It's the story we all know:

Boy meets girl.
Girl rejects boy.
Boy whines to servant.
Servant engages aged prostitute.
Aged prostitute schemes.
Everybody dies.

La Celestina, commonly attributed to Fernando de Rojas, is, alongside Don Quijote, one of the most studied works of medieval Spain. It is, for those who agree with Dorothy Severin, the first modern novel. For those who do not agree with Severin, it is something else. What it is, in any case, is not particularly clear. Some claim that it is a play (albeit an incredibly long one in over twenty acts), while others consider it a novel. Those who consider it a play note the complete lack of narration, leading those who insist it is in fact a novel to counter that it is a "dialogue novel." These are the sorts of discussions one inevitably ends up in when trying to study pre-Cervantes Spanish literature. No one ever actually gets round to explaining why it ultimately matters, but it is certainly a good way to publish an article on La Celestina without discussing such irrelevancies as plot, characters, imagery, dialogue, and the like.

Variously entitled Comedia de Calisto y Melibea (Comedy of Calisto and Melibea), Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea), and Libro de Calisto, Melibea, y dela puta vieja Celestina (Book of Calisto, Melibea, and the Old Whore Celestina), what we now know as La Celestina can be divided into two basic parts: first act, which Rojas (or whoever it may be, as a professor of mine likes to add) allegedly found as an anonymous manuscript, and the rest of the novel, which has always been attributed to Rojas, although it is uncertain whether he in fact wrote it.

La Celestina is the story of Calisto, Melibea, various well-read and quite corrupt servants and prostitutes, and Celestina. Calisto is a foppish, melodramatic, angsty would-be devotee of amour courtois, who seeks to woo Melibea. That this is not a typical work of the sentimental or chivalrous genre is clear from the very opening:

CALISTO- En esto veo, Melibea, la grandeza de Dios1.
CALISTO-In this, Melibea, I see the greatness of God

MELIBEA.- ¿En qué, Calisto?
MELIBEA- In what, Calisto?

CALISTO.- En dar poder a natura que de tan perfeta hermosura te dotasse e facer a mí inmérito tanta merced que verte alcançasse e en tan conueniente lugar, que mi secreto dolor manifestarte pudiesse. Sin dubda encomparablemente es mayor tal galardón, que el seruicio, sacrificio, deuoción e obras pías, que por este lugar alcançar tengo yo a Dios offrescido, ni otro poder mi voluntad humana puede conplir. ¿Quién vido en esta vida cuerpo glorificado de ningún hombre, como agora el mío? Por cierto los gloriosos sanctos, que se deleytan en la visión diuina, no gozan mas que yo agora en el acatamiento tuyo. Más ¡o triste!, que en esto diferimos: que ellos puramente se glorifican sin temor de caer de tal bienauenturança e yo misto me alegro con recelo del esquiuo tormento, que tu absencia me ha de causar.
CALISTO- In the fact that He gave Nature the power to grant you such perfect beauty and showed an undeserving soul like me the mercy of allowing me to see you in such a place that I might make manifest to you my secret suffering. Without a doubt, such a prize is incomparably greater than the service, sacrifice, devotion, and pious works, for, by arriving in this place, I have God offered before me; my human will can serve no other power. Who in this life has seen a man's body so glorified as mine now is? Certainly, the glorious Saints, who delight in the divine vision, do not delight more than I do in your service. But, o Sadness! For in this we differ: that they are purely glorified without fear of falling in such misfortune, and I, a mixture of body and soul, look warily forward to the exquisite torment that your absence will cause me.

MELIBEA.- ¿Por grand premio tienes esto, Calisto?
MELIBEA- And this you consider a great prize, Calisto?

CALISTO.- Téngolo por tanto en verdad que, si Dios me diese en el cielo la silla sobre sus sanctos, no lo ternía por tanta felicidad.
CALISTO- I consider it such, for, if God were to offer me the seat in Heaven above His Saints, I would not be as happy.

