Historical Truthiness

So, shoot me. I like to read old books.

This evening I’d like to talk about the Jesuit way of bending the truth, giving as my prime example one Baltasar Gracián, whose Pocket Mirror for Heroes was back in 1995 edited and translated into English by Christopher Maurer. Apparently it was not very successful: you can buy used copies for a few bucks on Abe Books.

In the Introduction Maurer makes clear that he’s following up a successful revival of Gracián’s Art of Worldly Wisdom, the translation of which (by Maurer) stayed for 18 weeks on the nonfiction Bestseller List.

Taking, as I say, the less successful of these recyclings for the Republic of Letters of a  three-hundred-years-ago dead man, one finds the following story told [within square brackets are Maurer’s notes — MM]:

The Castilian Mars, on account of whom they say “Castile for captains and Aragon for kings,” [Spanish proverb much to the liking of Garcián, who was born and died in Aragon (northeastern Spain).] Don Diego Pérez de Vargas, whose deeds outnumbered his days, decided to end them in Jerez de la Frontera.  He went into retirement, but not his fame, which traveled farther each day across the universal stage.  Drawn by it, Alfonso [Alfonso of Aragon, “the Magnanimous” (1385–1458), warrior and king, ruler of Sicily and conqueror of Naples.] a new king but an old appraiser of eminence, especially in arms and even among Castilians like Vargas, who were his rivals, went to look for him, in disguise, accompanied by only four of his men.

The king reached Vargas’ house in Jerez but did not find him at home.  For Vargas, who was used to open battle, was beguiling his noble taste in the open air.  The king, who had not objected to traveling from the court to a little town, did not mind going from there to the country.  They spotted Vargas from afar, a hook in his hand, pruning his vines.  Alfonso gave orders to halt, and told his men to hide.  He alighted from his horse, and with majestic gallantry began to pick up the twigs that Vargas was carelessly cutting.  Hearing a noise or, more probably, obeying an impulse of his faithful heart, Vargas turned round, recognized the king, and threw himself at his feet.

“Sire, what are you doing here?”

Go on, Vargs,” the king said. “I hope I am worthy to gather your twigs.”

A triumph of eminence!

I notice that dates are given for Alfonso, surnamed The Magnanimous, but not for the hero of the story, this Don Diego Perez de Vargas. .Hmm . . why doesn’t even the Spanish-language Wikipedia have an entry for him?

The battle of Jerez de la Frontera, a Castilian victory in the so-called “Reconquest” of Christian Spain which took place in 1231, comes up in any mention of the said Don Diego. For example, the Spanish Wikipedia’s [but not the English] entry on that battle mentions:

Durante la batalla se distinguieron los hermanos Garci Pérez de Vargas y Diego Pérez de Vargas, siendo apodado éste último “Machuca” por la acción llevada a cabo durante la batalla:

“Su hermano Diego adquirió renombre en la batalla de Jerez, año 1232, donde habiendo roto en lo recio de la lucha su lanza y espada, desgajó un verdugón de oliva con su cepejón, y siguió peleando con tal destreza y valentía, que tantos moros caían cuantos golpes descargaba. Atónito su caudillo D. Alvar Pérez de Castro de ver tales prodigios de valor, ¡Machuca¡, Diego, exclamó, recio, ¡Machuca¡ Y desde entonces se llamó Diego Vargas Machuca.”6


For those with Spanish I need go no further; for those without, the first few words say that the brothers Garci and Diego, of the family Pérez de Vargas, distinguished themselves in the battle. An anecdote follows, which comes from a 1998 article in a journal, apparently devoted to the battle of Jerez de la Frontera: that’s what the little 6 refers to.

Then we have the following: a man who fought in a battle for a small town in 1231 is said by someone writing 400 years later (that is, as long after the fact as someone discussing William Shakespeare’s life today) to have been sought after by a king who was born in 1385 (and remember that that date and the name of the king in question was provided by the American translator, Mister Maurer). Clearly, it’s not possible for that to have happened. Unless we no longer restrict ourselves to human beings who live less than 200 years.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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