Portuguese literature

Portuguese literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the Portuguese language, particularly by citizens of Portugal; it may also refer to literature written by people living in Portugal, Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, as well as other Portuguese-speaking countries. An early example of Portuguese literature is the tradition of a medieval Galician-Portuguese poetry, originally developed in Galicia and northern Portugal.[1] The literature of Portugal is distinguished by a wealth and variety of lyric poetry, which has characterized it from the beginning of its language, after the Roman occupation; by its wealth of historical writing documenting Portugal’s rulers, conquests, and expansion; by the then considered Golden Age of the Renaissance period of which it forms part the moral and allegorical Renaissance drama of Gil Vicente, Bernardim Ribeiro, Sá de Miranda and especially the great 16th-century national epic of Luís de Camões, author of national and epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads).

The seventeenth century was marked by the introduction of the Baroque in Portugal and is generally regarded as the century of literary decadence, despite the existence of writers like Father António Vieira, Padre Manuel Bernardes and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo.

The writers of the eighteenth century tried to counteract a certain decadence of the baroque stage by making an effort to recover the level of quality attained during the Golden Age, through the creation of academies and literary Arcadias - it was the time of Neoclassicism. In the nineteenth century, the neoclassical ideals were abandoned, where Almeida Garrett introduced Romanticism, followed by Alexandre Herculano and Camilo Castelo Branco.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Realism (of naturalistic features) developed in novel-writing, whose exponents included Eça de Queiroz and Ramalho Ortigão. Literary trends during the twentieth century are represented mainly by Fernando Pessoa, considered as one of the greatest national poets together with Camões, and, in later years, by the development of prose fiction, thanks to authors such as António Lobo Antunes and José Saramago, winner of the Nobel prize for Literature.

Birth of a literary language

The Pergaminho Sharrer ("Sharrer Parchment"), containing songs by King Dinis I.


It has been argued (by great early scholars such as Henry Roseman Lang and Carolina Michaëlis de Vasconcellos) that an indigenous popular poetry existed before the beginning of the written record, although the first datable poems (a handful between around 1200 and 1225) show influences from Provence. These poems were composed in Galician-Portuguese, also known as Old Portuguese. The first known venues of poetic activity were aristocratic courts in Galicia and the North of Portugal (we know this thanks to the recent work of the Portuguese historian António Resende de Oliveira). After that the center shifted to the court of Alfonso X (The Wise King), King of Castile and León (etc.). Some of the same poets (and others) practiced their craft in the court of Afonso III of Portugal, who had been educated in France. The main manuscript sources for Galician-Portuguese verse are the Cancioneiro da Ajuda probably a late 13th-century manuscript, the Cancioneiro da Vaticana and the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional (also called Cancioneiro Colocci-Brancuti). Both these latter codices were copied in Rome at the behest of the Italian humanist Angelo Colocci, probably around 1525.

There was a late flowering during the reign of King Dinis I (1261–1325), a very learned man, whose output is the largest preserved (137 texts). The main genres practiced were the male-voiced cantiga d'amor, the female-voiced cantiga d'amigo (though all the poets were male) and the poetry of insult, called cantigas d'escarnio e maldizer (songs of scorn and insult). This 13th-century Court poetry, which deals mainly with love and personal insult (often wrongly called satire), by no means derives entirely from Provençal models and conventions (as is often said). Most scholars and critics favor the cantigas d'amigo, which probably were "rooted in local folksong" (Henry Roseman Lang, 1894), and in any event are the largest surviving body of female-voiced love lyric that has survived from ancient or medieval Europe. The total corpus of medieval Galician-Portuguese lyric, excluding the Cantigas de Santa Maria, consists of around 1,685 texts. In addition to the large manuscripts named above, we also have a few songs with music in the Vindel Parchment, which contains melodies for six cantigas d'amigo of Martin Codax, and the Pergaminho Sharrer, a fragment of a folio with seven cantigas d'amor of King Dinis. In both these manuscripts the poems are the same we find in the larger codices and moreover in the same order.

Musicians in a miniature of the Cancioneiro da Ajuda.

By the middle of the 15th century troubadour verse was effectively dead, replaced by a limper form of court poetry, represented in the Cancioneiro Geral compiled in the 16th century by poet and humanist Garcia de Resende. Meanwhile, the people were elaborating a ballad poetry of their own, the body of which is known as the Romanceiro. It consists of lyrico-narrative poems treating of war, chivalry, adventure, religious legends, and the sea, many of which have great beauty and contain traces of the varied civilizations which have existed in the peninsula. When the Court poets had exhausted the artifices of Provençal lyricism, they imitated the poetry of the people, giving it a certain vogue which lasted until the Classical Renaissance. It was then thrust into the background, and though cultivated by a few, it remained unknown to men of letters until the nineteenth century, when Almeida Garrett began his literary revival and collected folk poems from the mouths of the peasantry.


Prose developed later than verse and first appeared in the 13th century in the shape of short chronicles, lives of saints, and genealogical treatises called Livros de Linhagens. In Portuguese chanson de geste has survived to this day, but there are medieval poems of romantic adventure given prose form; for example, the Demanda do Santo Graal (Quest for the Holy Grail) and "Amadis of Gaul". The first three books of the latter probably received their present shape from João Lobeira, a troubadour of the end of the 13th century, though this original has been lost and only a 16th-century Spanish version remains. The Book of Aesop also belongs to this period. Though the cultivated taste of the Renaissance affected to despise the medieval stories, it adopted them with alterations as a homage to classical antiquity. Hence came the cycle of the "Palmerins" and the Chronica do Emperador Clarimundo of João de Barros. The medieval romance of chivalry gave place to the pastoral novel, the first example of which is the Saudades of Bernardim Ribeiro, followed by the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor, a Portuguese writer who wrote in Spanish. Later in the sixteenth century Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso, a fascinating storyteller, produced his Historias de Proveito e Exemplo.

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