Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Valdés, Juan de

Born: 1509
Died: 1541
  • Terence O’ReillyEmail author
  • K. Anipa
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_134-1


The Spanish humanist Juan de Valdés made a significant contribution to sixteenth-century thought in the two areas of linguistics and theology. Raised in a family of converso descent, he studied at the University of Alcalá de Henares, and he spent the last decade of his life in Italy, where he wrote most of his works. His writings, with one exception, remained unpublished in his lifetime, but they circulated widely in manuscript during the sixteenth century and exercised a hidden but notable influence on his contemporaries in Italy, Spain, and Northern Europe.


Sixteenth Century Religious Writing Language Ideology Spanish Text Christian Life 
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Biographical information on Valdés is patchy, fuzzy, and, to some extent, conjectural. There is no consensus on the year of his birth; the dates that have been considered by scholars range from 1490 to 1510. The year of his death is not known for certain either (it ranges from 1540 to 1542, although there is a near-consensus on 1541). Even the date of composition of the Diálogo de la lengua is not known with certainty (it has been placed between 1533 and 1536, even though the vast majority of scholars agree on 1535). Other types of blurred information about Valdés include the following: the year in which he left Spain; his early stay in Rome and Naples; whether or not he never again set foot on Spanish soil for the rest of his life, although recent research has had evidence to the contrary (Crews 2008; Anipa 2014); and the precise nature of posts that he held during his residence in Naples (recent archival evidence has shown that he worked, among other things, as a secret agent for Charles V (Crews 2008). Uncertainties persist about the origins of the Valdés family that settled in Cuenca, in the Middle Ages; they are believed to have come from either Asturias or Leon, but their roots have also been traced to twelfth-century England, from where they were constrained to migrate, due to nasty feuds in the royal circles where they belonged (Calvo Pérez 1991). And whether Juan was a twin of his brother Alfonso remains uncertain (scholars’ views range from near-certainty to strong doubts). Thus, the biography of Valdés remains an unfinished business.

The primary biographical information on Valdés that can be said to be known for certain includes the following: Juan was born in Cuenca to Hernando de Valdés and María de la Barrera (both from noble family backgrounds); he had ten siblings – six males and four females – (Crews 2008) (earlier Renaissance scholarship had reported only four siblings); he had a converso ancestry, particularly on his maternal side but also on his paternal grandmother’s side; he spent his youth in the service of the Marquis of Villena and was tutored by Pedro Ruiz de Alcaraz; he studied at the University of Alcalá de Henares under famous humanists, such as Juan de Vergara, and corresponded with Erasmus of Rotterdam. We also know that, in Rome, Juan was a chamberlain to Pope Clement VII and served three cardinals, roughly between 1531 and 1534, before settling in Naples, where his teachings attracted a distinguished group of aristocrats, theologians, and humanists. There he composed most of his major works. He died in 1541.

Writing on Language (K. Anipa)

Presenting the writing of Juan de Valdés (henceforth “Valdés”) on language is not a straightforward affair. First, almost all of his writings were on religious themes, with the only one on language being the Diálogo de la lengua (henceforth “the Diálogo”), and second, from the time of its first publication (Mayans y Siscar 1737), the status, subject matter, and purpose of the Diálogo became debatable, whereby some scholars believed that it was literature-cum-literary critique, some that it was linguistics, others that it was both, others that it was neither (but rather only a set of trivial scribbles not of much intellectual significance), and others that it was a manual on the Castilian language, but essentially meant to help Valdés’s Italian followers understand his religious teachings better (Usoz y Río 1860; Perry 1927; Montesinos 1928; Lapesa 1940; Barbolani 1967; Lope Blanch 1984). Over the past couple of decades, however, those uncertainties and undeclared schools of thought surrounding Valdés’s writing on language have changed substantially. It has gradually emerged that the Diálogo was, essentially, a sociolinguistic treatise steeped in the ideology of language and nation and efforts at language standardization, aimed at developing and codifying a national language for the Spanish Empire; consequently, the work dealt with a number of topics within macro-sociolinguistics, micro-sociolinguistics, stylistics, and, to a much lesser extent, literary criticism. From late twentieth century, it has become almost inconceivable, in Valdesian scholarship, to understand and interpret the Diálogo outside of these key dimensions.


The Renaissance linguistic debate that emerged in fifteenth-century Italy did not take long to spread to other nascent States in Western Europe. An important aspect of that humanistic fervor was that of the quest for the origins of nonclassical languages. In Spain, the earliest thoughts on the subject were those of Alonso Fernández de Madrigal, in the first half of the fifteenth century, and Antonio de Nebrija (the father of Spanish humanism), toward the end of the century, although those early thoughts were quite sketchy in their nature and scope. Valdés’s contribution, in contrast, was much more elaborate, as he carefully thought through the issue, including how his own knowledge of the subject had had to be modified, with time. And, in spite of drawing largely the same conclusion as his predecessors (that Castilian was primarily a deformed version of Latin), Valdés made a crucial difference in his consideration of the linguistic picture of Spain by incorporating into his thought the linguistic picture of the Iberian Peninsula, prior to the Roman invasion and introduction of Latin; in other words, he adopted a more holistic approach, as he worked through the diachrony of what eventually became Castilian.

