On a Vulgar Book Title

Now, I’m not an obscene person, but vulgarity is often my stock in trade. As an American genealogical mutt, from the southern part of the United States, from the lowest class of that society, you could excuse my vulgarity and commonness. On the other hand, vulgarity is not something one would expect from someone who was high-born, someone who hailed from a family rife with physicians and medical people. No, from such people, we would not expect vulgarity. Society has long looked to those of “breeding” to be shining examples of proper deportment and behavior.

That is why the book written by one Spanish man who called himself Saavedra is so shocking. You don’t know him by that name, obviously. But the book he wrote changed the language of his nation and the world of literature. The title of the book?

Lord Fat-Ass.

That is not a joke. As one of my brothers often says to me, “I am as serious as ear puss.”

See? I told you I was vulgar.

Spain of the 17th Century was a burgeoning economic and political power. The expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 1400s spurred the conquest and establishment of Spain’s New World colonies. They began providing the country with wealth the world had rarely seen. After centuries of Islamic domination of Spain (and Portugal), the riddance of non-Spanish, non-Catholic persons from the Spanish homeland was seen as an act of patriotic destiny. The unification of two Spanish royal families in the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella insured that the country would go into the future with a (somewhat) national identity of what it meant to be Spanish.

And that is partly where Saavedra comes in. His book was such a success that it has been called the seminal Spanish work of literature as well as a world-wide best-seller. Modern Spanish is said to spring from this work with the vulgar name. And all of this success happened despite the name. By the way, the English translation of the book provided that language with such expressions as “the pot calling the kettle black,” and several other expressions we take for granted today.

Saavedra fought in Spanish wars, he traveled through much of Europe, he was widely read, and, some scholars have argued, he and his family were “new Christians.” The theory is that hey had been Jews who converted to Christianity during the period of the Spanish Inquisition. As you know, that was a time of religious (and political/racial) intolerance. Anyone who was not Catholic was given several choices, none of which were good options. They could choose to be sent to the Americas (Mexico today has a sizeable Jewish community from that period), they could face imprisonment and possible death, or they could convert. Saavedra’s family chose conversion, it seems, because of their standing in the medical and legal community of the family’s hometown of Cordoba. All of that serves to help us understand that, perhaps, Lord Fat-Ass might be, besides an amazing work of fiction, a not-so-subtle dig at Spain’s culture of intolerance. We have that book today under the original Spanish title, of course.

Don Quixote by Cervantes.

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