Nov 252017

Today is the birthday (1562) of Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, usually called simply Lope de Vega, Spanish playwright, poet, and novelist of the Spanish Golden Century of Baroque literature. In the Spanish-speaking world he is generally ranked only second to Cervantes for classic literature. I would rank him first, but who am I? I find Cervantes rather tedious in comparison. So – one vote for Lope de Vega as king of Spanish literature. The sheer volume of his literary output is unequalled, making him one of the most prolific authors in the history of literature in any language, although this fact is not, in and of itself, a qualification for top billing. Cervantes himself called him Fénix de los Ingenios (The Phoenix of Wits) and Monstruo de la Naturaleza (a Monster of Nature), the latter because of his “monstrous” output. De Vega was the main force in renewing Spanish theater, and took it to great heights. His plays, like those of Shakespeare, are still produced on a regular basis worldwide. He was also one of the best lyric poets in the Spanish language, and an accomplished novelist. About 3,000 sonnets, 3 novels, 4 novellas, 9 epic poems, and about 500 plays are attributed to him. He has frequently been criticized for putting quantity ahead of quality, yet, at least 80 of his plays are considered masterpieces, and Cervantes himself, who was his contemporary, envied his works.

De Vega was born in Madrid to a family who had recently arrived from Valle de Carriedo in Cantabria. His father, Félix de Vega, was an embroiderer. Little is known of his mother, Francisca Fernández Flórez. De Vega later added the distinguished name of Carpio (from one of his in-laws) as his maternal name in place of Flórez. De Vega’s family history is rather obscure. His father moved to Madrid in 1561, ostensibly to take advantage of possibilities in a new capital city, but de Vega wrote that his father arrived in Madrid because of a love affair while a married man, but his (future) mother came to “rescue” him. Thus, de Vega became the fruit of this reconciliation, and owed his existence to the jealousies and rivalries in love he would analyze so much in his dramatic works.

De Vega was obviously a child prodigy in writing although some of his feats are probably exaggerations. Did he, for example, write his first play, El verdadero amante, when he was 12, as he claimed? Probably not, but he was certainly a more than competent writer at that age. At 14 he studied at the Colegio Imperial, a Jesuit school in Madrid, from which he absconded to take part in a military expedition in Portugal. Following that escapade, he had the good fortune of being taken into the protection of the Bishop of Ávila, who recognized his talent and got him enrolled in the University of Alcalá. De Vega had planned to follow in his patron’s footsteps and join the priesthood after getting his degree, but he fell in love instead and realized that celibacy was not for him. In the process he failed to get a degree and made what living he could as a secretary to aristocrats or by writing plays.


In 1583 de Vega enlisted in the Spanish Navy and saw action at the Battle of Ponta Delgada in the Azores, under the command of his future friend Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquis of Santa Cruz, to whose son he would later dedicate a play. Following his stint in the navy he returned to Madrid and began his career as a playwright in earnest. He also began a love affair with Elena Osorio (the “Filis” of his poems), who was separated from her husband, actor Cristóbal Calderón, and was the daughter of a leading theater director. After 5 years Elena spurned de Vega in favor of another suitor, and his vitriolic attacks on her and her family landed him in jail for libel and, ultimately, 8 years’ banishment from the court and 2 years’ banishment from Castile. He went into exile undaunted, taking with him the 16-year-old Isabel de Alderete y Urbina, known in his poems by the anagram “Belisa,” the daughter of Philip II’s court painter, Diego de Urbina. The two married under pressure from her family on 10 May 1588. Just a few weeks later, on the 29th of May, de Vega signed up for another tour of duty with the Spanish Navy: this was the summer of 1588, and the Armada was about to sail against England. It is likely that this enlistment was the condition required by Isabel’s family, eager to be rid of such a scurrilous son-in-law.


Luck was with de Vega, however, and his ship, the San Juan, was one of the vessels to make it home to Spanish harbors in the aftermath of the failed expedition. Back in Spain by December 1588, he settled in the city of Valencia, and lived there with Isabel, continually perfecting his dramatic formula, and participating regularly in the tertulia (i.e. literary gathering) known as the Academia de los nocturnos, which included the finest dramatists of the day. His most important innovation at this point was to violate the classic unity of action of Spanish theater and weave two plots together in a single play: a technique normally known as “imbroglio” and fundamental to his plays.

In 1590, at the end of his two years’ exile from the realm, he moved to Toledo to serve Francisco de Ribera Barroso, who later became the 2nd Marquis of Malpica, and, some time later, Antonio Álvarez de Toledo, 5th Duke of Alba. In this later appointment he became gentleman of the bedchamber to the ducal court of the House of Alba, where he lived from 1592 to 1595. In 1595, following Isabel’s death in childbirth, he left the Duke’s service and – 8 years having passed – returned to Madrid. In 1598 he married Juana de Guardo, the daughter of a wealthy butcher. His affairs continued, however. A scandal with Antonia Trillo de Armenta earned him another lawsuit, and his love affair with Micaela de Luján, a well-known beauty on stage, continued until 1608. She bore him 4 children and inspired a series of sonnets.


