Spanish Ballads. Historical Overview to Civil War 1936-39.

Romances: Brief definition.
The romances (ballads) have been defined as the verse form that best captures the Spanish poetic tradition, and constitute one of the largest and richest ballad traditions in Europe.

They are a native creation, mainly in Castilian but with significant contributions in Portuguese, Catalan and Judeo-Spanish/ Ladino (i. e. surviving amongst Sephardic Jews following their expulsion from Spain in 1492), and have enjoyed remarkable popularity from the Middle Ages to the present century.

The romances are verse compositions that began as popular medieval songs of variable length transmitted orally at first by singers known as juglares (minstrels) who earned their living reciting –often to music– selected pieces of poems or popular themes familiar to their audience.

Their wide variety of sources for the medieval ballads included:
1. Cantares de gesta. i. e. epic verse (e. g. Poema de mío Cid, Mocedades del Cid, Poema de Fernán González, Infantes de Lara), and chronicles that included epic material;
2. events from Spanish history (e. g. the defeat and fall in 711 of Rodrigo (Roderic), the last Visigothic king, or the civil war between King Pedro (Peter) and his half brother, Enrique (Henry) of Trastámara (1358-69);
3. the Moors and frontier life;
4.  early tales from France, loosely inspired by the court of Charlemagne or Arthurian legends; 
. more universal lyrical themes: romance (i. e. love), eroticism, mystery, magic, adventure, vengeance, death (known as novelesque ballads).

All these medieval ballads fall under the general heading of romances viejos (old ballads). They are often sub-classified –although not without debate– into romances literarios (numbers 1 and 4), romances históricos (number 2), romances fronterizos (number 3) and romances novelescos (number 5).

Historical Survey to the Spanish Civil War 1936-39.
When the romances started is unclear. A widely held argument is that they began as fragments derived from epic poems in the 14th century, although not all critics are convinced of this.

For now, the earliest recorded example we have is a hybrid of Catalan and Castilian scribbled in the notebook of a Mallorcan student, Jaume de Olesa, studying in Italy in 1421.

But this was not the beginning of the ballads, and the student was not the creator since the theme –an encounter between a seductive young lady and a married man– was already well established.  More important, we know, that there were romances composed earlier, during the civil wars between King Pedro and his half-brother Enrique (1358-69), where both sides used ballads for propaganda purposes.

Given the passion on both sides and the intention to influence public opinion, it is unlikely that the ballads would have been composed at a later date when their impact would be lost. In addition, those that attack the victorious Enrique have largely disappeared whereas most of those that remain disparage Pedro (and it worked, since he is widely known as Pedro el Cruel!).

But the point is that we can say that romances were being recited at least as far back as the middle of the 14th century, that they were transmitted orally although not recorded textually until the second half of the 15th century.

In the early 15th century, the ballads seem to have been popular among ordinary people to judge from the comments of some learned poets who viewed them as rustic verse sung by peasants. For example, the early humanist, the Marqués de Santillana (Iñigo López de Mendoza, 1398-1458), regarded romances as inferior songs without form or structure, composed by poets of the lowest category for the pleasure of people of low status.

However, by the second half of the 15th century there was a remarkable turn around when the romances found favour in the court of Henry/Enrique IV of Castile (ruled 1454-74) and especially in that of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella (1474-1504).

These romances were not necessarily those sung in the villages, but glosses (light reworking) by court poets and set to music with many printed in pliegos sueltos (broadsheets, i. e, sheets of paper printed on one or both sides and folded).

Particularly popular were the romances fronterizos (frontier ballads), dealing with events between Christian and Moors at a time when war with Muslim kingdom of Granada was reaching its climax. In these cases the romances served as propaganda material, but they also chronicled both Christian and Moorish life on the frontier on both sides, often with surprising sympathy for the sadness of the Moors at their losses.

The romances quickly acquired “official” status, so much so that by 1492 the famous humanist Antonio de Nebrija even quoted from a couple of them in his Gramática castellana, the first grammar text in any modern European tongue of Latin origin. Added evidence of acceptance came when the dramatist Juan del Encina included romances as a standard Spanish verse form in his Arte de poesía castellana (1496).

The form was evidently sufficiently well established to appear in the dramatised novel La Celestina (first pub. in 1499) when Sempronio sings four romance lines to console his master, Calisto, after the latter’s advances were rejected by Melibea: Mira Nero de Tarpeya/a Roma como se ardía;/gritos dan niños y viejos/y él de nada se dolía. “Nero gazes from the Tarpeyan cliff/ at how Rome is burning;/ children and the elderly cry out/ and he feels no remorse.”

Borrowing from ballad lines became common in the 16th century, reflecting the form’s popularity and assumption on the part of the authors (e. g. Cervantes, Quevedo) that readers would be well acquainted with the subject matter of the borrowed lines and their application to the context in which they appeared.

During the 16th and 17th centuries (Spain’s Golden Age), the romances enjoyed wide appeal, being sung or recited in the streets and esteemed in cultured circles.  They started to be included in verse anthologies, e. g. 38 were included in the Cancionero general (Anthology of Poems) 1511 and by about 1525-30 the first modest collection of (50) romances only was printed in Barcelona.

Shortly after, probably in 1547-48, there appeared the much larger and more influential Cancionero de romances (Anthology of Ballads), containing the texts of 156 ballads.  First published in Antwerp, it was reprinted in 1550 with an addition of some 30 new ballads and with many of the original collection altered or replaced in favour of new or superior versions from different sources.

With the increasing impact of the printing press, the romances blossomed in the literary world in the second half of the 16th century, beginning what has been referred to as the “most glorious period in the history of the Romancero” (Smith xxi).

Not only were more collections published but themes from the ballads found their way into the new, enormously popular theatre headed by Lope de Vega, where the speedy romance metre was widely used in furthering the action of the plots of plays. The metre also lent itself to the narration of contemporary historical events, with romances composed about the conquest of America and Spain’s prolonged war in defence of its territory in northern Europe (Flanders and the Netherlands)..

At the same time, Lope and numerous cultured poets such as the influential Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo either reworked known versions or wrote original compositions of their own inspired by contemporary tastes.

A late 16th-century and early 17th-century fondness for pastoral literature, a romanticised view of the Moorish past (morisco ballads), satire of contemporary concerns and burlesque of classical and national literature expanded the themes.

Quevedo, for example, composed ballads on traditionally most “unpoetic” topics such as “drunks, prostitutes, cats on rooftops, scabies” (Morris 70). Furthermore, the romance form was enriched by the linguistic sophistication of the “period in which the considerable influence of Renaissance Italianate culture can be detected (e. g. extensive use of metaphor, neologisms, classical themes and allusions, plays on words, verbal jokes” (Morris 71). 

The result was the creation of a new kind of ballad known as the romance artificioso or romance nuevo. A measure of the change in taste can be seen in the famous Romancero general (1600-05), a large collection of ballads composed entirely of romances artificiosos.

During the 18th century, the romances viejos and artificiosos fell out of favour with cultured poets greatly influenced by French neoclassicism. Still, one type of romance viejo did have some appeal for accomplished poets: the romance morisco.

Its popularity has been ascribed to the way in which conflict between Moors and Christians (whether involving war or love intrigues) led to disillusion which in turn alerted “the populace to the need for analytical thinking and critical reasoning in an atmosphere of deceptive appearances” (Kish 281). That is, the theme was adapted to the rational ideology of 18th-century Enlightenment.

In villages and town streets, people still enjoyed the traditional themes: e. g. the Cid, Charlemagne, Roderic and the fall of Visigothic Spain, love or mystery ballads (e. g. Count Alarcos).

But to these were now added more recent historical topics (the War of the Spanish Succession 1700-1713), as well as contemporary social matters involving bandits and outlaws whose anti-establishment ethos was widely admired, especially in Andalusia (where banditry was widespread).

These types of romance were often composed or disseminated by the blind and sold by them as romances de ciegos (blind men’s ballads) in broadsheets.  Many blind men also made up their own romances dealing with local concerns or scandals with misogynistic songs of the wiles of women being very popular.

But there was also a dark side with ballads displaying an increased sensationalism and a marked tendency towards depicting crime, violence, vengeance and the supernatural evidently appealing to the people. Attempts at banning a taste for such lurid content failed, and enlightened thinkers had to be satisfied with trying to direct the public towards ballads with moral lessons or ones reflecting popular religious beliefs (e. g. lives of saints, miracles, praise of the Virgin and evidence of her intercession).

In the 19th century, the popularity of 18th-century sensationalist romances and romances viejos (old ballads) handed down over generations continued.  But the rise of Romanticism prompted a reevaluation of the romances in literary or cultured circles.

Inspired by German Romanticism’s idealisation of the medieval past as the true expression of the national spirit found in the people, Spanish Romantic poets saw in the romances the ideal vehicle for expressing national pride and Spain’s unique identity and personality.

At the same time, Romanticism in Spain coincided with the country’s political upheaval between the forces of authoritarianism (the monarchy, church, aristocracy) and liberalism. Liberalism achieved a major victory with the creation of a constitutional monarchy in 1812 which expressly stated that power was invested in the nation (i. e. the people).

Complicating the picture, but essential to understanding the direction of Spanish Romanticism and popularity of the romance, was the Spanish Peninsular War. Better and more appropriately known in Spain as the War of Independence, it was a successful six-year war of resistance and liberation (1808-1814) in which local militias played a decisive role against French occupation under Napoleon Bonaparte.

An unintended consequence of this popular-driven, patriotic resistance was that it demonstrated the power of the people and cast a romantic aura over revolution, insubordination, and violent action. After cultural domination by the French since the beginning of the 18th century, and political humiliation when Napoleon unilaterally placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne in 1808, the romances and other popular forms were a nationalistic affirmation of Spanish traditions.

Evidence of this new nationalism can be seen in Juan Bohl de Faber’s publication of his Floresta de rimas antiguas españolas in 1825, and Agustín Durán’s Romancero general, a large collection of romances in five volumes in 1828-32, later condensed into two volumes 1849 and 1851.

By the 1830s, cultured poets were writing their own romances, or incorporating their ballads into longer poems within a mixture of verse forms, similar to what Golden Age dramatists had done in their plays.

Using the romance form as vehicle and Spanish history (the Middle Ages, Moors) as material, the Romantic poets (especially the exiled noble, the Duke of Rivas and the exiled bohemian José Zorilla) expanded the ballad’s thematic scope and vocabulary by evoking a colourful past tinged with mystery, suspense, foreboding, the macabre and the supernatural. Titles such as “The Oil lamp,” “The Judge,” “The Head” are ominous.

Darkness, moonlight, ample description of setting and clothing, exclamatory dialogue, challenges, dead bodies, bones, death, secret entrances, disguised individuals, nobles, royalty, distressed or abandoned damsels, lovers, seduction etc… all are set in a dramatic and fateful tone.  There is action in medieval Seville (is there a more Romantic city?), Granada, Toledo; there are Moors, royalty (Pedro the Cruel), nobility (the Count of Benavente (the loyal Castilian who burnt his palace after it had been occupied by a traitor). However, this Romantic symphony may have overplayed its hand; later poets of the 19th century rejected its excesses.

In the 20th century, the old ballads still survived in oral form and continued to be sung in villages and isolated rural areas, but, as in previous centuries (except the 18th) they also attracted the attention of numerous cultured poets.

In his Campos de Castilla (1907-1917), Antonio Machado composed a long ballad of murder and retribution, of sin and punishment, based on a real-life incident. Divided into ten parts, it deals with two avaricious brothers who colluded in the murder of their father Alvargonzalez (a farmer) only to end up throwing themselves into the same lake into which they had thrown their father’s body.

The theme has a biblical quality, but the sober, direct narrative, the simplicity of the plot, good versus evil with justice prevailing, and the redemption of the land through a third son has all the dramatic naturalness of the old ballads (many of which were also inspired by real-life events).

Quite different is Juan Ramón Jiménez’s (Nobel Prize for literature in 1956) early poetry (1900-03) where the romance is harnessed to symbolic settings to portray the poet’s soul engulfed, for example, in the languid sadness of dry leaves in a garden, all bathed in dreamy melancholy.

But it is in the 1920s and 1930s, that the romance enjoyed a revival and surge of popularity among cultured poets similar to the vogue it enjoyed in the late 16th early 17th centuries. A group of avant-garde poets, artists, intellectuals –popularly known as the Generation (or sometimes Group) of 1927– sought to merge the various -isms of their day (e. g. surrealism, symbolism, ultraism) with their appreciation of their country’s poetic heritage and respect for popular tradition, especially as they were transmitted through the poetry of Luis de Góngora and other Golden Age writers.

Although a list of those making up the Generation of ‘27 varies, the following are probably the best known: Pedro Salinas (1891-1951), Jorge Guillén (1893-1984), Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), Vicente Aleixandre (1898-1984 Nobel Prize for literature in 1977), Rafael Alberti (1902-99), and Luis Cernuda (1902-63). (It was from a meeting of several poets in Seville in 1927 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Góngora’s death that the group got its name.)

Invigorated by new themes that reflected something of the world of the early 20th century and a renewed appreciation of metaphor, the romance confirmed its versatility and durability. We can detect in many romances by these cultured poets (especially in Lorca and Alberti) echoes of both the romance viejo and the Golden Age romance artificioso.

Nevertheless, “unpoetic” modern words such as “cinema”, “cars,” “taxis,” “bicycles,” “trams” now entered the language/ repertoire of the romance.  The ballad also became a vehicle for abstract reflection with Jorge Guillén who contemplates the sky in its “roundness,” its “energy” and “irresistible blue/ whose destiny is harmony.”

Pedro Salinas used a romance to reflect on the wonderful discovery that a poem can contain the world in itself, i. e. it is a poem about a poem, a meta-poem, if you like. Alberti played with absurdity:  a highly pompous title such as Metamórfosis y ascensión is actually about the conversion of food through cooking, a fanciful description of his funeral (!) has an archbishop and tram drivers in attendance while chick peas rattle in his coffin and lentils roll about in his pockets.

Federico García Lorca (probably the most widely known member of the group), published in 1928 his Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads), 18 romances which combined techniques common to traditional ballads (dramatic or catchy opening lines: Voces de muerte sonaron/ cerca del Guadalquivir: “Voices of death rang out/ near the Guadalquivir,” Verde que te quiero verde: “Green, I love you green”), abrupt or enigmatic endings (El barco sobre la mar./El caballo sobre la montaña: “The ship on the sea./The horse on the mountain”), repetition, dramatic dialogue, popular allusions (la noche de Santiago: “St. James’s eve”) with a condensed, startling juxtaposition of metaphors to create the myth of the gypsy.

While the romance was practiced by virtually all poets of the Generation of ‘27, it formed only a part (and a small part at that) of their poetic repertoire that ran from other forms of popular songs/ verse (e. g. letrillas, villancicos), to the cultured Petrarchan sonnet to free verse.

At the same time, it should be remembered that beyond the literary world of the Generation of ‘27, especially in villages scattered throughout rural Spain, old romances continued to be sung.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) brought the romance to public attention as a most prolific and effective propaganda tool used by both sides of the bloody conflict, the Republicans (loyal to the legitimately elected government) and the Nationalists (rebel forces under General Francisco Franco). 

An estimated 20,000 romances were composed, appearing in numerous journals, magazines, periodicals as well as posters and murals. They were sung or recited in the street, in the trenches and on the front. At the same time that both sides poured out propaganda extolling their virtues, they hurled insults at the shortcomings of the other.

A new vocabulary now entered the lexicon of the romance with words related to modern combat: “grenades,” “tanks,” “machine guns,” “armoured vehicles,” “radios”,” dynamite,” “mortars,” “proletariat,” “fascists” etc.

Many of these ballads were composed by intellectuals, especially on the Republican side, amongst them members of the Generation of ‘27 (e. g. Alberti, Aleixandre, Cernuda). But what was remarkable about the ballads composed during the war was the number of anonymous poems (or poems signed only with initials), particularly on the Republican side.

Most were written by soldiers or ordinary citizens and often show signs of hasty composition, syntactical and spelling errors etc., which might be attributed to the war conditions under which they were written (i. e. on the front) or to an elementary skill at writing.

The use by both cultured poets and ordinary civilians of the romance not only reaffirms its longevity, it demonstrates its attraction to both educated and less educated citizens.

For the former, the romance was an intellectual link with earlier poets, for the latter it connected them like a hidden root system to the past. For both it as an inspirational form capable of expressing a wide array of sentiments and generating a popular response from generation to generation.

Gies, David T. ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge (corrected) 2009

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