View from the women's gallery of the synagogue at Toledo built by Samuel ha-Levi between 1336 and 1357; the synagogue, not seriously damaged b\ y the assault on the Toledan ghetto of 1391, is known as 'the Synagogue of Transito.'
Julian Weiss
(King's College, London)


Castile: A Prospect

The periods immediately on either side of the dates 1348 – 1416 contain some of the canonical works of what we now call medieval Castilian literature: Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (1335), Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor (1330-43), and the poetry and prose of the four major writers who helped make the first half of the fifteenth century a period of cultural efflorescence—Enrique de Villena (1384 – 1434), Alonso de Cartagena (1384-1456), the marquis of Santillana (1398 – 1458), and Juan de Mena (1411 – 1456).  While it is true that within the temporal boundaries of this project there were some major writers working in Castilian (Pero López de Ayala, 1332 – 1407, or Shem Tov Ardutiel, c. 1290 – 1360), in general, the second half of the fourteenth-century and the first decade or so of the fifteenth are not regarded by literary historians as one of the high points of Castilian literature.  And yet, by shifting the conventional focus of literary histories away from authors and texts, by incorporating the literary production of Jews and Muslims writing in Hebrew and aljamiado, and by thinking about the period in terms of literary relationships—questions of textual transmission, reconfigured literary traditions, new relationships between writers and audiences, and between Castile and other cultures, near and far—then these dates acquire a singular interest.  For this period lay the foundations for the very idea of Castilian literature, composed for a lay audience that was increasingly literate and increasingly aware of the cultural capital of the Castilian vernacular with its potential to reshape individual and collective identities, and to do this in such a way as to foreground how identities are a product of one´s place in time and space. 

Intersections and realignments

The reorientation of Castilian literary culture takes place along a number of axes and in several domains.  There are writers who realign relationships between themselves and their audiences by reworking inherited forms and conventions, putting them to use in new contexts, and challenging received perceptions about the location of literary authority: examples here are the learned cleric (Juan Ruiz), the lay magnates (Juan Manuel and Pero López de Ayala) and the Jewish functionary (Shem Tov).  There are also major generic realignments.  Until the second half of the fourteenth century the dominant romance form for the lyric in the central and western zones of Iberia was Galician-Portuguese (a literary language that emerged in the late XIIc).  In the later decades of the fourteenth century, this gave way to Castilian, and the change in language was accompanied by a change in forms, tone and themes that also signalled new conceptions of the poet’s social role and position. 

Another generic shift concerned the popular ballad, or romancero, that emerged after the mid-century decline of the epic (whose final testimony is the fragmentary, and anti-French, Mocedades de Rodrigo).  Though direct textual evidence of this extraordinary poetry—unmatched in Western Europe—first appears in 1421 (in a student’s notebook in Barcelona), these ballads, stemming from the second half of the fourteenth century, would eventually become one of the defining features of ‘Spanish’ culture. 

Castile also realigned itself culturally through translations, which are symptomatic of new relations between Castilian, the classics of Antiquity, and other recent or contemporary European vernacular writers.  López de Ayala’s translations from Livy and Boethius are the first signs in Castilian of vernacular humanism, and the new lay audience for the classics in translation.  The assimilation of works first written in Portuguese, French, Italian and Catalan, together with the direct and indirect connections with Judeo-Arabic traditions, are all testimony to the enrichment of the Castilian vernacular and to its place within a complex network of cultural traffic and exchange.

Key texts and authors

Though arranged here as a list, the actual treatment will consider (a) how the texts represent their temporal and spatial locations; (b) how the texts are themselves the product of relations between regions, both within and outside Iberia, as well as particular kinds of location—monastic, seigneurial domain, town, or court.


The great personal compilations by Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor and Pero López de Ayala, Rimado de Palacio.

The emerging Castilian lyric poets such as Villasandino, Pero Ferrús, Fernán Pérez de Guzmán.

The ballad: first traces of the Romancero.

Late epic: Mocedades de Rodrigo 

Social and religious verse, e.g., Danza de la muerte

Historiographical verse: the converso Pablo de Santa María, Siete edades del mundo, the aljamiado text Poema de Poema de Yusuf. 

Jewish poets: Shmu’el Ibn Sasson, Shem Tov, Battles between pen and scissors (Hebrew), Proverbios morales (Castilian); Yitzhaq Alahdab (mid-fourteenth to after 1429).


Exempla collections and wisdom literature, conjoining Eastern and Western traditions (reference to Juan Manuel d. 1348, whose major work, Conde Lucanor completed 1335.  Main focus on e.g. Libro de los gatos, a partial translation of Odo de Chériton’s Latin exempla from 1224/25; Dichos de sabios collection of Western sententia from Latin; Espéculo de los legos.

Learned treatises by Enrique de Villena (early work), Castrojeriz’s Glosa al regimiento de príncipes (gloss and translation on Aegidius Romanus)

Translations, classical and vernacular, especially those sponsored by López de Ayala.

Travel writing: Libro del conoscimiento del mundo (c. 1390); Embajada a Tamorlán (1406).  

Chronicles, updating those from the great Alfonsine era, and the three major chronicles by López de Ayala.

Romances, Troy (Sumas de Leomarte, various versions of Benoit de St Maure) and incipient chivalric romances.

Hagiography and religious texts, including translations from Portuguese, French, Latin.