The Bible in Spain

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.

Peddling a Forbidden Book

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 First Carlist War

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.

George Borrow and the Bible in Spain

By far the most clever member of this government was Galiano, whose acquaintance I had formed shortly after my arrival.  He was a man of considerable literature, and particularly well versed in that of his own country.  He was, moreover, a fluent, elegant, and forcible speaker, and was to the moderado party within the cortes what Quesada was without, namely, their horses and chariots.  Why he was made minister of marine is difficult to say, as Spain did not possess any…

George Borrow portrait
George Borrow’s portrait, replica by Henry Wyndham Phillips, oil on canvas, (1843)

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; held fascinating 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…

The travels of George Borrow during the 1830s
The Travels of George Borrow

Red: First journey (Lisbon to Madrid, 1835-1836)
Blue: Second journey (Cádiz - Madrid - North of Spain, 1836-1837)
Green: Minor journeys in Castile (Madrid - Toledo - Villaseca - Segovia, 1838)
Yellow: Third journey (Cádiz - Madrid - Fuente la Higuera - Seville - Cádiz,1839)

It’s not his style that captivates you; his prose is lucid but quite unremarkable in itself. 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 TrentThe 1801 map of Spain, showing its various kingdoms, upon which  I traced the route of Borrow's travels (with the help of Mr Anglo-Saxonist).
⇒ If you can't quite remember what the Salic Law was about: Salic Law of Succession by the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This is an updated version of the post originally published on 3 August 2016.

Nine Books to Get Your Kids Off the Sofa

It’s a dark and stormy night… no, actually, it’s just a dark and miserably wet January afternoon. It’s that time of the year when hardly anybody can be bothered to get off the sofa; the new year’s resolution crowd has already disappeared from the gym. The same is true for our children, who are far too addicted to their electronic gadgets anyway and would do well to spend more time outdoors.

So perhaps this a good time to offer them a good book in exchange for those gadgets; and why not make it a book that will encourage them out of doors? By the time they finish reading, spring will be just round the corner.

Continue reading “Nine Books to Get Your Kids Off the Sofa”

Ice Station (An Antarctic Thriller)

Minus 55 degrees, zero visibility and a raging snowstorm. Nobody at Halley Station should be outside under these circumstances but the station doctor has just discovered that the cold weather gear of one of the scientists is missing from the boot room and according to the sign-in board he has gone to the met tower. Only a hundred metres’ walk but in this weather that’s a lot – and nobody has seen the man all afternoon. Besides, he’s not the meteorologist, so what was he doing there? Perhaps it’s time to get worried!

Continue reading “Ice Station (An Antarctic Thriller)”

They that Go Down to the Sea in Ships

A fit of September blues, accompanied by September skies. (That means grey; where I come from September skies are famous for their particularly beautiful deep blue colour.) My September blues, however, are not merely due to the fact that summer is over; my plans for rowing up the Thames à la Three Men in a Boat are over too. For reasons I don’t want to discuss here not only we didn’t succeed in following the Three Men upriver this summer, we didn’t even have a holiday. Maybe better luck next year?

So – for a while at least – this is the last post in the Upriver series. And what better way to wind up and lighten the September blues at the same time than to immerse ourselves into some books set on boats (and envy the people who get to sail on them)?

Continue reading “They that Go Down to the Sea in Ships”

The Bible in Spain

Your Journey Begins Here…

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over…”

Riszard Kapuscinski: Travels with Herodotus

Your journey is not over! There was once a post here but it’s been updated & republished. Read it here:

The Bible in Spain (updated)

Adventures in Spanish (Captain Alatriste)

When I travel anywhere I like to take a book that relates to the place I’m visiting. It’s usually a novel set there or a book on the history of the place – or more likely, one of each. Walking down Milsom Street in Bath after you read Persuasion becomes that just a little bit more special. The Torre de Oro in Sevilla seems far more impressive when you know its history. And so, planning to visit Venice soon, I recently embarked on re-reading the Alatriste series of Arturo Pérez-Reverte because Book VII, The Bridge of Assassins, is set in Venice. Those famous churches, bridges and canals will acquire a certain sinister significance when viewed through the eyes of the would be assassins of the Doge.

Continue reading “Adventures in Spanish (Captain Alatriste)”

Just One More Page

Recently I chose to indulge in a little light reading, and the experience was disappointing, to say the least. By way of antithesis, I recalled some great page-turners I read over the years.

So here’s a random list of eleven books for light reading (in no particular order), based on one criteria only: you can’t put them down.

Enjoy.

Continue reading “Just One More Page”

Books That Transport You

Following links from one blog to another, as you sometimes do, I came across a book list that immediately took my fancy: The Books That Transport You.

Talk about being bitten by the listmania bug. I immediately decided that I have to make my own list… only to conclude a hundred titles later that I have to rethink my approach. So ten books that – quite literally – transported me to another time, into somebody else’s life or to a place far away…

In no way is this an exhaustive list of books that transport you – to begin with the postman has just delivered a book for me that I am one hundred percent sure would belong on this list, and I’ve only flipped through the pages so far! – but I can always write another list later! 🙂

Enjoy.

Continue reading “Books That Transport You”

A Little Light Reading

The book under review is: Seven Ancient Wonders by Matthew Reilly

I got this book for Christmas: I fancied a bit of light reading, so taking a recommendation from the internet, I put this book on my Amazon wishlist. And somebody gave it to me.

I came across the author at the time when I was looking for an Australian book to complete a reading challenge. What with the author featuring in the top 50 must read Australian novels at number 31, exactly thirteen places above David Malouf’s Ransom – and boy, was Ransom a good book! – I thought I could count on a solid page turner that wouldn’t engage my brain in any way whatsover. A little light reading.

Continue reading “A Little Light Reading”