Romances of chivalry were extremely popular in Spain in the first half of the 16th century. Numerous continuations and imitations immediately followed the publication in 1508 of Amadís de Gaula and its sequel Las sergas de Esplandián, 1510. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but some 60 were published during the 16th century, with most appearing between 1508 and 1550.
The Amadís cycle alone consists of 12 books (e.g., Lisuarte de Grecia, 1514, Amadís de Grecia 1530). Of the many imitations, the best known is the Palmerín cycle (Palmerín de Oliva 1511, Palmerín de Inglaterra 1547 etc.). These and others are mentioned in Don Quixote, with most being condemned to the flames during the famous examination of Don Quixote’s library (Bk I, 6).
Why should romances of chivalry be so popular in Spain in the first half of the 16th century, and what explains their remarkable decline during the second half of that century?
Let’s look at their popularity. Amadís de Gaula, the father of this vast progeny was essentially a medieval work (first mentioned in the 14th century) yet it was avidly read or listened to in the 16th century (i.e. the Renaissance, or Siglo de Oro in Spain).
The romances were more than an escape to some exotic far away land to follow the incredible adventures of equally incredible knights. There was something in the spirit of the medieval chivalric world that was compatible with that of early 16th-century Spain, or in this instance more precisely Castile. Certainly, the chivalric ethos of loyalty to king and religion, its militaristic fervour and its Christian undertone found ready resonance in a country undergoing dynastic changes –the arrival of the Hapsburg house– and new religious challenges –the rise of Protestantism.
When Ferdinand and Isabel married in 1474, they joined together the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, establishing the foundations of the modern state of Spain. They were the last of their respective houses and were succeeded in 1517 by their grandson, Charles, heir to the prestigious Hapsburg throne. Charles, who was educated in Flanders, was also Duke of Burgundy, and was exposed from an early age to the chivalric ideals and fashion practiced in the Court of Burgundy.
Not surprisingly, Charles enjoyed romances of chivalry and the tournaments and jousts associated with that world. He had a particularly favourite book, Belianís de Grecia (pub. 1545), and pestered its author, Jerónimo Fernández, for a sequel. Charles even sought a chivalric method of resolving political disputes when he twice challenged the young king of France to a duel (1528 and 1536). In other words, the royal court of Spain felt at home in the world of chivalry.
It so happened, too, that Charles besides being King of Spain also acquired the title of Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, thereby becoming the official defender of Catholicism, which at the time felt itself under attack everywhere: the explosion of Protestantism in Northern Europe, the continuing threat of Islam in the Mediterranean and heresy within Spain itself.
Charles was in all ways a warrior king fighting in France, Italy, North Africa, and his aggressive defence of the Faith was readily understood by Spaniards. Even allowing for periods of convivencia (getting along with each other), the Christians had struggled for centuries against Islam and had only just successfully eliminated it with the conquest of Granada (1492).
The Christian piety of knights-errant and the crusading spirit and conversion episodes of pagans to Christianity in the Spanish romances of chivalry understandably resonated with Spanish readers. After all, mass conversion had taken place following the conquest of Granada, when both Muslims and Jews were either forcibly converted or sent into exile.
And it was now, too, that the Inquisition –introduced into Castile in 1478 to examine heresy within the Catholic fold —started to become increasingly active. (Ironically this growing intolerance took place at the same time that scholarship in both classical and biblical studies were opening Spain up to new ideas, and Spanish literature was embarking on new and unexplored avenues.
Conquest of America and Medieval “Reconquista”:
The affinity between the medieval world and early 16th-century Spain stretched also to the “discovery” of America (Las Indias). With the remarkable tales of the wonders of these new, exotic lands across the seas, the fantastic adventures of daring knights suddenly no longer seemed quite so unlikely.
Also, the conquest of America acquired a similar aura to the medieval reconquest of territories from the Moors. The risk taker and man of action, the adventurer, required for the conquest of America had been forged during the medieval Reconquista. The rewards for the conquistador were similar to those of his medieval predecessor, the reconquistador: land to conquer, people to convert to Christianity, and glory or fame.
The one major difference was that the conquistadors and reconquistadores were real people who also sought wealth whereas the knight-errant of the romances was a fictional creature indifferent to material gain. Bernal Díaz de Castillo, a soldier who took part in the conquest of Mexico, put the conquistador’s objective succinctly: “we came here to serve God and the king and also to get rich” (Elliott 53).
It is Bernal Díaz, too, who provides a striking link between the chivalric world and the experiences which he and his fellow soldiers were sharing. On seeing the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) for the first time, they were so amazed by its beauty that it reminded them of “the enchanted things related in the book of Amadís” (Elliott 53). As a generalization, then, the spirit of the medieval Reconquista was alive and well, and continued in the conquest of Las Indias.
Readers of Romances of Chivalry:
Who was it who read these romances of chivalry? In a society where the vast majority was illiterate, the reading public was limited mainly to the nobility, the church, and the professional classes e.g. lawyers, administrators, merchants etc.
An increase in the number of universities –from 6 in 1470 to 33 by the early 17th century– and the impact of the printing press –there were printers in 23 Spanish towns by 1501– were important factors in enlarging readership and expanding the accessibility of the works.
To these educated readers we can add an illiterate public which enjoyed listening to the tales. Cervantes gives an idea of this pastime in Don Quixote, I, 32, where the innkeeper of the inn where Don Quixote is staying describes how there was always someone who knew how to read and how they would all listen fascinated to the feats of their favourite knights. Such scenes, however, would probably not be widespread but limited largely to those villages or inns located near larger towns or on routes between major urban centres, e.g. between Seville and Toledo/Madrid.
Among those who were avid readers of the romances in their youth were famous figures such as the mystic St Teresa of Avila, the energetic reformer and founder of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, St Ignatius of Loyola former soldier and founder of the Jesuits, and Juan Luis Vives, humanist, educator, and one time lecturer at Oxford and tutor to one of the daughters of Henry VIII of England.
Nevertheless, the very popularity of the romances also drew the critical attention of moralists, theologians and humanists. The romances were attacked both for form and content. They were condemned as wicked fabrications with neither head nor tail, and charged with immorality and lies that could mislead readers and plunge them into iniquity. (St Teresa, St Ignatius and Vives were among many who later regretted their youthful enthusiasm for such books.)
Calls were made for their prohibition, but were mostly ignored. In 1531 they were banned from the Indies, evidently with no success because another ban was issued in 1553. An appeal by the Cortes (Parliament) of Castile to the king in 1555 for the complete abolition of romances fell largely on deaf ears.
By now, however, other factors were coming into play that proved far more effective than official bans in the dramatic decline in the number of new romances of chivalry in the second half of the 16th century (reprints of older romances were still common).
At the same time, a few religious romances “a lo divino” (i.e. converted into religious texts, not a difficult task if we think of the expression “church militant” or a religious group such as the Salvation Army, founded 1865) also appeared, but they made no great splash. The last new romance was published in 1602, just three years before Don Quixote: Part I.
Eisenberg, D Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age Newark, Delaware 1982
Elliott, J.H Imperial Spain 1469-1716 London 1963
Sieber, Harry in Romance: Generic Transformation from Chretien de Troyes to Cervantes eds Brownlee, K and Brownlee M.S Hanover 1985 pp. 203-19
Whitenack, Judith “Don Quixote and the Romances of Chivalry Once Again: Converted Paganos and Enamoured Magas,” in Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 13.2 (1993): 61-91