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Accueil > Pêché à la palangre > Mediaeval classics

Mediaeval classics

par Albert Soler
Between the thirteenth and fifteenth century, a true Catalan literary tradition was created, one with its own rich and diverse character. The process is similar to that of other European medieval languages and literatures, and presents various outstanding moments.
 In the first place, Catalan achieved the status of a written language, no longer subsidiary to Latin. This phase took place throughout the eleventh century, at the end of which the first texts written in Catalan were produced, of a feudal nature. We may still consider as belonging to this phase the first extant works that had a certain defined entity, which we should situate between the second half of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth, above all the collection of sermons known as Homilies d'Organyà .
It was precisely in this era that the Catalan royalty, which had possessions in Occitan territory, adopted the poetic troubadour tradition for their own, on the initiative of Alfons I (d. 1196). From this moment on and until at least the beginning of the fifteenth century, the poetry cultivated in the Catalan linguistic region was always in Occitan and of the troubadour style. The list of Catalan troubadours is considerable: among others, Guillem de Berguedà (d. ca. 1296), Ramon Vidal de Besalú (thirteenth century), and Cerverí de Girona (d. ca. 1285) stand out. The links between Catalan and Occitan culture were, for all of the Middle Ages, close and intense.

However, the last quarter of the thirteenth century saw a multiplication of textual production, as well as a diversification of subjects treated and genres employed, and a perceptible increase in the length and complexity of written works. This is properly the beginning of the Catalan literary tradition, which coincides with the various cultural and political phenomena that stimulated it.

In the first place, the political transformations that situated the Crown of Aragon in a central place on the international scene for the first time and made it a kingdom reaching to the Mediterranean, were thanks above all to the reign of Jaume I (d. 1276) and his descendents—Pere II, Alfons II, and Jaume II. The redaction of historical texts, in which very relevant literary resources are used, was indispensable in the preparation of a new royal and national ideology: see the Llibre dels fets by Jaume I himself (composed at the end of his reign), the Llibre del rei en Pere (written in the 1380s) by Bernat Desclot, the book (1325-1327) of Ramon Muntaner (1265-1336), and later, the chronicle of Pere III the Ceremonious (1319-1387). The essential literary character of these historiographic works makes manifest the fact that they acted as a stimulus and as narrative quarry for the great Catalan novels of the fifteenth century, Tirant lo Blanc and Curial e Güelfa .

Secondly, laymen of all kinds showed themselves anxious to access the knowledge that had been reserved exclusively for the clergy: theology, philosophy, medicine, law; a clerical culture had expressed itself almost exclusively in Latin and had been watched by teaching institutions controlled by the church. In the second half of the thirteenth century, the inhabitants of some flourishing cities, in the process of economic and demographic expansion, became rapidly aware of the importance of acquiring and using this knowledge. Then began an unstoppable process of the circulation of clerical knowledge and the vernacularization of principal works of these sciences; this was a phenomenon in which Catalan demonstrated a remarkable precocity. Hardly different from this intellectual striving, laymen also manifested the need to take a leading role and individual identity in their own spiritual life.

The combination of intellectual and spiritual striving made space for phenomena such as the versatile polymath Ramon Llull (d. 1316), lay author of some 265 works, written in Catalan, Latin, and/or Arab, who wrote novels ( Llibre d'Evast e Blaquerna ) and encyclopedias, works of high philosophical and theological speculation (various versions of his Art ), scientific works and poems, always with an apologetic and missionary intent. Or such as the prestigious doctor, as well as spiritual activist, Arnau de Vilanova (d. 1311). Or the cases of two religious writers, who carried out an intense and successful task of religious dispersion among the laypeople, father Francesc Eiximenis (d. 1409), author of Lo crestià , a vast (unfinished) encyclopedia in Catalan of all that the well-formed faithful should know, and Saint Vicent Ferrer (d. 1419), famed preacher, from whom we have large collections of sermons in which one can appreciate his gifts as a great communicator.

In the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the massive diffusion of Catalan culture's classic literary texts can be clearly seen. For the first time, the great Latin authors circulated outside of restricted scholarly fields; they were read and translated; they evoked admiration or suspicion but left no one indifferent: literature in the vernacular would have to define itself henceforth in relation to and in contrast with the Latin works.

Bernart Metge (d. 1413) and Joan Roís de Corella (1435-1497) are paradigmatic examples of this influence, both in content and in style. Metge, in Lo somni , constructs an extremely original work of ambiguous interpretation about the background of scandalous political events, employing a skilful dialogue with a multitude of classic and romance sources. Corella recreates the classic Ovidian myths, always so dangerous for Christian morality, and offers versions that paradoxically ended up as moral lessons, even as they represent the appropriation in Catalan of an elevated rhetorical style that would become an inevitable model.

Ausiàs March (1400-1459) also realizes, more than any prior poet, the weighty influence of Christian, classic, and scholarly culture, within a poetic tradition of troubadour roots that had developed in a courtly environment with an essentially ludic character. March culminated a process of progressive intellectualization that sought to give a serious and transcendent dimension to poetic and amorous experience, which had already affected, to a lesser degree, poets (not specifically troubadours) such as his relatives Jaume (d. 1410) and Pere March (d. 1413) or Jordi de Sant Jordi (d. 1424).

The literature produced by late medieval Catalan authors is, in large part, a reflection on what literature in the vernacular should be, and on the place it should occupy in the cultural system of the epoch, in relation to academic sciences and the prestige of Latin literature. All of the authors, through the experience of producing their own work, developed a singular and personal poetics—a literary theory. All of them made significant and audacious contributions to the long process carried out in western culture of defining vernacular literature's status: from fascination for the classics to some clergymen's absolute condemnation of fiction.

The two great novels of medieval Catalan literature, Tirant and Curial , represent two different and inspired solutions to this challenge. Joanot Martorell (1410-1465) desires to make Tirant (1460-1464) into a total novel, compiling all kinds of information from prestigious sources. The anonymous author of Curial (published in the first half of the fifteenth century), on the other hand, wagers on narrative restraint and moderate entertainment. Both of them submerge their roots in the romance novel tradition, and have the precedent of Catalan historiography as a basic narrative model. However, the two works demonstrate the incorporation of classic sources, the intellectual anxieties mentioned earlier, and the special influence of contemporary Italian literature.

In large part, thanks to a wide circulation of texts, Catalan letters of the fourteenth and fifteenth century attained a great degree of maturity that manifests itself revealingly in its self-referentiality. Jaume Roig (d. 1478) composed a truly original and long narrative work in four-syllable verse, Espill (146-1462), which is at once a reproduction of earlier literary material and a challenge to prior tradition. Finally, the literature copies and reinvents itself, and for the authors writing was, in the end, to rewrite what others had written.
Traduit par Robin Vogelzang


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