ORB Online Encyclopedia
Spectacle in Early Medieval Castile
Although their dramatic nature is clearly debatable, many different types of spectacle are known to have been popular in early medieval Spain. The chronicles mention mimes, dancers, and contortionists frequently. Of course, minstrels and bards who sang epic poems about the heroes of the reconquest were as popular in Spain as in other European countries. Spanish courts also saw jousts and tilting, which evolved into full-fledged mock battles. At times knights would to lay siege to pretend castles. Other times, they would fight "sea battles" with oranges on galley ships on wheels. The courtyard of castles, such as the Aljafería, would be converted into stages that sported fire-breathing dragons and other monsters the knights could fight. At times, the court was decorated with a Canopy of Heaven, which consisted of a cloth painted with stars to represent the heavens and hanging decorations such as stars and angels. Occasionally, musicians would play while suspended on hanging platforms to represent the "music of the spheres." Against this backdrop, court performers staged didactic works, such as the medieval debates and the Dance of Death..
Medieval debates between characters such as water and wine or the body and the soul were seen in Spain as early as the 12th century. They were performed in court, in towns, and in schools and universities. Typically, the dialogues involve two characters that, through monologues, debate opposite sides of a moral issue. They are didactic. Rodrigo de Cota's Diálogo entre el Viejo y el Amor is an extant example of such a work that has an unusually high dramatic character. This work dates from 1470. Love enters the Old Man's hut and tries to convince him to fall in love again by telling him love is beautiful and full of life. The Old Man rebukes love, saying it is a traitor full of unbridled passion, fear, grief, rage and sadness. Love responds that it makes bad things good and that it can cover up the ugly. The Old Man finally gives in and Love rejects him saying that he is so old, shriveled, callused and bitter that he was foolish to think he would be good to love. The Old Man ends the work lamenting his lack of reason for trying to be something he is not. Although static, with no action, the debates did frequently involve conflict between two actors impersonating allegorical figures, and thus, may have contributed to the development of drama in the peninsula.
An even more important influence might be the Dance of Death, which probably came to Spain from French or Latin sources. The Dance of Death, known in Spanish first as La danza general de la muerte, was popular in the peninsula during the 14th and 15th centuries. Critics have found various references to the Danza general de la muerte being performed in court. Alvar García de Santa María's account of the coronation of Fernando de Antequera as the King of Aragón describes a masked character that descended from the Canopy of Heaven to play Death. 8 In the Dance of Death, Death calls a series of people from all classes and professions (clergy, noblemen, merchants, lawyers, doctors, men and women) to remind them that everyone must die. The work consists of a series of monologues, written in octavos reales, between Death and those she calls. Like the debates, Dance of Death lacks action and has little conflict save that caused by mortals' fear of death. However, specific references to costumed characters that impersonate Death make it difficult to deny the theatricality of this piece.
Neither the mock battles nor texts such as the dialogues or Dance of Death are strictly dramatic in nature. The mock battles are spectacles that involve play-acting but no text. The dialogues and Dance of Death involve less spectacle and have more literary value. Nonetheless, all these works are evidence that the Peninsula did possess a tradition of spectacle.
8 Stern, 99.