"breve Y Eficaz:" Exemplum And Pedagogy In Iberian Didactic Literature (1169-1611)
The idea of literature as a set of ethical examples for readers to imitate is a familiar justification for the arts in the classical and medieval eras. Nothing better encapsulates this application of storytelling than the “exemplum,” brief narratives with a moral lesson. Through these short historical or fictitious tales, various preachers, tutors, and counselors sought to shape the religious, political, and ethical decisions of audiences. Some of the most iconic works of medieval and renaissance Iberian literature are cast as collections of exemplary tales, such as Juan Manuel’s El Conde Lucanor, Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor, and Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares. However, the exemplary function of texts has not been explored for the full range of its pedagogical possibility. I argue that in premodern contexts, there is an epistemological “way of example” that coexists in subordination to a “way of reason” or “way of logic” that philosophy, theology, and science have consistently favored. The Iberian didactic texts that appear here all demonstrate an epistemology of exemplum that enables readers to encounter the world through imitation. The Islamic philosopher Averroes predicates poetry itself on the movement of the soul towards and away from models of virtue and vice. Juan Ruiz mocks this ethical poetic, but uses his Libro de buen amor as an aesthetic example that invites participation and emulation of his verse technique. The Mallorcan philosopher and preacher Ramon Llull uses exempla as a way to understand the universe as one great analogy. The Castilian nobleman Juan Manuel resorts to his own life experience as a source of archetypal value and encourages us to do the same, while the seventeenth-century lexicographer Covarrubias encourages us to look toward the natural world for a source of ethical models.