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SP14: Spanish Literature, Life, and History, before 1492

This paper is available for the academic year 2016-17.

The Spanish Middle Ages is a fascinating and rewarding period for study. Historically the peninsula was a site of successive waves of invasion and colonization so that its cultural substrata encompass pagan, Christian, Judaic and Islamic influences. Consequently Medieval Hispanic cultural is unique and diverse. During this period Castilian came to dominate, the Spanish state started to take shape, and the themes and ideals that were to form later Spanish literature and thought originated.

This paper has a text-based and a topic-based section. The set texts permit you to explore the main literary genres (epic, lyric, narrative verse and prose, theatre) through major texts, known and enjoyed throughout the Hispanic world. These are:

  • the epic of Spain’s national hero, the rebellious Cid (Poema de Mio Cid)

  • the erotic (pseudo?)-autobiographical adventures of an Archpriest (Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor), complete with tales and lyrics, both bawdy and didactic

  • a collection of short stories (Juan Manuel, El conde Lucanor) couched as everyday advice from a wise advisor to a nobleman, and dealing with governance of the self, family, and retinue, with a strong homosocial slant

  • selected works by pre-modern best-seller Diego de San Pedro on sexual passion, philosophy and politics

  • spectacle and the origins of theatre

  • court song

All texts are read in the original with the aid of glossaries and notes: Castilian has not altered as greatly over the centuries as many other Europe languages and so students should not expect to encounter linguistic difficulties; however, there are good English translations of most of the set texts with which the originals can be read in tandem. There will be a short series of reading classes at the start of the lecture course.


The topics have been selected to permit students to consider questions of mentality, ideology, and the otherness of the medieval period and to choose the extent to which they give consideration to literary, cultural and historical matters. The topics offer students the opportunity to explore:

  • ‘Female Voice and the Representation of Women’: the earliest European female-voice vernacular lyric, the ventriloquism of the female voice by male court poets, and the first women’s writing in Castilian; representation of women in exemplary tale collections

  • ‘Living Well, Dying Well’: medieval literary, legal and religious attitudes to transgression, retribution and natural and divine justice; and to death, the dead and the process of dying as expressed in ritual and representation

  • ‘Treachery and Taboo in Medieval Epic and Epic Legend’: Medieval Castilian epic legend is almost unique in the attention it gives to deception and taboo acts, such as blasphemy, rape, incest, and malevolent (rather than righteous) violence

  • Myth, History, and Nation Building’: the manufacture by the thirteenth-century literary workshops of an historical and mythic identity for Castile, and the gap between the spin and the achievements of the workshop’s patron, Alfonso X el Sabio of Castile 

  • ‘Crisis and Conflict in the Fifteenth Century’, the politically troubled fifteenth century, the establishment of the Inquisition, and the rise of the Catholic Monarchs; the interface of politics, propaganda, and poetics

  • Convivencia’: the meaning and applicability of the term; historical relations between the three faiths; the literary representation of contact between the faiths; literary critical reception of contact

In the Michaelmas term, we shall begin with two reading classes and then focus on the close reading and discussion of a selection of the set texts, and subsequently we shall move on to an in-depth study of some of the historical and cultural topics. In total lectures will cover two or three set texts, and a similar number of topics, chosen in consultation with class members. 

Preparatory reading: 

Introductory Reading

  • Caro Baroja, Julio, 1966. ‘Honour and Shame: A Historical Account of Several Conflicts’, in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, ed. John Peristiany (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press), pp. 81-137.
  • Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal & Abigail Krasner Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (New Haven and London, 2008).
  • Fletcher, Richard, Moorish Spain (London:  Phoenix, 1998).
  • Moffitt, J. F., The Arts in Spain (London, Thames & Hudson, 1999), chapters 2 and 3
  • Haywood, Louise M., ‘Medieval Spanish Studies’, in The Companion to Hispanic Studies, ed. Catherine Davies (London: Arnold, 2002), pp. 32-49.
  • Le Goff, Jacques Medieval Civilization (Oxford : Blackwell, 1990).
  • Russell, P.E., ed., Spain: A Companion to Spanish Studies (London: Methuen, 1973), chaps 2 & 3; now out of print but well worth reading.

See below for Recommended editions of set texts.

Full reading list

Please see the full reading list for Sp.14.

Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through a course of 20 lectures and seminars, plus 8 supervisions (6 for Optional Dissertation students). In total lectures will cover two or three set texts, and a similar number of topics, chosen in consultation with class members

Recommended editions of set texts

  1. Cantar de mio Cid, Biblioteca Clásica, 1, ed. Alberto Montaner (Barcelona: Crítica, 1993); other good editions are by Colin Smith for Cátedra and Ian Michael for Castalia. You should read the introductions to the Smith and Michael editions. Also see the website ‘Canter de mio Cid’,; for text, commentary, translation and a recitation.
  2. Juan Ruiz, Libro de buen amor, ed., G. B. Gybbon-Monypenny, Clásicos Castalia, 161 (Madrid: Castalia, 1988).
  3. Don Juan Manuel, El conde Lucanor, ed. Guillermo Serés & intro. Germán Orduña, Biblioteca Clásica,6 (Barcelona: Crítica, 1994).
  4. Diego de San Pedro, Cárcel de amor, ed. Carmen Parrilla, Biblioteca Clásica, 17 (Barcelona: Crítica, 1995) and Obras completas, I & II (ed. Keith Whinnom) & III (ed. Whinnom and Dorothy S. Severin), Clásicos Castalia, 54, 39 & 98 (Madrid: Castalia, 1973 and 1979).
  5. Miguel Ángel Pérez Priego, ed., Teatro medieval, ii: Castilla, Páginas de la Biblioteca Clásica (Barcelona: Crítica, 1997) AND EITHER Ana María Álvarez Pellitero, Teatro medieval, Colección Austral, 157 (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1990) OR Ronald Surtz, Teatro castellano de la Edad Media, Clásicos Taurus, 13 (Madrid: Santillana, 1992).
  6. Poesía de cancionero, ed., Alvaro Alonso, Letras Hispánicas, 247 (Madrid: Cátedra, 1991).

Recommended editions have been chosen for the accuracy and quality of their text, and for the range of their annotations. 

Please see Sp.14's Moodle site. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


The paper is assessed either by a three-hour examination in the Easter Term, or by an Optional Dissertation submitted at the end of Lent Term.

In the examination candidates are required to answer THREE questions, AT LEAST ONE from each section (Section A: Set texts; Section B: Topics); there is an optional commentary question in section A.  Note that the set texts will form the basis for the study of some of the topics: these should be supplemented with additional reading.

Prepare for this paper by doing the ‘Introductory Reading’, and reading the Set texts; you may also wish to read selectively from the background lists (see above). Further reading lists and learning support materials will become available on-line. Note that the reading lists cater for a wide range of possible interests. No individual student is expected to read all or even most of the items listed: please feel free to follow your interests.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Rodrigo Cacho (paper co-ordinator in MT17)
Dr Louise Haywood (paper co-ordinator in LT & ET18, on leave in MT17)