Later in the sixteenth century, the debate was rekindled and significantly expanded by Florián de Ocampo and Alejo Venegas del Busto. With time, two main schools of thought developed: first, the Primitive Castilian Theory (propounded by Gregorio López Madera, which attracted many adherents, including Luis de Cueva, Francisco Bermudez de Pedraza, Tamayo de Vargas, Bartolomé Ximénez Patón, and Gonzalo Correas). Madera rejected the theory of deformed Latin as a viable explanation for the origins of the Castilian language. He firmly believed that Castilian existed in primitive forms right from the time of the first human settlements of the Iberian Peninsula, traced to Tubal (fifth son of Japhet, son of Noah). Madera based his theory on archaeological finds (relics, inscriptions, and manuscripts on parchment, partly written in Castilian) from the Monte Santo of Granada; the writings were attributed to Saint Cecil, disciple of Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Later, a fully fledged Deformed Latin Theory (led by Bernardo de Aldrete and his collaborators) was developed, in order to counteract the Primitive Castilian one. As the sixteenth century wore on, an offshoot of Madera’s school, the Euskadi Theory (advanced by Lucio Marineo Sículo and such followers as Fray Domingo Valtanas, Esteban Garibay, and Andrés Poça), entered the fray; their argumentation was that there was, indeed, a primitive Castilian, but that it was Euskera. The heated debate lasted decades (Bahner 1966). Eventually, it was the Deformed Latin Theory that won the day. The significant merit of Valdés’s treatment of the subject is the fact that he reflected on the bulk of the above aspects, including the Euskadi Theory, several decades prior to their fullest configuration.

Multilingualism, both as a universal sociolinguistic reality of every society (Hudson 1996) and as specifically applied to Spain, was a subject of interest to Valdés. He identified five languages in use in Spain – Castilian, Catalan, Valencian, Portuguese, and Vizcayan – before proceeding to explain a set of theories, based on geopolitics, linguistic borrowing, and variability caused by everyday language usage, all of which bring about multilingualism in States. It is to be noted that Valdés’s inclusion of Portuguese among the languages used in Spain may not have had any imperial motives (Portugal having been a separate polity, since late eleventh century), but that it had more to do with the fact that he viewed the geographical area as a single region in the form of the Iberian Peninsula. The later Iberian Union (1580–1640) can be understood as exemplifying that viewpoint; likewise, Valdés’s assertion that typical Castilian words used among the nobility could be found in the language of the king of Portugal (Anipa 2014) must be a testimony to that conceptualization.

Valdés’s thoughts on multilingualism are very much in line with modern sociolinguistic insights; in that discussion, he transcended linguistic scholarship of his time by covering what modern sociolinguists characterize as “a-type” and “b-type” levels of multilingualism (Coupland and Jaworski 2009), as well as “broad diglossia” (Fasold 1984). He, then, shifted his discussion to the specifics of the languages of his State, characterizing their crosslinguistic features as follows: Vizcayan, which he duly identified as an isolate, had lexical borrowings from Latin, but subjected them to such severe phonological nativization that they had become unrecognizable; Catalan had loaned words from Latin, French, Castilian, and Italian; Valencian was close to Catalan, except for its phonology, but was still closer to Castilian; Portuguese had borrowed from Castilian much more than any other language and, as a result, was closest to it, apart from grapho-phonological features; Castilian was spoken even in Aragon and Navarre, and the linguistic and historico-geopolitical circumstances of the two kingdoms were comparable to those of Andalusia and Murcia.

With respect to crosslinguistic communication and the task of meaning transfer from one language into another, Valdés discussed serious difficulties involved in translation. Notwithstanding his concentration on the national language ideology and well in contrast to Charles V’s famous proclamation, in Rome, of Castilian as a superior language, Valdés argued for equality of languages, declaring that all natural languages had the same natural capacity; his linguistic philosophy in that respect can be acknowledged as impressive, when we take into account the fact that the stance that he adopted is something that even modern professional linguists still struggle to achieve, as epitomized, for instance, by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and its reverberations, during the twentieth century. In the climate in which Valdés operated, his recognition that linguistic idiosyncrasies did not imply superiority or inferiority, or lack of expressivity, showed his independence of thought; he was very much ahead of knowledge of sociolinguistic reality.

Moreover, the translation difficulties that he outlined were no different from those that modern translation theorists and practitioners have discussed and grappled with for generations. Moving on from discussing the issue at a generic level to his mother tongue, Valdés noted that, due to the tricky nature of translation, he was unable to assess works translated from other languages rather than written originally in Castilian. That was the thought of a fairly objective individual, who did not shy away from admitting to his doubts, uncertainties, and weaknesses, in the face of linguistic pluralism as a phenomenon.

In every emerging State in Early Modern Europe, the nurturing of a national language was an important one to the ruling elite and intellectuals. In the case of Spain, the main efforts on that front are credited to Antonio de Nebrija, particularly his pioneering grammar of Castilian (1492) (“I wanted to lay the foundation stone” were Nebrija’s explicit words). Valdés was among those who took over the baton, as he became a key player in the effort to engineer a standardized Castilian for the Spanish Empire. In the context of imperial ambitions and geopolitical realities of the early sixteenth century, the idea that Valdés’s Diálogo must have been officially commissioned (Crews 2008) is not far-fetched.

In terms of the technicalities of the language standardization process itself, it has been explained that of the four key stages – Selection, Codification, Elaboration of Functions/Intellectualization, and Enforcement/Acceptance (Garvin and Mathiot 1953; Haugen 1966, 1983) – Castilian had already, by the fifteenth century, fully achieved Selection and Enforcement/Acceptance, as well as a degree of elaboration (initiated by King Alfonso X The Learned, in the thirteenth century), more than any emerging Western European State at the time (Anipa 2012b). Thus, Valdés’s work on language represented an essential complement to that of Nebrija (captured in the latter’s (1989, 1492) oft-quoted words “language and empire always went hand in hand”). Evidence that the stages of selection and enforcement had been accomplished by Valdés’s time can be confirmed by his own statement to that effect (Anipa 2014, pp. 51–52). Valdés’s aim, therefore, was to underpin Nebrija’s prescriptive effort with a proscriptive one (the well-known display of hatred by Valdés toward Nebrija and his works, due to regional rivalry, should be understood to be a relatively superficial one). In effect, “[n]o Spanish humanist would work harder to make Nebrija’s dream of a Spanish imperial language a reality than Juan de Valdés” (Crews 2008, p. 29). Valdés took the process to the level of “ironing out variability, usually by stigmatising as “non-standard” the forms found in regional or working-class varieties” (Poplack et al. 2002, p. 89). Ascertaining these modern sociolinguistic facts in his work goes to confirm his close collaboration in the timeless standard language ideology.