By 1610 de Vega’s personal situation took a turn for the worse. His favorite son, Carlos Félix (by Juana), died and, in 1612, Juana herself died in childbirth. His writing in the early 1610s also assumed heavier religious influences and, in 1614, he joined the priesthood. Holy orders did not impede his romantic inclinations, however. The most lasting of his relationships of that era was with Marta de Nevares, who met him in 1616 and would remain with him until her death in 1632.


Further tragedies followed in 1635 with the death of Lope, his son by Micaela and a worthy poet in his own right, in a shipwreck off the coast of Venezuela, and the abduction and subsequent abandonment of his youngest daughter Antonia. De Vega took to his bed and died of scarlet fever in Madrid on 27 August of that same year.

It is my common habit to add a few salient quotes for authors I celebrate here, but I ran into an amusing problem with Lope de Vega. When I used a search engine in English I got one set of “famous” quotes in English translation, and when I used a search engine in Spanish I got a totally different set. To compromise I’ll give a couple in English, then more in Spanish. If you are Spanish challenged I can’t help you. Sorry.

Harmony is pure love, for love is complete agreement.

With a few flowers in my garden, half a dozen pictures and some books, I live without envy.

Que más mata esperar el bien que tarda que padecer el mal que ya se tiene.

No sé yo que haya en el mundo palabras tan eficaces ni oradores tan elocuentes como las lágrimas.

No hay cosa más fácil que dar consejo ni más difícil que saberlo tomar.

Donde hay amor no hay señor, que todo lo iguala el amor.

Lope de Vega wrote that for breakfast he liked bacon and bacon fat, with letuario, a kind of marmalade of orange rinds preserved in honey and liqueur. Very English of him, at a time before the “full English” had been invented. For lunch, the main meal of the day, he preferred the classic olla podrida, made legendary in the Spanish Golden Age. For his evening meal his favorite was to pick asparagus from the garden, cook it, and serve it sprinkled with lemon juice and paprika, accompanied with poached eggs. That’s a fair choice for you. I’ll go with olla podrida.

Olla podrida literally translates as “rotten saucepan” but many linguists think “podrida” is a corruption of “poderida” (powerful), which would make more sense since the traditional dish is loaded with meats of every description. In any case, in modern Castilian Spanish “olla podrida” now figuratively means, “everything but the kitchen sink” – which about sums up the dish. Modern recipes call for various cuts of pork plus sausages, but I’ll give you the gargantuan version.  It’s also rare to include el relleno in modern versions, but I’ll give you that too. In Spanish “relleno” usually means “stuffing” but in this case it means “dumpling” – fried first, then added to the stew at the end. Choice of beans varies regionally these days. In the 17th century dried New World beans were replacing fava beans throughout Europe for stews and casseroles. Take your pick. Red beans from Ibeas in Burgos are ideal, but it’s your choice. Traditionally, the broth is served first, then the meat on one platter, and beans with vegetables and dumplings on another. If by chance you live in Spain you can get the pork marinated in adobo at most butchers’. Otherwise, you need to prepare the pork yourself, and I give directions here.  This recipe is for 10 if you live in Spain (or Argentina). Elsewhere in the world it will feed 15 to 20. Reducing quantities is not a good idea. I’d plan a big dinner party, or expect mountainous leftovers.

© Olla Podrida


800 gm dried beans
1 pig’s ear
1 pig’s trotter
500 gm pork ribs
3 blood sausages
3 chorizos
500 gm stewing beef, cubed
1 boiling fowl, cut in serving pieces
1 duck, cut in serving pieces
1 quail, cut in serving pieces
250 gm lamb shoulder, cubed
100 gm slab bacon, diced
100 gm chicken livers and gizzards
2 onions, peeled and diced
2 leeks, washed, trimmed and sliced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 cabbage, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 head celery
1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 bay leaf
2 tbs flour
olive oil

For el relleno

1 cup fresh bread crumbs (fresh)
2 large eggs
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 sprigs flat parsley, chopped

For adobo

4 tbsp Spanish paprika (sweet or spicy)
3 tbsp dried oregano
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp vinegar


First day:

Soak the beans in cold water for 24 hours.

Prepare the adobo mix. Put all the adobo ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Then rub the mix on the ribs all over and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Second day:

Drain the beans. Place them in a pot with plenty of water. Bring to a boil. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, drain, refill the pot with cold water, add the trotter and ear, bring to a boil, and then simmer until the beans are soft.

Sauté the bacon over medium-high heat in a dry pan until it starts to brown and the fat runs. Add half the onion and half the bell pepper and continue cooking until translucent. Add one-third of the garlic and 2 tablespoons of flour. Stir until the fat and flour are combined. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Place all the meats in a large pot. Add the other half of the onion and bell pepper, the rest of the garlic, the celery, leeks, carrots, cabbage, and bay leaf. Cover with water. Add as much olive oil as you wish (¼ cup or so). Bring to a boil slowly, skimming regularly. Then reduce to a simmer and cover. Check the pot periodically. Add liquid if needed and remove the meats as they cook. They poultry will take less than an hour. The pork, beef, and lamb may take 2 hours or more.

