We use cookies to improve the user experience of our website. Cookie Get More Information

Home » Language Resources » Spanish Literature » History of Spanish Literature » The Middle Ages » Mester de Juglaría

History of Spanish literature

Spanish literature: Spain in the Middle Ages

El Mester de Juglaria (The Ministry of Jongleury)

The Ministry of Jongleury was the post of the “juglares” (jongleurs) in the Middle Ages. They travelled to towns and cities singing about deeds carried out by local heroes who fought against enemies of the kingdom.

In the beginning they reported news of events that took place in neighboring villages. They then adopted them to rhyme to make them easier to remember. In this way the ballads and epic songs were born.

Ballads which seem to make up part of the longer epic poems have also been found, which the jongleurs had shortened so that they didn´t bore the audience with events that had happened a long time ago, and which were no longer considered as news but simply a form of entertainment. The length of the poems also forced them to shorten them. The ballad is a poem with octosyllabic verses, with rhyming pairs that are complied unevenly. They dealt with a variety of themes: lovers and knights to name just a few.

The Ballad: Ballads are poems that deal with a wide range of themes and vary in length, but whose common features are the octosyllabic lines and the assonant rhyming pairs. The ballad is closely related to the epic poem, which has sixteen syllables and a single rhyme pattern, and is divided into two hemistiches (half a poetic verse). The ballad adapted this division to create its two verses. The jongleurs can be considered as the creators of the ballads. They travelled from castle to castle bringing tales of warriors or singing about human love. We must remember that even well into the 17th century literature was not read alone at home but carried on via the oral tradition. Miguel de Cervantes himself assured us in Don Quixote that the genius nobleman went mad from this form of reading “del mucho leer y del poco dormir se le secó el cerebro” (lit: too much reading and too little sleep dries the brain out).

The ballads were not created by a single author but by the whole town, who recited and transformed them over and over again, until the educated authors decided to reunite them in the songs of the 16th century. This type of ballad that did not have its own author, or rather its author was the whole town itself, is known as a “Romancero Viejo” (Old Ballad). From the 17th century onwards the educated authors became interested in the popular structure of these ballads and began to write them according to these models. This gave way to the appearance of the “Romancero Nuevo” (New Ballad). These were ballads with a known author. The genre of the new ballad includes authors of the 20th century, even Lorca and Alberti wrote according to these structures.

But why were the ballads so popular? There are two main reasons: the themes and the syllabism (use of syllabic characters in writing). In terms of themes, the ballads dealt with topics that were interesting for the people of the town. The historic ballads brought news about the different battles against the Arabs, in which heroes were praised, converting the news into myths and encouraging the enrolment of new soldiers for the battles of the Reconquista (Spanish Reconquest). The love ballads produced hours of entertainment with their stories of almost unattainable love. There was also the “Ciclos Bretón” (lit: British series) which was stories about King Arthur and his knights, and the “Carolingio” that relayed the achievements of the court of Carlomagno, a model Christian European court for the Hispanic Kingdom.

The syllabism was also very seductive. The ballad used octosyllabic verses, with the stress on the last syllable. This was the most common type of meter in Spanish, which meant that the ballads sounded natural to the listener and made them easy to remember, or even change, when they were being recited. This is why so many different versions of the same ballad have reached us. The ballads also demonstrate a lack of enjambment (the continuation of a syntactic unit from one line or couplet of a poem to the next with no pause), but an abundance of repetitions and epithets which serve as mnemonic formulas.