MELIBEA.- Pues avn más ygual galardón te daré yo, si perseueras.
MELIBEA- Well, I shall give you an even greater prize, if you persevere.

CALISTO.- ¡O bienauenturadas orejas mías, que indignamente tan gran palabra haueys oydo!
CALISTO- O my fortunate ears, that, without being worthy, have heard such great words!

MELIBEA.- Mas desauenturadas de que me acabes de oyr Porque la paga será tan fiera, qual meresce tu loco atreuimiento. E el intento de tus palabras, Calisto, ha seydo de ingenio de tal hombre como tú, hauer de salir para se perder en la virtud de tal muger como yo.¡Vete!, ¡vete de ay, torpe! Que no puede mi paciencia tollerar que aya subido en coraçón humano comigo el ylícito amor comunicar su deleyte.
MELIBEA- But they would be unfortunate if you'd let me finish. For the price shall be as ferocious as your mad effrontery merits. And the intent of your words, Calisto, were typical of a man like you, seeing to lose yourself in the virtue of a woman like me. Hence! Go hence, fool! For my patience cannot bear that the idea that illicit love should communicate its delight has slipped into a human heart.

CALISTO.- Yré como aquel contra quien solamente la aduersa fortuna pone su estudio con odio cruel.
CALISTO- I shall go like a man against who only adverse fortune should ply its trade with cruel hatred.

Rebuffed by the object of his affections, Calisto returns home to pout and take out his frustrations on his servant, Sempronio, by means of bad poetry and suboptimal lute playing.

CALISTO.- ¿Qual dolor puede ser tal que se yguale con mi mal?
CALISTO- What pain could be such that it would hurt this much?

SEMPRONIO.- Destemplado está esse laúd.
SEMPRONIO- That lute's out of tune.
Despite his apparently extensive study of Seneca — a running gag shared by all servants and prostitutes of the novel — Sempronio's highbrow rhetoric fails to talk sense into Calisto, who, in Sempronio's words, sees things "Con ojos de alinde, con que lo poco parece mucho e lo pequeño grande." ("With magnifying eyes, with which small things appear great and great things small."). So that his master will not despair, Sempronio decides to aid Calisto in wooing Melibea, enlisting the help of

vna vieja barbuda, que se dize Celestina, hechicera, astuta, sagaz en quantas maldades ay. Entiendo que passan de cinco mill virgos los que se han hecho e deshecho por su autoridad en esta cibdad. A las duras peñas promouerá e prouocará a luxuria, si quiere.
a bearded old woman called Celestina, sorceress, schemer, expert at every evil there is. It's my understanding that more than five thousand virgins have been done and undone by her authority in this city. She'll go to great lengths to promote and provoke lust, if she wishes.

And so it begins. Sempronio and Calisto scheme with Celestina to win over Melibea, while Sempronio, his fellow servant Pármeno, and various of Celestina's colleagues scheme to cash in on Calisto, and Sempronio and Pármeno scheme to double-cross Celestina, who, together with Sempronio, has already schemed to corrupt the loyal, earnest Pármeno into scheming. Calisto and Melibea do eventually get together, and after their "breue deleyte" (brief pleasure), they soon join every other major character in dying.


Because I do not seek to enter into yet another of the many debates concerning La Celestina — such as the debates concerning authorship and genre — in which one may only enter at the cost of one's own sanity, certain things will be assumed. First, I will assume that La Celestina is a "dialogue novel." Likewise, I will assume that Dorothy Severin is correct in asserting that Rojas' work is the first modern novel for the reasons given by her in her introduction to the Cátedra edition of La Celestina. I have no intention of throwing wood on a fire that serves only to burn paper.

