Basque Literature and the Oral Tradition

By Lekuona, Juan Mari | UNESCO Courier, August 1985 | Go to article overview

Basque Literature and the Oral Tradition


Lekuona, Juan Mari, UNESCO Courier


THE oral and the written tradition are intimately intermingled in Basque literature. For those who know it well, there is not a shadow of a doubt that Basque literature is as rich and varied as that of any other people, that it is just as fertile in original, authentic literary forms, and that the oral tradition is the vector of the essence of Basque culture.

Coupled with this keen awareness of the oral tradition is a realistic appreciation of written literature, which is seen as being a latecomer, neither very abundant nor fully representative, yet, at the same time, essential to the very survival of the language and to its adaptation to the demands of modern life.

Although this state of affairs is today widely recognized, this was not always the case and a glance back at the past may help us to appreciate better the present complementarity of these two forms of Basque literary expression.

Under the impetus of the Renaissance and the religious trends of the time, the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries witnessed the publication of the first texts in the Basque language. The output was very small and was virtually confined to the northern or French-Basque region, as it was called; this region was socially less developed than the Spanish-Basque area where, at the time, published material was virtually limited to catechisms for parish use.

At that time oral expression was predominant. Books containing religious texts and texts for religious instruction were usually read aloud in church to the congregation. In preparing these books, their authors, bearing in mind the instructional purposes to which they were to be put, deliberately adopted the forms and styles of oral literature.

These texts, which were both written and spoken, became part of the collective memory, colouring even popular forms of expression; they were transplants grafted, as it were, on to the language by educated religious minorities.

The first written collections of oral texts, gathered in both of the Basque regions and consisting of old songs, refrains and popular sayings, also date back to this period. Apart from their inestimable value in tracing the linguistic and literary development of the language, these collections also bear witness to the vigour of the poetic forms and the quality of the literary tradition from the Renaissance to the Baroque period.

During the two following centuries the links between oral and written literature underwent a transformation in the southern provinces of Guipuzcoa, during the eighteenth century, and Vizcaya, during the nineteenth century. Literature flourished and the production of published works outstripped that of the northern region.

The increase in the proportion of non-religious books, accompanied by a rise in the cultural level and a more pronounced taste for the classics in the creation of oral works, led to a new relationship between the two forms of literature. Written literature was obliged to turn to oral forms as the prime source of literary structures and techniques, whilst the oral tradition, particularly during the Enlightenment, had to conform more and more to the rules of written literature if it was not to lose its topicality or even to disappear altogether. …

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