Iberian Chivalric Literature
This webpage is a brief introduction to the chivalric literature produced by Catalans, Castilians, and Portuguese from the twelfth century until the early seventeenth century.
Iberian nobles were like their fellow European nobles, and loved the tales of the Knights of the Round Table, the Peers of Charlemagne, and the ancient heroes of Greece and Rome. These stories are universal, and they formed part of the basic education of every mediaeval noble. In addition to these three great legendary cycles, the Iberians added works that especially appealed to them or that were drawn from their past. These works are what I'm going to talk about right now.
There are several types of Iberian chivalric literature:
The smallest number of works are non-fictional. However, because they are about real people and real situations, they give a lot of insight into what was really important for people at the time. One early example of this kind is Ramon Lull's Book of the Order of Chivalry. Lull was a Mallorcan noble of the thirteenth century, who, when he entered middle age, changed his life from the social whirl of the royal court to the religious life. He wrote this book shortly after he withdrew from the world. Lull wrote his book as a manual for squires to follow, so that they would have an idea of what sort of an undertaking the proper knightly life ought to be. For him, a knight was not only a mounted warrior, but a judge and an educated man. His book was one of the earliest manuals of ettiquette and of how one could lead a life as a deeply devout, if aristocratic, layman.
It opens with a fictional premise, of a squire wandering in the woods, who finds a hermit reading a book. He asks for directions, and the hermit, in turn, asks him what he's doing in the woods. It turns out that the squire was heading to town in order to get knighted. As the squire and the hermit continue to talk, the hermit is revealed to have been a knight himself, and the squire is revealed to be utterly ignorant of the proper ways of knighthood. The book the hermit was reading was a manual of knighthood, which he finally gave to the squire. Lull uses the fictional dialogue to present his ideas.
There are biographies of great knights. One is The Unconquered Knight, which is about Don Pero Nin~o, a Castilian knight of the fifteenth century. It was written by his flagbearer, Gutierre Diez de Gamez. The Unconquered Knight is not a full birth-to-death account of Nin~o, but concentrates on his upbringing at court and his years as a fighting knight, engaging in the Hundred Years War as a sea-captain on the side of the French, and as a courtier, engaging in such non-martial activity as romancing the wife of the Admiral of France.
Other forms of chivalric non-fiction include accounts of tournaments and passages of arms. El Passo Honroso de Suero de Quin~ones, by Pero Rodriguez de Lena, is a fifteenth century account of one knight's challenge to all passing knights to joust with him at the bridge of Orbigo, in northern Spain.
Realistic fiction is only a short cry from non-fiction, especially when the non-fiction in the same area is very idealized. Iberian realistic chivalric fiction has a long history, stretching from the eleventh century to the fifteenth century. Its earliest examples are the cantares de gesta. One more or less intact cantar de gesta is the Poem of the Cid, which was first written down by Per Abbat in Castile in the early twelfth century. The Poem of the Cid is the account, suitably modified for dramatic purposes, of the conquests of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, the Cid Campeador. Although he was a real person, and a great general, if one not always in favor with his king, the cantar de gesta modifies times and places where some real events took place, creates other events, and slightly exaggerates certain things in order to present a unified story of a knight who rises from an unjust loss of face and exile to becoming the father-in-law of kings and the conqueror of Valencia.
Other real people, like Fernan Gonzalez, the first count of Castile, and Bernaldo del Carpio, seem to have first been memorialized in cantares de gesta, which were used by later chroniclers to compose histories of Spain. Unfortunately, the actual cantares de gesta appear to have disappeared.
Tirant lo Blanc is a final example of realistic chivalric fiction. It was written in the fifteenth century by a pair of Catalans, Martorell and De Galba. It is partially based on the opening scenes of the Book of the Order of Chivalry, in that Tirant, along with his friends, encounter a hermit while they're lost in the woods, who talks to them about the mystery of being a knight, and who sends them on their way. However, Lull's world is soon abandoned for a stirring tale of an obscure but skilled knight rising to power in the Byzantine Empire. There are several parallels between Tirant's career, and the career of Roger de Flor, the commander of the Catalan Company, a mercenary outfit that ruled the Balkans for part of the fourteenth century.
While realistic fiction has its followers, there has always been an audience for tales of wonders, wizards, and monsters. Mediaeval and Renaissance Iberians were not exceptions to this rule. Most late mediaeval and Renaissance Iberian chivalric fiction was of this type.
An early example of this type of fiction is The Knight Cifar, which was written in Castile in the late thirteenth century. The first section is about an accursed knight named Cifar, who is fated to have any horse he owns die after ten days, among other unfortunate things. He leaves the service of his lord, and heads to the sea in search of fresher pastures. Cifar's wife is kidnapped, and while he vainly tries to rescue her, his two sons are carried away by wild beasts.
All is not lost, however. Although each of the characters wanders the world in search of the others, they all end up, one way or another, to end up in the same city. Cifar has become its king, after rescuing and marrying its queen, although, still overcome with love for his first wife, he refuses to consummate the match. Cifar's first wife, after being miraculously saved by the BVM, became the founder of a pilgrim's hostel, funding it from the rich cargo of the pirate ship, after all the pirates died and it miraculously sailed into the harbor. Their sons were adopted by noble families, and were headed there as pilgrims. Eventually, after a brief drama of reunion and mistaken identity, the family was reunited; the problem of bigamy was solved by the queen of the city conveniently falling dead.