One of the qualities that set apart Valdés’s work on language is the fact that he efficiently backed up his active engagement in the ideology of standard (“status planning”) with examination of concrete linguistic data (“corpus planning”). His corpus, in contrast with those of the rest of his (near-)contemporaries, consisted of a wide range of variable features of Castilian, from graphology, grapho-phonology, morpho-phonology, morphology, morpho-syntax, syntax, lexico-semantics, discourse to stylistics. Modern sociolinguists reduce all these levels of linguistic inquiry to two major dimensions: (a) codification, comprising graphization, grammatication, and lexication, and (b) elaboration, which comprises terminological modernization, stylistic development, and internationalization (Haugen 1983). A display of Valdés’s Table of Contents (below), extracted from the “front matter” of the Diálogo, reveals quite an extensive project, covering both of these dimensions. Open image in new window

It is not only the range of features he covered in his corpus planning that made his project fascinating; it is the manner in which he filtered them through the three paradigms of descriptivism, prescriptivism, and proscriptivism. The complexity and sophistication of the Diálogo, in terms of the corpus that Valdés worked with, only fully emerge when one computes these three paradigms with the variegated levels of linguistic enquiry, then, with the individual linguistic features that he handled. It is no exaggeration when Calvo Pérez (1991, pp. 103–104) observes that the Diálogo is like an ambitious linguistic research program, which, even in our day and age, would require the collaboration of many experts from different areas of speciality to be able to carry it out efficiently. He also views the work as translinguistic and generic in its scope, which can be easily related to any historical state of any given language.

Valdés operated with what has become known as Haugen’s (1972) classic formulation of minimal variation in form versus maximal variation in function, two spheres in which codification and elaboration of functions are viewed in modern Sociolinguistics. Valdés’s minimal variation in form is verifiable from how the vast majority of the linguistic features that he discussed had two or more variants. That, to him, was a problem that needed resolving, and the solution lay in proscriptivism and prescriptivism. He “set himself up as a lawgiver […] not content to record fact; he pronounced judgment [as it] seems to have been accepted as self-evident that of two alternate forms of expression one must be wrong” (Baugh and Cable 1993, p. 272). Consequently, of all the instances of two linguistic variants that Valdés considered, his formula was to declare one of them to be wrong or unacceptable, for one reason or another. He made use of a wide range of expressions in pronouncing his judgments, either explicitly or implicitly.

Turning his attention on lexication, he assessed a list of 106 items, ranging from abonda to zaque (Anipa 2014, pp. 86–94). His apparent intention to discuss the words in an alphabetical order and to provide a replacement lexical item for each of the items was not entirely successful (because 13 of the words did not have replacements, and there was a mix-up, in a few cases, of the intended alphabetical order). However, the effort toward minimal variation in form was enthusiastically displayed.

For his effort toward maximal variation in function, Valdés equally carried out corpus planning. He considered semantic expansion, via double negation, reiteration, overladen clauses, etc., dwelling on polysemy, in 20 Castilian words (Anipa 2014, pp. 95–100). Since these polysemic words had not been used commonly enough in Castilian, before Valdés’s time (he referred to them as “half-used words”), his intention was to prescribe the need to maximize their functions and usage frequency in the language.

In his effort to forge the intellectualization and internationalization (Kaplan and Baldauf Jr. 1997) of Castilian, Valdés considered linguistic borrowing to go beyond long-standing earlier Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Italian sources of the Castilian lexicon. He argued that there was no language in the world that did not benefit from borrowing, both for filling in lexical gaps and purely for enrichment, and declared his readiness to encourage the use of a variety of lexical items and phrases from contemporary Greek, Latin, and Italian, noting how technically impossible it was to draw a neat line between one language and another (Hudson 1996). Once again, the manner in which he discussed the words that he considered for borrowing, and the fact that they had been in the language from the Middle Ages, showed that Valdés meant to encourage the expansion of their semantic fields. Modern sociolinguists agree that a standard language (Valdés’s final goal) is more of an ideology than a concrete reality: “It seems appropriate to speak more abstractly of standardisation as an ideology, and a standard language as an idea in the mind rather than a reality – a set of abstract norms to which actual usage may conform to a greater or lesser extent” (Milroy and Milroy 1999, p. 19) and that the process inevitably involves having “to make some embarrassing decisions” (Haugen 1966, p. 932). Interestingly, Valdés’s language philosophy exhibited all these sociolinguistic realities.

The question of linguistic accommodation (closely related to borrowing) also featured in his work. To explain his point, he drew on a list of 32 pairs of words and phrases, with one element in each pair being Italianate (Anipa 2014, pp. 105–106). It is quite striking that the very concept and term accommodating that he used to describe the phenomenon, in the early sixteenth century, is the same one used by modern sociolinguists in our day and age. Once again, there is a degree of mix-up of three of the items on this list, but the intention and effort invested are very clear to see. He also treated discourse markers, stylistics, and etymology along the same lines (Anipa 2014, pp. 106–126), separating polysemy (which he prescribed) from ambiguity (which he condemned and proscribed).

The idea of language as a living thing that exists independently of its users is associated historically with the nineteenth-century Neogrammarians. From the twentieth century, however, sociolinguists have had to work hard to argue vehemently against, and deconstruct, that conceptualization of language as fallacious. J. Milroy (1992, p. 23), for example, has stated that “it is not true that language is a living thing […] it is a vehicle for communication between living things, namely human being.” It is fascinating that, nearly half a millennium earlier, Valdés made the same argument: that a language could not change without the human beings who used it. To the hypothetical notion (from one of the interlocutors of his dialogue) that a language might change naturally, he crisply stated that it was ridiculous to think so, before proceeding to assert that it was humans who, gradually and subconsciously, over time, brought about linguistic change, through usage (Anipa 2014, p. 81) – as if he had traveled in a time machine and were addressing the Neogrammarians and their modern heirs directly.

