The Chivalresque Literature of Spain: Novel and Theatre

Enrique Gallud Jardiel 
Hispanística, Vol. I, núm. 2, Nueva Delhi, 1993

          It is easy to understand the literary importance of a genre closely linked to the specific feelings of a historical moment. In the concrete example of the chivalresque literature this is more so, religion being its thematic nucleus. The principles of knighthood in literature do not amount solely to a moral or social code. The prince don Juan Manuel defined it as “a kind of sacrament”, which he compared to baptism or matrimony, thus raising the chivalresque minstrel’s literature to the level of a religious task. So, although the chivalresque novel is conceptualised as escapist literature, it did not lose its theological contents and became very popular during the Counter-Reformation. Ortega y Gasset once said: “This is unrealistic literature which nurtures itself not from those things that can be seen and touched, but from mythical condensations, from genealogical legends, creating a world of high, beautiful, strong and stylised realities.”1

         The chivalresque genre was most popular during the times of the Emperor Charles the First of Habsburg (first half of the 16th century) and it became the preferred reading not only in Spain, but also throughout Europe, till the publication of Don Quijote (1605).2 The appreciation of this kind of literature reached extremes. We can mention that the death of the character of Amadís de Gaula, in the eighth book of his series, produced such a consternation among the readers that Feliciano de Silva had to grant rebirth to his character again and wrote two more novels with the same hero, presenting him at the end at the age of two hundred years, surrounded by all his descendants.3 Regarding the details of its diffusion we know that there were more than twenty Castilian editions of Amadís de Gaula (as compared to only four of La Celestina) and that it was translated into French, Italian, English, German, Dutch and even Hebrew.4 Its popularity was not due to nationalistic feelings (as in the legends of El Cid) since Amadís was a foreign hero and his adventures took place far away from the peninsula.5 Spain was the country which produced more books of this genre and Amadís de Gaula is considered the European model for chivalresque novels.6 El caballero Cifar 7 by an anonymous author, and Tirant lo blanc by Joanot Martorell, along with the Palmerín’s cycle aren’t unfavourably compared with the Arthurian or Carolingian cycles, from where they are derived.

         The reasons for this popularity are various. Fray Luis de Granada, in his work Introducción al símbolo de la fé (Introduction to the Symbol of Faith) analysed these novels and concluded by saying that courage and its exaltation was the key to the wide acceptance of the genre.8 According to him, the hero is always defying death and the Spaniards like this attitude very much. In fact, apart from courage, there are other important values: loyalty to the king, defence of truth, triumph of justice... The knight was the “armed hand of God” and his understanding of religion and the codes of honour and courtesy served as a discipline for generations to come. The cult of war deeds was like a spiritual need of the so-called “bad times” of the Middle Ages, when violence was almost a form of life.

         Another reason worth mentioning is the special interpretation of love, different from the physical and sensuous medieval interpretation. Tile knight’s idealism is linked to Renaissance Neo-Platonism. The plot of the novel is not a mere narration of warlike deeds, but also an epic of amorous fidelity and a kind of manual for the perfect knight and the perfect lover.

         From a stylistic point of view there are also innovations. In the book Interpretación del Quijote (Interpretation of Don Quixote) Menéndez Pelayo has defined Amadís de Gaula as the first “modem novel”, going by its structure and contents.9 Apart from this modernity there is the factor of foreign influence, due to strong contacts with the rest of Europe. When the uses of the French and the Anglo-Norman courts became known in Spain, a strong interest in their literatures developed and this was a two-way process which helped in the spread of these novels. Moreover, the character of escapist literature served the purpose of giving pleasure in a time of conflicts. If the novel as a pure artistic form is for few, the novel as a means of entertainment is something for all and it should not be undervalued. These works completely fulfilled their purpose.

         In spite of their popularity these works met with opposition and criticism. The Erasmians and moralists fought them. The former criticised their lies and geographical incorrections. The latter complained about their sensuality. Luis Vives, Melchor Cano, Alonso de Venegas and other scholars called them “the devil’s sermons”, “urgers of voluptuosity” and “baits used by Satan to catch virgins”. Francisco de Monzón, Professor of Theology in the University of Coimbra, wrote in 1544: “The authors who wrote about Amadís, Palmerín, Primaleón, don Clarín and other similar books of untruthful adventures should be punished publically.”10 And, in 1555 the Legislative Assembly (Cortes) of Valladolid asked for the total prohibition of these books and the burning of all the copies which may be found.11 It should be mentioned, nevertheless, that in spite of the attacks by ecclesiastic authorities, the Tribunal of the Inquisition never prohibited them in Spain. However, they were not allowed in America. In 1531 a Royal Decree forbade the printing of these novels in the New World, on the logic that the innocence of the natives of Indies would be perverted by these readings. In any case, this measure did not serve any purpose because promptly the chivalresque novels were massively smuggled into the New World.

