This is an expression I’ve been using all my life and which I really like. It just means “Well, you took your time to do that and now what’s the point”, or something like that.

The English equivalents would be “Too little, too late” and “To lock the barn after the horse has bolted”. (I have to admit I reached out to Twitter for this one and got replies from Alicia from @andaluciainland, Sue Sharpe (tweeting as @suesharpe1 and Estefania, regular contributor to this podcast, who tweets under the handle @estefgarciadiaz.)

So, as I was saying, I’ve been using this expression all my life but never really stopped to think about where it came from or what these “mangas verdes” referred to. “Mangas verdes” means “green sleeves”, and this is literally the picture that’s always come to mind, just a pair of green sleeves. It turns out that, yes, the green sleeves were literal green sleeves but specific ones, those worn by the Santa Hermandad, the Holy Brotherhood. So, here is what I found out about the origin of the expression.

The Hermandades started forming in the 12th century, to protect those living in towns and villages against the moors and bandits – some of these bandits were indeed nobles, who were increasing their assets through crime. Different towns and regions had their own brotherhoods but it was only in 1476 that the Reyes Católicos, the Catholic Kings, set up one body to cover the whole of their kingdom. In this way, they created what is described in many websites, as one of the first organised police network in Europe.

It seems that when the Reyes Católicos started reigning in Spain, it wasn’t unusual to be assaulted by bandits. In Castille, the nobles seemed to be the outlaws prone to looting while in Aragon, it seemed to be more of a Mafia style kind of crime, where the rich landlords controlled different gangs of criminals, who then in turn, behaved as if they were in charge.

So the Santa Hermandad, was not just protecting the people from your ordinary criminal, but was also protecting them from those nobles benefiting from crime. The Santa Hermandad seemed to have powers beyond the local police, being able to in a way, expatriate criminals from the normal police to judge them themselves. They would arrest criminals and then also judge them. Under the criminal acts they prosecuted you could find burning down houses (incendios de casas), shedding blood, (derramamiento de sangre), road assaults (asalto de caminos), stealing furniture from deserted homes (robos de muebles en despoblado) etc

All in all they had about 2,000 men working for the Santa Hermandad and they were financed by a tax on goods, except meat, called Impuesto de la sisa. The first captain was Alfonso de Aragon, who was King Fernando’s brother, so no nepotism there…

It seems like the Santa Hermandad was quite an efficient body and also like it wasn’t a case of taking over completely the policing of the whole kingdom, but they managed to work alongside the local hermandades.

The Santa Hermandad lasted about four centuries after which its popularity started to decline, for a range of reasons like the high taxes which financed it, the increasing role the normal army were playing in civilian affairs and, as always, the not so straight forward ways in which the different roles were being appointed.

In1834, a law was passed which dissolved this body and ten years later, the Guardia Civil was created in its place.

So, back to today’s saying, A buenas horas, mangas verdes. It seems like the Santa Hermandad had a problem with punctuality. Apparently they were regularly late to save the people and hence, the saying.

I like to see it as a lovely expression full of irony, referring to whoever has taken ages to do something they’d promised to do, and now tells us about it as if they were doing us a favour, as our saviour, Mangas Verdes. I’m adding a bit of context there, obviously.

And how about today’s bonus saying: Vísteme despacio, que tengo prisa. Another phrase about taking our time, but in this case, I suppose we’re saying that it’s best to do things calmly. I’ve googled the origins of this saying and it looks like it also goes back to Fernando el Catolico. The king was being dressed by a dresser who was very nervous and trying to rush things. The King, noticing that the whole dressing up experience was going to be a disaster, said to his servant, Vísteme despacio, que tengo prisa, dress me slowly, for I am in a rush.


Wise words similar to those uttered by the Friar in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “Wisely and slow, they stumble who run fast”.


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