Renaissance linguistic thinkers were, invariably, confronted with an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, there was the need to distance nonclassical languages from Latin, in order to assert the “new” languages’ potentials for self-sufficiency; on the other hand, there was the need to link the same languages, as closely as possible, to Latin, in order to endow them with the much-needed prestige that Latin had enjoyed for centuries. Valdés did not shy away from that paradox and the balancing act that it entailed. In an era of significant resentment, among European scholars, to efforts by Italians to claim cultural supremacy (for having directly inherited the treasures of classical scholarship of ancient Rome), Valdés can be commended for having handled that thorny issue in a most diplomatic manner, as he compared the closeness of Castilian and Tuscan to Latin (see the last chapter heading of his Table of Contents, above). He largely argued that a careful and objective etymological analysis would reveal that there was hardly any difference in closeness to Latin between Castilian and Tuscan, except for the degree of modification to which they subjected words of Latin origin; and he ended the tricky discussion tactically by leaving the issue open for further discussion (Anipa 2014, p. 126).

Literary Criticism

As indicated earlier, the long-standing interpretation of the Diálogo as literature or literary criticism has changed rapidly. But Valdés did not neglect literature altogether. He openly acknowledged the importance of a body of high-status literature as one of the pillars for a standard language ideology and devoted about 14 % of the Diálogo to commenting on a number of literary works, written between the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century.

The relationship between literature and linguistics has been a subject of discussion over the decades, and there is a broad consensus among sociolinguists that literature is a legitimate data source on which sociolinguistic behavior can be observed, because even the language of fiction is somebody’s creation (Anipa 2012a, p. 180). The purely literary aspect of Valdés’s discussion can only be gleaned from the Diálogo, and it dealt with the need for realism as a fundamental precept in fiction writing: “los \( \overline{\mathrm{q}} \) eʃcriuen mentiras las deuen eʃcreuir de ʃuerte, \( \overline{\mathrm{q}} \) ʃe alleguen quanto fuere poʃʃible ala verdad, de tal manera \( \overline{\mathrm{q}} \) puedan vēdē ʃus mentiras por verdades” (Anipa 2014, p. 119). Beyond that, Valdés focused on word choice, syntax, style, and appropriateness of diction. On this issue, Romaine (1982, p. 21) has pointed out that “[t]he linguist will be interested in the language as language in the first instance, while the literary critic is interested in the language as literature.” It is most interesting that Valdés made an almost identical statement, in the literature part of his Diálogo, stating that his main interest in discussing literature was language as language: “aqui no hablamos ʃino de lo ē perteneçe a la lengua” (Anipa 2014, p. 114). Bearing in mind the rather late recognition of Valdés’s Diálogo as a unique work on language, it may be fair to note that there remains more about its multifaceted dimensions yet to be unraveled by future generations of Renaissance scholars.

Writing on Religion (Terence O’Reilly)

The religious writings of Juan de Valdés may be divided into two groups. First there are his works on certain books of the Bible. His university education in the 1520s, which included Greek and an introduction to Hebrew, equipped him to study the Scriptures, a task to which he devoted himself throughout the 1530s. He was the first person of his time to translate the Psalter from Hebrew into Spanish (Ricart 1964), and he wrote a commentary on the Psalms, only part of which has survived (Psalms 1–41). He also translated and commented on the Gospel of St. Matthew. These works remained in manuscript until modern times. Two further translations with commentaries, both on the letters of St. Paul, were published in the sixteenth century, one on the Epistle to the Romans (c.1556), the other on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (1557). These biblical writings were edited piecemeal in the nineteenth century, but scholarly studies of them have been few, and we do not yet possess a critical edition of them all. The second group consists of Valdés’s writings on the nature and development of the Christian life (Reinhardt 1990-99). These have been edited in one volume by Ángel Alcalá (1997). Most of them are short treatises, but three are works of substance in which Valdés gave detailed expression to his thought: the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana, the Alfabeto cristiano, and Ciento diez divinas consideraciones.

Diálogo de doctrina cristiana

The Diálogo de doctrina cristiana was printed by Miguel de Eguía in 1529 in the university town of Alcalá de Henares. Prohibited a short time later by the Spanish Inquisition, it disappeared from view until the early 1920s, when a copy in the Biblioteca Nacional in Lisbon was discovered by Marcel Bataillon, who published it in facsimile in 1925 (Bataillon 1925). The book is dedicated by its anonymous author to the Marquis of Escalona, Diego López Pacheco, in whose household Valdés had spent a formative period of his youth, and it is cast in the form of a colloquy between three speakers. Antronio is an unlettered parish priest who wishes to teach children the rudiments of the Christian faith. He is unsure, however, how to carry out his task. Eusebio is a member of a religious order who has met and befriended Antronio and wishes to help him obtain the Christian formation he needs. With this in mind he introduces him to Pedro de Alba, the Archbishop of Granada, who is a devout and learned man. Alba then proceeds, in the course of a day, to instruct his two hearers on the main points of Christian faith and practice. His subject matter is traditional. He considers in turn the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Deadly Sins, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Cardinal and Theological virtues, and the Our Father. Such topics formed the substance of the catechetic literature that became popular in the late medieval Church after the Lateran Council of 1215. The treatment of them in the Diálogo, however, is influenced by two writers who were sharply critical of late medieval piety: Erasmus and Luther.

When the Diálogo appeared in print, Alcalá de Henares was a center of enthusiasm for the writings of Erasmus, especially those on prayer and the Christian life. His Enchiridion Militis Christiani had been printed by Miguel de Eguía 3 years earlier in a lively Spanish translation that quickly became a best seller (Bataillon 1991). A number of themes in the Enchiridion reappear in the Diálogo. One of them is that the life of perfection described in the Gospel is the fruit of baptism. It is, therefore, open to all Christians, and not only to clergy and religious, a point made often by Erasmus and summed up in the Enchiridion by the phrase monachatus non est pietas (piety is not the preserve of the monastic state). Another is biting criticism of attachment to the outward forms of religious practice. True Christianity, it is affirmed, is interior and spiritual and centered on Christ. A dramatic contrast between mere externals and a devout interiority runs through the work. The renewal of Christendom, it is indicated, will be brought about by conversion to Christ and by the study and practice of his teachings in the New Testament. These themes come together forcibly in the opening section on the Creed, which is a lightly adapted version of one of Erasmus’s Colloquies, the Inquisitio De Fide, first published in 1524. Elsewhere the Archbishop urges his listeners to read Erasmus, whom he describes as “truly a theologian,” and the translation of the Sermon on the Mount with which the work concludes is based on the Greek text and the new Latin version that Erasmus had published in 1516.