         The influence of the chivalresque novels in society has few comparisons in history. They were the code of Chivalry of Spain and France during the whole of the l6th century. Every social strata was filled with enthusiasm with the genre. It seems that the adventures of Charles the First, the imprisonment of the King of France and the conception of one united Christianity were but chivalresque events and notions. At a popular level, the people tried to emulate the deeds of the knights and similar cases to that of Don Quijote took place in real life.12 The letters for challenging someone to a duel were written in the verbose and artificial style of the chivalresque novels and, although it may seem an anachro­nism, some of these knights continued to exist till the end of the 15th century, like the Teutonic knights of Prussia, mentioned in the documents published by Vielliard.

         The literary chivalry of Spain also influenced other literatures, like the Italian, when Naples became its administrative and cultural capital after its conquest by Alfonso the Fifth. Ludovic Ariosto used parts of Amadís in his masterpiece Orlando furioso. Bernardo Tasso composed the poem Amadigi, based on the adventures of the hero of Gaul. In Spain, Herrera and Rioja used the theme for their poems and Gil Vicente took it to theatre. Ignacio de Loyola liked these books and Teresa de Jesús even wrote a chivalresque novel –El caballero de Avila– which became famous in her city, according to Marcel Bataillon.13 Juan de Valdés, one of the most elegant scholars of the time, wrote: “Ten years, the best of my life, which I spent in palaces and courts, were devoted to the reading of these lies, which gave me the highest of pleasures.”14

         Above nobility, these works had direct influence on the royalty. In 1424 Alfonso the Fifth of Aragón organised a rench de junyir (a tournament) in Barcelona. The shield used by the king did not have his own coat-of-arms but that of the legendary knight Tristany. Other knights used the arms of Palomides.15 This interaction between fiction and reality has not been surpassed. The Emperor Charles the First is said to have slept with a copy of Belianís de Grecia always at his bed side. In 1536 he defied the king François the First of France to a singular combat to avoid the victims of the imminent battle among the two armies. He wanted to decide the result of the war in a two-men personal combat with the French king, in the best tradition of chivalry. During his captivity in Madrid, the French king entertained himself by reading Amadís and, after being freed, he had it translated into French so that his countrymen could know it. Herberay des Essarts undertook the task and, during the reign of Henri the Fourth it was so often read by the monarch that it became known as “King’s Bible”.

         The influence of the genre in America has to be men­tioned. In fact, the conquest of the New World did reproduce to some extent the marvellous adventures of the world of knighthood, (as Ida Rodríguez Prampolini ably states in her book Amadíses de América). The chivalresque deeds impelled the youth of Spain to heroic actions during the l6th century. There are many points of convergence. The religion of the natives was considered by Spaniards as a gigantic work of the Devil to gain souls for himself, offending the true God. Spain felt that it was its duty to rectify this offence. Some authors define the voyages of Columbus and the deeds of the conquest as “miraculous”. And the similarities between the imaginary heroic acts and the true ones were so many that reality mixed with fiction. The chroniclers of Indies thought and expressed themselves in the style of the chivalresque novels. Bernal Díaz del Castillo apologises for not describing entire battles, because his chronicle “...would resemble the books of chivalry”. On describing the arrival of Spaniards in the city of Mexico he wrote: “We were astonished and thought that all seemed to be the enchantments as narrated in the book of Amadís. The Spaniards greatly contributed to this intertextuality in action and if we analyse the structure of Cortés’s speeches to his soldiers we would find many similarities to those words uttered by Queen Briolanja in a chapter of the above mentioned novel. Moreover, many geographical places of America were named with terms taken from these books, as is the famous case of California.

         On reaching this point in history, some authors commit the mistake of mentioning the “end” of chivalresque literature.16 At the end of the 16th century only the chivalresque novels went out of fashion, but chivalry as a theme continued in Spanish literature throughout the Baroque, in theatre. The so-called decadence of the genre seems an exaggeration. It is true that the last novel of this genre known to us was written in 160217, but Espejo de caballerías was printed again in 1620, a proof that there were still eager readers of this type of literature. The fact is that snobbish attitudes in certain social classes forbade the open approval of this genre, considering it a thing of the past. But the common people continued reading these novels. As a proof of this we find a dialogue in a Baroque play by Tirso de Molina, where this popularity is emphasised:


With my wages

I used to hire chivalresque books

where I found Amadíses,

Esplandians, Belianises,

who, going from here to there,

used to destroy giants

and sorceress

who bewitched damsels

in groups of tens

in a twinkling.18

         The cliché that El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha was a mortal blow to chivalresque novels has already been rejected by critics. These novels were already languishing when Cervantes wrote his book, because the sensibility of the readers had changed. And El Quijote does not aim to ridicule the chivalresque novels, but the bad chivalresque novels. The good ones are praised by the barber and escape the fire in an episode of El Quijote. Moreover, Cervantes praised the idealism of his hero and only showed his discontent with the materialistic society of his times. The true intent to debunk the genre was done by an Italian, Merlin Cocaio, who wrote a novel in macaronic Latin: Il baldo.

