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The Romaceros Of Spain: Courtly Love And Medieval Poetry

Updated on June 20, 2014

The Beauty And Agony Of Romance

The romances are a rich legacy of a poetic tradition that arose in Europe during the middle ages, although their roots are probably much, much deeper in regards to time and place. Typically, they are in a tradition of epic tales, romantic courtly love, battles between kings and empires, and a host of mythological folktales to be told before a live audience, enacted or sung. In Spain they impacted the culture greatly. These early tales were a precursor to many, if not all, of the literary genres that came after it. The majority of Spanish romances were written during the 15th and 16th century. The later ones were called romanceros. The poets of these tales were called troubadours and placed in a tradition that arguably gave birth to our own contemporary love song.

The main themes are of courtly love, where the lover seeks the beloved. Just as a religious person might seek to become one with God in order to achieve personal salvation, the courting knight seeks the love of the beautiful princess in hopes of eternal bliss and union. This ultimate quest is the principal driving force of these tales, the quest for unity, salvation, truth, and the ultimate mysteries of existence. Sometimes the tales were more basic in their story line, where a lover simply sought out a beloved. Other tales were more comprehensive, where the quest for fulfillment involved kings and kingdoms, wars, and battles with dragons.

The mix of fantasy and reality runs deep through the centuries in Spanish art, literature, and film. And the romance is perhaps the original spirit of the mythological and symbolic in Spanish culture. At the time, these romances were looked down upon by the learned aristocratic classes, especially during the Renaissance. In Don Quijote, the main character is perpetually deceived by his grandiose chivalric fantasies, to the point that it costs him his sanity. Here, the romances are put down as a tool that deceived uneducated campesinos. And yet, the book was a comment on the romances and the romanceros, the tradition that all later works build on.

Contemporary times have given birth to different offshoots of the romances. The modern romance novel is probably the worst, lowest art form. But other artists have kept the tradition alive in fresh ways, with substance and meaning. Federico Garcia Lorca in his plays tells epic tales, but they are rich with symbols and nuance. In other countries, many singer-songwriters have followed in the troubadour tradition of the original romancero poets. In the 1960s, singers like Bob Dylan of America, Leonard Cohen of Canada, and Van Morrison of Ireland have all exhibited poetic roots based in these ancient mythologies. Writers, too, have crafted epic quest narratives, and the Harry Potter children's book series is a good example. And of course, the modern love song, heard so many times on the radio, is a constant emblem of the romancero tradition.

There seem to be rich romances in modern culture and also shallow ones. I liked the richer, deeper ones the best. The tradition itself in Spain seems to contain a lot of universal themes of the human struggle, and I'm interested in researching it further. I'm also curious more about how Lorca might fit into this tradition. One of my favorite musicians is Leonard Cohen, and he claims to be highly influenced by both Lorca and the older romanceros of Spain. I think the modern versions have changed to speak more to the times we are living in now. It is a much different world than it was in the middle ages and the renaissance, and the good versions of the romancero now seem to be the ones that can include universal themes as well as themes that are specific to the time and place of our individual situations.

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