Spanish Enlightenment literature

Spanish Enlightenment literature

Spanish Enlightenment literature is the literature of Spain written during the Age of Enlightenment.

During the 18th century a new spirit was born (it is in essence a continuation of the Renaissance) which swept away the older values of the Baroque and which receives the name of "Enlightenment". This movement laid its foundations in a critical spirit, in the predominance of reason and experience, philosophy and science were the most valued sources of knowledge. The period is also known as the "century of lights" or the "century of reason". In short, human happiness was pursued by means of culture and progress. The new winds that caused that art and literature were oriented towards a new classicism (Neoclassicism). The expression of feeling was avoided, norms and academic rules were followed, and balance and harmony were valued. At the end of century a reaction against so much rigidity arose, a return to the world of the feelings taking its place; this movement is known as "Pre-romanticism".

Historical context

The 18th century began with the War of Succession (1701-1714). The European powers, worried about the hegemonic power of the French king Luis XIV, together with his grandson Felipe de Anjou, whom Carlos II had named heir to the throne, formed the Great Alliance and endorsed the putsches of Archduke Carlos of Austria to accede to the crown. After the Treaty of Utrecht, Felipe V (1700-1746) was recognized King of Spain, although he later lost his dominions in Menorca and Gibraltar. In 1724, he abdicated in favor of his son Luis I, but when the latter died months later, he returned to assume the Spanish throne. During his reign, he developed a centralist policy and reorganized Public Property.

After the death of Felipe V, Fernando VI (1746-1759) succeeded him, who, with ministers like Carvajal and Marqués de la Ensenada, improved communications and the road network of the country, encouraged naval constructions and favored the development of the sciences.

After the reign of Felipe V, his stepbrother Carlos III succeeded to the throne. Prototype of illustrated monarch, he relied on the support of important ministers, like Floridablanca, Campomanes, Aranda, Grimaldi and Marqués de Esquilache. Without leaving the model of the Old Regime, he modernized the country, repopulated the Sierra Morena, and favored education, commerce and public works.

During the reign of Carlos IV, the French Revolution exploded (1789). Because of his weakness and the ambition of minister Godoy, he had to abdicate in favour of his son Fernando VII, after the invasion by the French in 1808.

The Enlightenment in Europe

L'Encyclopédie" (1751)] In the last decades of the 17th century, the Old Regime, based on the predominance of the ecclesiastical, military and aristocratic classes, entered into crisis in Europe. In this century, Europe critically reviewed the established order. The reason and the critic prevailed, and the experimental method and the studies founded on the reason are impelled.

The anxiety for knowledge became general. The court meetings left place to the bourgeois saloons, the coffees or the cultural institutions. A necessity was felt to travel by reasons of study or pleasure, to know other languages, to make sport to keep the body fit or to improve the conditions of life of the citizens.

In this new attitude, the illustrated person is a philanthropist that worries about the others, and proposes and undertakes reforms in the aspects related to the culture and the society. They defended the religious tolerance, the skepticism was put into practice and it was even reached to attack the religions. In opposition to the absolute monarchies, Montesquieu defended the bases of the modern democracy and the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. The illustrated people wanted to enjoy freedom and to choose their own governors. All that inspired the motto of the French Revolution: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood.

The illustrated theories had their origin in England, although they reached the summit in France, where they were gathered in the Encyclopédie (Encyclopedie, or reasoned dictionary of the sciences, the arts and the offices, 1751-1772), published by Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot. In this work they gathered all the existing knowledge of their time, by alphabetical order.

