Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Europe’s first best-seller

What made it so popular?

Illustration from the 1531 edition of Amadís de Gaula, printed by Juan Cromberger in Seville. A PDF of the book is available for download at the Biblioteca Digital Mundial. The original is at the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

I’m back after an August break. We’re in the final stretch of this translation of Amadis of Gaul – only 17 chapters to go. These are the chapters Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo created in which he rewrote the original medieval ending, which was tragic (everybody dies). In doing so, he set up the next novel, a sequel, The Exploits of Esplandian, which tells the story of Amadis’s son.

Montalvo could not have expected that dozens of sequels to Amadis would be written in five different languages during the 1500s – along with a hundred other novels of chivalry. What made the idea of chivalry so popular in the Renaissance?

First of all, the printing press had made best-sellers possible. The new technology had spread across Europe in the late 1400s, and something was going to take Europe’s new and growing readership by storm. That something turned out to be Amadis.

Novels of chivalry were already popular, in fact. A long list of titles come to us from the Middle Ages, starting with the tales of King Arthur that Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized in the early 12th century. Maybe their appeal in the Renaissance was nostalgic, since knights-errant, if they ever existed, had no place in 16th-century Europe with its growing consolidation of royal and imperial power. The stories of brave knights of old could still stir imaginations. Even today medieval fantasy novels crowd bookstores and Amazon’s website.

During the Renaissance, novels about Amadis and chivalry especially won the hearts of women and girls. I think the reason for that is obvious: women of all kinds fill Amadis, from queens and empresses to mere errand-girls, along with sorceresses and temptresses who experience all kinds of danger and excitement. Few other books in those days could offer that type of adventure to women, who usually led restricted lives. This may be why novels of chivalry were eventually condemned for corrupting young women.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, Amadis of Gaul is a phenomenon, one of the fundamental works of European literature.

– Sue Burke, translator


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