by Fred Kramer
Fred Kramer is a former counselor and teacher at De Smet Jesuit High School. In the following article, he offers a bit of conjecture about a piece of fiction that a young Ignatius of Loyola might have read.
Most people associated with the Jesuits know the story of Ignatius’s conversion after suffering a serious cannonball injury to his leg. That historical narrative forms the genesis and foundation of the Society of Jesus. We know that while lying prone and in pain the injured soldier longed to read the popular secular stories he had previously read as a younger man. Instead, as God’s grace would have it, he was given the Gospels and a book of the lives of saints. He soon began to notice that imagining the secular stories only served to depress his spirits. But when he dwelt in imagination on the deeds of Christ and the saints, he would be uplifted.
After this time, we know that the once-arrogant Spanish soldier would never be the same. Christ’s words and actions eventually gave him the impetus to serve others “for the greater glory of God.”
Although familiar with the miraculous change that came over Ignatius because of his spiritual immersion in the Gospels, I at times wondered what specific tales Ignatius might have read as a young man prior to his injury—the tales of knightly honor and adventure that he had originally longed for during his recovery.
After some reading on the subject, I came to this conclusion: what he most likely read were 16th century romances. Widely popular during Ignatius’s day, these fictional tales detailed the lives of noble knights defeating evil and rescuing damsels in distress.
In an unlikely source, I found the title of one particular 16th century chivalric romance that the youthful Ignatius may have read. In a book entitled California: A History, author Kevin Starr writes that in 1510 the Spanish writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo wrote The Deeds of Esplandián. In this romance, a stalwart woman warrior named Queen Calafia leads a race of Amazons, “riding griffins into battle at the siege of Constantinople in 1453.” Montalvo describes this female hero as “very large in person, the most beautiful of all others, of blooming years, and in thoughts desiring of achieving great things, strong of limb, and of great courage.”
After defeating and Christianizing the Turks at Constantinople, Queen Calafia herself became Christian and, in Starr’s words, “moved off to further adventures.”
Montalvo’s epic tale became a bestseller in its day. Its popularity was only eclipsed by the publication of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1605. Starr claims that Queen Calafia became so popular in the imagination of 17th century Spaniards that the state of California was named after her.
Born in 1491, Ignatius would have been 19 years old when The Deeds of Esplandián was published. As the son of an educated, noble family, he would have had the leisure time and youthful desire to read and absorb Queen Calafia’s adventures. Moreover, Montalvo’s fanciful but forceful narrative could have given the young Spanish soldier the desire to perform his own future feats “of great courage.”
I have not come across any historical evidence that Ignatius ever read The Deeds of Esplandián. However, I can easily picture him as a young man, his eyes glued to a copy of Montalvo’s epic as it set his heart aflame “to achieve great deeds” like the conquering queen in the tale of Esplandián.
Of course, we know the rest of Ignatius’s story. Recovering from his serious wound, the future saint would not replicate the violence of the savage queen he may have read about in his youth. Instead, he and a few companions would go on to transform her warlike passion into the peaceful but challenging message of The Good News.