The Enlightenment in Spain

Antecedents of the reforming policy: the "novatores" of the 18th century

During the reign of the minor Austrias, Spain practically abandoned the scientific studies, seen with suspicion and continuously persecuted by the Inquisition. The delay with regard to Europe was evident at the beginning of the 18th century. Nevertheless, some intellectuals since the end of the 17th century refused to leave the investigation; not exent of risks, they were always up-to-date about the European discoveries in astronomy, medicine, mathematics or botany. These scholars are the so-called "novatores" ("innovating ones", contemptuously called this way). They spread the theories of Galileo Galilei, Kepler, Linnaeus or Isaac Newton. Among the "novatores", Juan de Cabriada, Antonio Hugo de Omerique, Juan Caramuel, Martínez, Tosca and Corachán stand out. In 18th century, the legacy that they left was continued by other scientists like Jorge Juan, Cosme Bueno, Antonio de Ulloa, etc.

Penetration of the Enlightenment in Spain

After the War of Succession, the Borbons found a Spain sunk in misery and ignorance. The Iberian Peninsula hardly had seven million and a half inhabitants. With a French political conception, Felipe V fortified the monarchic power and harnessed a process of centralization in the nation, abolishing the fueros and the laws of Aragón and Catalonia. The Church maintained its dominion, although some religious orders like the Company of Jesus fell, already at time of Carlos III. On the other hand, the common people, formed by livestock farmers, crop farmers, civil employees and marginalized people, lacked rights. The monarchs gradually reduced some privileges of the hereditary aristocracy and adopted a "regalista" or critical position in front of the Church, with the purpose of making a series of basic reforms. At the end of century, the quality of life of the Spaniards had been improved, as it is demonstrated by the increase of the population in almost three million inhabitants, a figure which is nevertheless smaller than the ones of other European countries.

The illustrated ideas entered Spain through diverse ways:
* The diffusion of the ideas of some illustrated people like Gregorio Mayans and Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, "novatores" of the 18th century.
* The propagation of the French encyclopedic ideas (Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu), in spite of the censorship of the time to avoid its introduction in the Peninsula and the monitoring of the Inquisition.
* The translation of French books of all genres and the hiring of foreign or erudite professors in certain matters.
* The trips of study and knowledge of the European life and customs made by the scholars and intellectuals.
* The appearance of newspapers or publications where the illustrated ideas spread.
* The creation of a series of cultural institutions and "Economic societies of friends of the country" destined to promote the cultural, social and economic progress of Spain by means of the extension of the culture. The first of the societies was founded in the Basque Country in 1765, and soon they spread all over the nation. They were constituted by illustrated people coming from the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the clergy. In this century organisms of great importance were created, like the Royal Spanish Academy, founded for the benefit of the language, under the motto "cleans, fixes and gives splendor". This society tried to create codes for the correct use of the language, and its first effort was destined to the elaboration of a Dictionary of the Castilian language, known today as the Dictionary of Authorities, in six volumes (1726-1739). The etymology of each word could be found in it, and each meaning appeared accompanied of a brief text of a famous writer who demonstrated the existence of this meaning. Other institutions that arose then were the National Library (1712), the Royal Academy of History (1936), the Botanical Garden (1755), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando (1751), the Royal Academy of Good Letters of Barcelona (1752) and the Museum of El Prado (1785).

The maximum splendor of the Enlightenment in Spain occurred during the reign of Carlos III and its decay, about the dates of the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula (1808). The illustrated people, in spite of counting on the support of the Crown, did not obtain the recognition of the majority; many were described as pro-strangers and accused of attacking the tradition and the religious education. After the French Revolution, some were persecuted and even jailed.

The Spanish language in the 18th century

In this century, a fight in favor of the clarity and naturalness of the artistic language is fought, in which many writers fought against the rests of the Baroque style that still survived, that is to say, the use of artifices at which the late Baroque had arrived.

The Latin was used in the universities as academic language, but little by little it was being replaced in that role. They wanted to return to the splendor of the Golden Age as literary language, but for that it was necessary to develop forms of expression in agreement with the European experimental sciences, work which was developed by Feijoo, Sarmiento, Mayans, Jovellanos, Forner, Capmany, among others. In 1813, after the War of Independence, the Meeting created by the Regency to make a general reform of education ordered the exclusive use of the Spanish in the university.

