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Beatriz Bernal, Spanish author, ca. 1504–ca. 1563

by Donatella Gagliardi, Università della Calabria

Beatriz Bernal (Valladolid, c. 1504– c. 1563) is worthy of an outstanding place in European literature, despite only have composed and published one single work. Her Cristalián de España, printed in 1545, is the only romance of chivalry with confirmed authorship by a woman: an exceptional fact we would be unaware of at present if the author’s daughter, Juana, had not clarified it when requesting permission to reprint the novel.

Historia de los invitos y magnánimos caballeros don Cristalián de España, príncipe de Trapisonda y del infante Lucescanio, su hermano, hijos del famosísimo emperador Lindedel de Trapisonda belongs to the most popular literary genre in 16th century Spain, the success of which surpassed all boundaries. The feats of Amadís, Esplandián, Palmerín and other invincible pen and paper heroes aroused such admiration amongst Italian and French readers that in order to satisfy the unending demand for true best-sellers, publishers printed not only translations of the Castilian originals, but also continuations and supplements to the main sagas. Some years later, their popularity also reached the Germans and the Dutch, who devoured the local adaptations of the series of French Amadises; and finally their fame also spread beyond the English Channel, when The Mirrour of Princely Deedes and Knighthood appeared in London around 1578. This title is worthy of mention not only because it signifies the introduction of the romances of chivalry into England, but also because it is the work of a female translator, Margaret Tyler. She was also responsible for the fascinating prologue-dedication of the novel, in which Tyler claimed a place for women in the world of the arts in general, and in chivalric fiction in particular, unaware that thirty years earlier a lady from Valladolid had managed to make a name for herself in this world.

The scant biographical information on Beatriz Bernal has increased significantly in recent years thanks to the finding of certain valuable documents enabling us now to sketch her profile with fairly accurate strokes. Both in her personal and professional life, doña [Mrs.] Beatriz was closely connected to the world of the men of law in Valladolid, the city which since the mid-15th century had enjoyed the privilege of being the seat of the Chancery. Her first husband was a “escribano” [scribe], and the second, “relator” [rapporteur] of the Real Audiencia [Royal Appeal Court]; her son-in-law, a lawyer at the same Court, also belonged to such circles, as did others around her, such as, for example, friends and acquaintances called on to declare in the trials in which the writer became involved.

Widowed from Cristóbal de Luzón at a young age, in 1528, she remarried around 1534, to the descendent of a local noble family, the bachelor Juan Torres de Gatos, with whom she had her only daughter, given the name of her paternal grandmother, Juana. When after three short years of marriage her second husband unexpectedly passed away, doña Beatriz made a living by renting rooms in the house she had inherited in Cuadra Street to Chancery staff and Court guests. There were constant problems and lawsuits with the tenants, especially when in 1549 the best room in the house was taken up by the licentiate Alonso de Torres, who two years earlier had engaged Juana de Gatos, soon turning out to be a bad lot. Juana, judging by evidence from those around her, was the victim of abuse by her spouse, “honbre trabieso y dado a mugeres” [a shifty character given to women], whose vices would lead him to the grave within a decade: in 1558 Beatriz Bernal gave a statement in the lawsuit brought by an illegitimate son of the “ya difunto” [late] son-in-law. On 13 June 1562 the writer made out a will before the notary Pedro de Gaona, of which unfortunately no record has been kept. We are unaware of the exact date of her death, which seems to have taken place prior to 1565, the year in which, in the Valladolid Town Hall records of agreements, the name of Juana de Gatos appears as owner of the “huerta” [orchard] where the town aldermen were to serve tea to none other than the Queen.

This unpublished document merely confirms the excellent relationship between the Bernal-Gatos house and Palace dignitaries, of which another highly significant detail is good proof: once the draft of Cristalián de España was finished in 1537, Doña Beatriz requested a printing licence from the Royal Council through Mossior de Anthoven, gentleman of the King’s Chamber. Despite a quick bureaucratic process, for reasons unknown eight years elapsed before the novel, dedicated to Prince Philip, appeared in moulded letters, finally seeing the light of day in January 1545.

When Juana de Gatos, as sole heir of the author, beseeched the Royal Council to extend the text printing privilege, it had expired many days ago [“avía muchos días que se había cumplido”]. Her request was met in 1584, and three years later a new edition appeared in Alcalá de Henares. Such licence was granted to her as she was poor and in need [“por ser pobre y padecer necesidad”]. However, based on an inventory of assets, drawn up post mortem, her financial situation did not seem to be so drastic. Before passing away, leaving no children, on 4th October 1588, doña Juana drew up and signed by hand her last will and testament, requesting, among other things, to be buried at the church of the monastery of San Pablo de Valladolid, together with her mother, in the transept.

