Spain. Romances of Chivalry. Decline of a Popular Genre.

Romances of Chivalry. Decline of a Popular Genre.
The decline in popularity of romances of chivalry in the second half of the 16th century in Spain is all the more dramatic given their remarkable vogue in the first half.  Specific causes are difficult to pinpoint, and their decline was most likely caused by a combination of factors.

The Court.
When Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, abdicated in 1556 in favour of his son, Philip II (1556-98), the royal court underwent a major change.  Charles, warrior king and endless traveler in defence of Catholicism, was replaced by a monarch who rarely ventured beyond the confines of Castile once he succeeded to the throne. 

Indeed, it was Philip who established the previously insignificant town of Madrid as capital in 1561.  Madrid was in the very centre of the peninsula, and served Philip’s purpose of being seen to rule impartially. Philip was no less a determined defender of the Faith than his father, but he neither inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor nor appeared in battles to inspire his armies.

If Charles was the epitome of a warrior, Philip was the bureaucrat par excellence. Charles was dynamic and with his travels Spain seemed to look aggressively outwards. Under Philip Spain appeared suspicious and defensive. The Medieval knight-errant would feel quite at home in the court of Charles V, whereas the bureaucratic world of Philip would be completely alien to him.

Military Progress

In many ways, the difference between Charles and Philip mirrors the changing nature of war that took place during the 16th century.  The preeminence of cavalry, i.e. the knight on horseback who fought mainly with lance and sword, gave way to the importance of the infantryman, the foot soldier, who armed himself increasingly with firearms.
Unlike Don Quixote, contemporary soldiers were not inspired by higher ends but by the reality of their needs.  In Don Quixote II, 24 a young soldier, on his way to war, was heard by Don Quixote and his companions singing: “My needs take me to war. If I had money, there’s no way I’d be going.”  Nothing could be further from the chivalric ethos. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, lost the use of his left arm when he was seriously injured by a harquebus (i.e. a “modern” firearm) in the Battle of Lepanto, 1571.

Pikes, crossbows and longbows were still effective but as the use of gunpowder improved it began to replace traditional weapons, so that by 1550 firearms had come into general use. Muskets and harquebuses were better able to penetrate protective armour and at greater distances thereby making heroic hand to hand combat –the hallmark of the knight– increasingly a thing of the past. Don Quixote, of course, is the perfect example of the incongruity of the chivalric knight in the age of gunpowder.

The famous Armada of 1588 is, for some, an early example of the disappearance of the heroic, chivalric world in the face of the impersonal force of fire power.

On their ships, the Spaniards carried soldiers prepared to board the English vessels and engage in hand to hand combat with their adversaries, and the artillery the ships carried played a mainly supportive role. 

The English, however, with only sailors and gunners on board kept their distance and peppered the Spanish ships with cannon fire. Furthermore, the English ships were designed as gun carriers whereas the Spanish vessels were primarily troop carriers better suited for boarding tactics.

One of the aims of Philip II when he launched the Armada was to reclaim England for Catholicism.  Spain was not impervious to heresy and under Philip it became an increasingly closed society as the infamous Inquisition continued to root out religious deviance of any form.

In Italy, Spanish theologians had been prominent during the Council of Trent (Northern Italy, 1548-63) convened by Pope Paul III to reform the Roman Catholic Church in order to counteract the heresies of Protestantism. Known as the Counter-Reformation, the movement advocated a more aggressive diffusion of Catholic orthodoxy. 

In Spain, this took the form of increased religiosity, particularly in literature and in the visible arts, e.g. painting and sculpture. Many allegorized romances of chivalry and pastoral works “a lo divino” (i.e. religious) now appeared, together with significant numbers of religious works. 

Many of these latter contained sustained criticisms of romances of chivalry for their lies, for the immoral behavior of many knights and maidens, and for the harm they brought to readers. They also challenged the fabrications of the chivalric world by addressing day to day issues faced by the readers.

Religious works were not the only challenge facing romances of chivalry. In the second half of the 16th century, pastoral literature and literature of Byzantine inspiration became popular.  They offered something different, although like romances of chivalry, both were far removed from the realities of daily life.

Love was a common factor in all three, but in pastoral romances the nature of love and its complications –filtered through Neoplatonic philosophy– was the central thread.  The pastoral world was essentially nostalgic and melancholic as shepherds –wandering through a stylized, Arcadian landscape– dissected their emotions.  They contrasted their past happiness when their ladies (shepherdesses) returned their love with their present frustration as unrequited lovers.

The pastoral world appealed primarily to an educated, aristocratic readership, and in the case of prose pastorals, they were often “romans a clef” i.e. they offered the added spice of trying to work out the identity of real people hidden behind the shepherds’ masks. 

