Archive for June 24th, 2012

In praise of folly: fake kings and ripping tales

Sunday, June 24th, 2012
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Will the real King Sebastian please stand up?

In 1594, Gabriel de Espinosa arrived in Madrigal de las Altas Torres with his common-law wife and their little girl in hopes of setting up a more profitable pastry shop than the one he had left behind in Nava. Instead, he became the focus of a hare-brained escapade to present himself as King Sebastian of Portugal, who had been stabbed and shot to death in the denouement of the Battle of Alcazarquivir in Morocco, then left out into the sun until he was unrecognizable. Espinosa was one of a number of pretenders (so many that a word was coined to accommodate them – sebastianismo), but one of the most far-fetched.

He looked nothing like the dead king. Age and misfortune had left their marks, he and his handlers claimed. The plan was to chuck out Spain’s Philip II (that’s right, the same one who made overtures to his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth of England), who had assumed the throne of Portugal after Sebastian died without heir. A large part of the plot involved sweet-talking the king’s lovely niece, Ana of Austria, who was a year or two short of professing her final vows as a nun, and getting her to plight her troth to him instead. What’s more astonishing, he succeeded.

This dizzying tale is told with insight and brio by Iberian scholar Ruth McKay in The Baker Who Pretended to Be King of Portugal (University of Chicago). As the Stanford-based author writes in her prologue: “The weather was terrible, the king was dying wars were going badly, and Spain’s fortunes were waning.  So it was a time for grasping at straws.  When the world appears to be collapsing, people cling to whatever they have at hand, to whatever seems likeliest to help. … This story of a false Sebastian has a great deal to teach us about news and politics and about how people manage to live among forces they might not understand.”

Her graceful, intelligent prose continues:

“Though I may at times give in to temptation and paint this conspiracy and its actors in comic tones, I want to make clear that I do not consider these people amusing.  The story of the pastelero has been told for centuries as a curiosity; it has been held up as an example of the exoticism and credulity of the past, something to make tourists and readers see history as entertainment.  In my view, the characters in the story display fearless imaginations, they rise to conceptual, political, and physical challenges we cannot conceive of, and they are very, very serious.  They should be taken on their own terms, not as simple curiosities or curious simplifications.  Their choices, even those choices punished by death, reveal what they thought was right or possible, and their descriptions and memories were a way of stating opinions.”

I’ve known Ruth for upwards of five years now.  But I didn’t know what a ripping tale she could tell, in scholarly fashion.  I hadn’t read her previous books, “Lazy, Improvident People”: Myth and Reality in the Writing of Spanish History and The Limits of Royal Authority: Resistance and Obedience in Seventeenth-Century Castile. Problem is, this impressive work is likely to get overlooked.

Perhaps I didn’t look in the right places, but I only found one review, and it was gratifyingly glowing.  From Felipe Fernández-Armesto‘s review in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

“Of the many fictional retellings of Gabriel’s story, [Jose] Zorrilla‘s is the best. Ruth MacKay has now given us a factual account that rivals it for sensitivity and artistry. Instead of focusing on the hackneyed ‘mystery’ of Gabriel’s identity, she headlines the far more puzzling problem of his credibility. … The case in favour of his claims was always absurd – based on the allegation that he possessed more Holland linen than a commonplace baker, or that his gait and bearing were regal, or that he was suspiciously skilful in riding, fencing and foreign languages (except, with calculated effects on his own air of mystery, Portuguese). But he had charisma or perhaps wizardry – even his pastries, according to one customer, cast a spell. …

With deft writing and lightly borne scholarship, MacKay makes the imbroglio intelligible in historical context: the restiveness of Philip II‘s subjects in the 1590s, when the king’s imperial project seemed to be unravelling at excessive cost to taxpayers, and the surprising mobility of Iberian society, in which people of every class could move unrestrainedly around the country, and disguise and self-reinvention were routine means of self-liberation.”

Do yourself a favor.  Read it.