Fray (a title equivalent to "Friar") Luis de León is more widely known as one of Spain's greatest poets than for being an Augustinian.
For many, Luis de León O.S.A. exemplifies the Hispanic Christian influence on the Italian Renaissance. He was one of the greatest masters of Castilian lyric poetry. His prose is considered the most classically beautiful of Spain in the 16th century.
1520: Sent to study law at the University of Salamanca.
1541: Joined the Order of Saint Augustine.
1558: Awarded a Master of Theology degree.
1559: Receives a Chair at the University of Salamanca.
1561: Professor of Theology at the University.
1572-1577: Placed in prison by the Spanish Inquisition.
1577: Exonerated by Inquisition; resumes teaching.
1580: Professor of Sacred Scripture at the University.
1582-1584: Recalled by Inquisition. Admonished.
1591: Elected Provincial of the Augustinian Order.
1591: In retirement, died in community at Avila, Spain. Arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, Luis was imprisoned for five years, and for a long time was not even told of the charges that had been made against him. When Luis de Leon was released of prison, he returned to his teaching position at the University of Salamanca. He recommenced his teaching in 1576, which was done in the Latin language. As has often been told (but without much historical foundation), he resumed lecturing with an opening remark filled with irony.
It what has become one of the most famous sentences in Spanish history, after five years absence in prison Luis began with the words, "Dicebamus hesterna die.. ('As we were saying yesterday'...)". Thus with Stoic brevity he conveyed the same meaning as is contained in the contemporary phrase, "As I had been saying before I was rudely interrupted..." His hearers had anticipated that he would have said much more about his five years of fruitless imprisonment.
Fray Luis de Leon (1527-1591) was born at Belmonte in the province of Basin (Spain), of a rich and influential family. His father was a lawyer in Madrid, and later a judge. Among the ancestors of Luis were some conversos, i.e., Jews who had converted to the Catholic Christian faith, most probably under varying types of pressure. Showing early academic ability, at the age of fourteen years Luis was sent from Madrid to Salamanca to study law. In 1542, only six months later, he entered the Order of Saint Augustine as a candidate at Salamanca, at a period of history when such an early age of entry was not unusual.
As well as the required courses to become a priest, he studied Hebrew. He was awarded the degree of Master of Theology in 1558. In 1559, only a year later, he became a chairman in Salamanca. This was an achievement and an honour, for the University of Salamanca was the oldest in Spain (founded in 1230), and had been one of Europe's leading centers of learning for 400 years. For example, Christopher Columbus had visited there for information about the geography of the world before his pioneering voyage across the Atlantic in the year 1492.
In 1561 Luis competed for the vacant position of Professor of Theology at Salamanca, and gained the position by virtue of his enormous intellectual and linguistic talents. A person of outstanding intelligence, he used the Hebrew sources to translate several Old Testament books, and added clear commentaries. He was also a scholar of classical Latin, and his elegant poetry attained a remarkable synthesis of the classical and the Judaeo-christian traditions.
In March of 1572, while Philip II was the king of Spain, Luis was detained by the Spanish Inquisition which, as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation then raging further to the east in much of Europe, had been established to seek out any public opposition to Catholic doctrine or church traditions.
Possibly the Inquisitors anticipated the benefit to their cause if an example could be made of such a high profile figure as the occupier of the Chair of Theology at the most famous university in Spain. In that surrealistic cloud of fear and suspicion, it might be expected that the officers of the Inquisition would give attention to Luis because of his intellectual convictions, literary works, sense of academic freedom, and the allegation of his disregard for some aspects of the decrees of the Council of Trent.As well, there was his public dislike for the highly conservative elements within the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), whose members held many positions of authority in the Inquisition. Members of the Order of Saint Dominic ("the Dominicans"), who often were opponents in theology with the Order of Saint Augustine, also were often the officers of the Spanish Inquisition. They well remembered that only fifty years previously that the man who ignited what became the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther. He had challenged Johann Tetzel, the Dominican who moved around parts to Germany to sell indulgences. Like Luis de Leon, Luther had been both a member of the Order of Saint Augustine and a Doctor of Theology.
There was great dissension among the professors at Salamanca over the decree of the Council of Trent that called for the exclusive use of the Vulgate Bible, and that declared it the official Biblical translation of the universal church. This was the Latin translation of the Bible by Saint Jerome 1,100 years earlier during the lifetime of Saint Augustine. Two of the Salamanca professors were accused of error in January 1572 for breaking the decree of the Council of Trent about exclusively using the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible in publications and lectures.