Many of the illustrated people, for the modernization of Spain, defended the implantation of the education in other languages (French, English, Italian) in the centers, and the translation of outstanding works to the Castilian. To the first were opposed those who defended the priority of the classic languages (Latin and Greek) as opposed to the modern ones, and to the second were opposed those who rejected the translations because they would introduce unnecessary foreign words in the Spanish language and would endanger its identity. Two positions arose thus: the casticismo, that defended a pure language, without neither mixture of voices nor strange turns, with words documented by the authorities (the Royal Spanish Academy); and the purismo, that was totally against the penetration of neologisms, mainly the foreign ones, blaming its opponents for being stainers of the language.

tages of the literature of the 18th century

Three stages in the Spanish Literature of the 18th century can be distinguished:
* Antibaroquism (until 1750 approximately): Writers fought against the style of the last Baroque, considered to be excessively rhetorical and convoluted. Recreational literature is not cultivated, but they are more interested in the essay and the satire, using the language with simplicity and purity.
* Neoclasicism (until the end of the 18th century): A fixation for the French and Italian classicism is felt. The writers also imitate the old classics (Greek and Roman) and their boom extended from the reign of Fernando VI until the end of the century.
* Preromanticism (end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century): The influence of the English philosopher John Locke, next to the French Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, will make a new feeling arise, unsatisfied with the tyranny of the reason, which makes the right of the individuals to express his personal emotions be worth (repressed then by the illustrated people), among which fundamentally the love appears. This current announces the decay of the Neoclasicism and opens the doors to the Romanticism.


The narrative is almost nonexistent in Spain during this period. Practically it is reduced to the "Life" of Diego de Torres Villarroel, or to the story "Fray Gerundio de Campazas" of Padre Isla.

Another modality of great influence in this time was the newspaper. Literary, scientific, or of curiosities, publications like the "Newspaper of the Literate of Spain", "The Censor" or "The Mail of Madrid" contributed to spread the theories and the ideas of the moment in Spain, laying the principles of the Enlightenment.

On the contrary, the essay is the dominant genre. This educative and doctrinal prose shows a desire to approach the problems of the moment, tends to the reform of the customary and usually makes use of the epistolar form.

Friar Benito Jerónimo Feijoo

The benedictine friar Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijoo y Montenegro (Orense, 1676 - Oviedo, 1764) had an aristotelian formation, although his mentality was totally modern. His works reached numerous editions and provoked many controversies, so many that Fernando VII, in an act of enlightened despotism, had to defend him by designating him his honorary advisor and prohibiting the attacks against his work and his person.

His knowledge was manifested in a multitude of essays that he grouped in the eight volumes of "The universal critical theater" (1727-1739) and in the five of "Erudite and curious letters" (1742-1760). Feijoo saw the necessity of writing to move Spain away from its delay; with this intention, he gave a didactic character to his work, noticeably catholic, but with the intention that the new European currents penetrated, at least, in the illustrated classes. He was very critical with the superstitions and the false miracles.

Feijoo contributed to the consolidation of the Castilian as a cultured language by defending its use as opposed to the Latin, that still was used in the universities. He also accepted the introduction of new voices, when they were necessary, without concerning where they came. His production covers very diverse fields like economy, politics, astronomy, mathematics, physics, history, religion, etc. His style was characterized by its simplicity, naturalness and clarity. For many critics, the Spanish prosa becomes modern with Feijoo.

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos

Jovellanos (Gijón, 1744 - Puerto de Vega, Asturias, 1811) is probably the most important essayist of the 18th century. Coming from an accommodated family, he studied law and he was destined to Seville, where he made epistolar contact with the Salmantine poetic School. In Madrid, as Mayor of House and Court, his political activity was in constant increase. After an exile, he was named minister of Grace and Justice by Godoy, and later, Advisor of State. When the confidence in the minister was lost, he was imprisoned in Majorca in the Castle of Bellver until the Riot of Aranjuez, that overthrew Godoy, gave him back the freedom. In 1808 he took part in the Central Meeting that confronted the Napoleonic army. He was persecuted by the French and he tried to be transferred to Cadiz, but the meteorological inclemencies forced him to take refuge in the Vega de Navia port, where he passed away.

