Enlightenment Literature overview

During the last decades of the 17th century, there was a crisis in the Old Regime in Europe, which was becoming obsolete. The new ideals established reason as the universal method for knowledge, and the experimental method and reasonable studies gained force against the arguments of the authorities, which had sustained the knowledge in previous centuries.

Knowledge shifted from court to cafes and cultural institutions. People started to travel because they wanted to learn more about the world and were interested in other cultures and languages, and began to practice sport and to look for ways to improve their quality of life. There was also a generalized fatigue towards the exuberant Baroque style, and everyone yearned for a more clear, transparent and balanced life and culture.

Classics Spanish Books - Academy of Arcadia

Change started in Rome with the founding of the Academy of Arcadia in 1690, which opened schools around Italy to promote what they called "buon senso", good taste, and the return to classic literature. In this new attitude, the enlightened is a philanthropist who cares for others, proposing and undertaking reforms in culture and society. They defend tolerance in religion and most are skeptics. Montesquieu argued that the Old Regime was obsolete and change needed to take place, and proposed democracy as the new political system, with the separation of the three main powers: legislative, executive and judicial. The enlightened wanted to be able to choose their own governors, which inspired the motto of the French Revolution: Freedom, Equality, Fraternity.

The Enlightenment as a way of thinking began in England, although it reached its peak in France. The first encyclopedia was published by two frenchmen, Diderot and d'Alembert, who wanted to make all the knowledge accessible for everyone.

Spanish Enlightenment Literature

After the War of Succession, the Bourbons found a decimated and uneducated Spain. Philip V gave the monarchy more privileges and began to centralize the government of the country. The Church still had power, even after the abolition of the Order of the Jesuits in 1767. The middle classes didn't have any rights. Little by little, things began to change: the higher classes began to see their privileges reduced, the Church had less power, and by the end of the century the life of the Spanish people had improved considerably.

Classics Spanish Books - Pablo de Olavide

Once the Church started to lose power, the Universities were taken by the crown. Pablo de Olavide takes charge of the University of Seville and starts to implement some changes which were approved in Court, and soon the Enlightenment ideas had taken root and were being openly discussed in all the Universities in Spain. The translation of the works of important French philosophers like Voltaire and Montesquieu in 1720 helped spread the ideas farther. Benito Jerónimo Feijoo's works, which talked extensively of the Enlightenment and the change needed in Spain, were also helpful in the expansion of the new ideas.

The Sociedades Económicas de Amigos del País (Economic Societies of Friends of the Country) were private associations established in various cities throughout Spain, and served as a meeting point for discussing ideas and possible changes. The most important one of these societies was the "Real Sociedad Económica de Madrid", established in the capital in 1775. Madrid was the center of all the changes and the reflection of the new social model. This societies accepted anyone, from any social class and any work sector.

Classics Spanish Books - RAE

It was during this time that the Real Academia Española (RAE) was created. Their aim was to spread the use of the correct Spanish. The first dictionary was published from 1726 to 1736, and it included 6 volumes in which anyone could find the meaning and etymology of every Spanish word. Other important organs founded in this time are the Biblioteca Nacional (1712), Real Academia de la Historia (1738), Real Jardín Botánico (1755), Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (1751), Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona (1752) and Museo del Prado (1785). The Spanish enlightened were very preoccupied with the spreading of their language and wanted everyone to study Spanish.

The Enlightenment literature in Spain has three stages:

  • Anti baroque (until 1750): goes against the style of the Baroque writers, because they consider it's too full of rhetoric and too difficult to understand.
  • Neoclassicism (until the end of the 18th century): it's a renovation of the old style of Rome and Greece, the classic style. The writers mimic the manner of classic writers like Virgil, Horace and Ovid. This trend spanned from the reign of Ferdinand IV to mid 19th century.
  • Pre romanticism (end of 18th century to beginning of 20th century): the English philosophers Locke and Sterne and the French Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot influence the appearance of a new movement that's fed up with the tyranny of reason and wants personal emotions to be taken into consideration, mainly love. This announces the decadence of Neoclassicism and opens the way to Romanticism.

Spanish Enlightenment Literature - Prose

Classics Spanish Books - Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos

Narrative was almost inexistent during this period. Most of the prose was found in newspapers, which helped spread the new ideas through the population. There were different types of newspapers, but the more popular were the ones which wrote about scientific or literary topics. Essays also played a big part in the divulgation of the new Enlightenment ideas. This prose was written in a didactic tone and wanted to help people understand the problems and possible solutions of the problems present at the time.

Some of the most relevant prose authors of the Spanish Enlightenment literature are:

  • Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijoo
  • Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos
  • José Cadalso

Spanish Enlightenment Literature - Poetry

In 1737, Ignacio Luzán put together the aesthetic ideas of Neoclassicism in his "Poética". This style was popular in Spain, because it imposed some criteria that were useful for humanity. The dominant artistic ideas came from France, the "good taste" and the restraining of one's feelings. Writers adhered to the rules of classicism, shying from spontaneity and imagination, which were substituted by an educational effort.

The topics were normally historic, costumbrist and satiric. In the Rococó variety, which was more luxurious and ornate, the pastoral topics were the most abundant, with the exaltation of pleasure and gallant love. The common forms were odes, epistles, elegies and ballads.

Classics Spanish Books - Fonda San Sebastian

Neoclassical literature during the Spanish Enlightenment was developed mainly in Salamanca, by people of the University; Seville due to the influence of its assistant (a figure similar to the major) Pablo Olavide; and in Madrid, in the "Fonda de San Sebastián". This groups the writers in three Spanish schools of literature: the school of Salamanca, with Cadalso, Meléndez Valdés, Jovellanos and Forner; the school of Seville with Manuel María Arjona, José Marchena, José María Blanco White and Alberto Lista; and the school of Madrid with Vicente García de la Huerta, Ramón de la Cruz, Iriarte, Samaniego and Fernández de Moratín.

Some of the most relevant prose authors of the Spanish Enlightenment literature are:

  • Juan Meléndez Valdés, main author of the Rococó movement in Spain
  • Nicolás Fernández de Moratín
  • Tomás de Iriarte
  • Félix María Samaniego

Spanish Enlightenment Literature - Theatre

The main cultivators of the Enlightenment literature theatre were the writers from the school of Madrid. There are three main tendencies:

  • Traditional: There's little variation with the previous forms of theatre, except that for the higher classes they adapted works from some italian writers, like operas and operettas, as well as some translated French plays.
  • Neoclassical: The Count of Aranda ordered the plays from the Golden Century that were close to the Aristotelic structure to be represented, adapting them slightly. He also asked the neoclassic play writers to write about reason and the reforms they were imposing. These types of plays weren't too popular among the masses.
  • Folkloric: Mostly farces, written in verse. The main author of these plays was Ramón de la Cruz.
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