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  • History of Improvised Bertsolaritza:A Proposal
  • Joxerra Garzia

Historical Antecedents

As Joxe Azurmendi (1980) points out,

A curious contradiction arises. On the one hand, a myth surrounding the origins of bertsolaritza has been gratuitously created, trying to date it from time immemorial; on the other, in these dizzy times where all myths are opposed with such ardor, a counter-myth, just as gratuitous as the myth it claims to combat, has arisen: that bertsolaritza in the Basque Country is a phenomenon more or less modern, with its origins about the beginnings of the nineteenth century.

According to Azurmendi, the myth of the immemorial origin of bertsolaritza1 comes from Manuel Lekuona, the first real scholar of bertsolaritza and of other manifestations of Basque popular literature. In Lekuona's work, we find a number of references to the "neolithic" or "prehistoric" character of the artistic activity. According to him, the origins of bertsolaritza have to be looked for in the times of pastoral farming. Azurmendi states that all subsequent references to the remote origins of bertsolaritza owe a debt to the position held by Lekuona. And Azurmendi produces some evidence in the form of quotations, which can give us an idea of the tone of the arguments over the remote origin of bertsolaritza. So, for example, it is stated that "All Basques sing; the whole people sing . . . from the earliest times which prehistoric science managed to penetrate, the Basques have shown examples of their poetic activity" (Gorostiaga 1957). Another formulaic statement on the same theme is the claim that "bertsolaritza is as old as Euskara itself."2

The counter-myth, at the same time, has a considerable tradition among us. On the one hand, the list of those expressing their reticence—or even their scorn—towards bertsolaritza is well stocked with famous names. The fact is that when the first recorded mention of bertsolaritza occurs (towards the end of the eighteenth century), it is referred to as a phenomenon of [End Page 77] considerable age and, what is more important, the documents clearly treat bertsolaritza as a cultural expression that has a high degree of maturity in its forms and in its social roots, judging by the references to the verbal combats between bertsolaris and the social importance that such ad hoc compositions appeared to have had at the time.

Luis Michelena, distancing himself equally from the two extremes, states that, "the tradition [of the bertsolaris] is very old, and dates at least from the damas improvisadoras (improvvistraces) of fifteenth-century verse whom Garibay talks about" (1960:25). J. M. Leizaola and other scholars have also held the same opinion. Azurmendi's work on this question is of great importance because it involves two references from the Ancient Charter for Bizkaia, put down on paper in 1452. These are undoubtedly the oldest written records of bertsolaritza and irrefutable proof that, as early as the mid-fifteenth century, improvised verse singing, or some manifestation thereof, was sufficiently common and deep-rooted to merit its express banning. First, Title 35, Charter Law VI:

. . . hereafter, when one wishes to mourn for a defunct person in Bizkaia or outside the same, by sea or on land, no person in any part of Bizkaia, in town or village, shall dare make lamentations, pull their hair or scratch their head, nor shall they make singing lamentations . . . under pain of payment of one thousand coins for each person acting in contrary and every time.

In addition to these "mourners," there is a second mention in the Ancient Charter for Bizkaia, even more significant, about the sung improvisation of the period. It appears in Title 8, Law I:

Regarding those cases where arrests can be made without delinquents seeking sanctuary under the Tree of Guernica. First, they say: there are Common Law rights . . . sanctuary . . . and as regards the Women, known for being shameful, and agitators of peoples, they make couplets and songs in an infamous and libellous manner.

The Charter Law refers to these women as "profanesses" who, in all probability, can be regarded as the direct ancestors of modern-day bertsolaris.

Despite this record, the reality of these adlibbing women is that we can do little more than...

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