In 1842, a nobody called George Borrow wrote a detailed, 550-pages-long account of his day job. Sounds boring? Well, it isn’t: Borrow’s day job was to sell Bibles in war-torn, Catholic Spain.
If you’re at all familiar with Catholicism, you know that even today Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible for themselves – lest they should interpret it the ‘wrong’ way. According to Catholic doctrine the Bible is too difficult for the common people who need guidance in understanding it; and who better to give that guidance than the Pope and the Church? And if this is the case today, you can readily imagine how Borrow’s evangelising efforts were viewed in Spain in the first half of the 19th century: the Englishman was, in point of fact, peddling a forbidden book up and down a country where the name of Martin Luther was only ever mentioned in the same breath as the devil. A country, moreover, which was torn by a brutal civil war at the time.
The causes of the First Carlist War – Borrow travelled Spain with his Bibles from 1835 to 1838 – are explained by Borrow himself very succinctly in a couple of paragraphs, about halfway through the book. In 1830, Ferdinand VII, having only daughters, set aside the Salic Law (brought into Spain by Philip V), making his elder daughter Isabella his heir presumptive. Unfortunately, his brother Charles took this rather badly (under the Salic Law he had been next in line for the throne) and three Carlist wars followed, devastating an already poor and miserable Spain for some fifty years. In addition to the issue of succession, the wars were further fuelled by the political issues of the time which pitted liberals against conservatives, Catalans and Basques against the central government, staunch Catholics against seculars… in short just about everybody against everybody else.
And into this war-torn country walked George Borrow, a lowly employee of the Bible Society of England, determined to publish and sell a Spanish language Bible to the masses of Spain.
Self-righteous, intelligent and determined, with a real talent for languages, Borrow was your classic missionary. His run-ins with Spanish bureaucracy and the justice system (if the word ‘justice’ can at all be applied!) leave you wondering whether you should laugh or cry. Knowing he survived to tell the tale, in the end you laugh at the absurdity of it all. With his load of Bibles (frequently confiscated), Borrow takes you gallivanting all over 19th-century Spain, from Seville to Santander, from small Castilian hamlets to the streets of the capital. En route, he fell in with bandits, Gypsies and rogue soldiers and held conversations with book-sellers, Spanish Prime Ministers and British Ambassadors (not to mention the Swiss treasure-seeker of Santiago de Compostela). He was aided or hindered – according to inclination and interest – by inn-keepers, small-town mayors and aristocrats. He was imprisoned, offered marriage and nearly executed as a spy…
It’s not his style that captivates you; his prose in itself is quite unremarkable. Yet his book is hard to put down: he holds you with his sharp-eyed observations of the people around him, his descriptions of the landscape through which he travels and, most of all, with the story he has to tell.
A book I can’t recommend enough.
Links: ⇒ What could be the first link but the book itself? The Bible in Spain by Project Gutenberg. ⇒ A funny excerpt about Borrow's dealing with Spanish bureaucracy: The Council of Trent ⇒ An 1801 map of Spain, showing its various kingdoms. ⇒ If you can't quite remember what the Salic Law was about: Salic Law of Succession by the Encyclopaedia Britannica.