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History of Portuguese Literature Origins of Portuguese Literature The Portuguese Language Oral Literature Fiction Lyricism
Travel Literature Cantigas de amigo Historiography Doctrinal Prose


Origins of Portuguese Literature  

Cancioneiro da Ajuda - Jester playing viola, girl playing timbrel.

Folio of Amadis de Gaula, 1526 edition, printed in Seville by Jacobo Cromberger, a German, and João Cromberger

The earliest manifestations of Portuguese literature are to be found in verse, dating from the twelfth century. These were collected together in three song-books: the Cancioneiro da Ajuda (13C), the Cancioneiro da Vaticana and the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional (these being copies of later texts).

“Cantiga da Garvaia”, 
Cancioneiro da Ajuda

The first poets were João Soares de Paiva and Paio Soares de Taveirós, the latter being the author of the famous Cantiga da Garvaia. As it originated from the oral tradition, this lyrical production was made known by troubadours (poets) and  jesters (instrumentalists).

It is thought that mediaeval lyricism was inspired by Latin, but its roots were in popular poetry, with the Mozarab harjas acting as a link with Romanic poetry, particularly the cantigas de amigo.

I cannot find anyone like you in the world
No matter where I go,
Because I suffer for you and alas!
My red and white lady,
You wished that I should hide you
When I saw you in your petticoat.
But it was a bad day when I arose
And didn’t see you ugly

Paio Soares de Taveirós, Cantiga da Garvaia - (1st stanza)

As to the fiction produced, if we overlook prose texts of a historiographical nature, namely those that were built up around the figure of D. Afonso Henriques (Crónica Geral de Espanha de 1344 and Crónicas Breves de Santa Cruz de Coimbra, IV), there are translations of works from the Matter of Britain (a cycle of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and another one by Joseph of Arimathea) and texts of a religious and edifying nature (Boosco Deleytoso and Horto do Esposo, from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), as well as doctrinal prose, which was to find some quite remarkable exponents in the Avis family, in the fifteenth century: O Livro da Montaria by D. João I, on the art and pleasures of hunting; A Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda a Sela and Leal Conselheiro by D. Duarte, on the art of horse-riding and on the ethics and practice of daily life, respectively; and Virtuosa Benfeitoria, an adaptation from the work of Seneca on the benefits of the nobility, by Infante D. Pedro).

But the most important work of fiction from this period is Amadis de Gaula. Published in Zaragoza in 1508, the text would seem to be derived from a fifteenth-century Portuguese text. It is a novel about chivalry, with an amorous and warlike plot, that respects all of the genre’s finest conventions. It is particularly notable for the realism that it shows in regard to the specific details of the action and for its incipient psychology, but particularly for the atmosphere of sensuality that unites the amorous couple.

There is still much doubt as to its true authorship even today, on both the Portuguese and Spanish sides, but it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Iberian fiction.


© Instituto Camões, 2001