Garden of earthly delights By Hieronymus Bosch. In Prado. Source: Wikipedia/detail

Medieval Political Satire and Sexual Innuendo

In 1516 king Ferdinand II of Aragon died in agony in Madrigalejo in Extremadura after having imbibed an ugly stew of cooked of bull’s testicles and Spanish fly. This occasioned one of the first political satire in Early Modern Europe. Judging from the affair Böhmermann, this is the way to go.

“In truth his disease was dropsy together with a heart condition, although some wanted to link it to herb ingestion, because he broke his jaw. But we can be sure of none of these things, only that many believed that a disease came upon him after he was fed in Carrioncillo, near Medina, with a potion to increase his potency; because afterwards, when arriving in Medina on Friday, he felt unwell. Doña María de Velasco, the king’s tax officer, Juan Velasco’s, wife, and Doña Isabel Cabra – the queen’s maid– supplied the potion. Queen Germaine, who was his second wife and who wanted very much to bear him a child as the succession to the crown of Aragon was at stake, consented”. [1]

The House in Madrigalejo in Estramadura, in which Fernando II died. Source; Wikipedia
The House in Madrigalejo in Estramadura, in which Fernando II died. Source; Wikipedia

According to Jerónimo Zurita [2] , Ferdinand II of Aragon “el Catholico” (1452 – 1516), who wished for yet another son and heir, was served a “vile stew, which his young queen had made for him in order to help him with overcome his impotence that he might sire children. However, the decease worsened every day with “dropsy, faints and a weakening heart”. Finally in January 1516, the king died in a small village called Madrigalejo in Estramadur. Contemporaries had no doubt: the king had died from imbibing a vile soup consisting of the fried and crushed testicles of a bull mixed with Spanish fly (Lytta vesicatoria) and served cool. Well-known for its aphrodisiac properties, Spanish fly was also a recommended poison. Even though his remains have never been scientifically studied, the story is generally believed to be true.

Ferdinand had been married to Isabella, queen of Castille. Together with her, he had managed to create a Spanish kingdom no longer consisting of petty realms, warring among one another. However, in 1504 Isabella died and the only children left from this marriage were Catherine of Aragon, married to Henry VIII and her sister Joanna the mad, married to Philip I, duke of Burgundy and father of Charles I. Ferdinand tried to gain the upper hand as guardian of his daughter. In this he did not succeed. Subsequently, he proceeded with plan B, which was getting a new wife and a new heir. In 1505, at the age of 53 he married a 16-year old princess, Germaine of Foix. Even though his son-in-law suddenly died in 1506 and he regained the guardianship of his mad daughter and through her the control of Castille, it did not seem to have been quite palatable for Ferdinand to rest the future of Aragon on his grandson, the future Charles V, who was growing up in the Netherlands with his aunt and under the supervision of his Hapsburg grandfather, Maximilian. Should Joanna suddenly die, the Hapsburgs would regain the control of not only Castille, but also the kingdom of Aragon and its dominions around the Suothwestern and central Mediterranean. In the end he had a son with Germaine, but this child was only short-lived. After that we hear of no-more offspring. As told, Ferdinand died in 1516 under severe pain, widely believed to have been caused by his “sex-mad” queen, who according to the general opinion was mad about festivities, joy riding and garden parties; and who introduced the French fashions to the austere Castilian court. She is also said to have limped slightly, a sure sign of someone in cahoot with the devil.


Luxuries: A Bathhouse in Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (fol. 244), c. 1470, tempera and gold leaf on parchment. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin–Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Depot Breslau 2)
Luxuries: A Bathhouse in Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (fol. 244), c. 1470, tempera and gold leaf on parchment. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin–Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Depot Breslau 2)

Apart from speculations about what the future for an independent kingdom of Aragon might have been, had the baby-boy from 1509 survived more than a few hours, the sorry fate of this old and ailing king should be of little interest today. However, in 1519 a volume of burlesque songs and poems was published, the Cancionero de obra de burlas. In this collection featured a poem called the Carajicomedia, which for a very long time seemed to be considered too burlesque and “filthy” to deem worthwhile studying.

However, recently Frank A. Domínguez has published both a translation and a fascinating analysis of the tale, demonstrating that it is in fact a highly sophisticated piece of Spanish political satire from the beginning of the 16th century. Perhaps one of the very first political satires published in Western Europe after the Middle Ages.

Formally, The Carajicomedia is a parody written as a comment to two pieces of religious Spanish poetry from this time, the Laberinto and Celestina. It primarily takes place in one of the whore-houses – the Mancebías in Southern Spain, which Fernando had allowed to be established after 1486 in the newly conquered provinces. Here a group of whores – many called Isabella – and their visiting men-folk seek to control each other through the wielding of their orifices and penises, potent or impotent. Finally, the Old Whore grabs the impotent visionary and promises to restore his sexual potency though the means of a potion; in the end, though, the womenfolk (the coños) win the battle, while the men (carajos) die having sex (jodiendo) – as did perhaps the king.