Meanwhile for el relleno, crack the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat. Then add the bread crumbs, garlic, parsley and salt.  Mix thoroughly. Heat half an inch of olive oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. When sizzling, drop the mixture into the hot oil one tablespoon at a time. Do not overcrowd the pan. Flatten the mix when it hits the oil if necessary and cook, turning to brown both sides. When cooked, remove with a slotted spatula and drain on wire racks. Set aside.

Once all the meats are cooked add them back to the broth with the vegetables and add the beans and the bacon mix. Heat them through.  At the same time add the rellenos and cook for about 10 minutes.

Serve the broth as a first course with some bread. Separate out the meat and serve it on one platter. Serve the beans, vegetables, and rellenos on another. Let diners make plates of what they wish.

Aug 292016



Today is the birthday (1632) of John Locke FRS, an English philosopher and physician, one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy, and in particular, influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, along with many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and North American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke’s theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa), and that contrary to Cartesian philosophy which postulated the existence of innate ideas, Locke proposed instead that knowledge is determined only by experience derived from sense perception.


Locke’s professional trajectory is indicative of how different the 17th century was from the modern era. Locke was born in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington, Somerset, about 12 miles from Bristol. Soon after Locke’s birth, the family moved to the market town of Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton. In 1647, Locke was sent to  Westminster School and then was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford in the autumn of 1652 at the age of 20. Although a capable student he was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum that focused on the classics, and preferred the works of contemporary philosophers, such as René Descartes. Through his friend Richard Lower, whom he knew from the Westminster School, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member.

After taking a bachelor’s degree in he was awarded a bachelor of medicine in February 1675, having studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford and having worked with the likes of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In 1666, he met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue. Locke’s medical knowledge was put to the test when Shaftesbury’s liver infection became life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians and was probably instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo surgery (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life. Locke had been looking for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury’s home at Exeter House in London, to serve as Lord Ashley’s personal physician. In London, Locke resumed his medical studies under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham who encouraged his philosophical bent.

I consider the so-called “Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” to be a productive turn for philosophy and science in some respects, but probably ultimately a fatal one for Western civilization. Time will tell. The trajectory we are on looks decidedly abysmal. Locke was a leader in this march of “progress.” He was a champion of using experience to guide reason, but he was unaware of the hopeless limits of his own experience. You can’t just reason your way into any valuable insights into humans in the “state of nature,” for example. You need some concrete evidence. Making extrapolations from the social and political world around you won’t tell you about the distant past, no matter how precise your “reason” is.


Locke led Western philosophy down a path I have been skeptical of since I was an undergraduate. That’s why I became an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Ethnocentrism is the great curse of Locke’s path, as it is of so many Westerners in general, now as then. Pondering the social and political realities of 17th century Europe may have led to some useful outcomes in terms of reform and rebellion against the old order. But it was hopeless in the service of wider causes. Within the limits of his own experience, Locke was a decent philosopher. Here’s some quotes:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is that which I think great readers are apt to be mistaken in; those who have read of everything, are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.

The necessity of believing without knowledge . . .  should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.

There is reason to think, that, if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.


Locke died on 28 October 1704, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. He never married nor had children. His epitaph is in Latin, but was translated thus:

Stop Traveller! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspect praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere.


As a good demonstration of my general attitude that we cannot assume that we know other cultures just by employing rational thought to limited evidence, I give you this recipe from A True Gentlewomans Delight, (1653) – maybe the kind of broth that Locke supped on in the rich households in frequented.

To make stewed Broth.

Take a neck of Mutton, or a rump of Beef, let it boyle, and scum your pot clean, thicken your pot with grated bread, and put in some beaten Spice, as Mace, nutmegs, Cinnamon, and a little Pepper, put in a pound of Currans, a pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun, two pounds of Prunes last of all, then when it is stewed, to season put in a quart of Claret, and a pint of Sack, and some Saunders to colour it, and a pound of Sugar to sweeten it, or more if need be, you must seeth some whole Spice to garnish your dish with all, and a few whole Prunes out of your pot.


The language is more or less clear. You just need to know that sack is fortified wine imported from Spain or the Canary Islands, one style of which we now call sherry. Saunders is a food dye made from red sandalwood. The quantities are reasonably precise, so have at it. Or maybe a soup of mutton, spices, currants, raisins, prunes, wine, and sugar is not to your tastes. Why not? Locke was human and so are you. Surely you like similar things? Christmas mincemeat is about the last vestige in modern British cuisine of this style of cooking. The “meat” part of “mincemeat” is your hint that it was once made with real meat and not just suet. I’ve made it with venison, in fact, according to a 19th century recipe. But I served it in a pie as dessert, not as a main course. Sweet mutton soup is not appearing on my table any time