Renaissance and Reformation Juan de Valdés
Daniel Crews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0347


Juan de Valdés is a historical enigma. In spite of praise from two popes, two cardinals, Emperor Charles V, and his chief minister, the Papal Inquisition bestowed the honor of naming a heresy after him. Heresy, like criminality or insanity, is relative to place and time. After his death, radical sects identified him as a forerunner, further distancing the Spaniard from his official position as an imperial secretary. In that position, Valdés collaborated with his twin brother, Alfonso, who served the emperor’s peripatetic court as Latin Secretary, adviser, and chronicler until his death in 1532. Valdés also served as a personal secretary of Charles V while acquiring several positions in Rome and Naples. Valdés only published one book during his life, the Díalogo de doctrina Christiana (1529), which initially passed the scrutiny of Spanish inquisitors but was quickly withdrawn from circulation for “emendation.” Later in Naples, Valdés circulated a large number of religious tracts, biblical translations, and commentaries in Spanish to his elite circle of Italian friends before his death in 1541. Just as the Council of Trent opened in 1545, Giulia Gonzaga, Valdés’s closest disciple, had Valdés’s Alfabeto cristiano and some short religious tracts translated into Italian and published in Venice. Between the second and third convocation of the Council of Trent (1552–1563), two of Valdés’s biblical commentaries—Commentary on Romans and Commentary on Corinthians (first only)—were translated into Italian and published in Geneva. After the Council of Trent, all of the aforementioned books faded from circulation. However, one of Valdés’s Italian friends took 110 of his Sunday morning sermons to Basel where they were translated into Italian and published in 1550 under the title of Le cento e dieci divine considerationi del Señor Giovañi Valdesso. The Divine Considerations were translated into French and English; five editions were published between 1563 and 1546, three in France and two in England. As the Wars of Religion ended, so too did interest in Valdés. In the 19th century, Luis Usoz y Río, Benjamin Wiffen, and Eduard Boehmer revived interest in Valdés by publishing his known works. In the 20th century, the French scholar Marcel Bataillon downplayed Valdés’s heretical image after discovering his Diálogo de doctrina Cristiana and noting Erasmus’s influence in it and on Charles V’s court. Benedetto Croce and Edmondo Cione introduced a less political and more introspective and spiritual image of Valdés. Searching for the source and influence of Valdés’s spirituality has led to considerable scholarship on Valdés’s converso family heritage, the Spanish alumbrados, and the “Valdésian” heresy in Italy. The works of José Nieto, A. Gordon Kinder, Massimo Firpo, Miguel Jiménez Monteserín, Stefania Pastore, and Daniel Crews have helped shape much of the more recent scholarship.

Major Biographical Studies

In 1840, the Spanish intellectual Luis Usoz y Río met the wealthy British industrialist and bibliophile Benjamin Wiffen, and together they published twenty volumes of works by 16th-century Spanish reformers that included most of Valdés’s books printed after his death in the 16th and 17th centuries. Wiffen and Usoz y Río continued an established tradition of viewing Valdés as a “heretic” influenced by northern mystics and Lutheranism. Meanwhile, the Cuencan historian Fermín Caballero, after listing all the prior heretical labels for Valdés, preferred to consider him a totally independent thinker who strayed from orthodoxy on points such as justification and purgatory. Bataillon 1945 altered the image of Valdés as an overt heretic with his discovery of Valdés’s 1529 Diálogo de doctrina Cristiana. Bataillon linked the Diálogo to the Erasmian reforms and policies advocated by Valdés’s brother Alfonso, a secretary to Charles V and Grand Chancellor Mercurino Gattinara, making the Valdés brothers archetypical Spanish Erasmians. In the late 1950s, Fray Domingo de Santa Teresa (Santa Teresa 1957) produced a comprehensive biography of Valdés following the Bataillon thesis and integrating diplomatic documents discovered and published by José Montesinos and Benedetto Croce in the 1930s (see the Erasmian Revision). Cione 1963 is a biography of Valdés (originally published in 1938) that offers a different perspective on the reformer’s career. Cione classifies Valdés’s religious thought as tolerant and undogmatic and therefore in line with Anabaptist and Spiritualist prophets. He further argues that Valdés began his career as a religious reformer, became a courtier in Rome, but suffered psychologically from the deceptions of court life and returned to lead religious reform in Naples after 1535 (see Juan de Valdés and Italy). Nieto 1970 directly challenged the Bataillon thesis by emphasizing the influence of the alumbrado (i.e., spiritually enlightened) Pedro Ruiz de Alcaraz on Valdés’s religious thought. Although much debated, Nieto’s thesis has stirred a significant amount of revisionist scholarship on Valdés since the 1970s (see Valdés and the Alumbrados). More recently, Crews 2008 is a biography based on new archival finds in Cuenca and Simancas that built on the studies of the Valdés family by Cuencan historians (see the Valdés Family). The result is an image of Valdés as a skillful courtier in his work as an imperial secretary, which included gathering intelligence, acting as a court solicitor, and giving advice to the Viceroy of Naples and Charles V’s chief minister. The pre-eminent Italian scholar of Valdés, Firpo 2015 focuses on Valdés’s connections to key reformers in the Catholic hierarchy while tracing his spiritual significance for radical reformers in Italy as well.