For Severin and those who agree with her, La Celestina can be considered the first modern novel because "[t]anto Rojas como Cervantes destruyen el mundo de la ficción medieval al demostrar que es imposible vivir como un caballero andante, o como un amante cortesano, en un mundo realista.“ ("Both Rojas and Cervantes destroy the world of medieval fiction by proving that it is impossible to live as a knight-errant or a courtly lover, in a realist world.") However, La Celestina does not entirely break with the literary tradition of the Middle Ages. In its structure and themes, it rather appears to continue and expand upon the tradition of the enxiemplos, exemplified by the Libro de Buen Amor, by the Arcipreste de Hita.

I seek here to prove that La Celestina is a novel that situates itself clearly in the tradition of the enxiemplo, but in a manner different from that suggested in Rojas' explanatory verses. In addition to putting those "buelta y mesclada en vicios de amor" ("caught up in vices of love") in fear of "a fiar de alcahueta ni falso sirviente" ("trust[ing] matchmakers and disloyal servants"), Rojas' work exposes an entire corrupt, degenerate society, in which it is ultimately an "old whore" who pulls the strings, and in which the general attitude is profound hypocrisy. Taking as his starting point the classical enxiemplo, which criticised specific behaviours that did not meet with the approval of the author, and despite his own defensive statements, Rojas has created an "enxiemplo social" that goes beyond specific behaviours to aim a merciless critique at an entire society.

II. Exemplum exempli: The Medieval Enxiemplo

Before examining the exemplary structure of La Celestina, it is worthwhile to review a classic example of the genre of the enxiemplo: The Libro de buen amor (Book of Good Love) by the Arcipreste de Hita. The Book consists of a series of enxiemplos that illustrate the "good love" that is to be encouraged, and the "loco amor" (mad love), of which the author seeks to warn his readers. In a prefatory section, the Arcipreste de Hita explains that the purpose of the Book is to illustrate

algunas maneras e maestrías et sotilesas engañosas del loco amor del mundo, que usan algunos para pecar. Las quales leyéndolas et oyéndolas omen o muger de buen entendimiento, que se quiera salvar, descogerá, et obrar lo ha.
certain manners and masteries and deceptive subtleties of the mad love of the world, which some use in order to sin. Which, when read and heard by a man or woman of sound mind who wishes to save himself, shall take and put into action.

Having explained the purposes for which it was written, the rest of the Book consists of a series of enxiemplos in verse. As exemplified by the Enxiemplo de los dos peresosos que querían casar con una dueña (Enxiemplo of the two lazy men who wanted to marry a lady), these verses are fables in poetic form, which humourously relate the adventures of persons who do not live by the principles exhalted by the author. Each story has a surprise ending, followed by an explicit moral.

The enxiemplo of the two lazy men tells the story of two men who seek to marry a woman. "Queriéndolos abeitar“ ("wishing to trap them"), the woman tells them that she wishes to marry the lazier of the two. The two men try to prove to her how lazy they are, recounting examples of their (impressive) laziness:

'Yo era enamorado de una dueña en abril;
'estando delante ella, sosegado e muy omil,
'vínome desçendimiento a las narises muy vil,
'por peresa de alimpiarme perdí la dueña gentil.

I was in love with a lady in April;
standing before her, calm and self-effacing,
Downward from my nostrils a fluid most foul came racing
I lost the lady, for to clean it up I was too lazy

The two slackasses, of course, are the only ones surprised by the fact that the lady is not swept off her feet:“'Buscad con quien casedes, que la dueña non se paga / 'de peresoso torpe, nin que vilesa faga.'” (Find someone else to marry, for I don't find interesting / terminally lazy fools and those who do things quite disgusting). At the end of the story, the narrator proceeds to explain the moral more explicitly.

Thus, the basic structure of the enxiemplo is quite simple. It begins with an statement of purpose, which may also be defensive on the part of the author, as the material of some enxiemplos may be borderline obscene and possibly subject to censorship if misinterpreted (or interpreted correctly). The enxiemplo itself consists of two parts: a story in which one of hte characters behaves improperly (according to the author) and suffers the consequences. Immediately thereafter, the narrator proceeds to explain the issue more generally, describing frequently how the main character should have behaved and the general principles to which the readers should adhere.

