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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000) 463-477

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The Monkey in the Jarcha:
Tradition and Canonicity in the Early Iberian Lyric

Anthony P. Espósito
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Protecting the Textual Ecology

The fall 1995 issue of La Corónica, a journal devoted to medieval Spanish studies, marked a watershed of sorts. Under the guest editorship of Michael Solomon, a cluster of articles appeared whose goal was to provoke a dialogue between contemporary literary and cultural theories and hispanomedievalism. The genesis of these pieces was a series of ongoing colloquia and panels, most notably a symposium at Emory held in November 1994, "Textualities of Desire," and a special session at the 1995 MLA convention, "In and of This World." The three papers which appeared in La Corónica did little to challenge the standard inventory of medieval Iberian literature: Brocato on La Celestina; Brown on Menéndez Pidal; and Espósito on the jarchas. 1 What the three papers insisted on, however, was an introspective examination of the praxis of hispanomedievalism. Along with Solomon's introduction, the cluster constituted a challenge to the received way(s) of seeing medieval Spanish texts. In short, the contested issue was not the canon of what but the canon of how.

The period of medieval Spanish literature in the vernacular(s) that most interests me, 800-1250, can probably be described as textually underrepresented. This lack of textual documentation is not an uncommon occurrence in other "national" literatures of this period (e.g., Old Celtic literatures, Anglo-Saxon, Old Slavic)--the notable exception being the Gallo-Romance literatures (against which Hispanic philology often imagines itself writing). The cultural border that a literary canon patrols--the space between writing judged to be good and writing judged to be bad--is often deferred in literatures in which exclusion from the canon represents an ill-afforded luxury. In such literary systems, canonicity is guaranteed by the mere extancy of a text; the literary value of the text is never seriously contested as its survival is evidence [End Page 463] enough of its cultural worth. In early Iberian literature, fragments, such as the hundred surviving lines of the Carolingian-themed Roncesvalles epic found in a copy dated circa 1310, and works of uncertain and undefinable linguistic and geographic provenance, for example the much-debated Auto de los reyes magos, are regularly discussed and included in even the most basic of medieval surveys of Spanish literature. 2 Such inclusion, however, is not the result of openness to contemporary critical notions of incompleteness and fracture in the case of the Roncesvalles, or hybridity and ambiguity in the case of the Auto. Both texts serve an important purpose in the formation of a national canon. The Roncesvalles is cited as an example of how foreign epic material, that of Roland and Charlemagne, is nationalized, even in its scant 100 lines. 3 The Auto is needed as a "first" (and only) example of a pre-fifteenth-century dramatic text in an Iberian dialect that even closely resembles Castilian. Nonetheless, as textual production increases, so does "the contestation of value"; the complex debate surrounding a text's literary/cultural worth becomes the principal determinant of a text's relationship to the canon. 4 As such canons wend their way through the Castilian fifteenth century, a more exclusionary triage can be performed and texts can be included or excluded according to the cultural/critical project at hand.

As witnessed above, several things can inhibit the formation of a contested canon of early vernacular texts, in our modern sense of the concept. Those resonances that guarantee cultural authenticity in modernity, for example, authorship, language, or national boundaries, are more often than not unfixed and indeterminate in early medieval textuality. Nonetheless, there is a need to authorize and impose cultural worth on even the most sparse assemblage of texts. A contestation of value directed at the texts themselves, however, threatens to erode such a fragile textual environment. Often times such a...


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