Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews Multimedia Digital Library

Oral Literature of the Hispanic World
Samuel G. Armistead, Faculty Research Lecture, 1998, University of California, Davis

Contents of Article:

Dedication and Acknowledgments

The Nature of the Pan-Hispanic Ballad

The 700-Year Oral Tradition of the Pan-Hispanic Ballad: A Case Study

Enter Judeo-Spanish: A Living Matrix of Pan-Hispanic Ballad Traditions

The Vagaries of Field Work

Medieval Epic and the Ballad: An Example

The Invention of Tradition: A Case of "False Memory"

Creative Cultural Fusions: "Orientalizing" the Ballad Melody

Conclusion: A Sense of Urgency

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Medieval Epic and the Ballad: An Example

By casting such a wide comparative net--including also archival work on all the different ballad traditions in Europe--our research on Judeo-Spanish and Pan-Hispanic balladry has made possible a series of discoveries--great and small--and has also allowed us to confirm various theories, which, till now, had sometimes remained in the realm of hypothesis. To conclude, I would like to discuss just two of these discoveries. They represent two polar opposites of the Sephardic tradition: On one side, its unique importance in having kept alive ancient narratives, narratives dating back to the Middle Ages and, on the other hand, the significant impact, on the Sephardic repertoire, of traditional material borrowed from peoples in North Africa and the Near East, among whom the Sephardim settled after their exile from Spain.

One of the most fiercely debated problems in Medieval Spanish literary scholarship pertains to the possible direct relationship between ballads and medieval epic poetry (very long heroic poems of thousands of lines that were sung in Spain, just as they were also sung in England, France, and Germany, during the Middle Ages). There are, of course, no ballads in England about Beowulf, no ballads in France about Roland and Charlemagne, and no ballads in Germany about Siegfried. Yet, as the Spanish like to say, "España es diferente," Spain is different. Among early Spanish ballads, printed in the 16th century, there are a very substantial number of poems concerning epic heroes, who have adventures similar to those narrated in medieval epics. Of all the branches of the modern tradition, the Judeo-Spanish communities preserve, best of all, such archaic epic-based narratives. These Judeo-Spanish ballads had, until now, never been systematically explored. Our study of epic ballads, completed three years ago and occupying Vols. II, III, IV, V, and VI of our collection, produced fascinating results: Not only did our Sephardic texts confirm previous findings concerning epic-ballad relationships, but what emerged, consistently, in our studies of 17 different epic-based ballad narratives; what emerged from our work was that, over and over again, we found that the modern tradition added more, sometimes better, more detailed, evidence, than what we could glean from any of the early Spanish texts, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, confirming over and over again the--until now--controversial, hypothetical relationship of ballads to epics. In the light of our findings, I believe there can now be now no doubt. The problem is solved. These ballads, and the ballad genre, derive directly from and are genetically related to the medieval Spanish epics. Needless to say, this doesn't mean, of course, that all Hispanic ballads go back to epics. Many don't but some do.

As an example of an epic ballad, I will play for you the initial verses of a text from Moricco called Lady Alda's Dream (El sueño de doña Aldo. Alda is the same person as Aude, the beloved of the French epic hero, Roland, in the medieval French Song of Roland. The Spanish ballad is only known in one early text, from the 16th century, and we also have some 40 variant versions from the modern Sephardic communities. We collected this particular text in the town of Alcazarquivir, in Morocco, on September 4, 1962: Here are the first verses (click on the link to hear each segment):