Jovellanos began to write lyric poetry with the pastoral name (very common in his time) of Jovino, and with illustrated ideals. Like Cadalso, he satirized the uneducated aristocracy in his satire "A Arnesto". But soon he got tired of the poetry, which he considered to be an adolescent game to which the reason was not applied, and which was improper of a respectable man. Curiously, years later he invites in verse to the insurrection of 1808 in the "Song for the Astures against the French".

He also composed "The honest delinquent", an illustrated reformist drama. A law had been promulgated that condemned the survivor of the duels to death, considering the offendor and the victim equally guilty; Jovellanos based his drama on this, because for him only the offendor was the culprit. The work follows the line of the sentimental comedy, so admired in France, and its tone is already Preromantic.Clarity, concision and sobriety are the characteristics features of the didactic work of Jovellanos.

José Cadalso

José Cadalso y Vázquez de Andrade (1741-1782) is another of the great prose writers of the 18th century. He wrote important literary works, whose most important creation was "Moroccan Letters". It was said of him that he had a vast culture, probably enriched by his trips to England, France, Germany and Italy. He was a military man and he received the colonel rank. He was deeply in love with the actress María Ignacia Ibáñez, whose excesses that she committed caused her death at a very early age. Cadalso tried to unearth her, action which caused his exile to Salamanca (ordered so that he was cured of his insanity). He was later destined to Extremadura, Andalusia, Madrid and finally Gibraltar, place where he died.

As poet, and under the name of "Dalmiro", he composed the work "Leisures of my youth" (1771). His love towards the actress María Ignacia Ibáñez made him approach the dramatic world. Although he wrote three tragedies, only one of them was represented, and with little success, "Don Sancho García, count of Castile" (1771). His work in prose is however more extensive. In "Dismal nights" he narrates in dialogue form his frustrated yearning for rescuing the body of María Ignacia from the tomb. Entirely neoclassical is the book "The erudites to the violet", against the false intellectuals; seven lessons that satirize those who try to know much studying little.

Nevertheless, the "Moroccan Letters" (1789), published posthumously, are the ones that give the most importance to the literary production of Cadalso. According to a very cultivated model in France (for example, the Persian Letters of Montesquieu), the author composes a book with ninety letters written between Gazel, moor that visits Spain, his Moroccan teacher and friend Ben-Beley, and Nuño Núñez, Christian friend of Gazel. They comment on the historical past of Spain and its present life, and they judge the work of the governors and the customs of the country.


In 1737, Ignacio Luzán gathered the aesthetic ideas of the Neoclasicism in his "Poética". This style prevailed in Spain imposing criteria of utility and service to the humanity, next to desires of aesthetic pleasure. The artistic ideals imported from France and the "good taste" and the courtesy dominated, while feelings and passions were repressed. The subjection to the norms was general, fleeing from the spontaneity and the imagination, which were replaced by the didactic eagerness.

The neoclassical poetry treated historical, customary and satirical subjects. In the variant denominated "Rococó", more luxurious and recharged, the pastoral themes that raised the pleasure and the gallant love dominated. Habitual forms were odes, epistles, "elegías" and romances.

Important names of the Spanish poetry are Juan Meléndez Valdés, the maximum Spanish representative of the Rococó, Nicolás Fernandez de Moratín and the story-tellers Tomás de Iriarte and Félix María Samaniego.

The neoclassical literature was developed mainly in three cities: Salamanca, by people related to its University; Seville, with the influence of its assistant (position similar to mayor) Pablo de Olavide; and Madrid, around its boarding house of San Sebastián. This way, the writers of that tendency are grouped in schools or poetic groups: The Salmantine school, in which Cadalso, Meléndez Valdés, Jovellanos and Forner are found; the Sevillian school, in which the writers Manuel María Arjona, José Marchena, José María Blanco and Alberto Lista are included, who soon evolved towards a starting Romanticism (Preromanticism); and the Madrilenian group, formed by Vicente García de la Huerta, Ramón de la Cruz, Iriarte, Samaniego and both Fernández de Moratín.

