Juan Luis Vives, the unknown humanist

He maintained a close relationship with some of the greatest humanists in Renaissance Europe, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More.

He gave advice to a pope, Adriano VI, and also to monarchs such as Carlos V, Francisco I, Enrique VIII and Catalina de Aragón. At present, however, we do not remember how he deserves Juan Luis Vives (Valencia, 1492-Bruges, 1540), a genius of international stature.

Vives’ work is very playful in many ways. He has been seen, for example, as a forerunner of Europeanist thought. This was the opinion defended by the Italian historian Mario Sancipriano in the 1950s, at the time of the construction of the Common Market.

The Latin Philology professor Francisco Calero, in an introduction to his works, maintains that the Valencian thinker was the humanist who used the word Europe in a non-geographical sense more often. On the other hand, Erasmus does not use it with that meaning even once, and that has not prevented him from being considered “the prototype of the European man”.


The shadow of the Inquisition is projected onto his life from the beginning. In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs decreed the expulsion of the Jews, and he belonged to a family of this origin, converted shortly before to Catholicism. That made her suspicious in the eyes of so-called “old Christians,” who tended to question the sincerity of their new co-religionists.

The Sorbonne today. In the sixteenth century Juan Luis Vives studied in his offices. (Karl Blackwell / Getty)

Despite the change of religion, the Holy Office was going to be cruel to the Vives. He first prosecuted Miguel, a cousin of Juan Luis, whom he accused of practicing as a rabbi in an underground synagogue. To avoid problems, the future humanist decided to go study abroad. He thus had the opportunity to attend the Parisian university of the Sorbonne, which at that time had many Spanish teachers.

The drama of the persecution did not end here. In 1524, his father, Luis Vives, died at the stake. His sisters then claimed the dowry of the mother, Blanca March, who had died years before and a relative of the poet Ausiàs March. This money was among the assets confiscated from her husband. To avoid satisfying the payment, the Inquisition prosecuted Blanca for heresy. His body was to be exhumed and grazed by the flames.

He rejected an offer to teach at the University of Alcalá de Henares and settled in Oxford

With this background, it is more than understandable that our man rejected an offer to teach at the University of Alcalá de Henares. He feared for his personal safety. By then he had already established himself in England, where he was a respected figure, who taught at Corpus Christi College, belonging to the University of Oxford

He was, therefore, far from the reach of the Holy Office, but, for unknown reasons, he said nothing to condemn the atrocities his family had suffered. On the contrary, he devoted himself to refuting the errors of Judaism. However, we can sense her feelings thanks to the praise she dedicates to her mother in her treatise on the Christian woman: “There was no mother who loved her son more tenderly.”

For the assistance

His prestige as a sage opened the doors of high places for him: he became a figure close to Queen Catherine of Aragon and to the politician and humanist Tomás Moro. Her relationship with the latter has not received much attention from historiography, but Enrique García Hernán dedicated an important study to her in Vives y Moro.

Theirs, as this historian says, was a “friendship in difficult times”. The two intellectuals were united by common concerns. They believed that humanism had declined because its representatives, instead of thinking independently, had put themselves at the service of politicians.

Retrato familiar de Tomás Moro, humanista muy próximo a Juan Luis Vives.
Family portrait of Tomás Moro, a humanist very close to Juan Luis Vives. (Public domain)

In 1526, during a brief stay in Bruges, he wrote the Treatise on the Aid of the Poor. For this work, which advocated the intervention of the public power for the benefit of the disadvantaged, he is considered the forerunner of social services in Europe.

The authorities had to ensure that everyone, within the territory in their jurisdiction, was free from hunger and misery: “It must be a particular vigilance of those who govern to take care, and put every effort in which some serve others as relief Let no one be oppressed, no one insulted, no one receive unjust damage, and let the one who is weaker attend the one who is more powerful. ”

Lost favor

Again in England, his proximity to the court made him the Latin teacher of Maria Tudor, future queen. His position was not going to keep him safe from the coming turmoil, in the midst of a crisis due to the divorce process that Henry VIII had started. Faced with the opposition of Rome to grant his separation from Catherine, the monarch proclaimed himself head of the Church in England. The schism would no longer go back.

Catalina de Aragón suplicando en el juicio contra ella auspiciado por Enrique VIII. Cuadro de Henry Nelson O'Neil.
Catalina de Aragón pleading in the trial against her sponsored by Enrique VIII. Henry Nelson O’Neil painting. (Public domain)

Realizing that Enrique was not going to change his mind, Vives tried to convince Catalina to remain silent. Why talk if I was not going to achieve anything? The advice had an adverse effect: it alienated both the king’s and the queen’s sympathy. They both wanted Vives to actively defend their position, so they felt disappointed when that was not the case.

The Valencian then saw how the pension that allowed him to survive was withdrawn. If before he had had to flee Spain to avoid greater evils, now in England he had to do the same.

The execution in 1535 of Thomas More, a supporter of obedience to the papacy, demonstrated the well-founded nature of his fears. Shocked at the death of his old friend, he did his best to spread his image of a martyr to Catholicism.

Vives dedicated his last years to moral philosophy and pedagogy. His enormously successful book on the teaching of Latin met numerous reissues. He died in Bruges, after a stage marked by poor health.

In search of coherence

Vives’ work is attractive for many reasons. We are before a witness of the strong tear that the Protestant Reformation meant for Christianity, at a time when religious matters could not be separated from political ones.

At first it was figured that discord was not going to go beyond a theological dispute. Realizing the error, he proposed as a remedy the convening of a council to help heal the wounds. This measure shows a certain democratic spirit: he did not think that the pontiff, being the head of the Church, had to direct it attending only to his will.

Calero is based on the comparison between this classic of the picaresque novel and the titles of Vives, but the similarities it appreciates do not correspond to specific characteristics of the Valencian, but to the style of the time. Other researchers believe that it is not plausible that a man who wrote only in Latin and despised fiction, considering it “lying and immoral”, wrote such a work.

After his death, Vives was forgotten for many years. Although he was a personality of European relevance, in Spain it was necessary to wait until the 18th century for his figure to be rescued.

Today, critics value the power of his thinking and the elegance of his style, while highlighting his connections with the most prestigious characters of his time. At street level, however, he is hardly known. In another country it would probably have already been the subject of novels, movies and television series.

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