Conrad (2022 Congress)

Michael A. Conrad
(University of Zurich)

“Juan Joffre’s Libro del juego delas suertes:
The Strange Appearance of a Popular Divinatory Game
in the Age of the Spanish Inquisition”

Abstract of Paper
57th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Online, 2022)

Session on
“Pressing Politics:
Interactions between Authors and Printers
in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence

Organized by David Porreca and Linde M. Brocato
2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies Program



Like many other early printers of the Iberian Peninsula, Juan Joffre (mid-15th century-1531) actually came from France. Presumably born in Briançon, after his arrival in Spain in 1498, Joffe established his own press in Valencia, with his name being mentioned in 90 printed books printed between 1500 and 1530. Although his production mostly consisted of religious works in Catalan language, there is a remarkable number written in Castilian, including an edition of Celestina (1514).

Among these imprints, an exceptional small work is the Libro del juego delas suertes (1528), a rare divinatory book that employs dice to randomly chose prophecies conveyed within, with the texts organized in a system of questions and answers ordered by general categories of everyday life: happiness, success in marriage, business, the birth of an heir, health and ailment. The Libro is one of the earliest proofs of the existence of this genre of printed works in Spain, which, under the name of Losbücher, was extremely popular in the German-speaking regions of Europe already since the late 1400s.
In fact, Joffe’s work draws most of its textual basis from Lorenzo Spirito Gualtieri’s Il Libro delle Sorti, which had first been printed in Perugia in 1482 by Steffen Arndes and Bros.

While Spirito (1425–1496), the son of notary Ser Cipriano Gualtieri, has been considered one of the most remarkable poets of the 15th century to write in the volgare, it was the Libro delle Sorti that would become his most influential and famous work, continuously republished across Europe until the end of the 17th century. One of the most beautiful copies is Spirito’s autograph, kept at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice (Mss. It., IX.87–6626), is embellished with lavish miniatures executed by members of the Umbrian School (a circle of artists around Pietro Perugino and the young Raphael).

The multi-layered complexity of Joffe’s work as outlined above thus serves as an invitation to discuss different aspects revolving around the relationship between the printer and his source material, along with the tension of the book in relation to a Spanish public that, due to the increasing power of the Inquisition, must have felt rather ambiguous about works that encouraged divinatory practices, even if only intended as lighthearted entertainment and not as a serious (and therefore potentially dangerous) exercise in the dark arts. This tension becomes the more apparent if one considers that Joffe, like other contemporary printers, was at the same time known as a publisher of theological books — a curious commercial strategy that has some striking parallels with the card-producing industry of the time, where publishers would, under the same roof, print both playing cards and devotional pictures by applying state-of-the-art printing technologies. That said, Joffe’s work also allows to examine more closely the interesting role that pastimes play as drivers of technological innovation in respect to visual reproduction and the dissemination of knowledge.