Portuguese literature  

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"To most of us Portuguese literature probably suggests the Letters of a Portuguese Nun which are in French, or the Sonnets from the Portuguese which are in English. We shall, accordingly, call in evidence to prove Portuguese nationality, a playwright of the sixteenth century, Gil Vicente, whose plays will be found to be very living pictures of a very live nation."--Portugal Old and Young: An Historical Study (1917) by George Young

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This is a survey of Portuguese literature.

The Portuguese language was developed gradually from the Vulgar language (i.e. Vulgar Latin) spoken in the countries which formed part of the Roman Empire and, both in morphology and syntax, it represents an organic transformation of Latin without the direct intervention of any foreign tongue. The sounds, grammatical forms, and syntactical types, with a few exceptions, are derived from Latin, but the vocabulary has absorbed a number of Germanic and Arabic words, and a few have Celtic or Iberian origin. Before the close of the Middle Ages the language threatened to become almost as abbreviated as French, but learned writers, in their passion for antiquity, re-approximated the vocabulary to Latin. The Renaissance commenced a separation between literary men and the people, between the written and spoken tongue, which with some exceptions lasted until the beginning of the 19th century. Then the Romanticists went back to tradition and drew on the poetry and every day speech of the people, and, thanks to the writings of such men as Almeida Garrett and Camilo Castelo Branco, the literary language became national once again.

Birth of a literary language


It has been argued (by great early scholars such as Henry Roseman Lang and Carolina Michaëlis de Vasconcellos) that an indigenous popular poetry existed before the beginning of the written record, although the first datable poems (a handful between around 1200 and 1225) show influences from Provence. These poems were composed in a language called Galician-Portuguese (or Galego-Portuguese), the common ancestor of modern Galician and Portuguese. The first known venues of poetic activity were aristocratic courts in Galicia and the North of Portugal (we know this thanks to the recent work of the Portuguese historian Antonio Resende de Oliveira). After that the center shifted to the court of Alfonso X (The Wise King), King of Castile and Leon (etc.). Some of the same poets (and others) practiced their craft in the court of King Alfonso III, who had been educated in France. The main manuscript sources for Galician-Portuguese verse are the Cancioneiro da Ajuda probably a late 13th century manuscript, the Cancioneiro da Vaticana and the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional (also called Cancioneiro Colocci-Brancuti). Both these latter codices were copied in Rome at the behest of the Italian humanist Angelo Colocci, probably around 1525.

There was a late flowering during the reign of King Dinis I (1261-1325), a very learned man, whose output is the largest preserved (137 texts). The main genres practiced were the male-voiced cantiga d'amor, the female-voiced cantiga d'amigo (though all the poets were male) and the poetry of insult, called cantigas d'escarnio e maldizer (songs of scorn and insult). This 13th century Court poetry, which deals mainly with love and personal insult (often wrongly called satire), by no means derives entirely from Provencal models and conventions (as is often said). Most scholars and critics favor the cantigas d'amigo, which probably were "rooted in local folksong" (Henry Roseman Lang, 1894), and in any event are the largest surviving body of female-voiced love lyric that has survived from ancient or medieval Europe. The total corpus of medieval Galician-Portuguese lyric, excluding the Cantigas de Santa Maria, consists of around 1685 texts. In addition to the large manuscripts named above, we also have a few songs with music in the Vindel Parchment, which contains melodies for six cantigas d'amigo of Martin Codax, and the Pergaminho Sharrer, a fragment of a folio with seven cantigas d'amor of King Dinis. In both these manuscripts the poems are the same we find in the larger codices and moreover in the same order.

By the middle of the 15th century troubadour verse was effectively dead, replaced by a limper form of court poetry, represented in the Cancioneiro Geral compiled in the 16th century by poet and humanist Garcia de Resende. Meanwhile the people were elaborating a ballad poetry of their own, the body of which is known as the Romanceiro. It consists of lyrico-narrative poems treating of war, chivalry, adventure, religious legends, and the sea, many of which have great beauty and contain traces of the varied civilizations which have existed in the peninsula. When the Court poets had exhausted the artifices of Provencal lyricism, they imitated the poetry of the people, giving it a certain vogue which lasted until the Classical Renaissance. It was then thrust into the background, and though cultivated by a few, it remained unknown to men of letters until the nineteenth century, when Almeida-Garrett began his literary revival and collected folk poems from the mouths of the peasantry.


Prose developed later than verse and first appeared in the 13th century in the shape of short chronicles, lives of saints, and genealogical treatises called Livros de Linhagens. In Portuguese chanson de geste has survived to this day, but there are medieval poems of romantic adventure given prose form; for example, the Demanda do Santo Graal (Quest for the Holy Grail) and "Amadis of Gaul". The first three books of the latter probably received their present shape from João Lobeira, a troubadour of the end of the 13th century, though this original has been lost and only a 16th century Spanish version remains. The Book of Aesop also belongs to this period. Though the cultivated taste of the Renaissance affected to despise the medieval stories, it adopted them with alterations as a homage to classical antiquity. Hence came the cycle of the "Palmerins" and the Chronica do Emperador Clarimundo of João de Barros. The medieval romance of chivalry gave place to the pastoral novel, the first example of which is the Saudades of Bernardim Ribeiro, followed by the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor, a Portuguese writer who wrote in Spanish. Later in the sixteenth century Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso, a fascinating storyteller, produced his Historias de Proveito e Exemplo.

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