The Canticles of Holy Mary and the Galician-Portuguese language

by Alexis Ulrich

In this article, I will present you the Canticles of Holy Mary, which are religious songs from the 13th century written in Galician-Portuguese. But as an introduction, so you can know what it is all about, let us listen to one of these canticles, “Como Deus fez vynno d’agua”.

The Canticles

Historical context

In 1139, Afonso Henriques self-proclaims King of Portugal after the battle of Ourique against the Moors, which was finalized by the Treaty of Zamora in 1143. We are in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Reconquest, and the Kingdom of Portugal is being created as the territories are reconquered. But the king is still the vassal of the king Alfonso VII of León and Castile, and will remain so until 1179, when Pope Alexander II will recognize him the right to make him a direct homage. The last episode of the Portuguese reconquest will be the inclusion of the province of the Algarve in 1249.


Troubadourism is the name of the movement centered on the troubadour, a poet of noble origin who composes canticles, or sung poems, and the melodies to accompany them. The canticles were also performed by jugglers, persons not belonging to the nobility (villains). They were professional artists performing in public places to entertain the crowds and also in the castles of lords. These troubadours sang in Occitan in the south of the actual France, and in Galician-Portuguese in Portugal and Galicia.

The Canticles of Holy Mary


The Canticles of Holy Mary (Cantigas de Santa Maria) are a set of 427 compositions in Galician-Portuguese, which was during the 13th century the main language of lyrical culture in Castile. They have been sponsored by Alfonso X the Wise, king of Castile and León from 1252 to 1284. Himself wrote a few canticles and he composed some accompaniments of this songbook on the wonders and miracles of the Virgin.

They are divided into two groups: the Canticles of Our Lady, a set of stories and miracles, and the Canticles of Praise, numbered with a multiple of ten, more akin to sacred hymns, poems of reflection on the Virgin. Being the mother of Jesus, and with a human figure closer to us than may be the Trinity, she takes a role of intercession and forgives sins.

At the present time, the Canticles are scattered in three places: one manuscript at the National Library of Spain, in Toledo, one at the library of El Escorial, near Madrid, and two in Florence, Italy.


The stated purpose of the king Alfonso X is announced in the prologue B:

E o que quero é dizer loor da Virgen, Madre de nostro Sennor… e por aquest seu quero seer oy máis seu trobador e rogó-lle que me queira por seu trobador e que queira meu trobar receber…

Which can be translated as:

And what I want is to praise the Virgin, the Mother of our Lord… and for this, I only want to be today her troubadour, and I pray that she accepts me as her troubadour and that she deigns to receive my verses.

In addition to the primary objective described by Alfonso X in this prologue, the Canticles of Holy Mary were a way to fix the different versions of the miracles to make them better known. Thus, the people who could neither read nor write could learn the miracles in their own language, Galician-Portuguese, whereas Latin was still used in the churches.

Some canticles have their roots in the personal experiences of the king, in a disguised hagiography in which he expresses his spirituality, his thoughts and the person he would like to be. For example, in the canticle 300 (Muito devería óme sempr’ a loar), he says that “For her he will compose, while taking care and looking how he could honor her” (por ela vou trobar, e cuidando e buscando como a póssa onrrar).


Evolution of languages

In his court in Toledo, Alfonso X brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims to translate texts from Antiquity. In addition to this, he realized the first orthography reform of Castilian, codifying its spelling. For instance, he duplicated the n to render the sound [gn], which was written by the copyists as the Castilian ñ. He also adopted Castilian as official language instead of Latin.

Troubadourism was important in his family: his grandson, the king Denis who reigned over Portugal between 1279 and 1325, was also a troubadour. 137 of his canticles made to this day. He created the first Portuguese university, initially in Lisbon, then transferred to Coimbra in 1308. There, were taught arts, civil and canon law, medicine.

He gave the name of Portuguese to Galician-Portuguese which was from 1290 the language of the court.

With the political division of Portugal in the south and Galicia in the north, Portuguese and Galician evolved differently. Portuguese gained more vocabulary from Arabic, like for instance açucar (as-sukkar, sugar), arroz (ar-ruz, rice), azeite (az-zait, oil)… or names of places and regions, like the Algarve (Al-Gharb), Alcântara (al-qantara, bridge, viaduct)…

On its side, Galician got castilianized from the 15th century on, with the Castilian domination, as it lost its use in official records, a period called the “Obscure centuries” which lasted until the middle of the 19th century.


There are now in Galicia two linguistic currents: reintegrationism and isolationism.

The reintegrationists consider Galician and Portuguese as a single language, separated by the history of the territories, and want to change the Galician orthography to reunite the two branches.

A subgroup, the lusists, wants to follow the spelling rules of Portuguese in Galician-Portuguese, while the others want to include these changes more slowly. The independentists use the reintegrationist spelling since 1985.

For the isolationists, represented by the Royal Galician Academy, the public institution that promotes the Galician language, Galician is a language in itself.

Thus, the question of language is a question of linguistic, cultural and political identity.

Linguistic continuum

Catalan, Aragonese, Castilian, Eonavian, Fala, Galician-Portuguese, Portuguese… All these languages come from Latin and have similarities that make them mutually intelligible or intercomprehensible to some extent.

When you know a few sounds change rules between these languages and with a little practice, it is possible to read all the languages of the Iberian Peninsula, the different Occitans, the official Italian and all its dialects, all the way to Romanian.

The boundaries between languages are artificial for those who want to break free of them.