doctor Cazalla to visit Melanchton and see for himself what is happening in Germany. It is worth noting that at this time the royal court of Charles V was in the capital of Castile.

The Protestant group in Valladolid appears to be higher ranking and better educated than the group in Seville. They hail from the educated and privileged classes of Castile: from its aristocracy, the high clergy and the rising bourgeoisie.

The Gospel reaches whole families, like those of the Cazalla and the Rojas, as well as whole communities, such as a convent in Valladolid.

It appears that the movement in Valladolid and Zamora was born in the Rioja region through the agency of Don Carlos de Seso, a gentleman of Verona who resided in the village of Villamediana.

He had previously been a chief magistrate at the town of Toro and an officer in the imperial army. He was married to Isabel of Castile, who was from the family of the Bishop of Calahorra and the Dean of Toledo, suggesting that Don Carlos went to the Council of Trent and heard preaching on justification by faith alone in Italy, although his name is always coupled with that of Agustín Cazalla.

The Cazalla family were of Jewish stock. Agustín was the son of a royal tax official of considerable means. His mother, Leonor de Vivero, hosted the group in her house in Valladolid.

Agustín was a canon in Salamanca and went on to become a chaplains to Charles V, being well known for his preaching, which Salcedo enjoys listening to in Valladolid. He travelled throughout Germany and Flanders, while his brother Pedro worked as a priest in the town of Pedrosa.

Through him, Cipriano comes into contact with the Protestant community. The story that Pedro Cazalla tells Salcedo of his meeting with de Seso, and the latter’s conversation with Bartolomé Carranza on the existence of purgatory, comes from the priest’s own declaration before the Inquisition in May 1558.

Pedro Cazalla says that Don Carlos told him that “whosoever believes in Jesus Christ receives eternal life; that it is impossible for the sinner to save himself and that we must accept the passion and the death of Christ as a gift from the Father through faith, having been accomplished for us; and that good Christian deeds must be the fruit of a living faith”.

The priest says to the Tribunal: “I accepted this doctrine because it made me love God and trust him, but at the same time it did not make me forget goodness, but rather to seek it out”.

Thus Salcedo discovers “that the sacrifice of Christ has greater redemptive value than my good deeds, however selfless they may be”.

Delibes’ character is in love with a beautiful woman in the community. According to the historian Llorente, Ana Enriquez, had read Calvin and Ponce de la Fuente by the age of 23.

She was the daughter of a marquis, and in The Heretic becomes Salcedo’s last love, in a stark reflection of human loneliness.

A jeweller called Juan García also attended the meetings. His wife notices him going out at night and follows him, subsequently reporting the group to the Inquisition.

Her own husband will thus die in the autos de fe (literally, testimonies of faith) that were carried out against the community in 1559, after the Inquisitor Fernando de Valdés ordered them all to be arrested.

Charles V was in Yuste when he received the news. He wrote to his daughter Juana, who was acting as regent, to say that an example should be made of them. The same request was made by Philip II, who was also eager to stamp out heresy.

The first auto de fe in the main square of Valladolid was held on 21 May, and the second was held on 8 October, but the author has combined the two in one, with those sentenced in October being executed already in May, mixing up real names with fictional characters. This leads us to the subject of errors.


Errors and and anacronysims

Despite Delibes’ rigorous research over the three years spent writing this novel, the book contains a few errors. Admittedly, he is not the only author who exaggerates differences between Luther and Calvin, but this is underpinned by an anti-protestant prejudice that sees only division and sectarianism in the Reformation.

There are also certain anacronyms as it is difficult to understand how the Cazalla could have had a portrait of Luther in their study.

[photo_footer] The Main square in Valladolid during Doctor Cazalla's auto de fe, described in the novel. [/photo_footer] 

Stranger still is the description of the meeting room as a temple, with a candle lit in the sanctuary! Salcedo seems to believe in the “real presence of Christ” at the eucharist, such that “he even thought that he had seen him by his side”, when according to the Inquisition declarations by Francisca de Zuñiga “Christ was not at Communion”, so that however Lutheran they may have been in their idea of consubstantiation, they would have been unlikely to express such a sacramental mysticism.

