Spanish Literature and Language

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SPANISH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. Spanish thought in the early modern period was greatly influenced by Renaissance humanism, the Counter-Reformation, the growth of the Spanish empire, and the institutionalized persecution of Jews and their descendants. The high-water mark of Spanish letters is said to have ended in 1681 with the death of the dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Spanish literature faded in the eighteenth century, and the Spanish version of the Enlightenment can properly be considered as a reflection of, or a reaction against, French influence.


In 1492the year of the conquest of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and Columbus's first voyage to the New WorldElio Antonio de Nebrija published Grammatica Castellana. The momentous events of 1492 heralded the advent of a new world empire, and Nebrija explicitly wished his bookthe first grammar of a modern European languageto be an instrument of that empire. Addressing Queen Isabella the Catholic in his prologue, Nebrija wrote:

Most noble Queen, when I ponder upon and contemplate the antiquity of all the things that were written for our memory, I come to one certain conclusion: that language was always the companion of empire, and accompanied it in such a way that together they began, they grew and flourished, and afterwards together they fell.

Nebrija believed the codification of a nation's language was a necessary step in the development of a great power.

By Nebrija's time, Castilian had already progressed from being simply one of many Latin-derived dialects spoken on the Iberian Peninsula to the legal and administrative language of the most powerful kingdom in Spain. The language of Castile now became the administrative and literary language of her colonies. In time, the predominant language of the kingdoms of Spain became known simply as Spanish.


The conduct of the Spanish conquistadores in the New World has been rightly criticized over the years. One of the remarkable aspects of the whole endeavor, however, was the open and lengthy debate that took place in Spain over the proper handling of the conquest. Almost from the very beginning of the conquest, intellectual opinion in Spain had been divided over what should be the goals of the adventure and what should be the empire's policy toward the natives. Following Aristotelian precepts, some scholars argued that Indians were naturally subhuman and, by nature, were designed to be the slaves of their Spanish betters. Wars against them were therefore justified. The other argument held that the Indians were well adaptable to Christianity and ought to be won over to the faith by persuasion and gentleness. The fact that they were barbarians did not mean that they were incapable of rational thought or that they were incapable of being good Christians. Spain was the first imperial power in history to publicly agonize over the rights of the conquered.

One of the most powerful advocates for the natives was Bartolomé de Las Casas. Las Casas first traveled to the New World in 1502. There, on the island of Hispaniola, he lived as a gentleman planter. The future defender of the American natives even owned slaves. In 1515 he had a change of heart, gave up his property, and dedicated the rest of his life to working for the benefit of the Indians. During his long life, he produced voluminous writings in both Latin and Spanish decrying the treatment of the Indians by the colonists and advocating for their rights. A pivotal moment came in 1550 when he disputed with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who advocated the position that the Indians ought to be exploited. Against Sepúlveda, Las Casas argued that the Indians were rational people. He went on to write some of his most important work, including the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1552). This tract caught on with Spain's enemies and was partially responsible for the Black Legend, which consisted of the often wildly exaggerated tales of Spanish perfidy embraced by anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propagandists from the Renaissance up to the present day.


The enthusiastic Renaissance culture sponsored by the court of Ferdinand and Isabella did not arise in a vacuum. Court culture during the earlier reign of John II had fostered poetic trends that embraced not only traditional Spanish poetic forms, but also was influenced by Italian humanism. Many in the nobility were themselves poets. Among these was Iñigo López de Mendoza, the Marqués de Santillana (13981458), an accomplished wielder of traditional verse forms, who also tried his hand at Italian-style sonnets. Jorge Manrique (c. 14401479), meanwhile, marshaled a host of classical tropes to lament the death of his father in "Coplas por la muerte de su padre." Santillana and Manrique were among the many poets who were anthologized in the cancioneros (songbooks) of the fifteenth century. As the name suggests, the cancioneros were devoted to lyric poetry on a wide range of subjects, from love to satire. In addition to the poetic wordplay of the cancioneros, reading tastes ran to sentimental romance, such as the elaborate love allegory Carcel de amor, and early versions of chivalric romances, the genre that Cervantes would later parody so successfully in Don Quixote. The fifteenth century also saw the first time that the traditional Spanish ballads, or romances, were anthologized. Often derived from medieval epics, ballads related tales of history and heroic deeds.

The University of Alcalá, founded by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, confessor to Queen Isabella, archbishop of Toledo, and later grand inquisitor, made an early and lasting contribution to humanistic studies with the publication in 1522 of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, a six-volume critical edition that placed the Hebrew, Chaldean, and Greek texts of the Bible in parallel columns with the Latin Vulgate.


