The first literary works in Spanish

iScribo takes a brief tour of the classic history of Spanish literature and invites you to get to know it today.

Literature in Spanish is rich in talented playwrights, writers, and poets. Since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901, eleven of the 102 authors awarded the prize are Spanish-speaking authors: the Spaniards José Echegaray y Eizaguirre (1904), Jacinto Benavente (1922), Juan Ramón Jiménez (1956), Vicente Aleixandre (1977), and Camilo José Cela (1989); the Chileans Gabriela Mistral (1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971); the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967); the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez (1982); the Mexican Octavio Paz (1990) and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (2010).

Now, if we look back at the first literary texts in Spanish, we will see that they were written during the Middle Ages, in the 12th century. This was the time of minstrels, those singers and actors who entertained people with lyrical and epic poetry. Epic poetry was composed of epic poems and narrative works written in verse that sing the exploits of great heroes. The most representative work of the epic poems is the Cantar del Mío Cid. It is an anonymous and classic work from the 12th century that is recorded as the first Castilian work written in verse and the only epic song preserved almost entirely.

This work is composed of 3,730 verses, which narrate the final part of the life of the hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid. Here, the complex process of recovering lost honour is narrated, implicitly criticising blood nobility while praising the lower nobility, those who have achieved their status through merit and who fight to win their honour and honour.

In addition to the songs of deeds and the poetry transmitted by the minstrels, a large part of medieval literature was created in the monasteries with a more cultured poetry of a religious nature and educational purposes, the so-called Mester de Clerecía. One of the most representative works of this type of medieval literature is Los Milagros de Nuestra Señora (The Miracles of Our Lady). This work, written by the clergyman Gonzalo de Berceo between 1246 and 1252, narrates, in Spanish, 25 miracles of the Virgin Mary to make known the religion and the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla. In this place, he was a cleric. Furthermore, it was close to the Camino de Santiago, widespread throughout Europe.

XV century

The 15th century is a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; didactic and religious writing continued during this time, but new metric forms began in part of the lyrics written by people from more affluent classes. For example, in Coplas a la muerte de su padre (Couplets to the Death of His Father), Jorge Manrique alternates octosyllables and pentasyllables. He makes a beautiful reflection on the brevity of life and the irrelevance of material goods.

With the Renaissance (16th century), interest in classical themes was recovered as oriented towards the cult of reason. In Renaissance prose, pastoral, Moorish, and Byzantine novels stand out as the books of chivalry. Miguel de Cervantes ends this fashion of brave knights swearing eternal love to a weak, faithful lady who reciprocates her love.

The great Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes peaked his career with Don Quixote of La Mancha, published in 1605; he ironises the knights-errant here.

Alonso Quijano, the story’s protagonist, and a fan of chivalric books, loses his mind and travels the roads with his horse Rocinante and his squire Sancho to impose justice guided by the rules of chivalry. His characters have the duality of madness and wisdom; they provoke laughter and admiration for his great humanity.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is one of the most important works of literature in Spanish, and all of us who were born speaking this beautiful language are familiar with this work and its famous opening phrase:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.

[In a village in la Mancha, whose name I do not care to remember, a hidalgo lived not long ago, one of those who keeps a lance on the rack, an old leather shield, skinny nag and swift greyhound.]

With that phrase begins this great work of Cervantes, and here I say goodbye.

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The first literary works in Spanish

iScribo takes a brief tour of the classic history of Spanish literature and invites you to get to know it today.

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