And the on 27 March 1572, Luis de León was arrested. When denounced before the Inquisition, his Jewish ancestry was revealed, Luis was removed from the Chair of Theology at the University of Salamanca. He was immediately moved from Salamanca and jailed at Valladolid by order of the Inquisition for abetting the other two Salamanca professors. In the isolation of prison, and according to the standard practice of the Inquisition, it was a long time before Luis was told either the precise charges that had been made against him or the names of those who had reported him.
After examining his writings and hearing the witnesses, the Inquisition compiled seventeen charges against him. He was not charged with error of doctrine, but with lack of prudence, particularly on account of comments that lacked respect for the Vulgate edition of the Bible. These charges had to do with his preference for the Hebrew text of the Bible instead of the Latin Vulgate edition, the latter which he said contained inaccuracies in translation and which he spoke of quite negatively. As well, the Inquisition did not approve his translating into Castilian Spanish the book of the Old Testament entitled Song of Songs. They said that this was contrary to the prohibition of the Council of Trent about translating biblical texts into any local language.
His trial extended over nearly five years, during which time Luis de León was held in prison. Finally the Inquisition at Valladolid declared Luis de Leon guilty and asked that he be given torture on the rack. This sentence, however, had to be ratified by the supreme council at Madrid. But nine days later, on 7th December 1576, this body reversed the sentence. It acquitted Luis de León, ordered that his university Chair at Salamanca be given back to him, but nevertheless warned him to be more cautious in his teaching in future. He renounced the chair, however, for the time being, in favour of the professor who had filled it during his absence, and was satisfied with pecuniary compensation and supplementary teaching. Later he held the chairs of Moral Philosophy and Biblical Studies at the University.
When Luis de León was released of prison, he returned to the lecture rooms of the University of Salamanca with even more vigor and moral energy than before, although his health had been broken by five years of imprisonment. He recommenced his teaching in 1576, which was done in the Latin language.
In 1582 he again had problems with the Inquisition, but this time was not placed in detention, and eventually received only a warning. He was elected Provincial of his Order in Castile, but days later died in the Augustinian community at Madrigal de las Altas Torres in Avila, Spain on 23rd August 1591. The trials and pains in his life had turned him into a person with a short temper, and even an aggressive one at times. He is buried in a magnificent tomb in the chapel of the University of Salamanca. A large statue of him stands in front of the ornate facade of the main building of the university. The statue faces the entrance to the building, as if Luis de León O.S.A. watches over the university as its most famous alumnus and staff member.
This biography is a "small" history of Luis de León, who occupies a deserved place in a "larger" history as one of the best lyrical poets of the Renaissance, who exemplified the Hispanic Christian influence on the Italian Renaissance. He was one of the greatest masters of Castilian lyric poetry, and his prose is considered the most classically beautiful of Spain in the 16th century.
The draconian Inquisition notwithstanding, the sixteenth century was a golden age for Spanish poetry. In the 16th century, Boscan and Garcilaso de la Veda adapted Italian lyrical poetry to the Castilian language; it then found its maximum expression in the mystical poetry of Luis de Leon and Saint John of the Cross, and in the prose of Saint Teresa of Avila. During this Golden Age, the mystical poems of Luis de Leon prompted the excellent Spanish poet and author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), to proclaim Luis de Leon as "a person of great intellect who astounds the world and who, in ecstasy, might rob us of our senses."
Fray Luis de León left many written works, the best compendium of which was published in six volumes in Madrid between 1806 and 1816 - over three hundred years after his death. The first five of these volumes contained his writings on theology, of which the most important are Biblical commentaries superior to any others of his time (on the Old Testament books of Abdias, Job, and Song of Songs, and the Epistle to the Galatians in the New Testament).
Luis de León O.S.A. and the Spanish Inquisition. From the Library of Iberian Sources Online: "A History of the Inquisition of Spain," Volume Four, Book 8: Spheres of Action, Chapter 7: Propositions. By Henry Charles Lea. Luis patiently suffered a horrendous experience! ttp://libro.uca.edu/lea4/8lea7.htm
Poesía de Fray Luis de León. Poetry of Luis de León (in Spanish). http://www.los-poetas.com/f/frayluis1.htm
Luis de León O.S.A. More biographical details at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09177b.htm AN4337