For much of the 13th and 14th centuries, the most active centre of lyric poetry/songs in the Iberian Peninsula was the territory north and south of the border separating Portugal and Galicia. These poems we know as Cantigas gallego-portuguesas or Galician-Portuguese Songs.
That this poetry was composed in Galician-Portuguese may seem surprising at a time when Castilian was becoming increasingly widespread as the Kingdom of Castile-León (which included Galicia, which had been forcibly annexed in 1072) extended its frontiers south at the expense of Muslim al-Andalus, in what is generally referred to as the “Reconquista.”
Furthermore, in the 13th century, Castilian became the language of the court and of official communication, especially during the reign of Alfonso X, king of Castile-León from 1252 to 1284. Alfonso was a passionate promotor of Castilian, and under him scientific treatises, literary works etc. were translated from Arabic into the vernacular, and a history of the world and of Spain, and a codification of Castile’s laws and other works were rendered in Castilian rather than Latin.
In addition, Castilian was establishing itself as a literary vehicle with contemporary epic poetry (e.g. Poema de mío Cid c. 1200, and the Poema de Fernán González c. 1250, and learned verse mostly written by clerics (e.g. the poetry of Gonzalo de Berceo, 1190s-1260s, and the anonymous Libro de Alexandre c. 1240, and the Libro de Apolonio c. 1250).
So why didn’t lyric poetry follow the route of the epic etc.? Why did even Alfonso X –that passionate promotor of Castilian— paradoxically write or sponsor hundreds of lyric poems in Galician-Portuguese, the most famous of which are his Cantigas de Santa María?
The main reason is the powerful influence of Provençal courtly poetry, the principal and most prestigious voice in lyric poetry in Europe from the 12th to the 14th centuries. But to understand why poetry from the south of France should have such an impact in the far north west of the Iberian Peninsula we have to turn briefly to religion and the road to Santiago de Compostela.
At a period when pilgrimages to Jerusalem were dangerous owing to constant hostility between Christians and Muslims (we are in the age of the Crusades), the popularization of the cult of St James (the martyred disciple of Christ who had allegedly been assigned by Him to spread the Word in the Iberian Peninsula and whose remains had been miraculously “discovered” in the 9th century near Santiago) offered a viable alternative. After Rome, Santiago became the most visited pilgrimage destination in Europe during the Middle Ages. Predictably, given geographical proximity, most of the earliest pilgrims were French and these, together with French merchants who settled in the cities along the route, combined to give the route the popular name of camino francés (French Road).
Among the travelers were poets and minstrels from Provence, carrying with them their poetic practices. The prestige attached to their poetry was due not only to the quality and novelty of the poetry but also to the status of those composing and their audience. As the term “courtly” implies, this verse was composed mainly by cultured poets for an aristocratic audience.
This courtly poetry was able to flourish in the north west of the Iberian Peninsula thanks to the patronage and active participation of royalty (e. g. King Dinis of Portugal) and educated aristocracy who adopted themes and verse forms from Provence.
The imitation, however, was not slavish and in two matters they deviated from their source of inspiration.
First, they did not compose in Provençal but in Galician-Portuguese unlike, for example, contemporary poets in Catalonia who adopted Provençal in their lyrical verse owing probably to geographical proximity and a certain similarity in the languages of both regions. In the case of Galicia-Portugal, distance made it easier to adapt rather than adopt.
Second, the Galician-Portuguese poets also found inspiration in the popular songs of their region, transmitted orally in rural areas, coastal villages etc. These traditional songs, sung young women, had a universal appeal and were related thematically to a large pool of common experiences expressed by young women found in early European lyrics: e. g. the German Frauenlied or the French Chanson de femme. In this respect, too, there is precedence in the Iberian Peninsula in the Mozarabic kharjas but there is no reason to assume a direct influence of the latter on the Galician-Portuguese poems.
Three Categories of Poems/Songs.
Some 160 poets have been identified during this period and 1680 poems collected. The poems are divided into three categories established by the poets themselves: 1. Cantigas de amor (Love Songs); 2. Cantigas de amigo (Songs about the Beloved); and 3. Cantigas de escarnho or de mal dezir (Songs of Ridicule and Insults). Many of the poets practiced all three kinds.