María de Velasco

testicles of the bulls for sale at Testicle Festival, Clinton, Montana.
Testicles of the bulls for sale at Testicle Festival, Clinton, Montana. This is a festival organised by bikers, who get together to consume huge amounts of the testicles of Bisons.

As an amusing sideline, Domíniguez has identified the old whore in Carajicomedia, Maria de Vellasco, with the lady-in-waiting of Queen Germaine, Maria de Velasco, who helped the queen prepare the potion for the old king. This Maria was the wife of a highly respected comrade in arms of Ferdinand, Juan Velásquez, and the protector of the young Ignatius of Loyola. Thus, Ignatius of Loyola grew up in this atmosphere, where he also – by his own witness was accustomed to read a multitude of romantic novels and other “chivalric tales”. The founder of the Jesuits also told that in his youth he had been “satisfied himself freely in womanly love”.

There is no evidence, which suggests that Ignatius ever read the Carajicomedia or other texts like this. However, he grew up in a courtly environment, where the king and his young queen seem to have acted on a scene surrounded by rumours about their debauchery and a luxurious lifestyle. It is definitely in such a context, we should read the satirical poem, Carajicomedia. But, perhaps the story did not just end there. The poem might even be read as the sounding board  for our understanding of the structurally opposed world – the future ascetic and contra-reformational world of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Therese of Avila and St. John of the Cross – which were to come to life in 15th century Spain and which set quite another political agenda.

It is understandable that the author of the poem remains obscure to this day. It stands to reason that if you are living a life of depravity, you do not wish to let people in on the secret. It was a scandal that the king died in humiliating circumstances in a small house in the backwaters of the Estramadura after having imbibed a love-portion prepared by his queen and while brawling with his courtiers about his last will and testament. Somebody wrote a political satire, probably one of the first, the world had seen since the The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Had this somebody been caught in the act, he would probably have been sentenced to die in a particularly abhorrent way. However, even today the repercussions can be smarting. As late as in 2007 The Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves was fined for violation of Spain’s lèse-majesté laws after publishing an issue with a caricature of the then-Prince of Asturias and his wife engaging in sexual intercourse on the cover.

Political Satire

Cancionero de obras de burlas prouocātes a risa - Cover 1519Satire has a long and complicated history. It has waxed and waned in Europe from the time of the Greeks until the present day and taken many forms along the way. The reason is that satirical writings are not that easily classified, even though most works share share a couple of characteristics. They are often parodies of more “serious” literary or artistic forms: Further, there is a distinct element of the burlesque.

Originally, it meant a collection of miscellaneous poems, later just one poem with a distinct element of moral censure. Apart from poetic elements in the Greek plays and the Greek diatribes, the genre primarily unfolded in the works of Horace (Quintus Horatius Falccus), who wrote two “books” or collections of satires. He used the word “satura” to describe his satirical poems (although he also called them “sermons”). Horace was much inspired by Lucilius of whom it is known he attacked the town “multa cum libertate”. Horace also claimed that Lucilius was the first satirist who “stripped off a man’s natty exterior to reveal the baseness within”. Horace was on the other hand the first satirist to claim that satires only hurt the guilty, who would end up of as the talk of the town. A later proponent of the genre was Juvenal who viciously attacked the lewd, the women and the homosexuals, but left politics out of the spotlight. Forgotten should never be the hilarious novel about the Golden Ass by Apuleius, nor the satires and writings in Greek by Lucian of Samosata and his Dialogues of the Courtesans.

Medieval satirists did not in general try to emulate the classical verse-satire. Nevertheless, they were familiar with the works and could often be found quoting them. This, however, changed with the renaissance and the reformation, when religious battles caused numerous satires, humorous burlesques and amusing poetry belittling the Pope as a the great Babylonian whore and Martin Luther as a seven-headed monster. In Italy the the genre was adopted by Antonio Vignati in 1525 – 27, who wrote a particularly vicious piece featuring “speaking genitalia”, which was all about the political scene in Siena. In France, the works of Rabelais set the agenda. It was at this time the concept of the “satire” became linked to the idea of the “satyres”, the troop of ithyphallic male companions of Dionysus, who had with horse-like features, like horse-tails, horse-like ears, and sometimes a horse-like phallus with a constant erection. With rampant sexual innuendo, all this opened up for a whole new world of much more crude and intensely satirical writings like the Carajicomedia.

Neo Magazine Royal and the Böhmerman affair

Böhmermann making ready to read poem about Erdogan
Böhmermann making ready to read poem about Erdogan

It is this kind of satirical writings, which we have come to see as a cherished form of sarcastic comment to the establishment, whether political or cultural. Any democratically elected political leaders knows this has to be accepted; and knows there will often be a slight sexual innuendo implied.

Thus, it is not thinkable that the German satirists, who recently offended Erdogan, will suffer any harsh fate. However, neither is it without consequences, even today, to commit Lèse majesté on this scale. The challenge here is, of course, that which Horace long ago noted: the guilty will suffer.