  • Bataillon, Marcel. “Juan de Valdés.” Luminar 7 (1945): 1–60.

    Bataillon published documents proving Valdés’s brother Alfonso wrote the Diálogo de Mercurio y Caron rather than Juan, removing considerable confusion in their respective biographies (see also Erasmian Revision).

  • Caballero, Fermín. Alonso y Juan de Valdés. Cuenca, Spain: Instituto de Juan de Valdés, 1995.

    Caballero discovered many documents relating to the Valdés family in Cuenca archives and on Alfonso’s work as an imperial secretary in the General Archive of Simancas. Caballero implicitly viewed their work as interdependent and politically significant.

  • Cione, Edmondo. Juan de Valdés: La sua vita e il suo pensiero religioso con una completa bibliografia delle opere del Valdés e degli scitti intorno a lui. 2d ed. Naples, Italy: Fiorentino, 1963.

    By extending Benedetto Croce’s hyper-individualistic interpretation of Valdés’s doctrines, Cione’s biography has had an enduring influence on Valdésian scholarship.

  • Crews, Daniel A. Twilight of the Renaissance: The Life of Juan de Valdés. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442689527

    Emphasizes Valdés’s political career in the context of his family’s royal service, and suggests that the Papal Inquisition made Valdés a scapegoat for heresy in Italy.

  • Firpo, Massimo. Juan de Valdés and the Italian Reformation. Translated by Richard Bates. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015.

    A revised and updated selection of some of Firpo’s recent articles about Valdés, translated into English. He agrees with other Italian scholars on Valdés’s singular influence on the Italian Reformation.

  • Nieto, José C. Juan de Valdés and the Origins of the Spanish and Italian Reformation. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1970.

    Nieto labeled one group of alumbrados as the dejamientos, a Protestant movement in Spain before Luther picked up his hammer. Further, Nieto rejected any Erasmian influence on the dejamientos or Valdés.

  • Santa Teresa, Domingo de. Juan de Valdés, 1498(?)–1541: Su pensamiento religioso y las corrientes espirituales de su tiempo. Rome: Apud Uedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1957.

    A comprehensive biography of Valdés that connects his religious thought and diplomatic work to Charles V’s conciliar diplomacy.

  • Wiffen, Benjamin. Life and Writings of Juan de Valdés, otherwise Valdesso, Spanish Reformer in the 16th Century by Benjamin B. Wiffen: With a Translation from the Italian of His Hundred and Ten Considerations by John T. Betts. London: Bernard Quartich, 1865.

    Wiffen and Usoz y Río do not label Valdés a conscious Protestant, but stress the influence of the German theologian Johannes Tauler and view Valdés as the forerunner of Quakerism.

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