These cantigas (i. e. poems or songs) have survived in three manuscript collections or Cancioneiros (Songbooks). The oldest is the Cancioneiro da Ajuda, dating from the late 13th to early 14th century and now located in the Ajuda Palace Library, Lisbon. The collection contains 310 poems, all cantigas de amor.
The other two manuscripts are early 16th-century copies –made in Italy for the Italian humanist Angelo Coloccio– of a cancioneiro, now lost. The more complete copy, the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) in Lisbon, contains 1,680 cantigas; it is still often referred by its original name of Colocci-Brancuti. The other copy, the Cancioneiro da Vaticana, in Rome, has over 1,200 poems.
Both the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional and the Cancioneiro da Vaticana contain poems common to each other (including some cantigas de amor from the Cancioneiro da Ajuda), and both have poems belonging to the three categories mentioned above.
[Two 14th-century parchment fragments have attracted attention because they contain the original musical notations. One is known as the Vindel parchment and contains seven poems by the troubadour MartÍn Codax; the other is the Sharrer Parchment with poems by King Dinis. Together, they total 13 cantigas.They all also appear in the National Library and Vatican cancioneiros. The MartÍn Codax poems are all cantigas de amigo; those of King Dinis are cantigas de amor.]
The Cantigas de amor.
These poems show the influence and ethos of courtly Provençal poetry. The setting is courtly and urban, and the emotions expressed in them are those of the poet’s (or poetic “I’s”) viewpoint, which was male –an important distinction from what we see in the cantigas de amigo. The distinguishing characteristic is the relationship between the lover and his lady whereby –following the code of courtly love– he is bound by rules that assert his inferiority and his lady’s superiority. Adapting feudal terminology, the lover “submits” himself to his lady: he is her “vassal” and she his “lord,” to the point that the masculine senhor is used with the feminine adjective e. g. mia senhor or senhor fremosa). However, the lady is cold, indifferent, unapproachable, which causes the poet to suffer, and leaves him sleepless and unable to declare his love. He may even die of love, but still, he remains faithful etc.
The following is an example of a cantiga de amor by Bernal de Bonaval, a 13th-century Galician troubadour who was active in the court of Alfonso X 1252-84 and earlier in that of Ferdinand III Galicia 1231-1252, Alfonso’s father. He was widely recognized for his poetry, even earning the praise of Alfonso.
A dona que eu am’e tenho por senhor
Amostrade-mi-a, Deus, se vos en prazer for,
Senom dade-mi a morte.
A que tenh’eu por lume destes olhos meus
E por que choram sempr’, amostrade-mi-a, Deus,
Senom dade-mi a morte.
Essa que vos fezestes melhor parecer
De quantas sei, ai, Deus!, fazede-me-a veer
Senom dade-mi a morte.
Ai Deus! Que a mi fezestes mais ca mim amar,
Mostrade-mi-a, u possa com ela falar,
Senom, dade-mi a morte.
The lady whom I love and hold as my lord,
God, show me her, if it pleases you,
If not, give me death.
She whom I consider to be the light of my eyes,
And because of whom I weep constantly, show me her, God,
if not, give me death.
She whom you made the most beautiful
Of all [women] who exist, let me see her,
If not, give me death.
Oh God, she whom you made me love more than myself,
Show me her, where I can speak to her,
If not, give me death.
2. Cantigas de escarnho e maldezir, satirical, defamatory poems –often comically so– also influenced by Provençal verse and connected to court lyrics. There is a wide variety of topics, ranging from everyday moral conduct to scandalous political behavior.
Deyermond, A. D A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages London, New York 1971
Michael, Ian “The Galician-Portuguese Lyric,” in Spain: A Companion to Spanish Studies ed. P.E. Russell
https://cantigas.fcsh.unl.pt/manuscritos.asp?ling=eng Contains all the poems in Galician-Portuguese from the three Cancioneiros. There are English translations of all the introductory materials and a good introduction to the material as well as brief biographies of the poets. Some cantigas are translated into English verse.
Page from the Cancioneiro da Ajuda: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=368265
Page from the Codax parchment< Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=368265