Erasmus, despite his importance, was not the only influence on the movement of religious renewal in Alcalá. Its adherents drew inspiration also from other currents, some of them hard to reconcile with his thought. These included various forms of later medieval spirituality and the teachings of the Spanish illuminists or alumbrados (Asensio 1952). Protestant works, though banned, circulated clandestinely in certain quarters, including the circle around the humanist Juan de Vergara to which Valdés belonged. The Diálogo shows that its author was acquainted with them and in particular with the writings of Luther, from which numerous passages, mostly brief, are drawn (Gilly 1983). In these passages, whose source is concealed, a recurrent theme is the damage inflicted by the Fall on the capacity of human beings to will or perform what is good and their utter dependence as a result on divine grace, granted through trusting faith in Jesus Christ. Luther’s dark perception of human nature, which he found confirmed in the writings of St. Augustine, stood in marked contrast to the outlook of Erasmus, who was influenced by the more optimistic theologies of Origen and the Florentine Neoplatonists. The divergent views of the two reformers led to the formal break between them that took place in 1524. The Diálogo shows that in this matter, Valdés sided with Luther. He was probably disposed to do so by his experience as a young man of hearing the sermons of the alumbrado Pedro Ruiz de Alcaraz, in which the moral weakness of the human will was underlined (Nieto 1970, 1979). An Augustinian view of human sinfulness also informs much of the devotional literature popular in Spain when Valdés was growing up, including two works recommended in the Diálogo: the Life of Christ by Ludolph the Carthusian and the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

The influence on the Diálogo of both Erasmus and Luther means that it cannot accurately be described as either Erasmian or Lutheran (Gilly 2005). Valdés borrows from both writers in order to articulate a position that is distinctively his own. He implies that justification by faith is an essential element in religious renewal, but he does not follow Luther in rejecting the structures of the late medieval Church. Instead he envisages a revival that will take place within them, without disturbing the unity they underpin. The commandments of the Church are described as human ordinances that require a formal observance, unlike the divine precepts of the Gospel that engage the conscience intimately. They are to be observed, with discretion, nonetheless. The speakers in the Diálogo, moreover, represent the three clerical orders of priests, religious, and bishops, each of which is accorded a role in the task of reform. This task will begin in the parishes with the instruction of children and adults by priests and religious who are both educated and devout, and it will be led by enlightened prelates of whom the Archbishop is a model. Pedro de Alba, who died a year before the Diálogo appeared, was remembered for the learning and zeal with which he had discharged his pastoral duties, qualities exemplified also by Hernando de Talavera, his predecessor in Granada (Pastore 2004, 2010).

Alfabeto cristiano

The Alfabeto cristiano was composed in Naples, probably in the spring of 1536. In the early 1540s it was rendered into Italian by Marcantonio Magno, and his translation, which survives in a manuscript of the Vatican Library (Firpo 1994), was printed in Venice, with minor amendments, in 1545. The Spanish text on which it was based has not survived. Like the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana, the Alfabeto offers an introduction to the Christian life. Its focus, however, is not the teachings of the catechism but the process of inner conversion that the call of the Gospel entails, a process that leads, it shows, to perfect love in union with Christ. The origin of the work is explained at the start: it records in dialogue form a conversation that took place 1 day between Valdés and a young aristocrat, Giulia Gonzaga. They met as she was returning from a sermon by the Capuchin friar Bernardino Ochino, whose words had disturbed her deeply for reasons she could not understand. Valdés, after listening, is able to tell her why. Her problems are those of human nature in its fallen state, in which self-interest reigns supreme. The remedy is to move away from preoccupation with herself and to turn with faith toward God, a change of heart that he describes in the language of St. Paul as taking off the Old Adam and putting on Christ, the New Man fashioned in God’s image. To help her he prescribes certain spiritual exercises. Each day she is to meditate on two subjects: first, her own moral weakness, which will teach her knowledge of self, and second the goodness of God, made visible especially in il beneficio della passione di Cristo (the gift of the Passion of Christ). His hope is that she will pass from a life ruled by fear to one in which her only motive is love: “I want you to walk along this path as a lady, not a servant, as a free person, not a slave, with love, not fear” (p. 330). Giulia is willing to comply, but she confesses to a further doubt that holds her back: the teaching of Ochino that good works performed without pure love have no merit in the eyes of God. This makes her wonder how she can be saved, for she knows that her own works are inspired by the selfish motives of fear of Hell and desire for heavenly glory. Valdés explains in reply that God draws us to himself in stages, beginning with fear of punishment and moving on to gratitude for his gifts and longing for the joys of Paradise. Eventually we come to know that he is truly good and to love him with a passion that is disinterested. Then we serve him, “not as slaves but as freemen, not as mercenaries but as sons; and this is what Christian freedom means” (p. 361).