While the court of Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Renaissance openness and reform, their reign is also notable for increasing animosity toward the Jews. This culminated in the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition by 1480 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Relations between Jews and their Christian neighbors had begun to deteriorate rapidly in 1391 with a series of pogroms that shook the long-established Jewish communities of Spain. This was the first large-scale violence against the Jews in Spain, and its immediate effect was a massive demographic shift, as Jews from established communities in the cities began to relocate to the relative safety of the smaller towns. Another effect was the conversion of many Jews to Christianity.

The pogroms of 1391 and the mass conversions that followed added a new element to Spanish life: the converso, or convert. Conversos, also called New Christians, soon found themselves at odds with socalled Old Christians, and as New Christians achieved positions of greater prominence, Old Christians began to doubt the sincerity of their conversions. Because conversos who returned to their former faith were seen as dangerous to the health of the church and the society, Ferdinand and Isabella sought and received in 1478 papal permission to establish an Inquisition in Spain. Unlike the earlier medieval inquisition, which was subordinate to the papal authority, the Spanish Inquisition became an arm of the government, with the monarchs themselves retaining the right to appoint inquisitorial officials.

Many scholars have suggested that the tensions inherent in the converso experience inevitably created a sort of conflicted converso identity, and that out of this identity crisis sprang the intellectual fervor of the early Renaissance, as well as manyif not mostof the great literary works of Spain's Golden Age. Under this thesis, almost any Spanish voice supporting church reform or any kind of upending of the social order must arise from the conflicted tensions of the converso writer. While it is undeniable that many of the great writers of the Golden Age had Jewish roots, and some of them explored new forms of social realism, there is no evidence to attribute their writings as a group to a specific converso experience.

The undisputed masterpiece of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, however, was indeed written by a converso, and it also represented an antidote to the cultural pretensions of court literature. Written by Fernando de Rojas, and first published in 1499, the Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea, also known as the Celestina, tells a sordid story of sexual transgression, seduction, and suicide. The work breaks new ground in both form and content. It is written in dialogue, but is clearly not a play. Instead, it seems to occupy a middle ground between drama and novel. The story concerns the efforts of a young nobleman, Calisto, to seduce a young woman, Melibea. His servant Sempronio helps him secure the services of a go-between, the old crone Celestina. Celestina is a procuress, and her task in life is to arrange liaisons between lustful young men and the often reluctant objects of their affection. The seduction succeeds, but also sets in motion a series of events that ends in the deaths of all the principal characters of the story. The book puts an ironic twist on the conventions of courtly love and intersperses this with something new to literature: the wily and unscrupulous servant. Instead of patiently and faithfully serving their masters, the servants in this work criticize and conspire against them, motivated by a lust for money in much the same way their masters are motivated by sexual lust. Through the Celestina, the reader can catch a realistic glimpse of class relations during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. This peek from the margins can be considered a precursor to the squalid realities depicted in that most Spanish of genres, the picaresque novel.


While stirrings of the form appeared earlier in the century, the first great picaresque work was Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554. The book narrates in the first person the adventures of a young boy set loose on the world and the life lessons he learns from a succession of employers. Through the eyes of Lazarillo, the reader is able to see the hypocrisies of Spanish society laid bare. Lazarillo serves, in turn, a blind beggar who abuses him, a priest who allows him to starve, and a minor nobleman whose misplaced pride in his status prevents him from seeking gainful employment that might keep him from starving. The rest of Lazarillo's employers throughout the course of this very brief book are churchmen of varying degrees of venality. Lazarillo's prime motivation through all of this is hunger: hunger to improve his own position in the world, and, in the process, keep himself from ever having to go hungry again. The subversive nature of the book led to its being placed on the Inquisition's Index of Prohibited Books in 1559, and some scholars have assumed from the fierce criticism directed at church officials that this anonymous masterpiece was written by a converso.

Lazarillothe young, aimless rogueis the quintessential pícaro, and his story is the first good example of picaresque fiction: episodic adventures reflecting society's various social strata, related by a less-than-reliable, first-person narrator. The next important picaresque novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, by Mateo Alemán, was published in two parts in 1599 and 1604. Francisco de Quevedo, one of Spain's two greatest baroque poets, also wrote a very funnyand very bitterpicaresque novel known today as El Buscón, published in 1626.


The political connections between Spain and Italy eventually led to the conquest of Spanish poetry by Italian literary forms. This permanent infiltration of Italian literary forms into Spanish letters largely occurred through the efforts of two poets: Juan Boscán (14931542) and Garcilaso de la Vega (15031536). Boscán wrote that he was prompted to attempt writing Spanish poetry in the Italian style through a direct challenge from the Venetian ambassador to Spain. The challenge lay in adapting Italian meter to the rhythms of Spanish. Boscán accepted the challenge and also prevailed upon his friend Garcilaso to try his hand at Italian-style poetry as well. The efforts of these two poets permanently altered the literary landscape of Spain. Boscán was a competent poet, but Garcilaso de la Vega was the true genius of the two. In many ways the quintessential Renaissance poet, Garcilaso died in battle in 1536.