The Salmantine school: Juan Meléndez Valdés

Meléndez Valdés (Ribera del Fresno, Badajoz, 1754 - Montpellier, France, 1814) is considered one of the best poets of the 18th century. He was university professor in Salamanca, where he maintained friendship with Cadalso and Jovellanos. He worked as a jurist, occupying destinies in Zaragoza, Valladolid and finally in Madrid, where he worked as public prosecutor of the Supreme Court. Once that his mentor, Jovellanos, fell in misfortune before Godoy, his exile to Medina del Campo was ordered, later to Zamora and finally to Salamanca. He was pro-French during the War of Independence and he avoided being shot in Oviedo, but he had to exile himself after the defeat of the French army.

Two stages in the lyric of Meléndez Valdés can be differentiated:
* In the first one he feels attracted in his youth by the predominant Rococo poetry and the influence of José Cadalso. He composed anacreontic and pastoral poems with the love as predominant theme. From this first stage it is possible to emphasize the égloga "Batilo".
* Nevertheless, after the death of Cadalso, and following the advice of Jovellanos, he thought that the pastoral lyric was inappropriate of a magistrate, so he composed another type of poetry which would be in more agreement with his occupation. Like Jovellanos, he is aware of the social inequalities, he defends the necessity to undertake reforms that improve the life of the town, he criticizes the customs of the court, and his poetry becomes philosophical, sentimental and reflective.

His style in the beginnings was artificial and conventional, but later it became very well cared for and precise. He himself defined his intention when writing: "I have taken care of explaining myself with nobility and of using a language worthy of the great subjects that I have treated".

The Madrilenian group: the story-tellers Iriarte and Samaniego

In the court and in the bourgeois environment the reformist ideas of the 18th century penetrated quickly. In addition to the Academies there were also other particular initiatives which influenced very much in the literature, as it is the case of the boarding house of San Sebastián, founded by Nicolás Fernández de Moratín and his son Leandro, along with Cadalso and Jovellanos.

Two writers were also members of the Madrilenian group. With the purpose of correcting defects and showing the rational values, they wrote fables.They were Tomás de Iriarte (La Orotava, Tenerife, 1750 - Madrid, 1791) and Félix María Samaniego: (La Guardia, Álava, 1745 - 1801).

The Sevillian school

Like Salamanca, the Sevillian city also had a great poetic tradition. In 1751 the "Academy of the Good Letters" was founded, which promoted the literary activity. As of 1760, and as a result of the arrival of Pablo de Olavide as intendant of the Government of Andalusia, the culture in that city was impelled remarkably. In 1776, that illustrated person is persecuted and jailed by the Inquisition.

By influence of José Cadalso and Meléndez, more recharged and colorist poems were written than in the Salmantine school, also influenced by Fernando de Herrera. In the Sevillian school poets like Manuel María Arjona (1771-1820), José Marchena (1768-1820), José María Blanco (1775-1841) and Alberto Lista (1775-1848) stood out. They wrote patriotic poems urging to fight by the freedom, after the invasion of the French and the return of Fernando VII, already in the 19th century. Some of them finished in the exile.


In theater, the main cultivators were those of the Madrilenian group. They were put under which the classic and modern rulers taught, and they created a theater which followed the political and moral interests of the time. Three tendencies existed:
* The traditional tendency. During the first half of the 18th century the theater is in decay.
* The neoclassical tendency.
* The popular tendency. The sainetes enjoyed popular support. They were written in verse, related to the pasos and entremeses of the previous centuries. The most important author of sainetes was Ramón de la Cruz.

