Re-centering the Subject: Spain and the Renaissance
In a seminal work on early modern Spanish literature, Writing in the Margin. Spanish Literature of the Golden Age (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), Paul Julian Smith argued that ‘there can be little doubt that Spanish literature is considered
marginal today, outside the Hispanic world at least. That this was also the case in the years of the Spanish political and
military hegemony in Europe is far from certain.’ (202)
In this article I want to discuss the relationship between those two sentences and their implications for Spanish golden-age
studies today. Few would dispute the truth of the first contention, viewed dispassionately. But what is interesting about
Smith’s conclusion is the syntax of the second sentence. He stops well short of a simplistic dichotomy between then and now,
or Don Quixote’s ringing contrast between the ‘dichosa edad y siglos dichosos’ and ‘estos nuestros detestables siglos’ (Part
I, chapter 11). But there is an underlying note of nostalgia nevertheless: Spanish literature is considered marginal today
(but that it was then is also far from certain).
Smith’s purpose is, of course (or was in 1988), to occupy the margin for strategic gain. The defiant note is clear on the
dust jacket (‘Writing in the Margin, addressed to all specialists in Spanish and comparative Renaissance literature, suggests that Spain itself is the place
of marginality, the supplement to a Europe which cannot admit it but dare not exclude it’), and, again, in more explicitly
gendered form, in the conclusion:
‘Spain is the ‘woman’ of European culture...excluded from the main currents of political and cultural power, scorned for her
supposed emotionalism and sensualism, and pitied for her lack of serene classicism or rationalism which once presented itself
as the ideal.’
The parallels between the role of Spain in European culture and the position of Spanish in the academy, at least in this country,
are striking, as they were intended to be. But are hispanists, at least those who work in the Renaissance period, happy to
teach and research from the margin? As Smith argues, there are advantages: when enlightenment and empiricism come under attack,
‘then the advantages of a marginal position, less compromised by a dominant intellectual tradition, are self-evident. Like
the concept of ‘woman’ under patriarchy, Spain embodies that lack on which Law is predicated, serves as the term which can
neither be excluded from the system, nor allowed to participate in it.’
From a less high-minded viewpoint, we are beginning to see this process at work in the shifting balance of power among the
modern languages in our universities. As applications to read French have started to decline as sharply as those for German
did a decade or so ago, only Spanish seems to be holding its own and even extending its popularity in schools and universities.
In some university schools of modern languages Spanish has become the engine room, teaching more students at markedly less
favourable student:staff ratios, and is often the only modern-language department not in deficit.
When asked why they choose to read Spanish, students often say “because it is not French”; is it, as Smith suggests, ‘less
compromised by a dominant intellectual tradition’ or simply perceived to be more interesting, exciting, colourful, exotic,
diferente? Perhaps a hint of both. Certainly, the three frontiers of Spanish history - with Judaism and Islam, with America, and to
a lesser extent with Protestant Europe - are a huge attraction to students. And ethnic minority students do not seem to find
the Catholic hegemony too much of an obstacle to appreciating the multi-cultural intrahistoria.
But leaving aside the obvious irony that a marginal and marginalised culture has come to occupy an increasingly central position
in university enrolments in modern languages, we surely cannot be happy for golden-age Spain to live entirely on the southern
and western fringes of Europe. I want to suggest that the view of Spanish as a marginal culture, to which Paul Smith gave
expression, is in danger of backfiring rather badly. This is not at all a matter of territory or of equity in university manpower;
it is simply about the risk we all run, if we exclude Spain, of misrepresenting the Renaissance, of failing to do justice
to the full range of European culture in Renaissance studies.
There is also another kind of unhappy irony in the fact that English Renaissance Studies are booming at a time when Spanish
golden-age studies feel beleaguered. There is no doubt that we live in an increasingly anglo-centric world, in spite of the
world-wide reach of Spanish, but there is more to it than that. English renaissance scholars have, in a sense, stolen the
hispanists’ clothes in that the success of new historicism, for example, has been intimately bound up with the discovery of
the colonial dimension of Elizabethan and Jacobean culture. And, of course, the English have Shakespeare.
But these facts alone cannot explain or, still less, excuse the virtual omission of Spain from many recent studies of the
Renaissance, or its reduction to a series of stereotypes. Sir John Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (1993) caricatures Spain in terms of the armada, sheep-farming and the persecution of the moriscos. Similarly, William J.
