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|City of Toledo, Spain|
Under the Moors, Spain became a cultural center, where Arab, Hebrew and Christian scholars translated important words of Islamic and ancient Greek culture into Latin. Most were not literature, however, but were math and science related. With the Christian reconquest of the peninsula began in the 11th Century, Alfonso VI, the king of Castile, a descendant of the Visigoths, captured the city of Toledo, Spain and the Spanish dialects of northern Spain became dominant. These dialects slowly replaced Arabic and Mozarabic, a Romance language with many Arabic words, as spoken languages. Writing in these dialects became standard during the 12th and 13th century. The works of this time period were varied according to status and social structure. Uneducated but highly entertaining bards sang stories of the Christian heroes. Scholars wrote and translated works of monarchs. The monks, clerics and priests composed poetry about the natural and spiritual world.
The first works were jarchas, first appearing as short stanzas at the end of a muwassaha, a kind of poem written in the second half of the 11th century in Arabic and Hebrew.
The Earliest Spanish Literature: Love Poems and Songs
The first works that could be considered truly Spanish were the jarchas written in dialects as the reconquest spread. These were most often from the point of view of a woman in love who seeks solace and advise and later developed into love songs in the oral tradition of the 12-early 14th centuries.
The Troubadour Style and the Epic
The first great works of Spanish oral tradition were composed by troubadours, medieval poets who sand for the people in the village squares and for the nobility in castles and royal courts. They flourished as a result of pilgrimages to the burial place of Saint James, the patron saint of Christian Spain. The troubadours entertained the pilgrims with songs and long narrative poems called epics, which were about the deeds of Christian heroes. Most were 12-16 syllables long with a caesura (pause) in the middle. The rhyme scheme was one in which the last accented vowel in a line, and any vowels after it in that line, were repeated in the lines that followed.
The Spanish epic tradition differs from other European epic traditions in its focus on social and political issues. They also lacked the exaggeration, supernatural forces and fantasy that other European works tended to have.
One of the most celebrated works in Spanish literature, The Song of the Cid, is a poem in the troubadour style and was composed around 1140. It is about Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043–1099), a Castilian nobleman and military leader. He was called El Cid (the Lord) by the Moors and El Campeador (the Champion) by Christians. He is the national hero of Spain. The nearly 4,000 verses describes a lifetime of armed conflict and celebrates steadfast loyalty to family, vassals and king.
We read the version of The Tale of The Cid by Andrew Lang, the author of the colorful Fairy Tale books.
For older students, I suggest The Song of the Cid (Penguin Classics) A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel Text.
- I used this study years ago with my daughter, who graduated a few years ago. Because of this, I am not sure if I made this unit up entirely myself or if I found some of it on the internet. If you know if any of this has come from a source I have not credited, please let me know, and I will make the appropriate corrections.