Spanish Poetry to 1400 Analysis

Eighth through tenth centuries

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Moorish invasion of 711 and the virtual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the year 718 left the Hispano-Visigothic kingdom in disarray. Many of the conquered Visigoths were absorbed into Islamic culture (they became known as mozarabes), while others retreated into the protective mountain ranges of the northern Cantabrian coastline. From the latter came the Reconquest, a seven-century-long effort to recapture the Peninsula. Isolated pockets of resistance to Moorish domination grew into kingdoms with competing priorities and interests involving territory, preeminence of power, and collection of taxes as well as the cultural variables, such as language and literature, that made each of them distinct. Intriguingly, Galicia, Castile, León, Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia all developed separate linguistic traditions, but only Galicia, Castile, and Catalonia produced literatures that have survived. While much medieval knowledge was hoarded and hidden to benefit a specific interest, language and literature were much more democratic; every bard, juglar or jongleur, needed to keep his material fresh, and the subsequent give-and-take of poetic style and vocabulary crossed from one language to another and from one culture to another. Medieval Spanish poetry is the product of these many influences.

The development of the Spanish language followed a path distinct from that of other languages of the Iberian Peninsula. With a tendency toward simplification of sounds and forms, Castilian standardized its grammar and vocabulary very early, making possible, for example, the reading of eleventh and twelfth century documents by an untrained twentieth century eye. (By comparison, the fourteenth century English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales [1387-1400] is resistant to the untrained modern reader.) The early formation of Spanish clearly had an effect on Spanish literature, as did the pioneer environment of its origin. Artificial attempts have been made to differentiate Castilian from Spanish. In the purest of senses, Castilian can be distinguished as a dialect with its marked peculiarities, but it exerted its dominion over an entire peninsula and subsequently, the New World, thereby becoming the language of Spain.

Eleventh century: Beginnings

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The extraordinary and controversial beginning of Spanish verse must be assigned to the kharjas. Written in Arabic and Hebrew script—hence the controversy concerning their “Spanishness”—these refrains served as transitional passages between longer classical Arab stanzas known as muwassahas. When one transliterates kharjas into Roman characters and adds the missing vowels, the resulting text is clearly an archaic form of Spanish. Thus, according to Alan Deyermond, the refrain

tnt’ m’ry tnt’ m’ry hbyb tnt’m’ry’nfrmyrwn wlyws gyds(?) ydwln tn m’ly


Tant’ amare, tant’ amare habib, tant’amareenfermiron welyos nidios e dolen tan male.

My love is so great, my love is so greatLover, my love is so greatMy healthy eyes have sickenedAnd hurt so badly

In a 1948 article that constituted the first systematic study of the kharjas, S. M. Stern demonstrated that a Spanish vocabulary lies hidden in the Arabic and Hebrew script of these refrains. Stern’s discovery revolutionized critical understanding of the origins of Spanish verse—and, indeed, of European lyric verse. Dámaso Alonso, the distinguished Spanish poet and critic, refers to these verses as the “early spring” of the European lyric, for they predate by a century the earliest poems written in Provence.

The content of the kharjas is almost invariably love-oriented. Like the example quoted above, many of these refrains express the pain of separation, the sense of hurt as a result of a lover’s absence or infidelity; others employ “love” as a metaphor for the relationship between a poet and his patron. Since these verses were written as transitional passages between longer texts and rarely can stand on their own as expressions of a complete sentiment, their acceptance as the earliest form of the European lyric has been questioned. On the other hand, their beauty and compactness of expression reflect the existence of a tradition of popular song or cultured verse, or both, in the Spanish eleventh century.

Twelfth century: Textual desert

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Study of Spanish poetry in the twelfth century is hampered by a scarcity of texts. Despite the lack of texts, however, it is clear that lyric traditions were well established by the twelfth century. This is confirmed not only by the kharjas but also by two other verse forms which appeared in this century: the Galician-Portuguese cantigas and the Castilian villancicos. The cantigas, which have survived in three cancioneros (songbooks), of the fifteenth century, fall into three categories: a woman’s lament for her lover (cantigas de amigo); a man’s lament (cantigas de amor); and invective verse (cantigas d’escarnho). The similarity of content (lament for a lover) and speaker (a woman) between the cantigas de amigo and the kharjas suggests a connection, though none has been established.