Bouwsma writes, in his book The Waning of the Renaissance (2000), about Spain’s expansionist ambitions and about madness, mysticism and effeminacy at court. Anthony Levi, in Renaissance and Reformation (2002), has a couple of pages on the Complutensian polyglot Bible but concludes that ‘the study of antique cultures and languages
remained relatively weak in Spain’. And Jill Kraye’s Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (1996) has nothing specific about Spain unless one is fortunate enough to have access to the Spanish edition with an excellent
chapter by Alejandro Coroleu.
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There are honourable exceptions. Lisa Jardine’s Worldly Goods (1996) recognises the position of Castilian as ‘the most powerful vernacular in Europe’, and Margaret Anne Doody’s, The True Story of the Novel (1997) has an exceptionally well-informed chapter on Spain. In historical surveys Spain fares better: there are several mentions
of Spain in the Oxford History of the British Empire, for example. But the exceptions are few. It surely cannot be right that the centrality of early-modern Spanish political,
economic and cultural power in Europe should be so silenced in this way, and there is a real danger of misreading Renaissance
cultural history through the distorting lens of present-day cultural politics.
Needless to say, hispanists have no-one else to blame but themselves for this state of affairs. Authors of general surveys
such as those mentioned above rely on more detailed secondary sources, and many of these don’t say anything about Spain because
they don’t really know it’s there. There is often little representation of Spain in international conferences on the Renaissance,
therefore nothing in the proceedings, therefore nothing in general works that derive from specialist research. Hispanists
need to engage more vigorously with scholars from other disciplines and need to write more frequently for a wider audience;
they must put a stop to tired clichés about black legends and start playing to the centrality of Spain in the early modern
This year and next offer good opportunities to correct some of these imbalances. 2004 has seen the fourth centenary of the
Treaty of London between Spain and England which was negotiated and signed at Somerset House throughout the summer of 1604.
The treaty ushered in a twenty-year rapprochement between the two traditional enemies which led to an unprecedented period
of cultural exchange. The so-called ‘Spanish match’, the anticipated marriage of the Prince of Wales to the Spanish infanta, was to have set the seal on this rapprochement in 1623, but the prince got over-excited, turned up uninvited and unannounced
in Madrid and was politely shown the door.
King’s College London and the Somerset House Trust have been celebrating the 1604 treaty in the form of two conferences and
several seminars, concerts and exhibitions. For the first time, both group portraits of the two negotiating teams (one normally
in the National Portrait Gallery, the other in the National Maritime Museum) have been exhibited together in the same room.
One of the key questions for the series has been about the kinds of cultural, especially literary, exchanges which the treaty
made possible. The Spanish delegation was put up in Somerset House from May to August 1604 and we know that Shakespeare was
in attendance for eighteen days during that period.
There is a Tom Stoppard play to be written about the conversation Shakespeare might have had with Cervantes, if Cervantes
had been among the Spanish delegation. It is unlikely that he was, but possible that he did at some time pass through London:
one of his novels is partly set in London, Elizabeth I figures prominently in it, and the heroine is brought up in a recusant
household. But the hypothesis is still an interesting one: what would a Spanish and an English writer have found to talk about
Whatever the answer, Shakespeare would have been wise not to mention Lope de Vega. Lope’s celebrity was a constant source
of chagrin to Cervantes, whose early attempts at drama did not meet with popular or critical success. In 1604 Shakespeare
had Othello in repertory and Measure for Measure in progress, both plays which raise interesting questions about the different cultural and racial contexts of honour/vengeance
in Spain and England. The plot of Measure for Measure, especially the last act, has parallels with several of Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels (1613), not all of which can be explained by the common Italianate sources and conventions which both writers shared.
One reason why Cervantes is unlikely to have been in London in 1604 was that he delivered the manuscript of Don Quijote de la Mancha to the printer’s that autumn, prior to its publication in 1605. The four hundredth anniversary of what subsequently became
Part I will no doubt be celebrated ad nauseam in 2005. But Don Quijote, of which Part II was published in 1615, was far from being the only work of prose fiction to bring Cervantes belated celebrity.
By 1604 he had also completed most of the first two books of a prose romance set in northern Europe (Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, 1617) and several long short stories which went to make up the Novelas ejemplares.
