Spain Golden Age Literature. Early Background.

In the Spanish context, the term “Golden Age” (or El Siglo de Oro: literally “Golden Century”) refers to a period of outstanding achievements that encompass a wide range of activities: in politics, literature, art, sculpture, architecture, theological and humanistic studies (i.e. the study of classical culture), philosophy, law etc. 

However, the chronological frame covering the “Golden Age” is open to debate, and the criteria adopted for the definition vary. For our purposes, the period between 1474 to 1700 seems appropriate.

1474 is the year when the two most powerful kingdoms in the Iberian peninsula were united under the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella; 1700 marks the death of the last Hapsburg king of Spain, Charles II, and the appearance of the Bourbon dynasty from France.

The chronological criterion adopted here is political and admittedly arbitrary, but within this frame Spain’s cultural accomplishments were remarkable and place it on par with those of other European countries, notably France, England, and Italy.

One comment needs to be made regarding Spain’s political achievements during this period. The 16th century was a time when the country rapidly acquired a vast empire, and when its power was central to the thought of every European or Mediterranean country. 

But not all that glitters is gold in this case; there was also a dark side. We have only to think of the brutal activities of the Inquisition, the dependence of Spain on foreign loans, the reliance on soldiers and sailors from other countries, the defeat of the Invincible Armada (1588), uprisings in the Low Countries (Netherlands), and the loss of territory in the 17th century to realise that appearance of greatness can be deceptive.

“Greatness,” however, can justifiably be applied to Spain’s literature during this period. Its poetry and drama are of exceptional quality and originality while in prose fiction Spanish writers are not only exceptional but also introduce fundamental innovations that led to the modern novel as we understand it.

But before looking in more detail at these three genres, let’s consider what made the Golden Age possible. In brief, there was a convergence of social factors and cultural awakening at the end of the 15th century and in the early years of the 16th century.  For the moment, we’ll leave the social factor and look at the cultural.

All Spaniards know how historically significant 1492 is: it was the year that Columbus “discovered” America and the year when the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabel (Ferdinand and Isabella), conquered the Kingdom of Granada, the last Moorish enclave in the peninsula. In the same year, Fernando and Isabel also expelled from the country all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity.

Fewer Spaniards may know, however, the cultural significance of 1492. It was in that year that the first Spanish (Castilian) Grammar book (in fact the first grammar of any modern European language) and the first Latin-Spanish dictionary were published. 

Both were the works of the humanist Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), who had studied in Italy before returning to Spain to teach, first at the University of Salamanca and then at Alcalá de Henares. The Spanish language, Nebrija believed, had reached such a pinnacle that it required a grammar so that others could learn it, as he and others had learned Latin.  “Our language,” Nebrija said in the Prologue dedicated to Queen Isabel “has achieved such heights that more is to be feared for its fall than for its rise.

Both the Grammar and the Dictionary signalled that Spanish was now a language of consequence, worthy to be set alongside Latin (the model language par excellence) and deserving of an explanatory grammar. “Language,” Nebrija said, justifying the usefulness of his Grammar in the Prologue, “has always been the companion of empire.” 

These words were remarkably prophetic, for Spanish soon became, of course, an imperial language with the “discovery” of America and with Spain’s expansion into northern Europe, just as Latin had been the great imperial language of its day.

The Spanish text of Nebrija’s Prologue and Grammar
(Gramática de la lengua castellana) can be read in

Nebrija was not alone in expressing pride and confidence in the Spanish language.  Hernando de Talavera, Queen Isabel’s confessor for a time, also saw the relationship between language and empire. When Isabel asked Nebrija what usefulness the Grammar could be put to, Talavera intervened (according to Nebrija) saying: “After your Majesty has conquered many barbaric countries and nations of foreign languages, with their conquest they will need to receive those laws that the conqueror imposes on the conquered and through them our language.”

First edition of Nebrija’s Gramática

Evidence of cultural pride can be seen in the words of the poet-dramatist, Juan del Encina. In 1496, he published an Arte de poesía castellana (Art of Castilian Poetry) in which he seconds Nebrija’s view regarding the excellence of the Spanish language, and then adds that he has written his Arte because “our poetry and way of writing verse has never achieved such high standing.”

