In the 17th century Basque literature flourished as it had never done before. 36 works of over 50 pages were published: 20 of them were new publications and 12 out of those 20 were original works. This literary movement was centred on Lapurdi around Donibane Lohitzune (St. Jean-de-Luz), Ziburu (Ciboure) and Sara. Meanwhile, writers in the Southern Basque Country endeavoured with great difficulty to translate religious teachings.
This flourishing of the Sara-St. Jean-de-Luz School was due to the economic situation. the area had important ports which were visited by many sailors returning from fishing off Newfoundland. Donibane (St. Jean-de-Luz) and Ziburu (Ciboure) were the biggest towns in the Basque Country at that time and very important indeed. There was a very large Basque-speaking colony there mainly made up of people from Gipuzkoa and Biscay. They spoke Basque amongst themselves and as the use of the different Basque dialects was evident, they felt the need for a unified or standard Basque. What was later to become known as the “St. Jean-de-Luz or Sara School” originated and evolved in these towns, at the meeting point of different cultures and religions.
This literary movement was one which grew up around a group of churchmen and learned citizens who read what the churchmen themselves had written. The writers of the Sara School wrote to provide citizens and the bourgeoisie with religious teachings. They used a more modern Basque than Etxepare or Leizarraga. Some of the authors had a solid background of training in the Humanities and many of them had a basic knowledge of fine arts, too.
Axular was among the most well-known and highly praised of the Sara-St. Jean-de-Luz School writers. His Gero was published in 1643. This book is the model of classical Basque literature, and despite its age and the fact that fashions and schools have changed, this great work will always continue to be a model. Axular has the place as the best prose writer among Basque writers.
Among the Sara School members Arnaut Oihenart is also worthy of mention. According to the information that has been preserved, he was the first writer in the history of Basque literature who was not a priest. Two of his works are:
Some critics say that his poetry was cold, because he had moved away from popular verse-making. As far as the language is concerned, the enthusiasm for purity is evident to the extent that he felt obliged to create neologisms, but when creating words he resorted to the possibilities provided by Basque. Despite the fact that his original work is written in verse, Oihenart was not a bertsolari (extempore Basque popular poet), but a very accomplished poet who knew Basque very well.
Although he was a good writer, his works did not exert that much influence on the literary movement, and his ideas were not particularly welcomed by society. Nevertheless, to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth an opportunity was provided to take a fresh look at Oihenart.
In his l’Art Poétique Basque Oihenart included a love poem written in Biscayan in 1665. The reason was that in Biscay love poems were in fact growing in popularity. Rafael Mikoleta included two of them in his book on learning Biscayan: Modo breve de aprender la lengua vizcayna (1653), which was recently published by A. Zelaieta.
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