Spanish Language and Literature

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Spanish Language and Literature

Spain, like other parts of Europe, was influenced by the revival of classical* languages and culture during the Renaissance. While scholars in other regions sought to restore the Latin of ancient Rome, in Spain the Renaissance focused mainly on the use of classical forms and styles in Spanish. During this period, the Spanish language took on a standard form that gradually replaced the local dialects used in different parts of the Iberian Peninsula*. Spanish authors published works in a variety of literary forms, including poetry, drama, and religious writing. In addition, several Spanish writers, most notably Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, played a major role in the development of the novel.


In the early Middle Ages the inhabitants of Iberia spoke a variety of different dialects. Beginning in the 700s, soldiers from the northern kingdom of Castile gradually gained control of much of the peninsula, slowly driving out the Moors*. As the Castilians moved south, they spread their language. In the 1200s Alfonso X, king of Castile and León, used Castilian Spanish, rather than Latin, to conduct official business. He also ordered translations of works from Arabic and Latin into Spanish. These actions helped standardize the Spanish language.

In the 1400s the culture of the Italian Renaissance began to influence the Spanish tongue. Words borrowed from Italian and Latin came into use, sometimes replacing words borrowed from Arabic. Antonio de Nebrija, the first major Spanish humanist*, studied in Italy and learned classical Latin. In 1481 he published the first Latin textbook in Spain. Eleven years later, Nebrija published a Spanish grammar—the first grammar textbook in any modern European language. This text established Castilian as the language of Spain.

Spanish continued to evolve during the 1500s. Pronunciation began to change, taking on the forms now part of modern Spanish. New patterns of speech also developed. In 1611 Sebastián de Covarrubias y Orozco compiled a dictionary called Treasury of the Castilian or Spanish Language, which set forth the rich vocabulary of Renaissance Spanish. All these changes in vocabulary and language structure affected the development of new styles in literature.


Some scholars have described the 1500s and 1600s as a golden age of Spanish literature. A variety of new literary forms emerged during this period. Classical studies, religious reforms, and medieval* styles all played a role in shaping the literature of this time.

Poetry. During the 1400s, Spanish poets began to adopt the styles of classical Latin and Renaissance Italian verse. At the beginning of the century, many Spanish poets were writing love poems in a style borrowed from the popular songs from the Middle Ages, which had short lines of about eight syllables. Juan de Mena broke away from this style, developing a poetic form with longer lines, based on ancient Latin verse. Around 1450 the Marquis de Santillana produced a collection of sonnets* in the Italian style.

Italian forms continued to influence the development of Spanish poetry in the 1500s. At a royal wedding in 1526, a number of Spanish authors met Italian humanists and discussed writing with them. This meeting inspired two of the Spanish writers, Juan Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega, to experiment with various forms of verse. Their work, published jointly in 1543, introduced distinctive new styles into Spanish poetry.

Garcilaso wrote few poems, yet his pieces set new standards for verse writing in Spain. He did most of his work in Naples and often followed the examples of Italian writers such as Jacopo Sannazaro and Bernardo Tasso. Garcilaso's poems include sonnets, elegies*, pastoral* love poems, and an ode*. Scholarly editions of his work, published between 1570 and 1580, helped establish him as a leading Renaissance poet.

Luis de León (1527–1591), another notable poet, taught at the University of Salamanca and became the leader of a group of humanist writers and translators. A member of a Catholic religious order, he was descended from conversos (Christian converts from Judaism) and specialized in the study of the Hebrew Bible. Because of these connections with Judaism, he was imprisoned and tried by the Spanish Inquisition*. León wrote a number of poems modeled on those of Garcilaso. Some explore Christian themes and others tell pastoral stories. A few describe the injustices León received at the hands of the Inquisition. Circulated in manuscript form, León's poems gained a wide readership.

Spanish writers published more than 50 epic* poems in the 1500s. The main model for these works was the Aeneid, by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Some of the best Spanish epic poems dealt with religious subjects. However, the greatest Spanish epic, La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533—1594), tells the story of the conquest of Chile.

Religious Works. During the Renaissance, religion in Spain focused increasingly on the inner life of the spirit. Religious reformers such as Teresa of Ávila helped promote this tend through their writings. Teresa, a Carmelite nun, became the most important writer of spiritual literature in Renaissance Spain. Her autobiographical Book of Her Life, written in the 1560s, described her own spiritual journey. In Interior Castle (1588), she analyzed the different forms of religious experience. Another religious reformer who played a role in literature was Juan de Yepes, also known as St. John of the Cross. His superb mystical* poetry used erotic images to describe intense religious experience. He also wrote commentaries explaining the theology* behind his poems.