If the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella, and later of Charles V, represent an early embrace of Renaissance values, the reign of Philip II proved to be very different. After the Council of Trent and the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, Philip began to transform Spain into a closed society. Philip believed Spain to be the last line of defense for the Catholic world and that it needed to be guarded from foreign influences. Students studying at foreign universities were recalled, and foreign books were banned, along with many literary works from Spain's earlier and more open Renaissance. Scientific inquiry also suffered in the Spain of the Counter-Reformation, although there was considerable interest in applied science and technology, including ballistics and navigation.


The climate created by the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation had an impact on Spanish letters. One scholar to come under suspicion was Fray Luis de León, a professor at the University of Salamanca. Born in 1527, Fray Luis was of converso heritage and had a background in Hebrew scholarship. Luis de León came under suspicion partly because of his desire to use Hebrew in his commentaries. Not content with the Latin biblical tradition, Luis de León wished to resort to Hebrew to settle theological questions. He was imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1572 for publishing and commenting on the Song of Songs in Castilian and was detained by the Inquisition for five years. Once he was set free, he returned to his post at the university. Tradition holds that he began his first lecture in Salamanca after five years imprisonment with, "As we were saying yesterday, . . . " He died in 1591.

Fray Luis is known today as one of Spain's greatest Renaissance poets. His work is distinctly Neoplatonic in tone. His poetry extols the virtues of simple living, away from the tumult of society, and expresses the belief that art can lift the spirit to a higher sphere of consciousness and closer to communion with God.


While not a true mystic, Fray Luis shared with the mystics an intense desire to liberate the soul from the shackles of the world and move toward a higher plane of experience. True mystics seek a union of the soul with God. This union is the essence of the mystical experience, and arises out of the ecstatic experience of the pure love of God. Marriage and sex become useful poetic metaphors for ecstatic union.

The most well-known mystics of Golden Age Spain were Saint Teresa of Ávila (15151582) and St. John of the Cross (15421591). Born Teresa de Ahumada in Ávila in 1515, Teresa entered the Carmelite order in 1534 and later gained fame through her efforts to reform the order. Of her many prose works describing her mystical experiences, the most important is El castillo interior (1577). A close associate of St. Teresa was Juan de Yepes, who was later canonized as St. John of the Cross. Born in 1542 in the province of Ávila, he entered the Carmelite order in 1563. He was twice jailed for his reforming activities, and much of his writing seems to draw from the experience of having been imprisoned. St. John sought to express his mysticism through highly charged, complex poetry. He often compared the relationship of the soul to God with that of a wife and her husband. His most famous poem is the "Noche oscura del alma." Here the soul's search for union with God is figured as a young girl waiting until the house is quiet so she can sneak out and meet her lover. Their sexual rendezvous represents the moment of the soul's union with God.


Golden Age Spain's most renowned writer was, without a doubt, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547, he was the son of an unsuccessful barber-surgeon. When young, he enlisted as a soldier and fought in the battle of Lepanto in 1571. There he received a wound that rendered his left hand useless to him. On the return trip to Spain in 1575, he was captured by pirates and taken to Algiers, where he was held captive for five years. Upon his ransom and return to Spain in 1580, he worked a series of low-paying jobs and began his writing career. He finally received a government post, but discrepancies in his accounts led to his being jailed twice in Seville. Cervantes dabbled in the major literary genres of the age. Although he tried his hand at theater and poetry, his fame rests on his prose works, principally the Novelas ejemplares and his masterpiece, Don Quixote.

Critics have been debating Don Quixote for close to four hundred years and will surely continue to do so. The work that many consider Western literature's greatest novel started out as a broad parody of the novels of chivalry that had been in vogue throughout the sixteenth century. Don Quixote is an impoverished gentleman from a forgotten corner of Castile who goes mad from too much reading and comes to believe he is a knight errant. Clad in rusty antique armor, he ranges the countrysidefirst alone, and then in the company of his trusty peasant "squire" Sancho Panzaattempting to right wrongs and live the code of chivalric honor. Even to Cervantes's readers, an armor-clad knight errant was a laughable anachronism, and the humor of the book arises from the incongruities of a daft, idealistic knight set loose on modern and more cynical society. Quixote is often said to represent idealism, and Sancho the realism of the world he butts up against.

Published in 1605, Don Quixote was a huge success, but Cervantes did not profit from it. The success of the first book led Cervantes to publish a very popular sequel in 1615, the year before he died.