The theater adopted the new fashions that arrived from France. In the neoclassical theater also the reason and the harmony prevailed as norm. The so-called "rule of the three units" was obeyed, which demanded a single action, a single scene and a coherent chronological time in the development of the dramatic action. The separation between the comical and the tragic was stablished. The imaginative containment prevailed, eliminating everything which was considered exaggerated or of "bad taste". An educative and moralizing purpose was adopted, which would serve to spread the universal values of the culture and the progress.

Although less rationalist than other genres, the tragedy cultivated historical subjects, as is the case of the most known, "Raquel", of Vicente García de la Huerta. But without doubt the most representative theater of the moment was the one of Leandro Fernandez de Moratín, creator of which has been called "moratinian comedy". As opposed to the tragic genre, the most common then, and which his father Nicolás practiced, and as opposed to the customary and kind sainete of Ramón de la Cruz, Moratín Jr ridiculed the vices and the custom of his time, in a clear attempt to turn the theater into a vehicle to moralize the custom.

Leandro Fernandez de Moratín

Son of Nicolás Fernández de Moratín (Madrid, 1760 - Paris, 1828), Leandro is the main author of theater in the 18th century. His neoclassical direction is due to his father. Protégé of Jovellanos and Godoy, he traveled by England, France (he was present at the outbreak of the French Revolution) and Italy. He fell enamored with Paquita Muñoz, much younger than him, whom he did not marry according to his desire of not contracting commitments. He was pro-French and he accepted from José Bonaparte the position of Great Librarian, reason why he was exiled to France, where he died after the defeat of the invaders.

As poet, he wrote satirical poems like the "Satire against the introduced vices in the Castilian poetry", theme that he returns to treat in prose in "The defeat of the pedantic ones". The present critic considers Moratinos to be the most outstanding lyric writer of the 18th century. In the poem "Elegía a las musas", being already old, he sayd goodbye to the poetry and the theater, which had been his reason of living.

As dramatic author, he wrote solely five comedies that gave a great reputation to him among illustrated people. In "The old man and the girl" and "The yes of the girls" (1806), he defends the right that the woman has to accept or not her spouse against the imposition of the family, because until then it was frequent to marry young girls with wealthy old men. In "La mojigata", he criticizes the hypocrisy and the false devotion. Another comedy is "The baron", and finally "The new comedy or The coffee" (1792) is a ridicule towards the authors who ignore the aristotelian rules.

Ramón de la Cruz

The sainete-writer Ramón de la Cruz (Madrid, 1731 - 1794) was one of the most applauded authors by the public and most criticized by the illustrated people (although some of them, seeing the popular support of his work, withdrew). He began writing tragedies of neoclassical cut, rejecting the "out of order" theater that people preferred. Nevertheless, his economic necessities made him approach less illustrated genres but more acclaimed by the public and the actors. This way he began to write zarzuelas of Spanish thematic and, simultaneously, sainetes. Of these he wrote more than four hundred, generally in octosyllabic verses, and some in endecasyllabic. The personages of this theater subgenus are popular (nerve girls, smart boys, deceived husbands, ruined bricklayers, chestnut sellers, nobleman of low grade, etc.) and the action usually happens in Madrid: "The prairie of San Isidro", "El Prado in the evening", "El Rastro in the morning"; its end sometimes wants to be exemplary. The most famous of his sainetes is "Manolo", satire of the theater that his neoclassical enemies wrote. With his maxim "I write and the truth dictates", he could find in the people an inexhaustible source, the same that, with greater depth, would inspire Francisco de Goya.


Some works of the Salmantine school augur the beginning of the Romanticism. Thus, in "The lugubrious nights" of José Cadalso, the madness, tetric and nocturnal atmospheres, and a great loving passion, are introduced. Other important authors are Nicasio Álvarez de Cienfuegos (1764-1809), Manuel José Quintana (1772-1857), Juan Nicasio Gallego (1777-1853) and José Somoza (1781-1852).

ee also

* Literature of Spain: Evolution of the Spanish literature.
* Enlightenment Spain: Historical context of the Enlightenment in Spain.
* Age of Enlightenment: General vision of the movement.


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