(Esther Aragones, Alcazarquivir, Morocco, September 4, 1962)
3. El sueño de doña Alda  Lady Alda's Dream  Play Audio Segment
En París está doña Alda, In Paris sits Lady Alda,  Play Audio for Segment ">Download MP3 Audio File
espozica de Rondale;  the betrothed of Rondale. 
2 tresientas damas con eya,  Three hundred ladies are with her; 
todas de alto y buen linaje.  all are of high degree. 
Tresientas tocan tambores;  Three hundred are playing drums, 
tresientas tejen sendale.  three hundred are weaving silk. 
4 --Mis damas, soñaba un sueño, "My ladies, I dreamt a dream.  Play Audio for Segment Download MP3 Audio File
¿la que bien me l'enfluyere?  Who will interpret it for me? 
La que bien me l'enfluyere,  Whoever gives it a good meaning, 
buen novio la he de dare;  I will give her a good husband. 
6 la que mal me l'enfluyere,  Whoever gives it a bad meaning, 
la mato con mi puñale.--  I shall kill with my dagger." 
Todas disen a una vos:  All cry out at once: 
--¡Bien sea y bien se hagále!  "May it have a good meaning!" 
8 --Y en aquel saral de arriba, "From that thicket on the hill,  Play Audio for Segment Download MP3 Audio File
vidi a un galsa volare;  I saw a heron flying; 
de sus alas caen plumas,  feathers fell from its wings 
de su pico corre sangre.  and blood flowed from its beak." 
10 --Las plumas, la mi señora,  "The feathers, my lady, 
son aves que has de matare;  are hens for your wedding feast. 
la sangre, la mi señora,  The blood, my lady, 
ésa es vuestra mosedade.--  is your virginity." 
12 Ey[a]s en estas palabras And as they said these words,  Play Audio for Segment Download MP3 Audio File
y a la puerta bate un paje.  a page came knocking at the door. 
--¿Qué notisias traes, paje,  "What news do you bring, my page, 
de mi esposo don Rondale?  from my betrothed, Don Rondale?" 
14 --Las notisias que yo traigo, "The news that I bring  Play Audio for Segment Download MP3 Audio File
no te las quiziera dare:  I would fain not give to you: 
Y en la guerra de Almería,  In the war of Almería, 
mataron a don Rondale.  they have killed Don Rondale. 
16 Siete puñaladas tiene He has seven knife wounds  Play Audio for Segment Download MP3 Audio File
alrededor del coyare.  all around his neck 
Por la más chiquita d'eyas,  and a sparrow-hawk could pass 
entra un gavilán y sale.--  through the smallest of them all." 
18 Como's'oyera doñ'Alda,  When Lady Alda heard that, 
muerta cae en el instante.  she immediately fell dead. 

In Lady Alda's Dream, Alda falls asleep and dreams a horrible dream. She sees a heron, which has been attacked by a hawk and is spattered with blood and with feathers torn from its wings. Her ladies-in-waiting, hoping to please her, offer a false, happy interpretation of this ominous vision; but, at that very moment, a page knocks at the door, bringing news that Roland has been killed in battle. Alda falls dead from grief. This Hispanic song is genetically related to a medieval epic poem from Southern France. In the early Spanish form of the ballad, the news of Roland's death arrives in the form of an anonymous letter; how the letter is brought, and who the messenger is, is not even mentioned. However, in the Southern French (Provençal) epic, the messenger is clearly identified: Here, a pilgrim arrives from Spain, bringing the bad news. Notice now the Judeo-Spanish text. Here too the messenger is clearly identified: The page, in v. 12, has the same role as that of the pilgrim in the Provençal epic. So, in this detail, the Sephardic tradition, as also happens in many other modern ballads, the Sephardic tradition turns out to be closer, more faithful to its epic ancestors than are the early Spanish versions.

Potentially, this is a very important discovery: Not only does the modern tradition confirm the direct, genetic relationship between ballads and epics, but we can also point to another important characteristic of the modern tradition. Ballads, still sung in modern times, do not derive directly from those texts printed in the 16th century, as some scholars had previously assumed. They represent a separate, essentially independent manifestation of the Hispanic ballad corpus. They bring to our research a precious--and still largely unexplored--additional testimony to earlier stages in the development of Hispanic oral poetry.

This splendid, medieval connection with the modern tradition is undoubtedly the most dramatic, the most thrilling feature of the Judeo-Spanish ballad repertoire. To hear, as I have on so many memorable occasions, to hear a song that has been sung in uninterrupted, direct, continuous tradition since medieval times; medieval voices that reach us today, echoing across seven centuries of uninterrupted oral tradition. This was what first attracted Spanish scholars to study the Sephardic ballads. It was, as the great Spanish critic, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, wrote in 1922, it was as if the Jewish towns in North Africa were ancient Castilian cities enchanted centuries ago and plunged into the depths of the sea, and that now allowed us, by some magical means, to hear the voices of their medieval inhabitants, surviving today in the modern world.

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