The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

La Historia de San Diego de Alcala. Su vida, su canonizacion y su legado.
The Story of San Diego de Alcala. His Life, His Canonization and His Legacy.

By Thomas E. Case. Alcala: Universidad de Alcala, 1998. Bilingual edition; photos, notes, bibliography. 183 pp.

Reviewed by Mary H. Halavais, Adjunct Professor of History, Mesa College, San Diego, California.

The saints of Spain’s sixteenth century, like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius Loyola, were a forceful and charismatic lot. The century leaned toward holy men of towering personality and impressive erudition. Life, and holiness, were simpler in the century before — before the New World, before Luther, before the changes in military technology and political organization which pushed Europe and Europeans towards modernity. In The Story of San Diego de Alcala. His Life, His Canonization and His Legacy, Thomas Case offers the life of a saint from this simpler time, a gentle Franciscan brother whose reputation — we might say work — nonetheless reached forward into Spain’s next century, influencing those at the highest levels in the Old World and the New.

San Diego de Alcala was born to a poor family in San Nicholas del Puerto, near Seville, around 1400. While still quite young, he took up residence with a local hermit and by the age of thirty, he had joined a Franciscan community as a lay brother. The Franciscans moved him to a larger convent in Seville, and then to the Canary Islands, the “New World” of the fifteenth century, where his assignment was to assist in the conversion of the native Guanche people. By the late 1440s, when Diego returned to Seville, his reputation was made. This reputation did not rely upon San Diego’s miracles; it was founded on his piety and a simple life of gardening and nursing the sick. Case characterizes the fifteenth century as an age of great preachers like Vincent Ferrer and Juan Capistrano; in contrast, “Friar Diego’s eloquence was not of words, but of deeds and example.”

Later, sent to Rome during the jubilee year, 1450, Diego witnessed an outbreak of plague there and became known for his care of the sick. Case gives us the words of Antonio Rojo, whose account of the saint’s life was published in the mid-1600s: San Diego “attended the sick with unbelievable charity, cleanliness, exactness, and tender care, so much so that when the church officials saw…they entrusted to him the care of all the infirmary.” Case points out that Friar Diego’s charity as well as his expertise (perhaps we are not so far from modernity after all) impressed everyone and contributed further to his reputation.

A saint’s life must contain accounts of miraculous happenings, and Case does not begrudge us these tales. The best known story is taken from the end of Diego’s life, when he was doorkeeper for his community. According to the legend, he was extraordinarily concerned with the welfare of the poor of the town, bringing them bread from the monastery to the extent that other friars were concerned about having enough to eat themselves. Challenged one day as he left the convent with a cloak full of food, Diego opened his cloak to find that the loaves of bread he was taking to the poor had miraculously changed into roses, thus saving him from the wrath of his accuser. Another story, from an earlier period in the saint’s life, has to do with a journey Diego made with an older Franciscan from Seville. Case explains that at this time members of the Franciscan Order traveled barefoot without provisions, begging as they went. Although Case does not mention it, scarcity, not having enough to eat and drink, is a recurring theme in the literature of the time, and Friar Diego and his companion pass through villages too poor to give them anything. They are forced to continue their journey without food or drink, and Diego’s older companion begins to feel ill. At this point, they enter a wooded area and find “a table set for them on the ground, with white linen, and a complete meal of fish, bread, wine and oranges.” Whether in this telling, or in other versions, in which, Case notes, there is “only” a basket of food, the story appears in every biography as evidence of the saint’s trust in God. Although Case does not remark upon it, the story incorporates all of the elements of San Diego’s reputation: his simple obedience to the Franciscan Rule, his care of the infirm, and his ability to produce abundant food for those who are hungry, whether through natural or supernatural means.

Having recounted San Diego’s life, Case goes on to consider his elevation to sainthood and his celebration in art and literature. By far the best part of this brief work (the English version runs about 90 pages), from an historian’s point of view, is Case’s description of the events leading to San Diego’s canonization. The saint — or, properly speaking, the saint’s remains, since Diego died in Alcala de Henares in 1463 — had managed to cure King Philip II’s son, Don Carlos, of an illness, and in gratitude Philip, a devout Catholic, decided to petition the pope for Diego’s canonization. Philip — Spaniards know him as el Prudente, the prudent one — knew that he must wait for the proper moment, and Case does a superb job describing the various factors impinging upon the canonization procedure. It was not without reason that Braudel, fifty years ago, referred to the sixteenth century as the Age of Philip II, and Case’s work gives the reader a good sense of just how powerful this King of Spain was.

Although the focus of this study is Spain, Case does mention the saint’s influence in America, where more than one town was named after him. Here, perhaps because his focus is Spain, rather than the New World, Case seems to miss some real opportunities. He does not, for example, consider hagiographic similarities in the story of San Diego and that of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe, although his analysis of the legends of San Diego’s early life notes the tendency of hagiographers to repeat a good story in more than one context. Of course, Case is more concerned in the third section of the book with San Diego’s image in the art and the literature of Spain than with how that image may have been transformed in native belief and practice in the Americas.

Californians, caught up in their identification with the United States, often forget just how long they were a part of Spain, but for us fortunate enough to live in San Diego, the name of our city is a constant reminder of our Spanish origins. San Diego de Alcala belongs to us as much as he does to Alcala de Henares, whose university published this volume as part of their Coleccion Quinientos A-os series. Case, who edited Lope de Vega’s drama of the life of San Diego for this journal’s celebration of the San Diego bicentennial, has produced a fine study of the life of San Diego in history and literature.