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SP14: Frontiers: Medieval Spanish Literature & Culture

(N.B. in 2023/24 SP14 will only be available as an Optional Dissertation)

The Spanish Middle Ages is a fascinating and rewarding period for study. Historically the peninsula was a site of successive waves of invasion and colonization so that its cultural substrata encompass pagan, Christian, Judaic and Islamic influences. Consequently, medieval Hispanic cultural is unique and diverse. During this period Castilian came to dominate, the Spanish state started to take shape, and the themes and ideals that were to form later Spanish literature and thought originated.

This paper has three sections. There will be a roundup discussion at the end of classes on each section. 

In Section A, ‘From Epic to the Novel?’, we study a range of longer genres in verse and prose from the first extensive writing in the vernacular. Students will achieve an overview of historic, generic and thematic change across the whole period and build reading skills. A key element will be to appreciate the generic fluidity of extant Iberian material. Attention will be given to the specific contexts of production and reception. Students will gain confidence in their understanding of economic change, social structures and kinship relations, rhetoric and the compositional commonplaces of the Middle Ages. Texts to be studied include: Spain’s national epic, the Poema de Mio Cid; its first indigenous chivalric romance, the Libro del caballero Zifar; and, a dialogued novel, Fernando de Rojas’s Celestina.

In Section B, ‘Body and Soul’, we explore verse narrative from the thirteenth- and fourteenth- centuries, including shorter genres and a longer narrative using microgenres. The texts deal with the relationship between the body and soul, between the self and the other and the demands of religion and the secular world. There will be three classes on hagiography and miracle collections and two on a longer narrative. The roundup discussion will focus on heterodoxy, orthodoxy and humour in relation to body and soul. Particular attention will be given to understanding medieval medical and theological approaches to the body, sin and sanctity and the margins of transgression. Texts include hagiography and Gonzalo de Berceo’s Marian miracles and two female saints’ lived and , the Archpriest of Hita’s bawdy pseudo-autobiography, the Libro de buen amor.

In Section C, ‘Convivencia & Frontiers’ we focus on verse and prose material produced in the context of interfaith interaction and the peninsular frontiers to gain an understanding of their nuanced nature, balancing notions of convivencia with an appreciation of cultural specificity and disvivencia and considering work by women and in the female voice. We will also consider the contemporaru medieval. Material studied begins with the female-voice lyric of the Andalusi and Galician-Portuguese courts, and ranges through narrative adaptations from Arabic, the work of a Jewish advisor to a Christian king, a woman’s autobiographical political intervention, and ends with the response of a contemporary poet.

There will be an optional visit to the Rare Books room to inspect some medieval Iberian manuscripts, incunabula and early printed books,  and the opportunity for a group visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Students will answer one question from each section in examination. Students may offer dissertations in medieval Iberian languages other than Castilian. In examination, material from any section can be used to address any question except when questions deal with only one text or text type. There is always a commentary option available.

All texts are read in the original with the aid of glossaries and notes: Castilian has not altered as greatly over the centuries as many other Europe languages and so students should not expect to encounter linguistic difficulties; however, there are good English translations of most of the set texts with which the originals can be read in tandem. Introductory reading classes at the start of the lecture course.


Section A: From Epic to Novel?

  • Poema de Mio Cid

  • Libro del caballero Zifar

  • Fernando de Rojas, Celestina

Section B: Body & Soul

  • Hagiography

  • The Virgin and the Sinner

  • Juan Ruiz, Libro de buen amor

Section C: Convivencia & Diversity

  • Kharjas

  • Sem Tob de Carrión, Proverbios morales; o, Consejos y documentos al rey don Pedro

  • Cantigas de amigo

  • Hybrid narratives

  • Writing Memory: Leonor López de Córdoba, Memorias

  • Contemporary Medieval: Erín Moure

Preparatory reading: 

Introductory Reading

  • Catlos, Brian A., Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (London: C Hurst, 2018).
  • Caro Baroja, Julio, ‘Honour and Shame: A Historical Account of Several Conflicts’, in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, ed. John Peristiany (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 81-137.
  • Dodds, Jerrilynn D.; Menocal, María Rosa; Balbale, Abigail Krasner , The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (New Haven and London, 2008).
  • Fletcher, Richard, Moorish Spain (London:  Phoenix, 1998).
  • Haywood, Louise M., ‘Medieval Spanish Studies’, in The Companion to Hispanic Studies, ed. Catherine Davies (London: Arnold, 2002), pp. 32-49.
  • Le Goff, Jacques Medieval Civilization (Oxford : Blackwell, 1990).
  • Russell, P.E., ed., Spain: A Companion to Spanish Studies (London: Methuen, 1973), chaps 2 & 3; now out of print but well worth reading.


Teaching and learning: 

Recommended editions of set texts: Please see the reading list for the recommended editions, which have been chosen for the accuracy and quality of their text, and for the range of their annotations. 

Please click here for the reading list for SP14.

Further details are available on our Moodle site here: SP14's Moodle site. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


The paper is assessed either by a three-hour examination in the Easter Term, or by an Optional Dissertation submitted at the end of Lent Term.

In the examination candidates are required to answer THREE questions, AT LEAST ONE from each section; there may be optional commentary questions. 

Prepare for this paper by doing the ‘Introductory Reading’, and reading the Set texts; you may also wish to read selectively from the background lists (see above full reading lists). Further reading lists and learning support materials will become available on-line via Moodle. Note that the reading lists cater for a wide range of possible interests. No individual student is expected to read all or even most of the items listed: please feel free to follow your interests.

Course Contacts: 
Prof Louise Haywood (paper co-ordinator)