European Countries

Spain Literature From the Origins and the Middle Ages

The Mozarabic khargia dating back to the mid-11th century, a sort of refrain inserted as an essential element in the structure of the muwashshaḥa of Arab origin (➔ Mozarabs), represents the oldest document of Spanish literature. But they are the cantares de gesta of the 12th century. to offer the first true testimony of a culture of the Spain: a culture that, being born close to the warrior story, transmitted orally by jesters, can only be centered on the glorification of the most famous heroes and enterprises: Bernardo del Carpio, Fernán González, siege of Zamora, Cid etc. The Cantar de mio Cid (1140, according to the dating of R. Menéndez Pidal and traditionalist criticism, but 1207 for the supporters of the individualist thesis) is the only cantar that has survived almost intact, among the many whose existence is known through the Crónicas. Although the cantares are in some respects close to the French epic, nevertheless there is a greater historical objectivity and a decidedly realistic character, foreign to the French models.

● Poetry rapidly changes its face since the early 13th century, when isolated operettas, such as the Razón de amor, testify to a Frenchizing sensibility, which is specified a little later in various centers of Castile with the mester de clerecía. This, while not properly reflecting a ‘school’, represents the first attempt at technically regulated poetry (monorime stanzas by Alexandrians) and now turns to express the subdued religiosity of the Milagros and the hagiographic poems of G. de Berceo (13th century), now it slavishly refers to the classical myths in vogue in the Middle Ages (Apolonio, 1250 ca.; Alexandre, 1230-50 ca.) or sings heroes already celebrated by the epic (Fernán González, 1250 ca.).

● According to, the urgency of war and legend is replaced by the need to give themselves a culturally concrete and stable physiognomy. Universities are born (Palencia, 1208; Salamanca, a little later); while Toledo with its school of translators, active since the early years of the 12th century, and which benefits from ever more eminent personalities (Giovanni Ispano, D. Gundisalvi), becomes the center of cooperation between Christians, Arabs and Jews and the vehicle for the European knowledge and diffusion of Greek and Muslim thought. The figure of Alfonso X the Wise (king from 1252 to 1284) is in a certain way a compendium and synthesis of these aspirations. He fixes medieval law in the Partidas, taking advantage of Roman, Christian and Gothic teaching: the historiographical activity begun in Latin by the bishops of Toledo and Tuy continues and, while aspiring to a work that is the history of all knowledge (General estoria, begun in 1272), he wants to hand down the reconquista in detail (Estoria de España or Primera crónica general, according to the title attributed by Menéndez Pidal). While showing, in the Cantigas de Santa María, that Galician is always the Romance language of opera, Alfonso makes Castilian the vehicle of Christian power and new culture.

● The perception of the crisis of medieval institutes, when faith in their survival has not yet been lost, which indeed becomes more harsh and aristocratic, is perhaps the most intimate character of fourteenth-century culture. Two poems – the Libro de buen amor (probably 1334) by J. Ruiz el Arcipreste de Hita and, in the second half of the century, the Rimado de palacio (composed between 1378 and 1407) by P. López de Ayala – know how to rise a mature and happily imaginative expression of this restlessness. With these works, with the residual epic production and, in prose, with the first recast and translations of the Breton novels (mainly Portuguese, but later also Castilian), a great crisis of traditional forms also comes to fruition. On the one hand, in the Libro de buen amor and in the Rimado the mester de clerecía is already disrupted, obedient to a new descriptive sense; on the other hand, the metrically irregular primitive epic moves towards the forms of octosyllabic and assonanced romance (Cantar de Rodrigo, Poema de Alfonso XI, 1348); while a more complex narrative structure, partly French in taste (Gran Conquista de Ultramar, Historia del caballero Zifar, c. 1300), accompanies the decline of the traditional apologue and of the medieval didactic-narrative forms.

Spain Literature From the Origins and the Middle Ages