Villancicos, multiverse refrains, repeated before and after every stanza, were not written down until the fifteenth century but are generally considered to date from the twelfth century. Their similarity to the kharjas is striking: They share a similar structure (refrain), content (lament for a lover), and speaker (a woman).

Thirteenth century: Poets and monks

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Thirteenth century Spanish poetry is notable for the genesis of native epic verse; unfortunately, scholars of the thirteenth century Spanish epic have barely five thousand lines of text with which to work, in comparison to the million lines of verse available to French medieval scholars. Adducing plot summaries in later chronicles, some critics postulate the existence of lost epics, while others suggest that many poems of epic nature were never written down because of their oral means of transmission. In any case, Spanish scholarship has been left with four national epic poems: Cantar de mío Cid (early thirteenth century; Chronicle of the Cid, 1846; better known as Poem of the Cid), Las mocedades de Rodrigo (fourteenth century), and Cantar de Roncesvalles (thirteenth century; Song of Roland), composed in traditional epic meter (assonant lines of fourteen to sixteen syllables), and Poema de Fernán Gonzalez (c. 1260), composed in cuaderna vía, a syllabic meter distinguished by its rigidity of form.

The single most important epic composition of the thirteenth century was Poem of the Cid. Like the other epics of its period, Poem of the Cid is the subject of ongoing critical debate concerning the nature of its composition. The so-called traditionalist critics argue that the Spanish epic originated in popular culture, in the songs of traveling entertainers or juglares. The most popular of these traditional songs, so the theory goes, were set down in manuscript and preserved for future generations. In contrast, the so-called individualist critics believe that the great epics of medieval Spain were the work of individual poets, shaped by individual genius. Finally, the oralist critics argue that the epics of this period were transmitted exclusively by oral performance and were not committed to writing until a later date.

A manuscript of Poem of the Cid does exist, yet a gap in the transcription of the date, “MCC VII,” has convinced the traditionalists that the date of composition was actually 1307. The individualists see the gap as typical of scribal transcription and build an argument for a date of 1207. Traditionalists argue that Per Abad, the name appearing at the end of the manuscript, refers to a copyist, while the individualists suggest that he was the actual author of the epic. In The Making of the “Poema de mío Cid” (1983), a book C. C. Smith calls “bold,” Smith affirms that his work is the first in which the following proposition is argued: that the Poema de mío Cid, composed in or shortly before 1207, was the first epic to be composed in Castilian; that it was in consequence an innovatory and experimental work, in ways apparent in the surviving text; and that it did not depend on any precedents or existing tradition of epic verse in Castilian or other Peninsular language or dialect.

Smith goes on to assert that Per Abad was the actual author of the poem, not merely the copyist. Regardless of the exact method of composition of Poem of the Cid, however, it seems reasonable to assume that juglares sang verse narratives of this type, commemorating historical events and following a general, though loose, metric pattern.

Composed in traditional Spanish epic meter, Poem of the Cid is the story of a nobleman who is banished from the kingdom of Castile, survives the rigors of exile by defeating Moorish forces and fending off Christian encroachments on his territories, and finally achieves renown by conquering the Caliphate of Valencia. The work is divided into three cantares, or “tales,” which highlight the rise and fall of the Cid’s fortunes.

A powerful noble, the Cid is banished when King Alfonso VI of Castile heeds the insidious rumors of the Cid’s enemies. Feudal relationships in the poem are not clear, and the reader is left with the impression that the two hundred men who join the Cid in exile do so of their own free will. The Cid leaves his wife, Jimena, and his two daughters, Sol and Blanca, in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña for safekeeping.

The second division of the poem, the Cantar de Bodas, relates the Cid’s triumph in his struggle to survive. Fighting Moor and Christian alike, he multiplies his fortune and his prestige. With the conquest of Valencia and the betrothal of his daughters to the sons of the Count de Carrión, a match specifically arranged by the King of Castile, it appears that the Cid’s achievements are complete.

In a masterful juxtaposition of villainy and nobility, however, the third division of the poem, the Cantar de Corpes, plays havoc with the Cid’s world prior to a resolution in the final verses. The engagement of the Cid’s daughters to future counts is an extraordinary achievement, given his status as a middle-line noble, yet the Cantar de Corpes reveals the cowardice, egotism, and greed of the de Carrión brothers. The brothers, known as the Infantes, decide that their wives are not worthy of them; but they do not want to lose their dowries. Convincing the Cid that it is time to return to Carrión, the Infantes, once well away from Valencia, take their wives into a secluded glade, beat and strip them, and leave them to die. Fortunately, a retainer, disobeying the Infantes’ orders to stay away from the area, rescues them.