Despite its distinctive character, the Alfabeto has much in common with the Diálogo de doctrina Cristiana, whose themes it develops in three ways. First, it underlines that the life of perfection is open to all. The notion that spiritual progress involves passing from the fear of slaves, through the self-interest of mercenaries, and on to the love of sons was adumbrated by the Fathers of the Church and developed in the monastic writings of the Middle Ages. The Alfabeto reveals how familiar Valdés was with such writings, a familiarity confirmed by his reply when Giulia asks him what she should read. The works he recommends, in addition to the Bible, are all monastic in provenance: the treatises of John Cassian, the lives of the early hermits by St. Jerome, and the Imitation of Christ. He adds that he himself has found them helpful. However, the context of the Alfabeto is not monastic at all. Giulia is a noblewoman involved in the activities appropriate to her class, and Valdés does not counsel her as a priest but as a layman. The setting of their dialogue, moreover, is not a monastic cloister, but urban, feminine, and domestic. This becomes apparent when they discuss the times and places suitable for meditation. Valdés pictures Giulia in her home and in her bedroom, meditating at whatever time suits her best. He recommends the highest Christian ideals, but he emphasizes in doing so that they may be lived in the heart of society. When Giulia asks him to tell her how to lead a devout life that is private and hidden from the gaze of others, he responds by showing her that to be perfect one does not have to abandon the world and take religious vows. His words astonish her, for she had always supposed that the state of perfection was reserved for nuns and friars, but he insists that she is mistaken. All Christians, clerical, religious, and lay, will be judged by the same standard: “those who are friars and those who are not will have as much Christian perfection as they have faith and love of God, and not a cent more” (p. 292).

Second, the Alfabeto accords a central place in the Christian life to St. Paul’s teaching on justification. In this respect it reflects a general change in spiritual writings of the time. The initial wave of Erasmianism in Castile lasted from 1516, when the first translation of Erasmus appeared, to the early 1530s, when the Inquisition began to take action against individuals with strong Erasmian and reformist views. In the decades that followed, the process of repression continued, reaching a climax in the late 1550s. During the same period (c. 1530–1559), the concerns of spiritual writing moved away from the topics that the Enchiridion had made popular. In the works of contemporaries of Valdés, such as Juan de Avila, Luis de Granada, and Bartolomé de Carranza, attention came to be focused not only on the conflict between letter and spirit that the Enchiridion had analyzed perceptively, but on justification, trusting faith in God, and gratitude for the benefits of Christ’s Passion. Signs of this development are apparent in the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana, but they are more prominent in the Alfabeto, where Valdés affirms repeatedly that a person is made just by faith: “to be a Christian is to be just, and no one can be just except by faith, for the just man lives by faith” (p. 412). The object of faith is the Passion of Jesus, which reversed the Fall and made possible the forgiveness of sins. In the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana, there are few references to the Cross and implied criticism of popular devotions to the Passion that involved reconstructing imaginatively the events of Christ’s death. Both Erasmus, in the Enchiridion, and the alumbrados of Castile were critical of such devotions too. In the Alfabeto, by contrast, Valdés advises Giulia to dwell continually on Il beneficio di Cristo, with confident faith that Jesus died to set her free. The contemplation of Christ crucified enables one to master temptation, it replaces fear with selfless love, and it helps the Christian to grow: “we cannot know, believe or love God except by the contemplation of the crucified Christ” (p. 428). Valdés shows how this principle may be applied in Giulia’s everyday life. He also indicates its implications for the Church as a whole. The recovery of justifying faith among Christians, and their release from fear and self-interest, will destroy the attachment to religious externals in which many have sought salvation. It is for him the key to Church renewal.

Third, the Alfabeto works out in more detail the assumption in the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana that an interior life animated by justifying faith is compatible with fidelity to the Church. Valdés encourages Giulia to ponder often, and in the light of her experience, the articles of the Creed that the Church offers for her instruction. Then she will not just recite the words but will grasp inwardly the teachings they proclaim. This is true of the articles on the Church itself, which describe it as one, holy, catholic, and as the communion of saints. She will see that Christ’s Church is universal; that it shares in the holiness that is his; that its members include the bad and the good; and that to those who are moved by faith, hope, and love, it offers a union that is spiritual. It is, moreover, protected by Christ: “He promised that faith would not fail in the Christian Church, and it has not failed” (p. 436).

This positive conception of the Church, which coexists with the conviction that it needs reform, underlies the advice Giulia receives about how to perform her religious duties. She is to observe the commandments of the Church, without forgetting the spiritual purpose that underlies them, and she is to approach conscientiously the sacraments of penance and communion. When she goes to confession, she should do so with trusting faith in Christ’s promise to give his priests the power to forgive sins, and once the minister has pronounced the words of absolution, she is to believe firmly that she has been pardoned, not because she has confessed, for “that would be to attribute to yourself what is not yours” (p. 465), but because of her faith, hope, and love, centered on Christ. In the same spirit she should attend mass regularly, not only on feasts but every day, unless prevented by a work of charity. There she should attend carefully to the readings and liturgical prayers, and she should listen to the sermon as if it were Christ’s own words. If the priest talks about worldly matters to the neglect of spiritual ones, she may choose to leave, as Valdés often does in exasperation, but if she has the patience to stay, she should beg the Lord to send worthy preachers to the Church. Above all she is to adore Christ in the Eucharist, where his body and blood are truly present. This will inspire her with a fervent longing to be incorporated by faith and love into the Passion, for the Eucharist recalls the death that established a new covenant, a covenant that makes it possible to believe that “we are justified by the blood of Jesus Christ” (p. 467).

