Who Was Juan Luis Vives?

Juan Luis Vives was a Spanish humanist, born to a wealthy Jewish family in Valencia, Spain in 1493. As a humanist, he advocated that morals and ethics do not originate from religious practice, but from the natural desire and need to live harmoniously in community. He believed that the best way to understand reality was through knowledge and discussion based on experience, rather than didactic rules. 

Vives was born just one year after the Alhambra Decree of Isabella and Ferdinand that forced all Jews to either leave or convert to Catholicism. His family remained in Spain and made every appearance of having adopted Catholicism, a decision that would ultimately cost them their fortune and, for some, their lives. The family name was changed to Vives (the Spanish for living) from Hayyim (from the Hebrew, meaning life). 

Although the family continued to enjoy financial security from their involvement with the wool trade, Vives’ childhood was marred by a persistent sense of fear and instability from the Inquisition. His parents were brought to trial on several occasions, accused of practising Judaism. They were exposed when visiting a clandestine synagogue in the backstreets of Valencia. His mother, Blanquina, died of the plague when he was just 15, and twenty-two years later her bones were unearthed at the request of the Inquisition and burnt at the stake.

Vives, along with other ‘conversos’, was educated at the prestigious Academy of Valencia, where he was taught by some of the most celebrated academics of the day. The emphasis for the pupils was on healthy discussion and argument, he recalled: 

“They wrangle at breakfast; they wrangle after breakfast; they wrangle before supper and they wrangle after supper. They wrangle over their food, in the bath, in the sweating room, in the church, in the town, in the country, in public, in private. At all times they are wrangling”

In 1509, at the age of sixteen, a year after the death of his mother, Vives left to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. Sadly, he never returned to Spain or saw his father again. After three years in Paris, he moved to the Spanish Netherlands, where other conversos and ‘crypto jews,’ had settled. These conversos often had well-established trading networks, primarily in the spice trade, but also in diamond and precious metals. Many of them were great physicians. Vives was appointed Professor of Humanities at Louvain University and became friends with the great academics Erasmus and Thomas More. 

Erasmus wrote: ‘He has an extraordinary philosophical mind… he will become more famous than all of us’. 

Thomas More wrote: ‘But who is there who surpasses Vives for the number and quality of his studies?’ 

Vives later moved to Bruges to teach the sons of the nobility. The novel starts, here, as he is under scrutiny from the ever-watchful ‘eyes and ears of the King of Spain’. Vives found solace from his self imposed exile with a family of fellow secret Jews (the ‘Hermandad’, or ‘brotherhood’). He married Marguerite Valdaura, from a family of Jewish diamond merchants, and worked closely with the printer and bookbinder, Alvaro de Castro. 

In 1522 Vives was invited by Sir Thomas More to England, to tutor Princess Mary, the six-year-old daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Vives accepted the position and settled, firstly at Oxford University, where he adopted the name of ‘John Lewis of Oxford’, and later in London. The king awarded him the prestigious monopoly on the import of Gascony wine. In London he became entangled with the duplicitous wranglings of the royal court and became ‘adopted’ by the More family, developing a lifelong friendship with Thomas More’s daughter, Meg. 

Vives believed that women should be educated to the same level as men. He even suggested that women could be intellectually more gifted than men, which was quite revolutionary its day. During the years in England, he became a close confidant to Catherine of Aragon. In 1523 when travelling on a barge on the Thames, the Queen confided in Vives. He recalled her words: 

‘She said that if she could choose between sorrow and joy, she would accept them both in equal measure, as that way she would learn, but if she could choose just one, she would choose sorrow, for that way she would learn more’. 

Later that year, Vives’s father was rearrested for the crime of ‘Judaizing,’ that is trying to convince others to adopt Judaism. After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty and soon after burnt at the stake. His grandfather and great grandfather had also been executed for the same crime. 

Vives retreated to Bruges from London in a state of depression but eventually returned continued to England to support Catherine in her conflict and divorce with Henry: a decision that almost cost him his life. It is challenging to understand why he helped Catherine, of whom he wrote, ‘she leans on me like a brother,’ as her family had brought about the destruction of his own. However, Catherine may have been instrumental in securing his sister’s safety in Spain, who had lived in poverty after the execution of their father. His sister Beatriz eventually made her way to Bruges. 

After his exile from England Vives settled into a relatively peaceful life, reunited with his wife and sister. During his later years (1528 -1540) he formulated some of his most deeply held beliefs, and he published prolifically and saw some of the social changes that he advocated come to fruition.

These are some of the core philosophies, and beliefs of Juan Luis Vives: 

  1. Assistance to the poor. His book, “On Assistance To The Poor” (1526), was the first European work to suggest that urban poverty was a growing problem and contributed to the spread of disease. He advocated for legislation to force cities to raise taxes to provide for the poor through finance and education. His ideas influenced social relief legislation enacted in England, Flanders and Germany in the 1530s
  2. The value of psychoanalysis Vives has been labelled ‘the godfather of psychoanalysis’ (Gregory Zilboorg, 1941) and ‘the father of modern psychology’ (Foster Watson, 1915). He took time to question, analyse and sit with his subjects, noting affect, mood, expression and choice of words. 
  3. The education of women Vives believed that education was just as crucial for women as it was for men. This stance was revolutionary in its time. He did not feel that the teaching of men and women should be the same, and he still held to the view that women had defined roles in society. 
  4. Learning and teaching He felt that schoolwork should be conducted in the native tongue, not primarily in Latin or Greek. He despised the exclusivity of academic writing. He championed academies for the all, regardless of class or wealth, and placed a strong emphasis on creating a healthy and respectful environment within the classroom as an essential holistic component to a child’s education. 
  5. Animals had feelings, and nature was important. Vives believed that animals had memory and experienced emotions. He taught his students that they should respect animals and advocated the study of the natural world through observation, experiment and enquiry.
  6. The soul Vives believed that the soul could understand, remember, reason, and judge. He felt it was important to acknowledge the existence of the soul. He thought the soul could modify our daily behaviours and that regular conscious contact with the soul was essential.
  7. Mental and Physical health are related. He acknowledged that mental health and physical health were interrelated. He despised mockery of the mentally unwell and felt that some needed medication, while others just a friendly and supportive environment. He advocated the need for cleanliness at all times, long before the discovery of bacterium. 
  8. The unconscious mind. Vives understood the power of the unconscious. He noted how visceral experiences could provoke unconscious memories that brought about bodily reactions, even years after the event. He taught his students to recognise a physical response to a sensory memory. 

Vives enjoyed protection and support from the Lord of Flanders, Louis de Praet in his later years while living in Bruges. The complicated and bargaining relationship between the two men runs through the novel. Louis De Praet had the power to institute many social reforms in the city based on Vives’s humanist philosophies.

In 1525 Vives wrote:

“It ought to be the duty of the public officials to take pains to see that men help one another, that no one is oppressed, no one wronged by an unjust condemnation, and that the strong come to the assistance of the weak in order that the harmony of the united body of citizens may grow in love day by day and endure forever.” 

Juan Luis Vives died in Bruges in 1540 at the age of 48 from an unknown cause. 

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