Dr. Samuel Armistead, who passed away this year, considered his scholarly work on the Spanish Romancero to be his crowning achievement. The Romancero is a tradition of stories and ballads handed down in Sephardic folklore. Dr. Armistead’s website Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews provides a wealth of information on the oral literature of Sephardic Jews dating back to medieval times.
Origins of the Sephardic Ballad TraditionJudeo-Spanish romansas (Spanish romances) are narrative ballads characteristically embodying 16-syllable, usually monorhymed verses, divided into two octosyllabic hemistichs, with assonant rhyme in each second hemistich. The eight-syllable assonant ballad verse ultimately derives from the anisosyllabic assonant verse of the medieval Spanish epic, and a certain number of Judeo-Spanish ballads, together with some ballads from other Hispanic regions, can be shown to be genetically derived, through direct oral tradition, from medieval Spanish heroic poetry. The earliest evidence we have for the existence of ballads among the Hispano-Jewish exiles does not consist of full texts, but involves an extensive corpus of incipits (or, in some cases, of crucial internal verses), used as tune markers in 16th- and 17th-century Hebrew hymnals (piyûtîm collections): A typical heading might read: “Pizmôn leḥan Arbolera tan gentil” (A hymn to the tune ofArbolera etc.), thus giving us the earliest Judeo-Spanish documentation for The Husband’s Return (in -í assonance). In Morocco we have no full texts until the late 19th century, but 18th-century hymnals give us similar, though more limited data from an earlier time (Armistead and Silverman 1973; 1981). The earliest extensive text from the East comes to us in the form of a fragmentary Dutch translation of a ballad, sung as a mystical allegory, in Izmir (Turkey), in 1665, by the false Messiah, Shabbatai Zevi (Scholem 1975: 396-401; FLSJ, V, Chap. 14). By the early 18th century, we have a substantial corpus of handwritten ballads from the Sarajevo community and, towards the end of the century, also from the Island of Rhodes (Armistead, Silverman, and Hassán 1978b). Three early Hispano-Portuguese ballads were copied—nostalgically—by Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam in 1683 (Armistead and Silverman 1980a; 1980b). Continue reading