Ciento diez divinas consideraciones

Justification is a recurrent theme in all the religious writings that Valdés penned between 1535 and 1541. They include Ciento diez divinas consideraciones, which was printed in Basle in 1550 in an Italian translation. It consists of a series of meditations on the Christian life, from its beginnings in justifying faith to its end in perfect love of God. Valdés composed them week by week for the gathering of friends that took place in his home in Naples every Sunday. Each meeting began with a reading out loud of the meditation he had prepared in advance, and it ended with a general discussion in which he answered questions. He sometimes wrote up afterwards the questions asked and the answers given, and a number of these records found their way as well into the finished work (Crews 2008). This has come down to us in several redactions. There is the Italian translation, probably by Mario Galeota, which was printed in the editio princeps of 1550. There are also two contemporary versions in Spanish, one conserved in the Stadt Bibliotek in Hamburg, the other in the Biblioteca Vaticana, and a partial Spanish version of 39 meditations, preserved in a manuscript of the National Library of Vienna. The relationship between these versions and the original Spanish text of Valdés is not clear, and because the redactions differ among themselves in several ways, including the number and ordering of the contents, it is not possible to establish on their basis a definitive text. The purpose of the work is nonetheless clear. Aware of moves in the late 1530s to heal the schism between the Christian churches, Valdés wrote the Consideraciones in the hope that his approach to the divisive issue of justification, and in particular to the relation between faith and good works, would win the approval of both sides (Crews 2008). The book circulated widely within Italy in manuscript, and along with his other late writings, it came to the attention of those involved in bringing Catholics and Protestants together. They included two cardinals, Gasparo Contarini and Reginald Pole, who shared the goal of restoring unity by a double-edged strategy: by convincing Catholic theologians and churchmen that Luther’s understanding of justification was fundamentally orthodox and by reconciling the Reformers to a Catholic view of the sacraments and the Church (Fenlon 1972). Matters came to a head in the spring and early summer of 1541 at the Colloquy of Regensberg, when theologians from both sides assembled to discuss their differences. In the matter of justification, they found common ground, and they came to a formal agreement that reflected, in its essentials, the approach that Valdés had pioneered. The talks broke down, however, when they turned their attention to the sacraments and the structures of the Church, on which their views diverged. The collapse of the Colloquy was followed, in the August of that year, by the death of Valdés.

The Ciento diez divinas consideraciones tackles the matter of justification by examining three stages in the life of the person who comes to believe in Christ. First there is the natural state of fallen humanity, which Valdés portrays in dark, Augustinian terms as the loss of the divine image in which human nature was made. The person subject to it is ruled by self-interest and a corresponding abhorrence of God. Second, there is the act of faith by which a person accepts the reconciliation with God made available by the death of Jesus, who took on himself the punishment of humanity’s sins. This is the beneficio di Cristo, the gift bestowed in and by Christ. Third, there is the process of regeneration by which the divine image lost at the Fall is restored. The faith of the Christian bears fruit increasingly in hope and love, a love that finds expression in good works, and he comes to serve God as a loving son rather than as a fearful slave. A feature of this third stage is the experience of being guided by the Holy Spirit in all things, including the interpretation of Scripture, a theme that Valdés may have drawn from the teachings of those among the Spanish alumbrados who practiced dexamiento, the surrender of one’s will to the action of God in the soul (Hamilton 2010; Firpo 1990).

In his discussion of these three stages, Valdés speaks always in his own voice. Though familiar with the literature on justification composed by Catholics and Protestants of his time, he does not refer to it directly, and despite his learned interest in the Fathers of the Church, he does not allude to their writings, which both sides invoked. Nor does he use the language of scholastic theology that both sides readily employed, though he is aware of its importance in the debate. He seeks instead to address the issues at stake in a way that is not confrontational by basing his own approach on two sources whose authority was accepted by all: the experience of life in Christ that baptized believers share and the testimony of Scripture, especially the letters of St. Paul. His focus is the interior life of the individual seen as a member of the Church, which is described as the mystical body of Christ. He does not move beyond justification to consider further contentious matters, such as the sacraments or the structures of the Church. A concern to avoid dissension, and to preserve Church unity as far as possible, is evident in other late writings, including the commentary on First Corinthians, composed circa 1539. There he inveighs against individuals who allow their theological opinions to disrupt the harmony of the body, and in the teachings of St. Paul, he finds guidelines for reconciling those who have been seduced by false prophets and have left, or are about to leave, the Church. Preserving ecclesial unity is a duty incumbent on all (Crews 2008).

Impact and Legacy

Language: The fact that Valdés’s work on language was not published for two centuries might raise the question as to its possible dissemination and impact during the Renaissance. But there is a prerequisite to an objective judgment of the issue: proper understanding of the work. “The Diálogo de la lengua of Juan de Valdés is commonly misunderstood” (Navarrete 2004, p. 3). It is a dense and multilayered work, best understood through the prism of modern sociolinguistics. This is because “the primary focus of the Diálogo is sociolinguistic” (Ibid., 2004, p. 11). Calvo Pérez (1991, p. 104) rightly observes that Valdés’s work on language was several centuries ahead of that of any other linguistic thinker of his time.

Depending on circumstances, lack of publication may not necessarily be evidence for lack of dissemination or impact. In the case of the Diálogo, a couple of factors were crucial. First, we know that a manuscript tradition, alongside the print tradition, remained vibrant among intellectuals, during the Renaissance (Bouza Alvarez 2004). A second factor is the subject matter of the Diálogo. A work on language ideology and standardization need not have been read necessarily by a large number of the populace, in order to have fulfilled its intended aims. This is because language policy and language planning are mostly a “top-down” operation (Cooper 1989; Kaplan and Baldauf Jr. 1997). That being the case, some impact of the work among the elite would have been sufficient for its purpose. This understanding is no mere conjecture on my part, because Valdés himself stated explicitly in the Diálogo the class of people that the work was meant to serve. Written in Naples, the Diálogo did not take long to reach Spain, where it was read, passed round, and copied among a group of humanists (known to Renaissance scholars as the Toledo Circle), who were closely connected with the ruling elite. Not only did they read the work keenly, but they also took appropriate steps to shield it from the potential perils of the Inquisition (Anipa 2011). Even after the Diálogo found its way into print, there was still some interest in copying the manuscript; such was the case of Usoz y Río, who copied it (MS 7265) and went on a quest for another copy that he had read about, prior to publishing his edition, in 1860. Through Usoz y Río, interest in the Diálogo reemerged in nineteenth-century England, where it was well received, read (at least, among the Quakers), and even translated into English, in 1856–1857. In twentieth-century Spain, the work became required reading in graduate courses in Spanish, which contributed to the Diálogo being “the best-known Valdesian work” (Crews 2008, p. 102), although it has attracted less than 10 % of all writings on Valdés (Calvo Pérez 1991, p. 54). A bilingual Spanish-French edition was published as recently as 2008; and it might not take long before an English edition appears. All in all, the Diálogo has been the number one source of authoritative reference (multiple times more than Nebrija’s grammar) for modern Hispanic historical linguists working on Castilian, from the sixteenth century onwards.

