The Legend of Sierpes

Calle Sierpes (Serpent Street) is the main shopping and commercial street through the centre of Seville, connecting Plaza San Francisco and the Town Hall at one end with the Plazas Campana and Del Duque at the other, and it’s one of those streets whose name is almost synonymous with the city where it is to be found. This relationship is a product of the many literary references to the street, most notably in the works of Cervantes (who for a short period was “a guest of his majesty” in the Royal Prison, which once occupied the site of the Cajasol bank on the corner of Sierpes and Entrecarceles streets).

During Seville’s Golden Age (the 16th century, following Columbus’ discovery of America) Sierpes was notorious for the shady characters who gathered there, intent on making easy money from the riches generated by the trade with the new World.

In early mediaeval times the area lay outside the city wall, and a branch of the Guadalquivir flowed through what are now the Alameda de Hercules, Trajano, Sierpes and Constitución (a Viking longboat was discovered beneath the Plaza Nueva), most of which was drained to make way for the expansion of the Moorish city in the 11th century. One theory as to the origin of the name Sierpes is that it’s because the street follows the winding, serpentine course of this old river.

In the 15th century it was known as Espaderos (Swordsmith) street, for the great number of workshops of this type, only acquiring the name Sierpes afterwards, for reasons that are disputed. Apart from its winding course, the name may be derived from the Locksmith’s Cross, the Cruz Cerrajería, that once stood there, but is to be found today in the Plaza de Santa Cruz, which is embellished with snake-shaped ornaments. It is also said that it is named for one Alvaro Gil of Wurms, who had his residence here, or for a tavern called Wurm. Most popular, though probably not the most truthful, is the Legend of the Serpent.

It is said that in the late fifteenth century children in the neighbourhood began to mysteriously disappear without trace. After months of anxiety, a man who would not give his name promised to solve the mystery and identify the culprit, but only if his request to be released from prison was granted. Alfonso Cardenas, the ruler of the city at this time, accepted the terms, and sent his clerk to get the details.

The anonymous informant was one Argüeso Melchor de Quintana, a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Osuna, in prison for participating in a rebellion against the king inspired by the Duke of Arcos, who had later deserted him. Before the notary Quintana recounted how he had found the culprit. He had made a tunnel in order to escape from the prison, and stumbled on the Roman and Muslim underground galleries of Seville. In his flight, he ran into the child stealer, who he had killed before returning to jail because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a fugitive. He then took them to the place, where they found the murderer already dead, with a dagger buried in him to the hilt, and the bones of the children around him. But the culprit was not a man, but a huge snake, which was presented to the public in Espaderos street, which thereafter was also known as “Calle de la Sierpe “. Quintera obtained his promised freedom, settled in Seville and married the daughter of Cardenas.

The Cervantes Plaques

If you are walking around Seville, and keeping your eyes open for the unexpected, you may see a plaque like this one.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is the Spanish equivalent of Shakespeare (and by one of those strange quirks of history, they both died on the same day, April 22, 1616), and everybody is at least aware of the tale of Don Quixote, and the images of the gallant knight tilting at windmills, his squire Sancho Panza and his bony horse. His other works are less well known, but many of the short stories in his Novelas Ejemplares were written while he was living in Seville, including a short stay as a guest of his majesty in the Royal Prison, and the plaques commemorate places around the city that were mentioned by him in the stories. There are seventeen altogether, mostly in the centre, but including one in Triana, and another in the gardens of the Buhaira.

How many can you find?

A full list (in Spanish) can be found here.