ColumnistsSantiago Leyra Curiá

Europe and Spain in Menéndez Pelayo

Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo's idea of Spain was based on a deep love for his people within the richness of belonging to a larger and open world.

December 26, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
Menendez Pelayo

"When he published his "Epistle to Horace" in 1877, the young Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo (1856/1912) longed for the peoples of Europe united by art and words, working beauty with a Christian hand and heart, like those Mediterranean peoples who had promoted Renaissance culture. Fourteen years later, he saw in the Renaissance "the most brilliant era of the modern world, for having reached the definitive aesthetic formula, superior in some cases to that of antiquity, in the works of artists such as Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Miguel de Cervantes, Fray Luis de León..." (speech of admission to the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences)."

In contrast to those who saw concordance between the initial postulates of the Renaissance and Protestantism, he affirmed that "the great storm of the Reformation had been born in the nominalist cloisters of Germany, not in the schools of human letters in Italy". And he confessed that he could not bring him closer to the peoples of northern Europe. "the Reformation, illegitimate child of Teutonic individualism". that had meant the end of European unity (History of the Spanish heterodox and The Spanish science).

In any case, he did not cease to admire "Schiller's marvelous Bell Song, the most religious, the most human and the most lyrical of German songs, and perhaps the masterpiece of modern lyric poetry." He also shuddered to read the letter in which Schiller told Goethe that. "Christianity is the manifestation of moral beauty, the embodiment of the holy and sacred in human nature, the only truly aesthetic religion." And, about Goethe himself, he recalled that he had been the introducer of the expression "universal literature, which he invented and by virtue of which we must call him a citizen of the world". Similarly, he stopped at the works of the most representative figures of the golden century of German literature, such as Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Fichte, the Humboldts and Hegel, "who teaches even when he errs... whose book (about Aesthetics) breathes and instills love for immaculate and spiritual beauty". How he would admire the literature of England, "one of the most poetic towns on earth". (History of aesthetic ideas in Spain, 1883/1891).

How did Menéndez Pelayo see Spain in that Europe? 

I considered that the Valencian Juan Luis Vives had been "the most brilliant and balanced thinker of the Renaissance.", "the most complete and encyclopedic writer of that time". And he saw in Vives the most committed to the Europe of his time, who "contemplated Christ as the Teacher of peace, for those who listen to him and for those who do not listen to him, by his action in the depths of consciences".to the one who, moved by "for the love of concord of all the peoples of Europe", seeing it so divided, had addressed the emperor and the kings Henry VIII and Francis I, to remind them that their division facilitated Barbarossa's piracies and Turkish raids (Anthology of Castilian lyric Poets).

He coincided with another Spaniard, Jaume Balmes, the author of "Protestantism compared with Catholicism in its relations with European civilization." where the Catalan writer had openly disagreed with Guizot, the author of the "General history of civilization in Europe". For Guizot, Catholicism and Protestantism were on an equal footing, for they had played a similar role in the shaping of Europe; from his Calvinist viewpoint, Guizot believed that the Protestant Reformation had brought to Europe an expansive movement of reason and human freedom.

For his part, Menéndez Pelayo considered it proven by Balmes that the Reformation, initiated with the ideas of free examination, servo arbitrio and faith without works, had meant a deviation from the majestic path of European civilization: "... he proved it... beginning by analyzing the notion of individualism and the feeling of personal dignity, which Guizot considered characteristic of the barbarians, as if it were not a legitimate result of the great establishment, transformation and dignification of human nature, brought by Christianity." (Two words on the centenary of Balmes). 

It was based on the assumption that "The ideal of a perfect and harmonious nationality is no more than a utopia... It is necessary to take nationalities as they have been made over the centuries, with unity in some things and variety in many others, and above all in the language". (Defense of the Spanish Literature Program). And of how the Spanish spirit, which had been emerging throughout the Reconquest, was "one in religious belief, divided in everything else, by race, by language, by customs, by privileges, by everything that can divide a people". (Entrance speech to the Royal Spanish Academy).

In his works on the history of Spanish culture, he did not limit himself to writings in the common Spanish language, the Castilian language, which he did not fail to consider "the only one among modern ones that has succeeded in expressing something of the supreme idea" and in which it was written "the comic epic of the human race, the eternal breviary of laughter and good sense".

Well, considering that Spain is a nation rich and varied in languages, I would see in the Mallorcan Ramon Llull, "to the first who made the vulgar language serve for pure ideas and abstractions, who separated the Catalan language from the Provençal language, making it grave, austere and religious". (Entrance speech to the RAE in 1881).

Having begun his university studies in Barcelona, he knew the Catalan language in which, years later, he would deliver a speech to the Queen Regent Maria Cristina. And, in his "Semblanza de Milá y Fontanals". I would remember that "it was the poets who, realizing that no one can achieve true poetry except in his own language, turned to cultivate it artistically for lofty aims and purposes".

Alfredo Brañas, in "Regionalism, recalls how in the literary order Catalonia had achieved the highest representation of Hispanic letters in the year 1887. In that year, the Catalan poet Federico Soler had won the prize of the Royal Spanish Academy for the best dramatic work performed in the theaters of Spain. Brañas comments that, before it was awarded, while some academicians were of the opinion that the prize should only be given to plays performed in the theaters of the Court, others, such as Menéndez Pelayo, considered that it should be open to playwrights from all Spanish regions.

In its "Antología de poetas líricos castellanos", Menendez Pelayo devoted considerable pages to medieval Galician poetry and judged, in two reports and with sound criteria, the "Galician-Spanish dictionary". by Marcial Valladares and the "Galician folk songbook". by José Pérez Ballesteros. In the same Anthology, he would praise Valencia because "She was predestined to be bilingual... because she never abandoned her native language". And, in a letter dated October 6, 1908, he would say to Carmelo Echegaray: "My library, which, thanks to you, is becoming one of the richest in this interesting branch (Basque books), so difficult to collect outside the Basque country...".

In another letter, addressed to the magazine "Cantabria" (28/11/1907), Menéndez Pelayo would write that "he cannot love his nation who does not love his native country and begins by affirming this love as the basis for a broader patriotism. Selfish regionalism is hateful and sterile, but benevolent and fraternal regionalism can be a great element of progress and perhaps the only salvation of Spain".

The authorSantiago Leyra Curiá

Corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation of Spain.

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