Religion: In the course of 1541 the disciples of Valdés in Naples dispersed. Some of them crossed the Alps after the Colloquy of Regensberg and joined the Protestant Reform. Most of the others moved north to Viterbo and entered the circle of Reginald Pole (Firpo 1991, 2013), who after the death of Contarini in August 1542 became the leading figure in the movement to reconcile the Churches (Edwards 2014). In the run up to the Council of Trent, which met in 1545, the Viterbo group disseminated the teachings of Valdés in manuscript, translation, and print, and one of their number, Marcantonio Flaminio, coauthored Il beneficio di Cristo (1543), a treatise that drew significantly on Valdés’s ideas and expressed them in forthright terms (Caponetto 2009). When the Council assembled in 1547 to discuss justification, the writings of Valdés were therefore known not only to the papal legates, who included Reginald Pole, but to many of the bishops, a large proportion of whom were Italian. In the event the debate in the Council was shaped by the scholastic theologians present, especially the Thomists and the Scotists, and the prelates who favored a theological discourse that would be acceptable across the theological divide found themselves in a minority (Fenlon 1972). The final decree laid emphasis on a number of themes that Valdés had developed earlier, including the dependence of justification on the merits of Christ, the fruitfulness of faith in hope and love, and the union of baptized Christians in Christ’s mystical body. It was careful, however, to avoid terms and concepts that the Reformers had made their own, including a distinction between imputed justice and regeneration that Valdés had been happy to use. In the Canons with which it concluded, moreover, the decree spurned explicitly the main tenets of Luther’s teachings as the Council Fathers understood them (McGrath 1986; O’Malley 2013), and from that point onwards, pressure grew on Catholic writers to build into their theological language the affirmations and anathemas that the Canons enshrined. In such circumstances the writings of Valdés came to be seen in retrospect as heterodox, and in both Italy and Spain, they were included in the Indices of Prohibited Books by which the decrees of Trent were enforced. In the twentieth century, however, developments in Catholic theology, and agreements about justification between Rome and the Protestant churches, made it possible to view Valdés in a different light and to argue that his teachings, in their pre-Tridentine context, did not mark a break with Catholic orthodoxy (Domingo de Santa Teresa 1957; Crews 2008).

In the aftermath of Trent, the religious writings of Valdés were preserved by his followers who had joined the Reform, and through them his teachings became widely known among Protestants (Ricart 1958). Their reception in such circles was mixed. Some were severely critical, including John Calvin and Theodore Beza, but others found in them a sympathetic statement of their beliefs. In England in the seventeenth century, for instance, the Ciento diez divinas consideraciones were translated from the Italian by Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of the Anglican community in Little Gidding, and the work was praised, despite some reservations, by the poet and pastor George Herbert. Among Lutherans, Anabaptists, Quakers, and even Unitarians, Valdés found interested readers, and in the nineteenth century his legacy was restored by Protestant scholars who traced and edited the greater part of his works. Their patient labors drew attention to his importance, and they laid the foundation of the modern studies of his thought that began in the 1920s with the work of Marcel Bataillon. He argued that all the themes of Valdés’s late writings were present implicitly in his first work, the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana, which he described as “a moderately Erasmian catechism.” Valdés’s contact with the alumbrados, he held, would have disposed him to read Erasmus with enthusiasm. The moral pessimism of the text, and its allusions to justification by faith, did not indicate, in his view, that Valdés at the time had read Luther. He could well have arrived at such convictions himself, for example, through reading St. Paul (Bataillon 1925). Bataillon’s interpretation held sway until 1970, when it was contested by José Nieto, who argued that the Erasmian elements in the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana were designed to mask a Protestant theology of justification and the Church. Valdés, he held, did not draw this theology from Protestant writers directly, but from the alumbrado teacher Pedro Ruiz de Alcaraz, who had reached, independently, the same conclusions as Luther (Nieto 1970, 1979). Nieto’s thesis received a mixed response. It was accepted by Bataillon, who confessed himself persuaded that Valdés had used Erasmus to conceal Protestant beliefs, and it was carried further by Massimo Firpo, who applied it to the activity of Valdés in Italy during the 1530s. He detected in the late writings of Valdés a strong alumbrado influence, especially in his teachings on guidance by the Holy Spirit, and he argued that Valdés was a Nicodemite who held that outward conformity with Catholic practice was compatible with inner dissent from certain Catholic doctrines (Firpo 1990). More recent research, however, has called into question the premises on which Nieto’s argument was based. Studies of the alumbrados have not confirmed that the teachings of Alcaraz anticipated those of Luther (Hamilton 2010), and an alternative explanation of Protestant elements in the Diálogo de doctrina cristiana has been provided by Carlos Gilly, who has shown that when composing it, Valdés was familiar already with the writings of Luther, Johannes Oecolampadius, and perhaps Philipp Melanchthon too (Gilly 1983). The notion that Valdés used Erasmus as a rhetorical mask for heresy has been discounted by a number of scholars (Pastore 2004, 2010; Gilly 2005; Crews 2008) who have concluded, on various grounds, that the theology of Valdés was indebted to both Erasmus and Luther without being reducible to the thought of either, and the related notion that the ecclesiology of Valdés was Protestant has been undermined by evidence that Valdés believed it possible to combine his theological convictions with faithful membership of the Catholic Church (Crews 2008; Firpo 2013). In spite of these advances, historians continue to disagree about the precise sources, nature, and impact of Valdés’s religious ideas, and further research into the matter has been hindered by the lack of a critical edition of his surviving works. The manuscripts and printed texts necessary for such an edition have been identified (Kinder 1988; Firpo 1993), but the task of producing it has yet to be carried out.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American StudiesUniversity College CorkCorkIreland
  2. 2.Department of Spanish, Modern LanguagesUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsUK