Spanish Ballads. Metre. Rhyme. Style.

Spanish romances/ ballads have a long history dating from the 14th century to the present day. They take in a wide variety of themes, reflecting not only the concerns and tastes of the periods in which they were composed but also mystery, magic, and universal sentiments such as love, fear, anger, envy, etc.

They began as anonymous poems of variable length transmitted orally in song or recitation by minstrels (juglares) in the courts of royalty and nobility and in village squares. By the end of the 15th century they had caught the attention of individual poets and musicians. In the 16th century, poets and musicians mined them for inspiration, dramatists found their catchy tempo and narrative flexibility ideal for furthering the plots of their plays, and even novelists inserted romance lines in their works.

Over the centuries, individual poets reworked older ballads and created their own. At the same time, the oldest ballads (romances viejos) continued to be recited in towns and villages by community or family members gifted with good memories, and new romances with local significance were constantly added to the vast repertoire.

The general stylistic characteristics discussed here are limited to the so-called romances viejos (old ballads, aka as romances tradicionales or primitivos), composed between the 14th and mid-16th century. Later ballads, the romances artificiosos/nuevos (artistic/new ballads) of the second half of the 16th and early 17th centuries up to those of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) will be addressed in a later page.

Romances have no set length.  One of the shortest recorded has 16 lines, one of the longest stretches to 1366. Different versions of the same ballad may differ in length, depending on what has been added or taken away in oral transmission. 

Once written down a version acquires stability, and becomes a source of reference, but that does not mean it is fossilised in that form. The romance is, if anything, very fluid. As a result, many anthologies or collections contain more than one variant of the same ballad.

Where the oldest romances are concerned there is no original or authoritative text; the best we can do is speak of the oldest known or recorded version. Romances by individual poets are more likely to be fixed, although even here there might be discrepancies owing, for example, to manuscripts incorrectly copied or to having entered the world of oral transmission due to their popularity.

Their metre and rhyming scheme — octosyllabic (8-syllable) lines with assonance at the end of the even lines— are amongst the romance’s most identifiable characteristics. Assonance is the pairing of the last two vowel sounds repeated irrespective of the intervening consonants. So, for example bArbA rhymes with lAnzAs or nEgrA with pEsA. The assonance rhyme of the first example is aa, the second is ea.

Where a line ends with a stressed vowel, the syllable count of that line will add up to 7 but a theoretical e (called paragogic e) is appended to create the 8th syllable. The following line is considered an octosyllable although there are only 7 syllables: al/ chi/co/ con/ el/ may/or. The o of mayor is stressed, therefore the paragogic e is attached to make the eighth: al/ chi/co/ con/ el/ may/or/(e).

In this respect, it is useful to remember that all words in Spanish ending in a consonant (except n or s) carry the stress on the last syllable, unless indicated by a written accent earlier in the word (e. g. González),

Society in the Middle Ages was largely illiterate and listening to stories and songs was a major source of both entertainment and education. This was how people became acquainted with a wide variety of tales. In this, the role of the anonymous juglares/ minstrels was central.  

They were performers and their success (and livelihood) depended on their persuasive narrating ability which included voice modulation, eye contact, timing, body language etc. They needed to attract the attention of their audiences as quickly as possible and maintain it; they needed to know where to begin and when to end. They also knew not to be long winded. These factors influenced the style they adopted.

Most of the romances viejos are relatively short. They focus on individual scenes extracted from a wide variety of popular sources the juglares/ minstrels had at their disposal:  epic verse, chronicles, events from Spanish history, frontier life with their Moorish neighbours and adversaries, early epics from France (inspired by the court of Charlemagne or by Arthurian legends filtered through Brittany in north west France).

This practice of extracting passages, commonly known as fragmentismo, is considered to be “a central feature of the Spanish ballads.” (Smith 30). A series of fragments (i. e. of ballads) on the same topic is known as a cycle, e. g. the Cid cycle, the Fernán González cycle, the Carolingian cycle and so on.

Often a place name or the protagonist’s name quickly identifies the cycle the ballad belongs to as well as setting the scene: En París está doña Alda/ la esposa de don Roldán “In Paris is doña Alda/ wife of don Roldán” begins a Carolingian ballad;  Cabalga Diego Ordóñez/ al buen rey besar a man “Diego Ordóñez is on horseback/ (going) to kiss his king’s hand” belongs to the youthful Cid cycle.

As the narrative ballads derived from epics, chronicles etc. gathered popularity during the late 14th-early 15th centuries, the romance metre and rhyme soon expanded to include more universal, lyrical themes: romance (i. e. love), mystery, magic, adventure, death.

To capture the attention of the public, the beginning of a ballad was important. It was often abrupt and dramatic (as if beginning in the middle of the action) or evoked mystery or began with memorable opening lines. Imagine the audience expectations from the following: Castellanos y leoneses/ tienen grandes divisiones/ … / sobre el partir de la tierra/ y el poner de los mojones: “Castilians and Leonese/ are very much divided/ …/ about the division of land/ and the placing of boundary stones” (Smith 70).

Or the curiosity aroused by the catchy and suggestive opening of the romance: Yo me era la mora Moraima/ morilla de un bel catar; Cristiano vino a mi puerta/ cuitada, por me engañar: “I was the Moorish girl Moraima/ a good-looking young Moorish lass;/ a Christian knocked at my door/ alas for me, to deceive me.”

For mystery, here’s one of the most famous ballads: !Quién hubiese tal ventura/ sobre las aguas del mar/ como hubo el conde Arnaldos/ la mañana de San Juan!: “Who could have had such good fortune/ (or possibly “If only I had such good fortune”)/ on the waters of the sea/ as did Count Arnaldos/ on the morning of St John.”  Who wouldn’t want to know what follows!

Sometimes a direct address gives added impact to the opening: Buen conde Fernán González/ el rey envía por vos: “Good count Fernán González/ the king has sent for you,” (sounds ominous, doesn’t it!). Then there is the catchy and memorable repetition: Abenámar, Abenámar/ moro de la morería: “Abenámar, Abenámar/ Moor from the Moorish quarter.”

The action then followed concisely, with verbs taking preference over adjectives which tend to slow down the pace. The present tense was very frequent as an aid to bringing the action alive. The preterite (past tense) was the narrative tense furthering the action.  However verbal tenses in the romances were often haphazard and the preterite was frequently replaced by the imperfect subjunctive (the tense ending –ara) to obey the demands of rhyme or to adjust to the metre: e. g. Cómo venis triste, ayo?/ Decid, ?quién os enojara?/ Tanto le rogó Gonzalo/ que el ayo se lo contara: “’Why have you come so sad, teacher? Tell (me), who made you angry?’ So insistent did Gonzalo beg him/ that the tutor told him about it (an insult).” From the Siete Infantes de Lara cycle.

One of the prominent features of the romances viejos is the use of dramatic dialogue (in which a woman’s voice is frequently heard). There are declamations, challenges, complaints, accusations, threats and even insults. For example, doña Sancha, the mother of the seven Infantes (Princes) de Lara, is ridiculed as having given birth to septuplets como puerca encenegada: “like a dirty pig.” Her youngest son responds in her defence accusing the ladies of their enemies of being putas “prostitutes!” Before engaging in a fight, Castilians and Leonese hurl abuse at each other with the inflammatory accusations that they are hideputas/ hijos de traidores: “sons of bitches/ sons of treacherous fathers.” (Smith 70, ll. 7-8). Listen to the complaint and threat uttered by dona Urraca, daughter of King Ferdinand I of León-Castile. Believing that she has been disinherited, she turns on her dying father and promises

Irme he yo por esas tierras           I shall travel through these lands
Como una mujer errada,               like a wandering woman,
Y este mi cuerpo daría                  and this my body I shall give
A quien se me antojara,                to whomever takes my fancy,
A los moros por dineros                to Moors for money
A los cristianos de gracia;             to Christians free of charge;
!de lo que ganar pudiere,              from what I might earn
hare bien por la vuestra alma!       I’ll see your soul is cared for.

Nothing better than challenges, accusations, threats and insults to grab and hold the audience’s attention!

The language of the romances viejos tends to be simple and frequently formulaic, both features characteristic of oral transmission and often used as part of epic technique. Simple language reduces clutter and moves the action forward; the formulae are useful to draw the public’s attention (e. g. bien oiréis lo que dirá: “listen well to what he is going to say” is very common or bien oiréis lo que hubo dicho: “listen to what he said”), or to serve as line fillers as the singer organises his next lines, or they may quickly complete a necessary assonance.  They are essentially tricks of the trade of communication giving a certain archaic and sober quality to the language while complementing the historical flavour of the ballad.

Adding to the juglar’s tricks of the trade are questions, exclamations, repetition, enumeration, exaggeration, contrast, parallelism etc. Here are two examples of repetition (anaphora: todos, cuánto), enumeration, contrast, parallelism and exclamation (second example). The first is from the Cid cycle. It describes the Cid (Rodrigo) accompanying his father, Diego Laínez, and other nobles to see the king. The poem begins Cabalga Diego Laínez/ “Diego Laínez rides on horseback.”

Todos cabalgan a mula,                 They (the nobles) all ride on mules
sólo Rodrigo a caballo;                   only Rodrigo is on horseback;
Todos visten oro y seda,                 they all wear gold and silk,
Rodrigo va bien armado;                 Rodrigo goes well armed;
Todos espadas cenidas,                 they all carry swords
Rodrigo estoque dorado;                Rodrigo a golden sword;
Todos con sendas varicas,             Each has his own staff,
Rodrigo lanza en la mano;             Rodrigo a lance in his hand;
Todos guantes olorosos,                They all wear sweet-smelling gloves
Rodrigo guante mallado…             Rodrigo a glove of chain mail

The second excerpt is from a frontier ballad:Reduán, bien se te acuerda “Reduán, you remember well” (Smith 116). Reduán was a Muslim commander who died attacking the town of Jaén in 1407 on the orders of Muhammad VII of the kingdom of Granada. Reduán’s army is described as follows as it leaves the city of Granada:

!Cuánto del hidalgo moro!   What a lot of Moorish nobles! (or more strictly How many!)
!Cuánta de la yegua baya!             What a lot of bay-coloured mares!
!Cuánta de la lanza en puño!         What a lot with lances at the ready!
!Cuánta de la adarga blanca!         What a lot of white shields!
!Cuánta de la marlota verde!         What a lot of green gowns!
!Cuánta aljuba de escarlata!…       What a lot of scarlet cloaks!

It goes on for six more lines…

Like the beginning, the ending, too, is frequently abrupt and open-ended often completing an episode on a note of suspense. The resolution will then be revealed in another a sequel. For example, in one ballad (from the cycle of the siege of Zamora, where King Sancho II of Castile lost his life), the dying King Ferdinand I of Castile curses the man who would take the town from his daughter doña Urraca (Sancho’s sister): !Quién os la tomare, hija/ la mi maldición le caiga!/ todos dicen: !Amén! !Amén!/ sino don Sancho, que calla: “Whoever takes it (Zamora) from you, daughter/ may my curses fall upon him!/ All say, ‘so be it! ‘So be it’/ except don Sancho, who is silent” (Smith 90).  It is not difficult to imagine the brooding, angry, probably tense don Sancho, faced with his father’s curse, when his goal is precisely to take the town of Zamora. But it also sets the scene, after attempts at negotiation have failed, for the dramatic opening of another ballad in the cycle: “Rey don Sancho, rey don Sancho/ no digas que no te aviso” King, don Sancho, king don Sancho/ don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”

The characteristics outlines here are not exclusive to the romances viejos. Most are used to varying degrees in all later ballads, especially narrative romances. To give you a flavour, we’ll end with an example from one of the most celebrated Spanish poets of the 20th century, Federico García Lorca, author of the famous Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads). The ballad “The death of Antoñito el Camborio” opens with Voces de muerte sonaron/ cerca del Guadalquivir: “Voices of death rang out/ near the Guadalquivir.” It closes: Voces de muerte cesaron/ cerca del Guadalquivir: “Voices of death fell quiet/ near the Guadalquivir.”

Bryant, Shasta M     The Spanish Ballad in English Valencia 1973

Deyermond, Alan D  A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages 1971
Piñero, Pedro M      Romancero Madrid 1999
Smith, Colin   Spanish Ballads 2nd ed. Bristol 1996
Walters, D Gareth   Spanish Poetry: Spain and Spanish America Cambridge 2002
Wright, Roger     Spanish Ballads Warminster1987
For an illuminating article on the flexibility of romances, see Roger Wright

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