The second section is a collection of didactic advice. The third section returns to adventures, this time those of one of Cifar's sons, Roboan. Roboan is luckier than his father, and, in his quest to become a king, merely wanders back and forth, doing deeds of errantry, foiling plots and rescuing maidens.
The great Iberian fantasy series, the Amadis series and the Palmerin series, along with their imitators, however, date their fame, though not their origin, to the sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century. Spain and Portugal reaped the rewards of their labors in quashing civil war, ending the Reconquista, and discovering the riches of the West and the East Indies. Printers wended their way to the Iberian Peninsula in search of prosperous readers, and the fashionable of other countries aped the Iberians who seemed to stride the Earth like Titans. Naturally, they purchased the latest Iberian fiction in the original or in translation.
The Amadis series is named after its first book, Amadis of Gaul. The origins of Amadis of Gaul are clouded. Some scholars claim it was first written in Portugal by Joa~o de Lobeira, sometime in the late thirteenth century or early fourteenth century. Unfortunately, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed the library where that manuscript was held. It seems to have been popular enough outside of Portugal, as Castilian and Portuguese poets make references to it. Amadis of Gaul was translated into Castilian by Garcia Ordon~ez de Montalvo in the early sixteenth century, and printed not long after.
The book became an immense hit. It drew on a lot of the elements in the earlier stories of Lancelot and Tristram, removed some of the elements of adultery, upped the number of combats with monsters and wizards, and De Lobeira and De Montalvo were both elegant writers. Inevitably, it attracted a host of sequels, mostly named after their main character, usually a descendant of Amadis himself, who, like Amadis, was prophesied to be the best knight of his day (supposedly, a time between the Christianization of Britain and the time of King Arthur), and who roamed over a Europe of an inaccurate geography, at best. In the end, including Amadis of Gaul itself, there are a dozen books in the series, as well as several plays and poems.
The series inspired an imitator, a sixteenth century Castilian named Francisco Vazquez, to write a pair of books outside the Amadis series: Palmerin de Oliva, about a knight not unlike Amadis, and Primaleon, about Palmerin's son Primaleon. Vazquez had a gift for elegant Castilian as well, and his books sold well, too. A flurry of sequels followed. The series seemed to have drawn a lot of Portuguese to it. One of the popular sequels, Palmerin of England, by Francisco de Moraes, was written in Portugal in the sixteenth century. Because of its title, it was also a big hit in England, and went through several releases there. Like the Amadis series, marvels and monsters are thrown at nearly invulnerable knights, who fall head over heels in love with unattainable damsels of noble birth, and seek by their feats to attrat the notice of their ladies.
There were also lesser imitations of the Palmerin and Amadis series. These, too, claim to tell a true story of a knight facing down stupendous giants and cunning warlocks with little more than his own good sword-arm, his steadfast faith in God and his lady, and magical backup ready to tilt the balances in case he starts to lose.
To the modern reader, the best introduction to these series is their parody, Cervantes' Don Quixote. The main character, Don Quixote, quotes many of the books verbatim, and describes the adventures of many of the main characters in the series. Don Quixote ends the long train of chivalric fiction, and brings an end to the fantasy fad in Iberian literature. Iberian fiction writers would either turn to picaresque stories of criminals or join the European trend for pastoral idylls of shepherds and shepherdesses.
Today, if you want to read a few of the books that I have been discussing, you do have some options, even if you do not speak Portuguese, Catalan, or Castilian. The Unconquered Knight was translated into English by Joan Evans and published by Harcourt, Brace, and Company in 1928. It's available at some local university libraries and for sale at at least one used bookstore. Poem of the Cid exists in several translations. I personally prefer the Merwin translation of 1959 with the facing Old Castilian text. Tirant lo Blanc was translated by David Rosenthal and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1984. It is still in print. The Book of the Order of Chivalry was translated into English by Robert Adams and published by the Sam Houston State University Press in 1991.
Other books either have excerpts or fairly detailed summaries of or commentaries on some of the stories. Cary Wilkins' A Treasury of Fantasy, published by Avenel Books in 1981, has an excerpt of Palmerin of England, a Portuguese sequel to Palmerin de Oliva. It is not in print, but it can be found at used bookstores. Lin Carter's two anthologies Golden Cities, Far and Dragons, Elves, and Heroes have selections from Amadis and Palmerin of England, respectively. AR Hope Moncrieff's Romance and Legend of Chivalry has an excerpt from Esplandian, the direct sequel of Amadis of Gaul. HA Guerber's Legends of the Middle Ages has been reprinted several times, and contains a summary of the Poem of the Cid along with some brief notes on the later fantasies. Maurice Keen's Chivalry ought to be well-known to most people here. It's probably one of the best introductions to the entire field of chivalric literature, and has a very good summary and commentary on the Book of the Order of Chivalry. Barber and Barker's Tournaments also is fairly frequently seen on SCAdian bookshelves. It has a brief account of Suero de Quin~ones' Passo Honroso. David Hannay's The Later Renaissance, which examines the Iberian chivalric fantasies in a historical context, was published by Burt Franklin in 1964, and is out of print. Henry Thomas' Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry, quite possibly one of the best studies of the whole field, was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1920, and, unfortunately, is out of print, although several local university libraries have it, as well as a few public libraries. Lewis Spence's Spain has recently been republished by Senate Books. It's got a number of good summaries of almost all of the stories I discussed, but his commentary is often misleading and a classic example of purple prose.