Juan Luis Vives, the Spanish Erasmus

Vives was born in Valencia on March 6, 1492, the year in which Columbus discovered America, the non-converted Jews were expelled from Castile and Aragon and Nebrija published the Arte de la lengua castellana, the first European grammar of a vernacular language.

Santiago Leyra Curiá-January 24, 2023-Reading time: 7 minutes
Juan Luis Vives

The Valencia in which Vives spent the first 17 years of his life was the most prosperous metropolis of the Crown of Aragon (the Kingdom of Aragon included Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia). Most of the Valencian Jews preferred to become Christians rather than go into exile after the expulsion decree of 1492. In his works, Vives expresses a fond memory of Valencia, for its "cheerful, optimistic, affable..." people and for its fertility and beauty. He remembers with special affection the harmony of his father's home and the exemplary virtues of his mother, which ended up irritating Erasmus, who lacked a special devotion to his parents.

In 1964, Miguel de la Pinta, a specialist in the History of the Inquisition, and José Mª Palacio, a Valencian archivist, published, under the title "Procesos inquisitoriales contra la familia judía de Luis Vives" (C.S.I.C.) Madrid, some documents that prove, without any doubt, that:

Juan Luis Vives was Jewish, both paternally (his father, Luis Vives Valeriola) and maternally (his mother, Blanquina March y Almenara).

His mother became a Christian in 1491, a year before the expulsion decree. And she died in the plague of 1509, in a small town south of Valencia.

His father, probably the son of Jewish converts, had problems with the Valencian Inquisition at the age of 17. Between 1522 and 1524 a longer process took place that ended with the fatal sentence: "he was handed over to the secular arm", a grim expression that means he was executed, probably burned at the stake.

In 1525, the sisters of Juan Luis (Beatriz, Leonor and Ana) recovered in a legal process the property of their parents, which had been confiscated by the Inquisition.

In 1528, almost 20 years after her mother's death, a new trial was opened to clarify her conduct after her conversion. The testimony affirmed that she had visited the synagogue, being a Christian and, consequently, her remains were removed from the Christian cemetery and publicly burned. The sisters of Vives were then deprived of any right to inherit the paternal and maternal estates.

Remaining in Spain after the decree of 1492, his parents gave Juan Luis the only religious affiliation they could for a future life in a Christian society. In 1508, Vives entered the Estudi General of Valencia, a center founded in 1500 by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI. In 1505, the "Introductiones latinae", by Antonio de Nebrija, the only Spanish scholar that Vives always recommended and admired (when Nebrija made public his intention to print a grammar of the Bible, the Inquisitor General Fray Diego de Deza initiated, in 1504, a process against him. In 1507, Nebrija's "Apologia" was published, one of the most important documents of Spanish humanism).

In 1509 Vives changed Valencia for Paris where he stayed for three years. The University of Paris had been born as a corporation of teachers under the direction of the Chancellor of Notre Dame. Around the time Vives arrived in Paris, Erasmus made his last visit to that University and published his "In Praise of Insanity.

Although the Parisian university was then in decline, Vives lived in one of the most important centers - the College of Monteagudo - for moral and religious reform in France. In 1483 Jean Standonck had taken charge of Monteagudo, bringing to it the religious fervor of the Brothers of the Common Life (who worked, especially copying Christian texts, without vows, refusing begging for their support) - founded by Geert Groote (1340/1384), a Dutchman who preached - at the behest of his bishop - the conversion and salvation of souls and the denunciation of luxury, usury and simony, teachings that were in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. He also promoted the translation of the Bible into the vernacular language for the benefit of all. The Monteagudo College counted among its students men like Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Rabelais and Calvin.

In Paris, Vives followed the program of the Faculty of Arts (the seven liberal arts of the trivium y quadrivium). But, as he had already studied grammar and rhetoric in Valencia, he devoted mainly the three years in Paris to the study of philosophy (a long course of logic, an abbreviated course of physics and rudiments of moral philosophy and metaphysics).

In 1512 he would take up residence in the Netherlands, living in Bruges since that year. In the city of Bruges lived an important colony of Spanish Jews, among them the Valdaura family from Valencia. The Valdaura mansion was Vives' first refuge in Bruges.

There he worked as a tutor for the children of the couple, among whom was Margarita, the future wife of Vives. In Bruges he became a good friend of Francisco Cranevelt, municipal proxy of the city, a devout Christian, with good literary taste and a doctorate in law from the University of Louvain.

Vives' first book, Christi Iesu Triumphus (1514) is a conversation on the triumph of Christ on the day of his Resurrection and an attack against the exaltation and glorification of wars and Caesarist heroism; one of the characters in this work says that Christ fought five wars: against the demons, against the world, against the flesh, against the Jews and against death. The second part of this work, entitled Virginis Dei Parentis Oratioapplies to Mary the central message of the book: true heroism consists in fighting and overcoming sin and evil.

In the summer of 1516 Vives and Erasmus met for the first time in Bruges. In March of that year, Erasmus had dedicated his Annotations to the New Testament to Leo X and in May his Institutio Principis Christiani. In December Thomas More published his Utopia.