III. The Structure and Allegory of the Enxiemplo in La Celestina

La Celestina is quite different from the Libro de buen amor. It is not a book of separate stories that revolve around a common thematic nucleus; instead, its narrative thread can be followed throughout the entire work. The themes and characters develop in a more consistent fashion. Moreover, Rojas' work takes on a much broader subject. Rojas does not simply explain the behaviours that should be practiced or avoided in order to act appropriately and avoid loco amor; instead, his critique is aimed at an entire social system. Finally, the moral of La Celestina is distinct from those of the Libro de buen amor. It is negative. It criticises without offering solutions. Despite all these differences, the similarities that La Celestina shares with the genre of the enxiemplos are sufficient to place the former inside the tradition of the enxiemplo.

Despite the distinct narrative structure, the structure of La Celestina as a whole has much in common with the enxiemplos. It begins, like the Libro de buen amor, with a preface in which the author explains the underlying purposes of the work. This is followed by the story itself, which has two levels of allegory: individual allegory, explicitly mentioned by Rojas in his prefatory verses, consisting in the characters and their conduct, and the social allegory, which consists of the totality of the relationships amongst the characters and the society they represent. At the end is the conclusion, analogous to the explicit morals of the enxiemplos, in which “Concluye el auctor, aplicando la obra al propósito por que la hizo” (The author concludes, applying the work to the purpose for which he wrote it.).

The prefatory verses clearly show that the author had didactic purposes in mind. He characterises his work as a “píldora amarga” (bitter pill), which, in order to trick the sense of taste is placed “dentro del dulce manjar” (inside sweet food). He further admonishes his readers to take note of “la vida que [los personajes] hizieron” ("the lives [the characters] led") and to take as a mirror “su fin qual huvieron” ("the end they met"). He states that the work has a limited didactic purpose — one quite in line with that of the enxiemplos of the Libro de buen amor and others — that of“casto bivir” ("chaste living") and protection of the readers from Cupid's “tiros dorados” ("golden arrows").

It should be noted that the final verse was added to the work for the Valencia edition, published in 1514. According to Severin, the lack of subtlety of this verse, compared with the preceding ones, demonstrates “un cierto tono nervioso en este empeño de Rojas de insistir sobre su supuesto propósito convencional” ("a certain nervous tone in this attempt by Rojas to insist on his alleged conventional purpose"). He returns to these apologetics after the end of the work.

It might be noted that the gentleman doth protest too much. Especially given the allegorical characteristics and the similarities with the social situation of time in which La Celestina was written, the author would not have wanted to run the risk of having the authorities recognise his work as a social critique. Therefore, given their defensive nature, the explanatory verses solely explain one possible interpretation of the work.

That this is not the sole possible interpretation has been asserted and demonstrated manz times in Celestina studies. In commenting, for example, on the similarities that the “bajo mundo” (base world) of Celestina has to the literate class of the Fifteenth Century,Eloísa Palafox finds that the work shows us a world in which “los valores tradicionales se encuentran en crisis” ("traditional values are in crisis"). In her view, this similarity

parece apuntar hacia una postura crítica por parte del autor o autores de la obra con respecto a los personajes e instituciones relacionados, en su tiempo, con la obtención y la conservación de un poder que dependía cada vez más del manejo profesional del saber.
appears to point toward a critical posture on the part of the author or authors of the work with regard to the characters and institutions related, at the time, to obtaining and conserving a power that depended more and more on professional handling of knowledge.

In this context, Palafox sees in the use of educated language and allusions to classical sources, such as Petrarch, by working-class characters of dubious moral character a critique aimed at the professionalisation and mystification of knowledge, exposing to doubt the moral character of the literate class of his time, by means of the fact that these characters “desvirtúan,...descontextualizan,...deforman,...y emplean [el saber y la cultura] para fines perversos y moralmente reprobables” ("de-virtue, decontextualise, deform, and use [knowledge and culture] for perverse and morally reprehensible purposes").

