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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
Why "Amadis of Gaul" was banned: women liked it 
3rd-Feb-2009 09:45 am

The Spanish novel Amadís de Gaula ought to be famous. Instead, especially outside of Spain, few people besides scholars have even heard of it. I wondered why.

Based medieval tales of chivalry, the book became Europe's first best-seller in the early 1500s, and it inspired a century of popular sequels and spinoffs in seven languages. Miguel de Cervantes satirized these novels a century later in Don Quixote, and that's how I first heard of it. In fact, if it weren't for Quixote, Amadís would be even more obscure.

And yet at one time even illiterate people knew all about Amadís. How did something so popular become so forgotten?

Most literary histories say that due to Quixote's devastating attacks, and due to a decline in the quality of the stories, chivalric novels simply because unfashionable. But after a little research, I don't think so.

First, not all critics agree that the quality fell, although the writing did change. Some authors began to treat the theme of knights and love with realism, others with increasing fantasy. But critics and defenders alike agreed that they were entertaining — and for some moralists, entertaining meant "worthless time-waster." Worst of all, these books were fantasy.

Despite fewer editions of new books and fewer reprints of existing books as the 1500s drew to a close, the books gained more and more critics in the 1600s. No one complains about something unless it is actually happening. People kept reading and even writing the books all across Europe.

But now the readers weren't kings and other very important people: they were increasingly women, especially young women and girls. A few women even wrote chivalric novels. All the books began to include more female protagonists.

That was just too much for moralists: "They are golden pills that, with a layer of delicious entertainment . . . fill hearts with such ideas about love that, serving as example, decay in young women and ruin their honest estate of modesty and sense of shame," wrote Benito Remigio Noydens in 1666.

The Spanish Inquisition targeted the novels. Royal decrees limited and finally outlawed their reprinting. The libraries of noble families quietly disposed of them. In other countries, the books received equal condemnation.

Amadís was banned. It wasn't forgotten; it was expurgated from respectable literary memory.

Stephen King says this about banned books: "Run, don't walk, to the first library or bookstore you can find and read what they are trying to keep out of your eyes because that is exactly what you need to know."

So I am translating Amadis de Gaula into English. Read a new chapter a week at http://www.amadisofgaul.blogspot.com You can also follow as a LiveJournal syndicated feed at http://syndicated.livejournal.com/amadisofgaul/

Violence, sex, adventure, sorcery, intrigue, and danger — medieval style. What will it do to you?

3rd-Feb-2009 11:40 pm (UTC)

Thank you! I forget whose livejournal sent me here, but I'm fascinated with the story and have added the blogspot to my RSS Feed. I know how much work it is to translate a work, so I very much appreciate your effort.

4th-Feb-2009 08:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Gracias!
4th-Feb-2009 01:37 am (UTC)
I found an English translation of Amadis at the University of Wisconsin Madison library when I was there. I found it "entertaining" in an exasperating sort of way, due to a couple of recurring themes. 1) Being the "best knight in the world" is rather like being "fastest gun in the West." Everyone is out to knock you down. 2) Being "best knight" in the world evidently means being dumb as a post, since all the good knights continually fall for the gag where they grant an unspecified boon to someone, which ends up being, "kill me the knight who's chasing me," who is Amadis' brother or another good knight, etc., which results in all kinds of problems because 3) being "foresworn" is worse than committing murder--.

Don't let me discourage you: the shortcomings may have been partly the translation. I'm going to read your efforts with interest, since I think a good current translation is needed.
4th-Feb-2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks Greg. There is a lot of fighting in the book, and it can get to be a bit like car chases. But the shortcomings may be the translation. Robert Southey's is popular, but it is only half as long as the original, so some of the motivations and characterizations are lost. Even in the original, sometimes it's hard to understand why things happen because medieval society had some strange assumptions, which are not explained in the story, since the listeners were medieval, too.
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