One major form of religious writing in Spain was the sermon. In Spain, as in the rest of Europe, sermons provided an important link between the "high" culture of the Latin-speaking elite* and the popular culture of the masses. The sermons people heard each Sunday focused on moral, theological, and political themes. Their authors drew on a variety of sources, including the Bible, humanist writings, traditional tales, and medieval bestiaries (books about animals whose behavior offered moral lessons). A few of the many sermons delivered during this period became available in either manuscript or print form for study.

Fiction. During the 1500s, many types of fiction appeared in Spain. In the first part of the century, romances* in the tradition of chivalry* were extremely popular. These works combined tales of skill and courage with scenes of courtly love. They often portrayed knights as models of Christian virtue. Nevertheless, some preachers disapproved of romances because of their love scenes.

Pastoral romances told stories about characters living in peaceful, rural settings. Often echoing Renaissance theories of love, they appealed to more sophisticated readers than chivalric romances. The first pastoral romance in Spanish, Diana (1559) by Jorge de Montemayor, dealt with the lives and loves of a group of shepherds and shepherdesses. Other writers, including Gaspar Gil Polo and Miguel de Cervantes, based romances on Montemayor's model.

A more realistic form known as the picaresque novel focused on the adventures of a pícaro (rascal). The earliest known example is The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, written by an unknown author in 1554. A later work, Guzmán de Alfarache (1599–1602) describes the life of a man who has had a religious conversion. After each episode, the narrator explains what he learned from his experience.

Spanish Renaissance fiction reached its peak with the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Part 1, published in 1605, met with immediate success. Part 2 appeared ten years later, shortly before the author's death. Widely hailed as the world's first modern novel, it tells the story of a minor nobleman who sets out as a wandering knight to right the wrongs of the world. The complex treatment of character, plot, and themes in Don Quixote has had a lasting impact on the development of the novel. Cervantes's Exemplary Novellas (1613) also explored new ground. A collection of experimental short novels, it combines elements from romances, the picaresque* novel, and Italian fiction, told from various points of view.

Drama, History, and Other Forms. Spanish drama developed slowly during the Renaissance. The first significant drama of the period, Celestina by Fernando de Rojas, appeared in 1499. However, it was not written for the stage, but rather as a novel in dialogue form. Toward the end of the 1500s Spanish writers began to experiment with plays intended for the theater. By the 1600s, playwrights such as Lope Félix de Vega Carpio had established drama as a lively art form in Spain.

Another popular prose form in Spain was history. Several Spanish historians recorded the events surrounding their country's conquests in the Americas. They based their works on various ancient and medieval traditions. In the early 1500s some Spanish authors produced works that mixed different forms of writing, including information, advice, and fiction. Antonio de Guevara's Dial of Princes; or, Golden Book of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (1529) combines fictional letters by the Roman emperor with fables and other lore. Guevara's Familiar Epistles, written about ten years later, contains fictional letters along with advice, sermons, and short novels.

(See alsoBiography and Autobiography; Conversos; Drama, Spanish; History, Writing of; Humanism; Inquisition; Literature; Pastoral; Poetry; Religious Literature; Spain. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Iberian Peninsula

part of western Europe occupied by present-day Spain and Portugal

* Moor

Muslim from North Africa; Moorish invaders conquered much of Spain during the Middle Ages

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* elegy

type of poem often used to express sorrow for one who has died

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* ode

poem with a lofty style and complex structure

* Spanish Inquisition

court established by the Spanish monarchs that investigated Christians accused of straying from the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly during the period 1480–1530

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* mystical

based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* elite

privileged group; upper class

* romance

adventure story of the Middle Ages, the forerunner of the modern novel

* chivalry

rules and customs of medieval knighthood

The Moorish Novel

Although Spain drove the last of the Moors out of its territory in 1492, they remained a presence in the nation's literature. A type of fiction called the Moorish novel described the relations among Christian and Islamic knights and ladies in highly idealized form. The most successful work of this type was The Civil Wars of Granada, by Ginés Pérez de Hita, published in two parts (1595 and 1619). Viewed as the first historical novel in Spain, it later became the basis for The Alhambra, a collection of stories and essays written in 1832 by American author Washington Irving.

* picaresque

refers to a type of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rogue or rascal

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Spanish Language and Literature

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