All of these works figured prominently in English literary history in the early years of the seventeenth century. Don Quijote was famously accessioned into the Bodleian library in its year of publication, and Shelton’s translation was published in
1612 although it had been circulating in translation well before. An anonymous translation of The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda appeared in London in 1619, less than two years after its publication in Madrid, and in 1640, James Mabbe brought out a version
of the Exemplary Novels, long after many of them had become well known to English audiences through adaptations by Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger,
Middleton and Rowley.1
The popularity of Cervantes, and other Spanish writers of prose fiction, in Jacobean England prompts many questions: who knew
Spanish, what was the intermediate role of French and what were the imperatives for importing literary texts in this way?
It is clear that Jacobean England was not the monoglot desert which it has become in the second Elizabethan period. The English
of Shakespeare’s day had access to a wide range of foreign-language primers and bilingual dictionaries, and there were evidently
centres of translation from Spanish in London and Oxford, and probably in Scotland (there is internal evidence that the translator
of Persiles and Sigismunda was a Scot).
The reason for this degree of interest in foreign languages is to be found in Warren Boutcher’s essay on translation in the
Renaissance in the Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation (ed. Peter France, Oxford: OUP, 2000): England was the biggest net importer of books in Europe, and ‘access to this new world
of the continental printed book brings with it the overwhelming sense of marginalisation, of alienation from a vast body of
European textual learning organized and presented from the point of view of others’ needs and others’ pride’ (49). It would
simply never have occurred to anyone on the continent of Europe to learn English during the Renaissance.
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Two particularly interesting points emerge from the imaginary discussion between Shakespeare and Cervantes that might have
taken place in Somerset House in 1604, and both involve assymetries: the first is that, although Spanish prose fiction was
a major source for Jacobean drama, there was no equivalent import of English drama into Spain; and the second is that, of
the two nations' greatest writers, one was a novelist and the other a dramatist. This distinction highlights the very different
relative status of prose fiction in the two cultures, and impacts crucially on the literary history of the novel in Europe.
Hence the importance of getting the debate about the origins of the novel out of the English eighteenth century and back into
the continental renaissance.2 Even among English scholars, debate has moved back to the seventeenth century, but has not yet really engaged with the differential
growth of prose fiction in different European cultures during the Renaissance.
My own recent work on the history of the novel has, in part, been aimed at reassessing the prominence of Cervantes on the
European scene.3 In comparative accounts of the rise of the novel, Cervantes is almost inevitably cast in the role of precursor. But within
Spanish literary history, Cervantes represents the culmination of a tradition of prose fiction stretching back to the 1490s,
without which none of Cervantes’s works could have been written. A vivid illustration of the relative status of prose fiction
in England and Spain is to look at the 31 named books in Don Quixote’s library (Part I, chapter 6), and try to imagine what
that library would look like if Don Quixote had been an Englishman in 1605. Sir Quixote would have been hard pressed indeed
to assemble more than a half-dozen presentable works of English prose fiction in 1605,4 and would certainly have had a better library of fiction if he had only collected translations from Spanish. Virtually all
of the major Spanish prose works from the 1490s onwards were available in English translation by 1605.5
There is nothing new in this information, although readers who are surprised by this comparison may be forgiven for not being
aware of the importance of Spanish literature in English renaissance literary history. Fifty years ago, George Samson’s 1965
edition of The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature makes numerous references to Spanish sources (Montemayor for Sidney’s Arcadia, or Guevara for Lyly’s Euphues), and several times mentions Anthony Munday’s translations of Spanish romances. But references to continental sources of
English prose fiction have gradually been suppressed from more recent accounts, and the latest (2000) version of the Cambridge Companion to English Literature makes no mention of Spain at all.
No doubt the fourth centenary of Don Quijote in 2005 will give us an opportunity to reassess the importance of Cervantes, and of Spanish prose fiction in general, within
Renaissance literary history. But we will need to be aware of Paul Smith’s warning that Cervantes may well have been so well
received outside Spain because he appeared to foreigners to suppress the rhetoric of excess which they perceived as being
more typical of Spanish writing at the time. That is, they valued him because they thought he was not a typical Spanish writer.
We must be wary of allowing next year’s celebration of Cervantes to marginalise further the culture that created him.
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Cervantes Professor of Spanish
King’s College London