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Euskal Idazleen Elkartea

A brief history of Basque literature

The oral tradition in Basque literature

An awareness of the language itself and the contributions made by the oral tradition have been of great importance in Basque literature, just as in much of the literature close to it.

For example, although Oihenart himself was a very learned poet, he recorded the “Andre-Emili” ballad in 1665. He himself published proverbs together with his poems. Peñaflorida, Iztueta, Azkue or Peillen, who subsequently recorded the oral tradition just as Oihenart had done, are the links in a long chain of writers in addition to historians, anthropologists and literary critics

Written Basque literature cannot be said to have totally abandoned the course created by the oral tradition, neither in its early stages (in the case of Etxepare), nor in contemporary literature, (Gabriel Aresti, Bitoriano Gandiaga…).

In this brief history we shall nonetheless be taking the history of book production as the basis of the history of Basque literature. We are, however, aware of the following three considerations: firstly, oral literature –Bertsolaritza or extempore Basque verse-making, song-writing or theatre– is frequently the indispensable key to gaining a better understanding of written literature; secondly, Bertsolaritza, song-writing and theatre, as well as other genres of oral literature, are of sufficient importance to warrant their own histories; and thirdly, we will be passing over many authors who have exerted a great influence on written literature, like Etxahun of Iruri and J. Casenave, for example.

Written Literature

When producing a history of Basque literature we cannot ignore the marks left by socio-linguistic and socio-political circumstances, because Basque literature has, to a certain extent, been witness to them.

  • Euskara, the Basque language, has not been the language of all the inhabitants of the Basque Country and that has exerted a great influence on written Basque literature. Moreover, Basque has throughout history been separated from social and official life, because it has been under the domination of other languages.
  • Neither have the political divisions of the Basque Country helped its written literature, because the development of literature has been very different on the two sides of the Franco-Spanish frontier. Literature in the Southern Basque Country (under Spanish jurisdiction) did not emerge until 250 years after it had developed in the Northern Basque Country (under French jurisdiction).
  • Lack of political unity has intensified the divisions between the dialects of Basque, despite the fact that the frontiers of these dialects do not coincide with the political divisions. Four out of the 8 major Basque dialects which have survived have been “literary Basque dialects”: Labourdin and Zuberoan (Souletin) in the North, and Guipuzcoan and Biscayan in the South. Nevertheless, the majority of Basque books produced are in Euskara batua: unified or standard Basque. Standard Basque grew in strength from the 1970s onwards.

When producing a history of Basque literature we cannot forget that the very concept of literature itself has changed considerably throughout history and that the current autonomous concept known as “literature” or “art” dates back to the end of the 19th century.

In a broad sense, the history of Basque literature has been linked to instruction and usefulness. For this reason, most of the works have been of a religious nature written to provide the people with religious teachings.

In the final analysis, apart from the socio-economic situation and these literary features, the development of Basque literature has not been subject to uninterrupted, coherent development. The Basque Country’s political divisions, the distinctions between dialects, the lack of Basque-medium schools, the socio-political and religious upheavals have led to a split development of the literature.
Liburuak Gozagarri 2018
Gure Programak
Literatur Jarduerak
Idazleak Ikastetxeetan
2011 Euskal Idazleen Elkartea
Zemoria kalea 25 · 20013 Donostia (Gipuzkoa)
Tel.: 943 27 69 99

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