The conclusion of the poem celebrates the triumph of civilizing order over brutality justified by birth. Instead of pursuing and punishing the Infantes, the Cid appeals to Alfonso VI, who by this time has come to consider the Cid an equal, to summon a convocation of nobles to judge his accusations against the Infantes. In the trial, the arrogant brothers are stripped of honor: First, the Cid demands that his swords be returned by the Infantes, then the dowry of his daughters; finally, the Cid accuses the brothers of menos-valer, or “less worthiness.” The Infantes, enraged at this affront, call for a duel and subsequently lose to the Cid’s champions. As the crowning glory to the Cid’s success and the triumph of judicial process, emissaries from Navarre and Aragon appear, requesting the hands of the Cid’s daughters for their kings.

Poem of the Cid is a monument to the individual whose dedication to right values is ultimately rewarded and whose salient qualities are protection of his family, generosity to all, religious devotion, and loyalty to the established order. The Cid’s concern for his family is presented early in the poem as he leaves them in the care of the monks at San Pedro de Cardeña, promising to reward them richly. Parting causes such anguish in him that the poet observes that “parten unos d’otros como la uña de la carne” (they part like a fingernail pulling away from the skin).

The oldest manuscript of the poem signed by the enigmatic Per Abad is missing the first folio and two others within the work. The meter, as has been noted, is traditional to Spanish epics: mono-rhymic assonanced lines divided into half by a caesura and normally totaling fourteen syllables, though the irregularity of the meter, as shown in the third line of the following passage, is a puzzle to critics.

Dezidle al Campeador, que en buen hora nasco,que destas siet sedmanas adobes con sos vassallos,vengam a Toledo, estol do de plazdoPor amor de mío Cid esta cort yo fago.


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Fourteenth century: Diversification

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In his classic study, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953), Ernst Curtius describes the impact of the Libro de buen amor (c. 1330; The Book of Good Love, 1933), the most poetically and artistically diverse composition of the Spanish Middle Ages: Then about 1330 Juan Ruiz (1283?-1350?) makes a bold innovation with his Libro de buen amor. He imports Ovid’s eroticism and its medieval derivatives. To a free rendition of the Ars amandihe added a recasting of the extremely popular medieval comedy Pamphilus de amore, which in turn goes back to an elegy of Ovid’s (Amores I, 8).There are critics who rank the Libro de buen amor, the...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Florit, Eugenio. Introduction to Spanish Poetry. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1991. Offers works ranging from the twelfth century Poema de mío Cid to twentieth century poets. Full Spanish texts with expert literal English translations on facing pages. Also contains a wealth of biographical information and critical commentary. Illustrated.

Gies, David T., ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. A comprehensive English-language work, prepared by Gies in collaboration with forty-six other eminent scholars. Includes chronology and index.

Merwin, W. S., ed. and trans. Spanish Ballads. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2008. A reissue of the volume first published in 1961, early in the career of the translator, who became one of America’s most admired poets. Includes ballads from the late Middle Ages to the twentieth century, arranged by type and in chronological order.

Schippers, Arie. Spanish Hebrew Literature and the Arab Literary Tradition: Arabic Themes in Hebrew Andalusian Poetry. New York: Brill Academic, 1993. An introduction to the Arabic poetry of eleventh century Muslim Spain and to the major Hebrew poets of the same period. Demonstrates how Arabic themes appear in Hebrew Anadalusian poetry.

Simpson, Lesley B., trans. The Poem of the Cid. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. A classic translation of the great Spanish epic.

Smith, Colin C. The Making of the “Poema de mío Cid.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. The well-known scholar and editor of the Collins English-Spanish dictionaries traces the development of the Spanish epic. Bibliography, index.

_______, ed. Spanish Ballads. 2d ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996. Originally published in 1964, this collection is accompanied by a useful introduction and notes by Smith.

Walters, Gareth. The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Bilingual edition. A survey of Iberian and Latin American writing from the Middle Ages to the present. Conveniently arranged by genres and themes. Bibliography and index.