Byzantine romances were as adventurous as romances of chivalry, but the emphasis was on the frustration of star-crossed lovers who found themselves constantly separated… until the end of the story. They inhabited a world of constant travel, shipwrecks, kidnappings, seductions, murder, even suicide; the defence of kings or kingdoms, battles, tournaments and jousts was not their concern.

In 1554, just as the romances of chivalry were beginning to decline, Lázaro de Tormes arrived on the scene. Everything about this newcomer was different from Amadís and his fellow knights.

Often called the first picaresque novel, the pseudo-autobiographical La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades  (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of his  Fortunes and Setbacks) was as short as Amadís de Gaula was long.  Lázaro’s life was as much concerned with the battle for survival in a very real world as Amadís’s was with the battle for glory in the remote and rarified world of chivalry.  Lazarillo‘s anticlerical content caused it to be placed on the 1559 Index of Prohibited Books.  But like the proverbial genie released from the jar, the low born narrator was not going away. The pícaro (“rogue,” “scoundrel,” or female pícara) was only just beginning a journey into literary consciousness.

The fictional world of Lázaro and subsequent pícaros was not set in the distant past and in some faraway land, but in the urban centres of contemporary Spain. Hunger, and poverty were their constant companions, and hypocrisy, deception and prevarication were the lessons learnt from a corrupt and morally degenerate society.

Increasingly, too, picaresque works addressed a peculiarly Spanish obsession in the 16th and 17th centuries: limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”).  This was a social “virus” that marginalized all those thought to have Jewish (or Muslim) blood in their veins.  Known as Conversos, –and often suspected of heresy— these individuals took extraordinary measures to hide their background, which only increased the suspicions of neighbours and frequently led to investigation by the dreaded Inquisition. By bringing these contemporary problems to the fore, the picaresque novel exposed the underbelly of society and offered readers a mirror of the challenges of daily living in their society.

The second half of the 16th century saw the rapid growth, too, of the theatre. The establishment of temporary theatres in the 1560s and permanent theatres –corrales— in large towns from about 1580 brought “live” entertainment directly to an enthusiastic public from all levels of society. 

Themes varied widely, but comedias de espada y capa (“cloak and dagger plays”) and honour plays were popular choices. Boldly breaking with the classical unities of time, place and action, and introducing nobles and peasants together on stage, the theatre offered “live” representation of the concerns and interests of the public.

Besides honour, the comedia raised issues such as upward mobility, the relationship between peasants and nobility, purity of blood, the role of women, free will and predestination.  Nevertheless, although the action in many plays might suggest some subversive element of social change, the endings invariably ended with order restored. Indeed, for many the theatre was in fact a propaganda tool for the nobility; for others the very presentation of different points of view got people thinking about other ways of seeing the world.

Social Changes:
Both the picaresque novel and the theatre were in their respective ways urban products. The picaresque novel found its subject matter primarily in city streets, the theatre –to sustain itself– needed a substantial audience found only in urban centres. 

The growth of both the picaresque and the theatre in the second half of 16th-century Spain reflected a shift in the demographic pattern of the country. In general, the population increased for most of the 16th century with many cities doubling or tripling in size.

Urban growth was mainly the result of migration from the countryside, especially from the Castilian Meseta, an inhospitable plateau whose searing sun in summer and biting winds in the winter made the cultivation of the land a highly risky venture at the best of times, and these were not the best of times.

Inflation brought about by the influx of American gold or silver, high food prices, and an enormous tax burden (up 430% from 1559-1598), together with the perceived benefits of urban life, were more than enough to persuade peasants to head for the cities. This in turn produced urban crises in housing, sanitation, employment as cities struggled to accommodate newcomers. Charitable organizations helped ease the social tensions, but begging, crime and violence were widespread. Seville –then the largest city in Spain– was the Mecca for criminals, closely followed by Madrid.

Rapid urbanisation during the second half of the 16th century in Spain created new readers dissatisfied with those fantastic tales that had little to do with the realities of daily life. For most of these readers, the pícaro not only replaced the chivalric knight, he also pushed aside both shepherd and byzantine hero.  For theatergoers, the comedia opened up a world of exciting possibilities where the contemporary knight –the noble— was seen to share the same space as the peasant.

Armada 1588-1988.   Official Catalogue  London 1988

Kamen, Henry    Spain 1469-1714: A Society in Conflict London 1983
Keegan, John    A History of Warfare  Toronto 1994
Fernández-Armesto, F   The Spanish Armada Oxford 1989
Sieber, Harry   in Romance: Generic Transformation from Chretien de Troyes to Cervantes eds. Brownlee, K and Brownlee M. S  Hanover 1985 pp. 203-19
Vicens Vives, J ed.   Historia de España y América social y económica, vol III, Barcelona 1985.
For an excellent summary and access to a fine translation by Sue Burke, see