Severs (2020 Congress)

Zachary Severs
(Department of Romance Languages and Literatures,
University of Michigan

“Calming Turbid Waters and Skies:
The Repurposing of Lucan’s Pharsalia and Cosmological Knowledge in Juan de Mena’s Laberinto de Fortuna

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Session on “Prologues in Medieval Texts of Magic, Astrology, and Prophecy”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Vajra Regan

2020 Congress Program

[Published on 22 March 2020]



Although almost always approached with an air of caution, astrological knowledge enjoyed immense popularity in the Kingdom of Castile during the 13th and 14th centuries. However, by the first half of the 15th century, this attitude of hesitant curiosity had changed to one of outright hostility as thinkers attempted to distance themselves from a science increasingly associated with the occult and unrighteous ways of life. Given this ideological shift, the fact that Juan de Mena’s Laberinto de Fortuna alludes to astrological knowledge and Lucan’s fantastical Pharsalia, while at the same time vehemently disavowing all connexions to that science, is intriguing indeed.

Previous studies of the Laberinto have focused on the lack of depth that characterises de Mena’s treatment of astrological themes and his adaptation of Lucan’s poem for his aesthetic aims. However, it remains to be determined why the author limits himself to employing almost exclusively topical astrological themes and divests his excerpts of the Pharsalia of its more popular fantastical elements, while still retaining its stoicism in his description of an unsuccessful assault on the Isle of Gibraltar. Far from limiting them to empty gestures, by neutralising these problematic aspects of his source material, De Mena is consciously repurposing them to reinforce his notion of Fortune as a capricious force that requires that a people form a cohesive and orthodox national body to better withstand its whims. However, in order to fully appreciate the complicated intellectual dilemma that De Mena is confronted with, we cannot discuss the Laberinto in isolation. Rather, this poem must be put in dialogue with change in attitudes toward astrology in the Iberian Peninsula as exhibited in the prologues of Alfonso X’s late 13th century Libros de astronomía and Enrique de Villena’s 15th century Tratado de Astrología.