Spanish history is a palimpsest of war, revolt, religion, political strife, colonial expansion, discovery, and human saga, and tells the long story of development, from the first permanent settlements of the pre-Roman tribes, to the thriving metropolises of modern European Spain. Throughout these many centuries, one of Spain’s cultural outputs has captured the national spirit and state in a truly magnificent and influential way: That of Spanish literature.
Riddled with epics and experimental forms, the Spanish literary cannon has acquired something of a genre-defining reputation in history, and, while the modern recognised branches of Spanish literature (Castilian, Catalan, and Galician) have their roots in the middle ages, when writers gradually adopted the Spanish vernacular as opposed to Latin, the Roman literary tradition has a lot to thank the writers on the Iberian Peninsula for.
One of Rome’s best known philosophers, Seneca, who died during the reign of Nero in 65 AD, along with two of the Empire’s most defining poets, Quintilian and Martial, were born in the area now called Spain. As if to prefigure the genre-defining character of later Spanish writers, all three took hugely influential and inventive forms and written styles to the Roman cannon. However, with the de-Romanisation of Spain in the 5th century, the Latinate written tradition faltered and gave way to oral traditions that were favoured by the tribes.
It wasn’t until around the 10th century that literature in Spain began to gain momentum again, and with the influx of Muslim culture in the 7th century, the style that developed was one that incorporated all the new Middle Eastern influences on the continent. It’s also this period that saw the first examples of the Romance genre that was to become an integral part of later Spanish epic works, and indeed the subject of such veiled literary scorn at the hands of the country’s most revered; Miguel de Cervantes.
The earliest examples of Romance literature, took the form of lyric poetry intended for oral recital and curiously, written in Arabic script. Indicative of the huge influence Arabic culture was having on the Iberian Peninsula from the 10th century, the so called Jarchas poems were the primary manifestations of the Romantic spirit in the literature of Spain.
But with Romanticism comes Realism, and indeed, Romanticised-Realism – the genre for which Spain was to become known. Here there is one prime example in the Spanish cannon that dates from the 12 century.
The author of the epic poem Cantar de Mio Cid is unknown, but the legacy of his work has had incalculable effect on the development of Romance literature in Spain and beyond since its publication. The work chronicles the life of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, detailing his heroic feats and fateful life. Known colloquially as The Cid, the figure quickly became a defining heroic symbol of Spanish nationalism and assumed an ultra-realistic approach to form, with the author maintaining the biographical nature of his work throughout (a trait that would later become one of Cervantes’ defining characteristics as a writer).
From the 10th century to the start of the Renaissance in Spain, a culture of lyric poetry dominated the literary scene and a number of schools began to diverge, some adopting the Alexandrine form of 14 syllable lines, and others being defined by their use of the Galician dialect. But soon, Spanish literature was to undergo a real shakeup, one that was to alter the course of its literary output for good.
The advent of the novel form occurred in Spain sometime in the late middle ages, and while the undisputed magnum opus of Spanish literature – Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote – is often toted as the ‘first novel’, it wasn’t on the scene until the early 17th century. That said, Cervantes’ epic narrative of the clueless and deluded romantic knight from La Mancha was undeniably a champion of the form, and brought novel writing to the fore in Europe as a whole.
Don Quixote is the most translated novel in history, and its eponymous hero has become a favourite of readers and literary critics alike. The tale is a long one, and charts the adventures of the self-proclaimed Don Quixote and his hapless assistant and squire, the feeble Sancho Panza, as they become disastrously romantically embroiled in the overtly anti-Romantic Spain of the post-middle ages. It can be seen as a dialectical interfacing between Spain’s new-found Renaissance literature, and the medieval Romantic traditions that had dominated the previous centuries, and it is now regarded by many as the greatest novel ever written.
Following the so called Golden Age of Spanish literature that had Cervantes at its helm, Spain flourished in subsequent movements, from Romanticism in the 18th century, to modernist and political literature in the 20th. What’s clear throughout is that Spanish literature is indelibly entwined in the saga of the country’s historical narrative.