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A Spanish novel: Lazarillo de Tormes


The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities (Spanish: La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades) is a Spanish novella, published anonymously, because of its heretical content. It was published simultaneously in two cities, in 1554 in Alcalá de Henares, Spain (7 years after Cervantes was born there), and, in 1555, in Antwerp, Flanders, then under Spanish rule, and where the book Till Eulenspiegel had been published in 1529 and become popular. The book was published during the period known as the Spanish Inquisition, and the first Spanish trials against Lutherans were about to take place.

Lazarillo de Tormes was banned by the Spanish Crown and included in the Index of Forbidden Books of the Spanish Inquisition; this was at least in part for the book’s anti-clerical flavour. In 1573, the Crown allowed circulation of a version which omitted Chapters 4 and 5 and assorted paragraphs from other parts of the book. (A complete version did not appear in Spain until the Nineteenth century.) It was the Antwerp version that circulated throughout Europe, in French translation (1560), in English translation (1576), in Dutch translation (1579) after Flanders went under Dutch rule (1578), in German translation (1617), and in Italian translation (1622).

A boy of humble origins from Salamanca, Lázaro is apprenticed by his mother to a wily blind beggar after his father, a thief, dies. The blind man is the first of his many masters and Lázaro has to be cunning to survive.

Lazarillo introduced the picaresque device of delineating various professions and levels of society. A young boy or young man or woman describing masters or “betters” ingenuously presented realistic details. But Lazarillo spoke of “the blind man,” “the squire,” “the pardoner,” presenting these characters as types. Significantly, the only names of characters in this book are those of Lazarillo, his mother (Antoña Pérez), his father (Tomé Gonzáles), and his stepfather (El Zayde), members of his family.


Chapter (or treatise) 1: childhood and apprenticeship to a blind man.

Chapter 2: serving a priest.

Chapter 3: serving a squire.

Chapter 4: serving a friar.

Chapter 5: serving a pardoner.

Chapter 6: serving a chaplain.

Chapter 7: serving a bailiff and an archbishop.

Literary significance and criticism

Primary objections to Lazarillo were to its vivid and realistic descriptions of the world of the pauper and the petty thief. This was in contrast to the superhuman events of chivalric novels such as the classic from the previous century, Amadís de Gaula. In Antwerp it followed the tradition of the impudent trickster figure Till Eulenspiegel.

Objections to characters not being “high-born” continued to be made in the literature of other countries for centuries. It resulted in censorship of novels by Pierre Beaumarchais, one of whose plays was used for the operatic libretto of The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And the 1767 première of the German comedy, Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Lessing as well as the 1830 première of the French drama, Ernani, by Victor Hugo caused riots simply because these dramas featured middle-class characters, not nobles or religious figures.

The name Lazarillo is the diminutive of the Spanish name Lázaro. There are two appearances of the name Lazarus in the Bible, and not all critics agree as to which story the author was referring to when he chose the name. The more well-known tale of Lazarus occurs in John, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The second occurrence of the name is in Luke, which is a parable about a beggar named Lazarus who begs at the gates of a rich, stingy man’s house. The surname de Tormes comes from the river Tormes. In the narrative, Lazarillo explains that his father ran a mill on the river where he was literally born on the river. The Tormes runs through Lazarillo’s home town, Salamanca, a Castilian university city. There is an old mill on the river Tormes and there is a statue of Lazarillo and the blind man next to the Roman bridge (or puente romano) of the city. Because of Lazarillo’s first adventures, the Spanish word lazarillo has taken the meaning of “guide”, as to a blind person. Consequently, in Spain a guide dog is called a perro lazarillo.

In contrast to the fancifully poetic language devoted to fantastic and supernatural events about unbelievable creatures and chivalric knights, the realistic prose of Lazarillo described suppliants purchasing indulgences from the Church, servants forced to die with masters on the battlefield (as Lazarillo’s father did), thousands of refugees wandering from town to town, poor beggars flogged out by whips because of the lack of food. The anonymous author included many popular sayings and ironically interpreted popular stories.

The Prologue with Lázaro’s extensive protest against injustice is addressed to a high-level cleric, and four of his seven masters in the novel served the church. Lazarillo attacked the appearance of the church and its hypocrisy, though not its essential beliefs, a balance not often present in picaresque novels that followed.

The work is a masterpiece for its internal artistic unity. For example, as Lázaro’s masters rise up the social scale (from beggar to priest to nobleman) so their ability to feed him diminishes; Lázaro leaves his first master, is thrown out by the second and is abandoned by the third.

The work is riotously funny, often relying upon slapstick humour (such as the young Lázaro leading his blind master to jump against a stone column, in revenge for his master banging his young servant’s head against a stone statue); some of its funniest episodes are apparently based upon traditional material. But there is a deeper, more unsettling humour and irony here. Nothing is what it seems in this book: the blind beggar’s public prayers are a sham and the nobleman’s nobility is pure façade; and at the end of the book, Lázaro professes to have reached the pinnacle of success, but is little more than a cuckold living off the immoral earnings of his wife.

Besides creating a new genre, Lazarillo de Tormes was critically innovative in world literature in several aspects:

Long before the Emile (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) or Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens) or Huckleberry Finn the anonymous author of Lazarillo treated a boy as a boy, not a small adult.

