The History of Spanish Literature

Category: History of Spain

Spain´s earliest literature consisted of poems, plays, and essays written by the Romans in Latin. Later, when the Moors ruled Spain, they encouraged writers to produce works in Arabic, particularly poetry. Jews who lived in Spain during this time wrote poems and books in Hebrew.

El Cid Campeador

Almost 900 years ago, Spanish entertainers wrote and sang long poems, called epics, about Christian heroes. Many of these singers, or troubadours, traveled around Spain entertaining pilgrims on the road, as well as people in villages and towns. One of the first epics sung in Spanish was written around 1140 by an unknown author. It is called El Cantar de Mío Cid, or the Poem of the Cid, and it is 4,000 verses long. It tells the story of a Spanish hero, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043-1099), who fought with the Christians against the Moors, and with the Moors against the Christians. His title, El Cid Campeador, means The Lord Champion.

The Golden Age of Literature in Spain

Spaniards produced so many great works of literature and art in the 1500s and 1600s that this period became known as the Golden Age. Two of the most famous playwrights from this time are Felix Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Felix Lope de Vega (1562-1635) wrote almost 2,000 plays. Some people boasted that he could write a play in a single day. Many of his plays were about honor and love; others were historical plays about Spanish heroes. After Lope de Vega died, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) became the favorite playwright of the time. He wrote plays about love and jealousy, but is best known for his religious dramas about Catholic beliefs.

Don Quixote

The most famous Spanish novel is El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha, commonly called Don Quixote (pronounced don kee ho tay). Its author, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), published the humorous novel in two parts, between 1605 and 1615. It tells the story of a nobleman who, after reading too many stories about knights, believes he is a knight himself. He sets out to do good deeds and fight evil, accompanied by his faithful servant, Sancho Panza. Unfortunately, Don Quixote fights battles against giants who are really only windmills and attacks armies that are really flocks of sheep. Sancho Panza is always at his master´s side to help him out of trouble.

Modern Writers

By the 1800s, Spaniards began to write about the problems of people in Spain. Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) is one of Spain´s most famous poets and playwrights. His books of poems, which include El Romancero Gitano, or The Gypsy Ballads, described the lives of Gypsies with kindness and compassion at a time when many people in southern Spain were unkind to them. The Spanish author Camilo José Cela (1916-) writes about conditions in Spain in the 1940s and 1950s. His novel Viaje a la Alcarria, or Journey to the Alcarria, describes the difficult lives of people in the countryside. Cela won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1989.

After the Spanish Civil War, many writers in Spain focused on depressing and violent themes. Female writers began to publish stories that described the terrible effects war had on people, especially women. By the 1980s and 1990s, some of the best-known writers in Spain were women, such as Ana María Moix and Carme Riera.