The detailed notarial records provide us with an image of a dwelling, the house in Cuadra Street, befitting a comfortably situated lady, well decorated, with certain touches of luxury in furniture and decorations, the most outstanding characteristic of which was the presence of a sizeable library covering very varied subjects, but, in contrast, totally void of any legal text: somewhat surprising, bearing in mind the posts held by the men of the household. On the shelves of the oratory the unfailing hours brushed shoulders with Latin, Greek and Italian classics, works by Antonio de Guevara, books of devotion, and with La Celestina and La Araucana: up to sixty titles in all.

It does not seem unreasonable to presume that such collection was commenced by Beatriz Bernal and expanded by her daughter: two women inspired by the same literary interests, representing a clear exception in an age when reading and culture were an essentially male prerogative. Had Juana de Gatos not played such a relevant role in the reprinting of Cristalián de España, it is likely that nowadays critics would continue to put forward hypotheses regarding that “señora natural de la noble y más leal villa de Valladolid” [lady from the noble and loyal city of Valladolid] who on the cover of the princeps wished to shelter behind anonymousness: the printing privilege of 1584 resolves any doubts to such end.

The four parts into which the novel is divided relate the feats of Lindedel, father of the eponymous heroes, and the parallel or overlapping adventures of Cristalian and Lucescanio. The exploits of many other knights are dispersedly added to these, gaining relevance in the third book of the work to the detriment of the character of Cristalian, who virtually disappears from the action, either at his own wish or due to forces majeures, ceasing to hold the focal point he enjoyed in the second part. It is also worth pointing out the choral nature of the fourth and final part, whose main axes are the war against the Moors, where all the champions of the Christian army stand out, and the Aventura de la Victoria, which is a mere pretext for providing a solemn parade of history’s most important ladies and gentlemen, together with their wished-after weddings. Unfortunately, their marriages are destined not to be consummated due to the sudden disappearance of the bridegrooms, victims of a spell: the open end promises a continuation of the novel which, however, never saw the light.

A distinctive aspect of Cristalián de España is, without a doubt, the focus placed on feminine characters: an extremely complex and varied gallery of fairies, wise-women, damsels and maidens, remarkable due to their prudence, eloquence ingenuity and liberality. Among them stands out the warrior princess Minerva, who can be seen as a type of alter ego of doña Beatriz, as, like her creator, she ventured into men’s private domains (weaponry / the arts) not due to any need but to natural inclination.

Judging by the scant number of editions, it could be thought that doña Beatriz’s literary experiment did not find favour among readers. The publication of the novel would rather seem to be the fruit of the particular historical-cultural panorama present in her home city in the 16th century, and the publishing frenzy of the time: let us not forget that her princeps is from the age of greatest splendour of Valladolid typographical art, which coincided with the permanence of the Court in the city of the Pisuerga (1544-1559).

However, more recent studies on how the novel was received show that its circulation was much greater than could have been expected: this is shown, for example, by cases of intertextuality in other romances of chivalry; inventories of private libraries or bookshops from 16th-17th centuries; and amusing and malicious quotations from authors such as Cervantes and Gongora, which at the start of the 1600s still made references to the fans of Amadises, Esplandianes and their long train of descendents. This is all without forgetting that Cristalián was never missing from the repertoire of professional storytellers, such as the Moorish “curandero” [quack] Román Ramírez, all called on to liven up the entertainment of the noble.

The work of Beatriz Bernal also received the honour of an Italian (anonymous) version, published in 1558 by the Venetian Michele Tramezzino. Both princeps of La famosa et degna historia degli invitti cavalieri don Cristaliano di Spagna et Lucescanio suo fratello, figliuoli dell’imperatore di Trabisonda and the 1609 reprint belong to the avalanche of Castilian romances of chivalry translations done in Italy from 1544 (date of the appearance of Historia del valorosissimo cavaliere Palmerino d’Oliva, and Historia del valorosissimo Cavallier della Croce) until 1630: almost one hundred years of publishing fever, centred mainly around Venice.


  • Bernal, Beatriz, Don Cristalián de España, Valladolid: Juan de Villaquirán, 1545. Reprinted in Alcalá de Henares: Juan Íñiguez de Lequerica, 1587.
  • Bernal, Beatriz, La famosa et degna historia degli invitti cavalieri don Cristaliano di Spagna et Lucescanio suo fratello, figliuoli dell’imperatore di Trabisonda, Venice: Michele Tramezzino, 1558. Reprinted in Venice: Lucio Spineda, 1609.
  • BIESES, Bibliografía de escritoras españolas, http://www.uned.es/bieses
  • Eisenberg, Daniel and María Carmen Marin Pina, Bibliografía de los libros de caballerías castellanos, Zaragoza: Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza, 2000.
  • Gagliardi, Donatella, “Ediciones e impresores del Don Cristalián de España (con una nota sobre la difusión de los libros de caballerías en Italia)”, Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2004, series IX, vol. XV fasc. 4, pp. 695-734.
  • Gagliardi, Donatella, Urdiendo ficciones. Beatriz Bernal autora de caballerías en la España del XVI, Zaragoza: Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza, in print.

AsK October 2011

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