Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry

By del Río Fernández, Rocio | Fifteenth Century Studies, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry


del Río Fernández, Rocio, Fifteenth Century Studies


Thomas, Henry. Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Pp. 344.

This monograph treats romances of knighthood in Spain and Portugal. The author Henry Thomas begins with the novels previous to the sixteenth century and then deals with the two largest series of Peninsular romances: Amadis in Spain and Palmerin, a rival of the Amadis romances, in Portugal. Further on he studies the rise and decline of the romance genre in the Iberian Peninsula, and offers an analysis of these stories in Europe, specifically in Italy, France, Germany, and Holland; in a separate chapter, he considers novels of chivalry in England.

Thomas discusses the criteria according to which his work was created, and indicates that its chapters correspond to a series of six Norman MacColl lectures, delivered in a course on Spanish and Portuguese romances of chivalry at the University of Cambridge during the spring of 1917, all published in England by Kegan Paul in the year 2003. He also explains the aim of his book which is to offer an analysis of an important and well-known literary development started in the Spanish Peninsula around the end of the fifteenth century, extended over western Europe, England included, and, after a period of prosperity and influence, disappeared nearly without a trace. Interest in romances of chivalry constituted a renaissance of a literary genre which had emerged, flourished, and declined much earlier outside the Peninsula's frontiers and which encompassed nearly the entire sixteenth century. That renaissance began with the publication of the romance Amadis de Gaula in 1508.

Therefore, the reader will find discussed in these pages several romances, which are nowadays practically unknown, such as Espejo dePrinapesy Cavalleros (by Diego Ortúñez de Calahorra, 1562) and Don Belianis de Grecia, the only peninsular romances translated into three languages: Italian, French, and English, and Forando de Lnglaterra, translated into French and English. Thomas had read and sometimes corrected the research of modern scholars who dealt with several aspects and problems of this renaissance, and he added new material particularly in his book's last chapters.

Epics of chivalry were created when jongleurs ceased to attract their audiences and when their material, originally in assonanced and later in various other forms of rhymed verse, was no longer recited but read; in the fifteenth century, these stories appeared in prose and were called romances of chivalry proper, presenting a considerable development in spirit and substance compared to the original epic. Thomas also discussed the formation of three cycles, in which all the material of chivalric romances appeared: the cycles of France, Bretagne, and Rome; of these the most important for Spain and Portugal was the cycle of Bretagne, of Celtic origin. The best poem of the French cycle is the Chanson de Roland. All three series are mentioned in the jongleur Jean Bodel's well-known couplet: "Ne sont que trois matières à nul homme attendant, / De France et de Bretaigne et de Rome la grant" (Chanson des Saisnes, end of twelfth century).

The word romance, which appears in the English tide of Thomas's book, has several meanings. A romance is a story of love with a picturesque, poetic, and romantic content; as a genre, a romance is a sentimental novel or a book of chivalry; and as a verb, to romance is related to words like to dream, to make up fables, to exaggerate, or to fantasize. All three aspects are reflected in the work of Henry Thomas, and the last meaning, to romance, appears particularly in quotations from the most famous story (and parody) of chivalry of all times, Don Quixote of la Mancha, especially in the first chapters, where Cervantes condemns most books of chivalry.

In those chapters about an important scrutiny of Don Quixote's library by a curate and a barber, very few books are saved (and not burned) , among them the Spanish classic Amadis de Gaula, "father of an innumerable progeny" in Spanish literature of the sixteenth century, a novel with twelve continuations, the last dated 1546. …

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