Delibes’ acknowledged Catholicism – he quotes the Pope at start of the book – appears to be inseparable from his narrative. This is not to say that it is a Catholic novel, which it is not, but it defines his inevitable scope of reference.

Although Delibes takes a pious and respectful approach to these people who were prepared to live out their faith in purity and fraternity – providing a severe criticism of Tridentine Catholicism – he is actually writing in defence of freedom of thought, over and above any religious concern.

The main problem in this book, however, lies in its account of the auto de fe. In prison, the members of the congregation end up turning on each other, under pressure and torture.

This is however not so for Delibes’ character, who shows incredible bravery by standing by his convictions and loyalties, bitterly asking: “What had remained of that fraternity? Was there a place for fraternity in the world? Who had remained his brother throughout his tribulation?”. It is a terrible lament for a community that has been broken, although not by the God that they have disowned.


Testimony of faith

The reality was actually pretty different. Delibes’ character was not the only one to remain strong in the face of martyrdom. The Toro lawyer, Antonio Herrezuelo, did not recant and was burnt alive.

His wife, Leonor de Cisneros, saved herself from the flames by recanting a first time, but then went on to profess her faith again and was condemned in an auto de fe on 28 September 1568.

So while it is true that Doctor Cazalla ostensibly denied his faith, together with the others who were granted the mercy of the garrotte for confessing under torture, the autos de fe were nevertheless a testimony of faith.

[photo_footer]According to the historian Llorente, Ana Enriquez, had read Calvin and Ponce de la Fuente by the age of 23.  [/photo_footer] 

In the second auto de fe on 8 October 1559, Carlos de Seso did not recant either, after being arrested on his way to France with Fray Domingo de Rojas. He carried a letter of safe passage from Navarre, which led to the Mayor of the city of Logroño being arrested for complicity in his attempted escape.

De Seso remained firm in his profession of faith, which he moreover reaffirmed in writing the day before the auto de fe, demonstrating his strength when they tied him up on the pyre by exclaiming: “If only I had time, I’d show you how you who do not imitate me are condemning yourselves: light the pyre to sooner die by it”. Better known are the words of Philip II: “I would bring logs to burn my own son if he were as perverse as you”.

It is true that de Rojas made contradictory declarations, for which he was tortured; on the rack he begged to die, confessing everything he knew and asking for absolution through penitence.

But once he was condemned to death by the Inquisition, he changed his mind and refused confession, testifying in the last moment to his faith. On the scaffold he asked to speak to the King, and when everyone thought that he was going to abjure his sins, he exclaimed: “Although I am considered by all those here present as a heretic, I confess that I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in the passion and death of Christ, sufficient to save the whole world; and in this faith I hope to be saved”. Having said this he was immediately gagged.

The servant Juan Sánchez was arrested in Flanders with another fugitive from Seville. When the flames started up, his ropes came loose and he jumped out of the fire, at which points the friars tried to make him confess again.

But when he saw de Seso standing firm, he repented of his weakness and threw himself back into the flames with conviction. As the mother of the Cazalla had already died, her body was exhumed from the Convent of Saint Benedict to be burnt, together with that of a nun who had cut her throat open with scissors in a prison cell, dying “without repentance or wishing to confess”.

The people who died before the auto de fe were burn in effigy. As Delibes recalled in one interview, this brutal scene was attended by “twenty thousand people excited to have a day out”.

The community’s meeting house was torn down, the plot of land sprinkled with salt, and a marble monument erected. The French brought the monument down in 1908, but it was rebuilt in 1914, to be at last removed by the Liberal Government of 1921. Under Franco, Doctor Cazalla’s Street was renamed after the “Heroes of Teruel”.

In his account of this period, Menéndez Pelayo concludes: “The memory of these events has remained so alive among the people of Valladolid that there are few who remain ignorant, at least in general terms, of this regrettable part of our history”.

Such words are not at all negligible in as fierce a defender of orthodoxy as him! But the reality is that this history had already been forgotten, and it has required someone like Delibes to remind Spain that, nowadays, that which is called orthodoxy is sometimes nothing more than heresy, and that a heretic is often nothing other than a defender of orthodoxy.



1 Both these books have been published in English translation. However, due to copyright issues, the translations of excerpts in this article are our own.




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