An example of that pride is seen in the changing attitude towards popular poetry of the Medieval period, especially the romances (i.e. ballads). Earlier in the 15th century, they were viewed as inferior songs enjoyed only by peasants or people of low social status, according to the famous poet, the Marqués de Santillana. 

By the time Nebrija and Encina were writing, romances were being printed in chap-books  (i.e single sheets folded to form  a booklet of four or more leaves. In Spanish, pliegos sueltos.), and in 1511 several appeared in an anthology –Cancionero general– together with other 15th-century verse of all kinds. A sure sign of the status they had acquired, and which they –and other Medieval works– enjoyed throughout the Golden Age.

The Queen herself also helped set the tone for the Golden Age. She was, for example, an enthusiastic patron of learning and attracted Italian scholars to teach Latin at the court. 

In addition, she herself learned Latin as an adult and collected a rich library including Latin works, romances of chivalry, guides to good government, and musical texts.  Nor did she overlook her own Castilian literary tradition gathering selections of poetry from the 14th and 15th centuries.

To facilitate the circulation of these works, she promoted the spreading of the printing press with tax exemption to printers. The result was a cultured environment favourable for spreading classical thought and humanistic ideas.  One of the beneficiaries of this environment was Garcilaso de la Vega (1498?-36), the first great poet of the Golden Age, who grew up in the Royal court.

In 1474 the first printing press in Spain was set up in Valencia, which allowed speedy publication of several copies of any book.  This coincided with a rapid expansion in  the number of universities in Spain: Zaragoza 1472, Avila 1482, Barcelona 1491, Valencia 1500, Santiago de Compostela 1504, Seville 1516. 

The best known of the new universities was Alcalá de Henares, founded in 1508, which became a centre of theological and classical studies.  Chairs of Greek and Latin were established there, and in 1517 the great Polyglot Bible, with texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin, was completed by a team of scholars from the university.

Finally, we have the enormous impact of Italian humanism, perhaps the most profound influence on European culture of the 16th century.  The Italian language was seen as the natural daughter of Latin, and the works of Italian writers, drawing on ancient Latin (and Greek) thought, had opened up new and alternative avenues of critical thinking.  We know this period as the Renaissance, the rebirth –and influence–of classical culture.

The Renaissance is generally conceded to have begun in Italy in the 14th century, with the great scholar and poet Petrarch (1304-74). It gathered force and flowered in other European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries, spreading as scholars visited Italy (e.g. both Nebrija and Encina) and Italian men of letters were invited to other countries.

One of the most famous Italian scholars invited to Spain was the humanist Peter Martyr (Pietro Martire d’Anghiera), who was impressed by the accomplishments of the Catholic Monarchs and by the energetic and outward-looking air in the newly united country. He gave a series of talks at the University of Salamanca in which he outlined the cultural and philosophical debates taking place in Italy. He remained in Spain, distinguishing himself as a teacher of young nobles at court, and as chronicler of Columbus’s voyages and of subsequent explorations in Las Indias.

Another great humanist whose work had a wide impact throughout Europe was the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469? – 1536). His popularity in Spain in the first half of the 16th century was facilitated by the succession to the Spanish throne in 1516 of the Flemish-born Hapsburg, Carlos I (Charles I, later V of the Holy Roman Empire).

Erasmus’s  influence was felt particularly in the University of Alcalá thanks to the progressive make-up of the university and to the influence of many of the Flemings who accompanied Carlos to Spain in 1517 . (Because of the growth of Protestantism and fears of heresy, most of Erasmus’s writings were placed on the Spanish Inquisition’s index of prohibited books in 1559.)

In religion, humanistic studies led to a scholarly re-evaluation of the Bible (e.g. the Polyglot Bible of Alcalá), to church reforms, and eventually even to the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe. On the secular front, the revival of classical thought generated an interest in human concerns and motivations, covering literature, language, philosophy, political thought and art.

The receptiveness of Spain’s poets, dramatists and novelists to these new cultural winds produced a literature that was second to none, a Golden Age in other words.

Jones, R.O  A Literary History of Spain: The Golden Age 1971

Kamen, Henry   “Golden Age, iron age: a conflict of concepts in the Renaissance,”  Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 4 (1974), 135-55
Nebrija,Antonio Gramática
Reston, James Jr  Dogs of War, Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors 2006  (photo of Nebrija’s Gramática)