The Spanish novel Amadis de Gaula ought to be famous. Instead, especially outside of Spain, few people besides scholars have even heard of it. That got my attention.
Based medieval tales of chivalry, the book became Europe's first best-seller in the early 1500s, and it inspired a century of popular sequels and spinoffs in seven languages. Miguel de Cervantes satirized these novels a century later in Don Quixote, and that's how I first heard of it. In fact, if it weren't for Quixote, Amadís would be even more obscure.
And yet at one time even illiterate people knew all about Amadís. How did something so popular become so forgotten?
Most literary histories say that due to Quixote's devastating attacks, and due to a decline in the quality of the stories, chivalric novels simply because unfashionable. But after a little research, I don't think so.
First, not all critics agree that the quality fell, although the writing did change. Some authors began to treat the theme of knights and love with realism, others with increasing fantasy. But critics and defenders alike agreed that they were entertaining — and for some moralists, entertaining meant "worthless time-waster." Worst of all, these books were fantasy.
Despite fewer editions of new books and fewer reprints of existing books as the 1500s drew to a close, the books gained more and more critics in the 1600s. No one complains about something unless it is actually happening. People kept reading and even writing the books all across Europe.
But now the readers weren't kings and other very important people: they were increasingly women, especially young women and girls. A few women even wrote chivalric novels. All the books began to include more female protagonists.
That was just too much for moralists: "They are golden pills that, with a layer of delicious entertainment . . . fill hearts with such ideas about love that, serving as example, they decay in young women and ruin their honest estate of modesty and sense of shame," wrote Benito Remigio Noydens in 1666.
The Spanish Inquisition targeted the novels. Royal decrees limited and finally outlawed their reprinting. The libraries of noble families quietly disposed of them. In other countries, the books received equal condemnation.
Links thanks to ellen_kushner.