         The lastingness of the genre is reflected in the principles of Baroque theatre, which substituted the novel as the main means of entertainment for l7th century Spaniards. In theatre the heroic deeds of the knight and his adventures became a major theme. The cloak-and-dagger plays ably reproduced the codes of honour, although they cannot be totally identified with chivalresque literature. But there is a special type of plays –created by Lope de Vega and which as taken to its zenith by Calderón– which is but the dramatic version of the typical chivalresque book. This sub-genre has been defined as “novelistic plays” or “fantastic plays”, although sometimes they are wrongly classified as “mythological dramas”. Calderón de la Barca attained perfection with these plays, which allowed the use of very complicated scenography and machinery.19

         These plays include all the main characteristics of chivalresque literature: heroism, amorous platonism, religious feelings, geographical imprecision, medieval ambience, magical elements, etc., apart from excerpts taken from the most famous novels. In El jardín de Falerina we find the Ínsula Firme, an island mentioned in Amadís de Gaula. The plot of El castillo de Lindabridis, by Calderón is the same as in the novel El caballero de Febo, etc.20

                We can truthfully say that the chivalresque spirit did not die at all. It was alive during Romanticism and it is alive today thanks to a new form of art: cinema, which has helped in reviving the concepts of mythology, of fantasy and the very code of values of the medieval knights. The protagonist of science-fiction films and the typical “Superman” are but the modern version of the primigenial hero who, with a specific code of values, heroically defies the forces of nature as Amadís and Palmerín did in the past to exalt high ideals and bring aesthetic pleasure to men.


1. José Ortega y Gasset, Ensayos de crítica, in Obras completas, Vol. II, p.122.

2. This was due to a coincidence of dates and not due to the supposed effect of Cervantes’ novel on the genre.

3. This specific book was titled Amadís de Grecia, and it appeared in 1530.

4. This text was published in 1508 in Saragossa by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo (or Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo).

5. There is, however, a Spanish character in the novel: Don Brian de Monjaste, who comes to help his old friend Amadís in the deadly battle which constitutes the climax of the series.

6. This is the opinion of Ángel Rosenblat, in his “Prologue” to Amadís de Gaula, Ed. Losada, Buenos Aires, 1972.

7. The full title is Historia del caballero de Dios que avia por nombre Zifar, el cual por sus virtuosas obras et hazañosas cosas fue rey de Mentón (History of the Knight of God called Cifar, who, due to his Virtuous Deeds and Valerous Adventures became King of Menton).

8. Fray Luis de Granada, Introducción al símbolo de la fé, p. 135.

9. On the theme of chivalresque novel, the work Orígenes de la novela (Origins of Novel) by Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo is an essential reading.

10. Francisco de Monzón, Espejo del príncipe cristiano, p. 47.

11. The literal text of the edict is as follows: “The damage done to young people in these kingdoms by the books of lies and vanities like Amadís and others is very notorious, because young men and women get accustomed to whatever they have read, and when something similar happens they act as in the books. To remedy this situation we urge the prohibition of reading and printing of these books under severe punishment; and the books in circulation should be recovered and burned.” The intensity of this attitude shows clearly the high influence of these books on society.

12. A weII-known case is that of a knight, famous for his softness and calmness, who, after some readings, came out naked from his house and frightened the neighbours with his sword, finally killing a donkey.

13. In the Libro de su vida Teresa de Jesús wrote about her mother: “She was very fond of reading chivalresque novels and she did better than me, because she did not stop her work to read, as it happened in my case.

14. Cited by Angel Valbuena Prat, Historia de la literatura española, Gustavo Gili, Madrid, 1968.

15. Both are characters of a famous novel, Tristán de Leonís, written in 1501.

16. As, for example Angel Rosenblat in op. cit., p. 7

17. Historia famosa del príncipe don Policione de Beocia.

18. Tirso de Molina, Amar por señas, act I, scene 9.

19. Many a time these plays were written for the King and staged in the palace. Members of the royal family also acted in them.

20. Other chivalresque plays worth mentioning are La puente de Mantible, Argenis y Poliarco, Auristela y Lisidante and Hado y divisa de Leonido y Marfisa, by Calderón.