Antonio de Lebrija, 1441-1522: “language is the instrument of the empire”

Prince George: Well, now, look, Dr. Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even I know a book’s got to have a plot.

Samuel Johnson: Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words mean.

Prince George: I know what English words mean; I speak English! You must be a bit of a thicko.

The above exchange is from Blackadder III, episode 2, Ink and Incapability and purports to be the conversation between Dr. Johnson and the prince on the occasion of Johnson’s presenting his completed dictionary.

Art imitates life, of course, and something along the same lines occurred in Spain some centuries earlier, the respective roles of George and Sam being played by Isabel and Antonio.

Antonio was Andalusian, a bright boy and scholar of the classics who found the rote methods of his Spanish teachers did not do justice to the the underlying beauty of the Latin language.  He decamped to Italy where it was felt they did these things better and learned not only proper Latin, but Greek and Hebrew as well.

The decade long instruction completed he was back to Spain where he foundered for a bit, professionally.  Bit of an upstart, really, with all this fancy Italian learning, which made it difficult to get a university job.  The fact that he was of Jewish converso ancestry probably didn’t help either.  He muddled by for some years, started a family, and eventually through the influence of the Bishop Fonseca, got a professorship at the University of Salamanca.

It was here that he wrote the wrote the Introductiones Latinae that was to become the standard Latin text for Spain. It did well, and was used even as late as the nineteenth century.  The queen herself was said to be among the readers.

His ambitions grew.  The various dialects of the Iberian peninsula were, in his view, doing the kingdom no real good.  (It must be remembered that the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile was the beginning of a united Spain as we might understand it.)  A single comprehensible language, a sort of Spanish Esperanto, was what was needed and he set about writing the grammar for one.

Which gets us to our Blackadder bit.  When presented with a copy, Isabella’s reaction was:

“Why would I want a work like this? I already know the language.”

Antonio countered that she was quite right, she did indeed know Castilian, and that since this exquisite language was hers, by right it should be that of the empire, down to the most muddle headed peasants of Navarre and the Basque country.

The timing, by the way, was exquisite.  De Lebrija’s  audience with the queen was just two weeks after the departure of the Genoese merchant explorer Christopher Columbus headed west to kick-start an empire that would cover the globe.  Never mind the Iberian peninsula – Lebrija was starting a global revolution.


2 thoughts on “Antonio de Lebrija, 1441-1522: “language is the instrument of the empire”

  1. We of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society note that Christoual de Carauajal v de Librija was here in our community in 1576. The Caravajal family are well known as Jewish leaders in 16th Century England and Luis de Carvajal and his family were convicted of Judaizing in New Spain in the 16th century. What are the odds that Christoual de Carauajal v de Lebrija was a converso/New Christian/crypto-Jew?

    • Interesting question! I would not be at all surprised, but without confirmation I am reluctant to pass judgement (so to speak).

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