Indeed, some weeks ago Erdogan had to suffer the humiliation of seeing a video of the song, “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” going viral in the world. Originally broadcasted on German television, the Turkish president protested formally to the German ambassador. As a follow-up the German satirist, Jan Böhmermann, conducted a (very amusing) art installation in the satirical programme, Neo Magazine Royal, in which he read a satirical poem about the Turkish President, Erdogan and his sexual prowess, while at the same time confronting German law according to which ($103) it is against the law to “beleidigen” = offend a foreign head of state. According to German Law, such an offence is punishable with either prison up to five years or a fine.

Very soon after this second satirical “defamation”, The Turkish President did two things. He turned toward the German Bundeskanzler, Angela Merkel and asked her to start proceedings against Böhmermann and the German broadcasting company ZDF. He also initiated a private lawsuit based on §185, which regulates defamation of private individuals.

It is obvious Erdogan has placed Angela Merkel in a politically sensitive situation. On one hand there is the incident of so-called defamation of Erdogan in a highly lauded and very funny satirical programme, which immediately went viral; on the other hand, a Turkish president, who is currently known to try to curtail what is left of freedom of expression in Turkey by jailing editors-in chiefs and journalists, while at the same time positioning himself as a necessary ally in the fight against migration into Europe. It has been claimed that more than 1800 journalists and bloggers have been accused of insulting the Turkish presidency since 2014. Recently, his personal security staff went as far as throwing a protesting woman to the ground at a public meeting in the Brookings Institution in Washington and forcing another Turkish journalist to leave the event.

It should be said that Angela Merkel has not bowed to the pressure. Instead she has noted publicly that freedom of speech is non-negotiable. Nevertheless, she feels bound by German law to have the ramifications of the complaints of Erdogan explored. However, a private lawsuit will without doubt follow. As of now, the show has stopped and Jan Böhmermann has been offered and received police protection. According to Die Welt, in a recent poll 93% of publishers deem it probable that there will be limitations set to the freedom of expression in the near future. If not formally, legacy media will curtail their own praxis. However, at the other end nearly 200.000 people has inside a few hours signed a support petition for Böhmermann . And growing…

The Morale

Recipe for “pasticcio de testicoli di toro” as may have been served to the popes in the mid 16th century by Bartolomeo Scappi: Boil four bull’s testicles together with salt. Cut into slices and sprinkle with salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Then, in a pie crust, place layers of sliced testicles alternated with mince of lamb’s kidneys, ham, marjoram, cloves and thyme.

The Carajicomedia was obviously a ground-breaking new form of political satire in which the writer went directly for the throat of the culprits, the king and queen and their depraved and lustful court. The book in which it was printed has survived in only one copy. The later religious climate in the Spain of Phillip II succeeded in censoring the genre of the “burlas” (burlesqes). In 1559 the index Librorum Prohibitorum simply banned all sorts poems to be published or read. It is not surprising that the Cancionero de obras de burlas prouocātes a risa – and with it the Carajicomedia – survives in only one copy (British Library H C.20.b.22)

This fact should perhaps be compared with the way in which people, who are interested in pondering the political ramifications of the German satirical poems and songs belittling Erdogan cannot be viewed on YouTube or elsewhere. They have been taken down and pirated videos are apparently heavily “policed” by the copyright-holders.

We must hope that the shows will not be killed off in the same way as the Carajicomedia nearly was. Without it, we would have known so much less about the political and cultural life at the waning court of Ferdinand, the most Catholic king!

In the same way, we need the satires about Erdogan to get a feeling for how this political leader of one of the largest armies in Europe is acting out at a time, when Turkey is in danger of being drawn into a civil war of immense proportions.

Karen Schousboe

[1] Lorenzo Galíndez de Carvajal, Memorial o Registro Breve de los Reyes Católicos (ediciónfacsímile), ed. de Juan Carretero Zamora, Patronato del Alcázar, Segovia, 1992. Own translation.

[2] Jerónimo Zurita , Anales de la Corona de Aragón. By  José Javier Iso (coord.), María Isabel Yagüe y Pilar Rivero Edición de Ángel Canellas López. Edición electrónica 2003.


carajicomedia coverCarajicomedia and Fernando el Católico’s Body: the identities of Diego Fajardo and Maria de Vellasco.
By Frank A. Domíguez
In: Bulletin of Hispanic Studies (2007) Vol 84, pp. 725  745

Carajicomedia: Parody and Satire in Early Modern Spain
With an Edition and Translation of the Text
Frank A. Domínguez
Boydell and Brewer 2015
ISBN: 9781855662896

Carajocomedia. Obra Completa – Blog: Hispánicas

Thema: Jan Böhmermann. Die Welt 2016

The videos with the song: “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan”  and the show with Böhmermann has been taken down from youtube. Occasionally pirate versions crop up, but we cannot link to any here (theyr are soon removed). There is no other way: go and search for them at youtube.


Garden of Earthly Delights By Hieronymus Bosch. In Prado. Detail. Source: Wikipedia


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