In 1517, perhaps on the recommendation of Erasmus, Guillermo De Croy - a close friend of Erasmus - chose Vives as his private preceptor. Although he was 19 years old, William was already bishop of Cambray, cardinal and archbishop-elect of Toledo to succeed Cisneros. In the company of his pupil, Vives moved from Bruges to Louvain, where there was a trilingual College for the study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Among Vives' circle in Louvain was the Spanish Jew Mateo Adriano, one of the best Hebraists of the time.

The faculty at Louvain was divided into conservative theologians and humanists, the latter being more open-minded. Although Vives' sympathies were with the humanists, he tried to stay out of personal rivalries and moderate the position of the theologians.

In the four years (1517/1521, the year of the pupil's death) of De Croy's preceptorship, Vives' personal ideas began to take shape. During this time Vives wrote four works of religious content (Meditationes in septem Psalmos Poenitentiales, Genethiacon Iesu Christi, De tempore quo, id est, de pace in qua natus est Christus, Clypei Christi Descriptio), in which he expresses a type of piety that, like that of his close friends, had drawn from the sources of the Devotio Moderna and the writings of Erasmus. The message of those works of Vives was clear and orthodox: the destinies of Christianity are directed by providence, the supernatural should not be separated from the plane of nature and history; Vives follows - in the last two works cited - the Augustinian conception of history as a synthesis between free human decisions and divine providence. He also abounds in a praise of peace, characteristic of the Erasmian circle.

In 1519 Erasmus said that Vives, as a native Spaniard, speaks Castilian and, having lived for a long time in Paris, is well versed in French. He understands our language better than he speaks it. Vives knew enough Greek to use it in his private correspondence as a subterfuge for bold criticism. In the introduction to Vives' work Declamationes SyllanaeI hardly know anyone of this time comparable to Vives... and, finally, I do not know anyone in whom the torrent of eloquence is so supported by his much philosophical knowledge.

The last period of Vives' life brought with it a strong revival of his religious fervor. His first occupation after his departure from England was to write, at the request of an ecclesiastic of St. Donacian and on the occasion of the plague that infested Bruges in 1529, a prayer to the sweat of Christ's blood in Gethsemane (Sacrum Diurnum de sudore Domini Nostri Iesu Christi). In 1535 he wrote a collection of prayers under the title. Excitationes animi in DeumThe book includes norms for meditation, daily prayers, prayers for every occasion and a commentary on Sunday prayer.

Another masterpiece of Vives is the encyclopedic treatise De Disciplinis (1531) which, in Ortega y Gasset's opinion, is not only a revolutionary program of education but also the first reflection of Western man on his culture and an ambitious meditation on the purposes, corruption and reform of all human culture.

Vives' third great treatise was printed two years before his death, De anima et vita, with which he inaugurated the study of man based on observation and reflection. For this book Lange calls Vives the father of modern psychology.

In 1538 Vives published his Lingua Latinae Exercitatio, a brilliant collection of dialogues written with a basic Latin vocabulary text and grammar, dedicated to Philip, the son of Emperor Charles. Of this book Azorín said: Perhaps there is no book in our literature more intimate and pleasing. Open it; see how the small and prosaic existence of the people passes in a series of small pictures.

In the last two years of his life (1538/1540), Vives devoted himself to writing a comprehensive apologetic work that he intended to offer to the pope. Although he did not finish the book, after his death and at the request of his widow, his friend Cranevelt published it in January 1543 and it was dedicated to Paul III. This book, De Veritate Fidei Christianae, is the best document to appreciate how Vives contemplated the Christian life in his last years.

Overwork had more than once brought Vives to the verge of exhaustion. From his forties on, he was suffering from a malignant case of arthritis that almost crippled him. On May 6, 1540, Juan Luis Vives died in Bruges, probably of a gallstone. He was buried under the altar of St. Joseph in the church of St. Donacian, which no longer exists. His young wife accompanied him twelve years later.

Some works of Vives, who always wrote in Latin:

  • Christi Iesu Triumphus, Paris, 1514.
  • Adversus pseudodialecticos, Leuven, 1520.
  • Preces et Meditationes genenerales, Louvain, 1520.
  • Declamationes quinque Syllanae, Leuven, 1520.
  • Commentaria in XXII libri De Civitate Dei Divini Aurelii Augustini, Louvain, 1521.
  • Introductio ad Sapientiam, Leuven, 1524.
  • De Institutione feminae christianae, Antwerp, 1524.
  • De causas corruptarum artium, Antwerp, 1531.
  • De tradentis disciplinis, 1531.
  • De disciplinis libri XX, Antwerp, 1531.
  • De officio mariti, Basel, 1538.
  • Exercitatio linguae latinae, Basel, 1538.
  • De Anima et Vita, Basel, 1538.
  • De Aristoteles operibus censura, 1538.
  • Satellitium animae sive Symbola, Frankfurt, 1540.
  • De Veritate Fidei Christianae, Bruges, 1543.
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