Others have concentrated on the allegorical nature of the character of Celestina herself, emphasising the "social passport" (we cannot speak of "social mobility" in the proper sense, as she remains in the same social class), which allows her to move freely “entre la putería, el convento, y las casas nobles” ("between the whorehouse, the convent, and the houses of the nobility"). Celestina's free access to all segments of society, from the most marginal to the most influential, allows her to be seen as the essential fabric of the society criticised by the author. In this view, we see a critique and a didactic purpose that are much more subtle than the conventional didactics of the explanatory verses.

In addition to the omnipresence that allows Celestina to move freely throughout society, the various functions she peforms make her indispensable for the society in which she lives. Of the thiry professions mentioned by Lucrecia in Act IV, we only know of the six mentioned by Pármeno in the first act: “labrandera, perfumera, maestra de hacer afeytes y de hazer virgos, alcahueta, y un poco hechizera” ("seamstress, parfumeuse, master at shaving and remaking virgins, matchmaker, and a bit of a sorceress"). These services, which Celestina performs with such skill that “quando vino por aquí el embaxador francés, tres vezes vendió por virgen una criada, que tenía” ("when the French ambassador came here, thrice she sold a servant she had as a virgin"), serve to maintain the "necessary illusions" so that the social fabric does not disintegrate. She allows the women of the city to "recover" their virginity after private or professional sexual encounters, in addition to manufacturing a broad range of cosmetics and other things useful in order to maintain the attractiveness and marriageability of the women of the city. Her house is also a "sexual marketplace," supplying citizens of all social classes with prostitutes. But the most important characteristic of Celestina, especially in terms of social criticism, is that of “burla y mentira” ("mockery and lies").

Celestina's biography also presents a reflection of society. Like the society around her, Celestina is nearing the end: "Todo tiene sus límites, todo tiene sus grados. Mi honrra llegó a la cumbre, según quien yo era: de necessidad es que desmengüe e abaxe. Cerca ando de mi fin. En esto veo que me queda poca vida." ("Everything has its limits, everything has its degrees. My honour reached its summit, now it must diminish and decline. I am nearing my end. I see that little life remains for me.") What Celestina says about her own life is also applicable to the society in which the work was written. The moral and social ideas of the Middle Ages were already becoming anachronistic. Thus, Calisto cannot be taken seriously as a courtly lover in a world in which the main parts are played by prostitutes and matchmakers, and the reader can only laugh at the naiveté of Melibea's mother Elisa, who, in Act XVI doubts the usefulness of consulting with Melibea, who had already had her brief pleasure with Calisto, about her possible marriage:

¿Qué dizes? ¿En qué gastas tiempo? ¿Quién ha de yrle con tan grande nouedad a nuestra Melibea, que no la espante? ¡Cómo! ¿E piensas que sabe ella qué cosa sean hombres? ¿Si se casan o qué es casar? ¿O que del ayuntamiento de marido e muger se procreen los hijos? ¿Piensas que su virginidad simple le acarrea torpe desseo de lo que no conosce ni ha entendido jamás?
What are you saying? Why are you wasting your time? Who is going to bring such great news to our Melibea in a way that will not frighten her? How indeed! And you think that she knows what men are? Whether they marry, or what marriage is? Do you think that her simple virginity allows for the foolish desire of something she knows not nor has ever heard of?

Confirming once again the unity of Celestina and the society, after her murder, it becomes clear that life will not be able to continue as before. With Celestina's death, the wisdom with which she maintained the necessary illusions is lost, as her apprentice, Elisa, never could be bothered to acquire it. And, in the end, the protagonists and the society they represent reach their final destiny, one worthy of an enxiemplo.

1 Translations mine unless otherwise indicated. Quotes come from the edition of La Celestina available at I apologise in advance for the bad verse in the translation. I could not resist.