The Golden Age of Spanish Literature



“GREAT is the number of divine geniuses who live in our Spain today,” wrote Cervantes in 1584.1 Probably he alone then knew that he was the greatest of them; he had not yet written Don Quixote (1604). By that later time the “Century of Gold” (1560–1660) was in full course and splendor.

What caused this cultural explosion, this brilliant concourse of luminaries in literature and art? Probably the political, economic, and religious victories of Spain—the conquest and exploitation of the Americas, the power and profits of Spain in Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and India, and the triumph over the Moors in Spain and the Turks at Lepanto. We today, far from the crises of the Spanish soul, can hardly understand how both the dangers and the successes of those exciting years warmed the ardor of the Catholic faith, and made most Spaniards as proud of their religion as of their blood. Censorship and the Inquisition, which we should have thought stifling, were accepted by the nation as war measures necessary for national unity in the crusade against Islam; and the Spanish mind, forbidden to stray from the hallowed creed, soared within its narrowed bounds into an exalted world of fiction, poetry, drama, architecture, sculpture, and painting.

But it was also an age of conscientious scholars and bold historians, of notable works in theology, government, law, economics, geography, and classical and Oriental studies. The learned Hallam judged that “learning was farther advanced under Philip II than under Elizabeth.”2 Certainly education was more abundant. Poor as well as rich found their way into the many universities; twenty new universities were in this period added to those already renowned; and Salamanca alone had 5,856 students in 1551.3 “No one could call himself a caballero [gentleman] who was not a man of letters as well.”4 Kings, ministers, nobles, and prelates opened their purses to scholars, poets, artists, and musicians. There were, however, some discords in the crescendo: the Church held a whip over all teachers, and Philip II, to keep Spanish universities full and Spanish minds theologically pure, forbade Spanish youth to study in any foreign universities except Coimbra, Bologna, and Rome. After the Century of Gold this intellectual endogamy may have played a part in the cultural sterility of Spain.

Two remarkable Jesuits enter the picture at this point. Baltasar Graciáan, director of a Jesuit college at Tarragona, found time to write (1650–53) a three-volume novel, El criticón, describing the shipwreck of a Spanish gentleman on the island of St. Helena, his education of the solitary savage whom he found there (a source for Robinson Crusoe?), their travels together in the world, and their penetrating criticism of European civilization. Their pessimism and misogyny delighted Schopenhauer, who called this “one of the best books in the world.”5 A friend gave Gracián international currency by selecting from his works three hundred paragraphs and publishing these as Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (1653)—A Handy Oracle and Art of Worldly Wisdom. Schopenhauer made one of the many translations. Some sample oracles:

Avoid outshining the master … Superiority has always been detested, and most thoroughly when greatest. A little care will serve to cloak your ordinary virtues, as you would hide your beauty in careless dress.6

Mediocrity gets further with industry than superiority without it.7

There are rules to luck, for to the wise not all is accident.8

The perfect does not lie in quantity but in quality…. Some judge books by their knees, as though they had been written to exercise the arms.9

Think as the few, speak as the many…. The truth is for the few … Let the wise man take refuge in silence; and when at times he permits himself to speak, let it be in the shelter of the few and the understanding.10

Know how to say No … Refusal should never be flat, the truth appearing by degrees…. Employ courtliness to fill the void of the denial.11

Maturity may be recognized in the slowness with which a man believes.12

There is always time to add a word, but none in which to take one back.13

The Spanish historians were at this time the best in Europe. Philip II gathered into archives at Simancas an extensive collection of official papers and other documents, because, he said, “chroniclers and historians were ill informed in matters of state, and it was desirable, in order to obviate that defect, to assemble all such materials as might prove serviceable.”14 These archives have been a treasure for historians ever since. Jerónimo de Zurita consulted thousands of original documents in preparing his Andes de la Corona de Aragó n (1562–80), and earned a European reputation as exactissimus scriptor.

The greatest of the Spanish historians, Juan de Mariana, began as the natural son of a canon at Talavera. Left in youth to shift for himself, he sharpened his wits on hard necessity and grinding poverty. The Jesuits, always quick to recognize talent, gave him a rigorous education. When he was twenty-four they sent him to teach in their college at Rome; later to Sicily; then to Paris, where his lectures on Aquinas drew enthusiastic audiences. His health broke down, and at the age of thirty-seven (1574) he was allowed to retire to the house of his order in Toledo, which he seldom left in his remaining forty-nine years. There he wrote some important treatises, one of which (as we shall see later) caused an international furor; another, On the Coinage of the Realm, was a brave attack upon Lerma’s debasement of the currency; still another, which he left unprinted, expounded The Errors in the Government of the Society of Jesus. The main industry of his final forty years was the composition of Historiae de rebus Hispaniae (1592), which he wrote in Latin so that all educated Europe might learn how Spain had risen to leadership and power. At the urging of Cardinal Bembo he translated most of it into purest Castilian as Historia de España (1601), which is the proudest achievement of Spanish historiography, vivid in narrative, beautiful in style, masterly in characterizations, fearless in honesty—”the most remarkable union of picturesque chronicling with sober history that the world has ever seen.”15

As, in such works, the old chronicles graduated into history as a form of literature and philosophy, so Spanish fiction, in this age, passed from the chivalric and pastoral romance to reach at one bound the highest point in the history of the novel. Romances of chivalry still abounded; everyone in Spain from St. Teresa to Cervantes read them hungrily. Perhaps for some readers they were a relief from the exalted intensity of Spanish religion, for the creed of the romances was love, and the devotion of the knights was not to the Virgin but to the ladies of their choice or fancy; to defend or possess these they would break many a lance, and not a few laws of God or man. But the rage for such stories was subsiding when Cervantes wrote; Montaigne and Juan Luis Vives had already ridiculed them; and the Cortes of Castile long ago (1538) had complained that “much harm” was “done to men, boys, girls, and others” by the romances, and that many were “seduced by them from the true Christian doctrine.”16

One other development led to the summit. In 1553 an author of uncertain identity had written, in Lazarillo de Tormes, the first novel in the gusto picaresco, the “roguish style” that made a hero of some jolly rascal (pícaro), who redeemed his poverty with lawlessness and his lawlessness with wit. In 1599 Mateo Alemán published a rollicking Vita del pícaro Guzmán de Alfarache. Five years later Cervantes took the two moods—the fading dream of the chivalrous knight and the humorous wisdom of the common man—and brought them together, soul to soul, in the most famous of all novels, and the best.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!