Long before Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe), Lazarillo describes the domestic and working life of a poor woman, wife, mother, climaxing in the flogging of Lazarillo’s mother through the streets of the town after her black husband Zayde is hanged as a thief.

Long before modern treatment of “persons of color”, this author treats sympathetically the pleasures and pains of an interracial family in his descriptions of life with his black stepfather and negrito half-brother, though their characterization is based on stereotypes.

Reference in Don Quixote

In his book Don Quixote, Cervantes introduces a gypsy thief called Ginés de Passamonte who claims to be a writer (and who later in Part II masquerades as a puppeteer while on the run). Don Quixote interrogates this writer about his book;

“Is it so good?” said Don Quixote.

“So good is it,” replied Gines, “that a fig for ‘Lazarillo de Tormes,’ and all of that kind that have been written, or shall be written compared with it: all I will say about it is that it deals with facts, and facts so neat and diverting that no lies could match them.”

“And how is the book entitled?” asked Don Quixote.

“The ‘Life of Gines de Pasamonte,'” replied the subject of it.

“And is it finished?” asked Don Quixote.

“How can it be finished,” said the other, “when my life is not yet finished?”

The author criticises many organisations and groups of persons in his book, most notably the Catholic Church and the Aristocracy.

These two organisations are clearly criticised through the different masters that Lazarillo has during his time. Characters such as the Cleric, the Friar, the Pardoner, the Priest and the Archbishop all have something wrong either with them as a person or with their character. The self-indulgent cleric concentrates on feeding himself, and when he does decide to give the “crumbs from his table” to Lazarillo, he says: “toma, come, triunfa, para tí es el mundo” “take, eat, triumph – the world is yours” a clear parody of a key communion statement.

We are led to believe that not only does the friar arrange to meet “unas mujercillas” or prostitutes, being more focused on worldly matters and being a “gran enemigo del coro” but also it is speculated that he possibly sexually abuses Lazarillo.

In the final chapter, Lazarillo works for an Archpriest, who arranges his marriage to a maid who works for him (the Archpriest). It is clear that Lazarillo’s wife cheats on him with the Archpriest and all vows of celibacy are forgotten.

In Chapter 3, Lazarillo becomes the servant to an “Escudero” or squire. In this chapter, the author criticises how the sons of rich noblemen do nothing for themselves and as a result live off their parents.

The identity of the anonymous author of Lazarillo has been a puzzle for nearly four hundred years. Given the subversive nature of Lazarillo and its open criticism of the Catholic Church, it is likely that the author chose to remain anonymous out of fear of religious persecution.

We know neither the author nor the date and place of the first appearance of the work. It appeared anonymously; and no author’s name was accredited to it until 1605, when the Hieronymite monk José de Sigüenza named as its author Fray Juan de Ortega. Two years later (1607) it was accredited by the Belgian Valère André to Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. In 1608 André Schott repeated this assertion, although less categorically. Despite these facts the assignment of the work to Diego Hurtado de Mendoza was generally accepted, until Alfred Paul Victor Morel-Fatio, in 1888, demonstrated the untenability of that position. The earliest known editions are the three of Alcalá de Henares, Antwerp, and Burgos, all of which appeared in 1554. Two continuations (or second parts) appeared – one, anonymously, in 1555, and the other, accredited to H. Luna, in 1620.

There has been some suggestion that the author was originally of Jewish extraction, who in 1492 had to convert to Catholicism to avoid expulsion from Spain; it could be used to explain the animosity towards the Catholic Church within the book — such as the self-indulgent cleric, the abusive friar and the archbishop. Apart from the chronological difficulties this hypothesis presents, it should be noted that severe Catholic criticism of the failings of Catholic clergy, at all levels, was commonplace; by then such criticism had had a long and even reputable tradition, that can be seen in a great work like Dante’s Inferno and the works of Erasmus.

Documents recently discovered by the Spanish paleographer Mercedes Agulló reinforce the hypothesis that the author was Diego Hurtado de Mendoza.


In 1555, only a year after the first edition of the book, a sequel by another anonymous author was attached to the original Lazarillo in an edition printed in Antwerp, Low Countries. This sequel is known as El Lazarillo de Amberes, Amberes being the Spanish name for Antwerp. Lázaro leaves his wife and child with the priest, in Toledo, and joins the Spanish army in their campaign against the Moors. The ship carrying the soldiers goes down, but before his boat sinks Lázaro drinks as much wine as he can. His body remains so full of wine that there is no place for the water to enter him, and by that means he survives under the sea. Threatened by the tuna fish there, Lázaro prays for mercy and is eventually metamorphosized into a tuna fish himself. Most of the book tells about how Lázaro struggles to find his place in the tuna fish society.

In 1620, another sequel by Juan de Luna appeared in Paris. In the prologue, the narrator (not Lázaro himself but someone who claims to have a copy of Lázaro’s writings) tells the reader that he was moved to publish the second part of Lázaro’s adventures after hearing about a book which, he alleges, had falsely told of Lázaro being transformed into a tuna fish (this is obviously a disparaging reference to Lazarillo de Amberes).


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