Spanish baroque literature is characterized by elaborate style and often by excessive metaphors. Two poetic movements in particular stand out: culturanismo and conceptismo. Both were intellectual movements that emphasized extreme use of language. Culturanismo sought to create a highly intellectual poetic language that looked to Latin as its model. It used neologisms, extreme metaphors, and greatly contorted syntax. The representative poet of culturanismo was Luis de Góngora y Argote (15611627). Góngora wrote poetry in traditional Spanish as well as Italian forms, with his later work tending to be highly artificial and, consequently, much harder to understand than his earlier work. His long poems "Polifemo" and the unfinished "Soledades" do not lend themselves easily to casual reading, but can nevertheless be extremely rewarding. Conceptismo, epitomized by Francisco de Quevedo (15801645), stressed the creation of audacious poetic conceits. Although poets from the two schools bickeredoften writing withering satires about one anotherthe two are not mutually exclusive, and there was much overlap. Quevedo today is remembered as a writer of cutting satire and one of the great picaresque novels, El Buscón. Góngora fell into disfavor, but was rediscovered by Spain's poetic Generation of 1927.


Cervantes's lack of success as a dramatist was more than compensated by that of Felix Lope de Vega Carpio. Cervantes himself called Lope a "freak of nature" and blamed him for altering the theatrical landscape and changing public taste to the point that his own plays could not be successful. Lope did not invent theater in Spain, but he transformed it to such a degree that he is considered the creator of the Spanish national theater. Born in 1562 in Madrid, Lope was a true literary phenomenon. He claimed to have written more than 1,800 plays, in addition to lyric poetry, epic poetry, and novels. Some five hundred of Lope's plays still survive.

If Lope's plays seem a little formulaic, it is because they are. Lope sought to make his plays appeal to a wide public, and he was not ashamed to admit that he loaded them with elements designed to make them popular. He codified his dramatic theory in Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609), where he specified a three-act structure. According to Lope's plan, the first act should set up the argument, the second should develop the tension, and the third should bring a swift and unpredictable conclusion after a period of heightened suspense. Lope lived a dissolute personal life, but his plays are essentially conservative reaffirmations of society's mores. For example, Fuenteovejuna, about a real peasant uprising in 1476, becomes an apology for the policies of Ferdinand and Isabella. The citizens of Fuenteovejuna rebel against and murder their lord and then collectively take responsibility for the action, saying that Fuenteovejuna itself committed the crime. The lord in question had fought against Ferdinand and Isabella in the recent civil war, and when the Catholic Monarchs eventually forgave the town, the action could be taken as an affirmation of royal authority.

The other great dramatists of the Golden Age were Tirso de Molina (15831648) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (16001681). Tirso, the pen name of Gabriel Téllez, is principally remembered today as the first dramatist to treat the Don Juan theme, in El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra. Many critics consider Calderón a greater dramatist than Lope, if not in quantity, then at least in quality. His finest achievement was La vida es sueño, which pulls out all the stops in its exploration of the fine line separating dreams from reality.


Spain's literary Golden Age ended with the death of Calderón in 1681. But while literature may have been moribund in the eighteenth century, the situation for other intellectual pursuits was not as dire. Spanish scientists had been isolated from the rest of Europe, but changes did begin to seep in. Medical thought began to drift away from strict adherence to Aristotelian precepts, with some physicians accepting William Harvey's theories of blood circulation. Renewed interest in medicine and science in Spain led in 1700 to royal recognition for the Royal Society of Medicine, one of the first of the learned academies that would spring up during the Enlightenment.

With the advent of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain in 1700, Spanish culture began to be heavily influenced by French thought. The Enlightenment emphasis on scientific categorization led to the founding of the great national academies. In addition to the Royal Society of Medicine, another important academy was the Royal Spanish Academy, founded in 1714. This academy focused on purity of the language and produced within a short time its six-volume Diccionario de autoridades.

In literature, the essay form dominated. The premiere essayist of the first half of the eighteenth century was Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (16761764). His eight-volume Teatro crítico universal contained learned essays on a wide variety of subjects, from science to superstition. Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (17441811) was another essayist who sought to reform Spanish society and letters. Whereas there was a new openness to science and learning, art and literature in Spain stagnated in the eighteenth century, characterized by largely imported and derivative production.

See also Calderón de la Barca, Pedro ; Cervantes, Miguel de ; Conversos ; Drama: Spanish and Portuguese ; Exploration ; Góngora y Argote, Luis de ; Jews, Expulsion of (Spain ; Portugal) ; Las Casas, Bartolomé de ; Portuguese Literature and Language ; Sepúlveda, Francisco de ; Spanish Colonies ; Teresa of Ávila ; Vega, Lope de .


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Michael Hammer

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Spanish Literature and Language

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