Some Thoughts on Reading El Cid

by Lynn Harry Nelson, em. Professor of Medieval History
The University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

Dictionary and Thesaurus

1. The Muslims, mainly Berbers from nearby Morocco, invaded Spain in the year 711 and, within five years, had gained control of almost the entire peninsula. Not all of the conquest was a matter of force; several local leaders accepted Islam along with their people and even aided in the conquest. The Muslims did not particularly encourage such conversions, since they hoped to become rich in the new land, and fellow Muslims even new converts paid no taxes and were free men. Consequently, there was a large Christian population in Muslim lands (called Mozarabs) who adopted much Muslim culture and customs but clung to their Christian faith. There were some regions that the Muslims were unable to subdue, such as the Basques in the rugged Pyrenean lands of the North.

The most important Christian center, however, was in the Cantabrian Mountains, where, according to legend, a number of Visigothic warriors and clerics had taken refuge. Again according to legend, a group of these warriors met in a cave at Covadonga to decide what to do. They agreed to choose a king to lead them to the reconquest of their lands and to follow him as long as he respected them and observed their customs. Their choice was a fellow warrior named Pelayo (the same as Pelagius), and Pelayo and his successors established the Kingdom of Asturias.

The Asturians operated much as bandits, raiding from their mountain fastnesses, but they slowly extended the area of their control until they finally captured the city of León. León had been the chief military center in the North under the Romans (its name was "city of the legion") and it was extremely well-fortified. The Asturian monarchs transferred their capital to León, and their realm became known as the Kingdom of León.

In the 800's, they gained control of Galicia, the land to their west, and the kings claimed to have discovered there the tomb of Saint James the disciple and apostle. Saint James, as Santiago, became the patron saint of the Spanish Christians, and a great pilgrimage route to his tomb at Santiago de Compostela began to attract pilgrims from all over western Europe. At about the same time, the counts that Charlemagne had established along his Spanish frontier, led by the famous Raymond of Toulouse, established counties south of the mountains. The most important of these was in the northeast of the peninsula, Cataluña, with its capital of Barcelona. Finally, the kings of León established a heavily fortified district to the southeast, building castles and establishing garrisons to defend their kingdom from Muslim attacks from that direction.

This fortified district became known as Castilla, "The Land of Castles." The lands of Castile were not very fertile and there was almost continual skirmishing along the frontier, so, while the nobility of León grew rich and secure, Castile remained a land of numerous minor nobles with small holdings accustomed to hard fighting and constant danger. The Leónese nobles held their Castilian brothers-in-arms in some contempt, referring to them as "pig farmers," and so there was finally a conflict between them. The legend is that the count of Castile, Fernán Gonzalez (920-970), was out hunting with Sancho, the King of León (955-965), and Sancho began admiring Fernán's horse. Fernando offered to give the animal to his lord, but for various reasons Sancho insisted on buying it. He didn't have any money with him, but promised to pay the full price within a year, going on that the price should double every year that he failed to pay. He didn't. Later that year, he accused Fernán of plotting a rebellion against him and imprisoned him. The Castilians rebelled, Fernán escaped and a long civil war ensued. Fernán was finally captured, and Sancho was about to condemn him to death when Fernán demanded that Sancho pay him for the horse he had bought several years earlier. Since the price had been doubling each year, Sancho saw that he would never have enough money to pay the debt and could not fail to keep his promise without losing his honor in front of all of his nobles. He ended up by giving Fernán the county of Castile as an independent holding and setting him free.

In 1004, Almanzor, the military dictator of Muslim Spain died, and civil war soon broke out between many of the regions that had comprised that state. The Muslims soon began calling in Christian mercenaries, and the Christians -- as soon as they realized how weak and divided the Muslims were -- began to demand annual payments to protect the little states that asked for their protection and to threaten to attack others unless they also paid such protection money. Muslim gold began to flow into the Christian states, and their power grew. At about the same time that Almanzor died, a king known as Sancho the Great (1000-1036) (took over the kingdom of Navarra (the territory of the Basques) and managed to establish his control over most of the Christian states of Spain, including Castile. When he died in 1036, he divided up his territories like the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchs had done.

His eldest son, García, succeeded him as king of Navarra (1036- 1054); Ramiro, an illegitimate son, was given the county of Aragon (which he soon turned into an independent kingdom) (1036-1064), and another son, Fernando was given the independent county of Castile (1036-1037) and was married to the sister of Beremudo (1028-1037) the young king of León. The king of León attacked García of Navarra to get back some Leónese lands that had been taken over by the Navarrese. He was defeated and killed, and Fernando of Castile became king of León (1037-1065) by right of his wife, the heiress to the realm. León and Castile were again united, but under a man who valued the fighting men of Castile more than the wealthy nobles of León, who were always conspiring to reduce his power. Nevertheless, both states prospered under his firm and relatively long rule. When he died in 1065, however, he also divided his realms.

Sancho (1065-1072), his eldest son, received the kingdom of Castile; Alfonso (1065-1109), his second son, became king of León, and his youngest son, García (1065-1072), was given the kingdom of Galicia. Sancho of Castile, aided by his young standard-bearer, Rodrigo Díaz of the Castilian village of Bivar, immediately began to reunite the realms. He deposed García in 1071 and took over Galicia; in 1072, he drove Alfonso out of León and had himself crowned king. Alfonso attempted to return from his refuge in Muslim Toledo but was defeated and again took refuge, this time with his sister, Urraca, in her city of Zamora. While laying siege to Zamora, Sancho was tricked into a conference near the city's walls, and was killed by one of Urraca's soldiers. Alfonso immediately returned to claim his kingdom of León. Since Sancho had died without heirs, he also claimed Castile.

When he arrived at Burgos, the capital of Castile to assume the crown, he found that the Castilians suspected him (probably correctly) of having planned the murder of their king, Sancho. Rodrigo Díaz acted as their representative and, in a famous scene, demanded that Alfonso stand on the steps of the church of Santa Gadea and, in front of the nobles of Castile, swear three times on the Bible that he was innocent of having conspired in the death of King Sancho. Alfonso swore, but was angry with Rodrigo for having demanded this of him and waited for an opportunity to take revenge on him.

It was some years before he felt that he could afford to dispense with the services of his most able warrior and the man most respected by the Castilian nobles. In 1080, he sent Rodrigo to collect the tribute owed by the Muslim city-state of Seville. When he arrived, he found that Count García Ordóñez of Najera, one of Alfonso's favorites, had been sent on a similar mission to the city of Granada and was preparing to attack Seville with a large army. Rodrigo had only a few men, but attacked Count García and defeated him in a spectacular victory. According to legend, Rodrigo went up to García during the battle, grabbed his beard and twisted his nose. These were absolutely deadly insults at the time, and García never forgave him. Rodrigo seized the goods of the attackers and then allowed them to go free.

When Rodrigo returned to Burgos, he found that García Ordóñez was already there and had told Alfonso that Rodrigo had stayed down at Seville for longer than was necessary so that he could attack the Granadans and take booty from them. Alfonso had not waited to have a trial. Rodrigo was informed that he had broken his oath of fealty and homage by being faithless and seeking his own advantage at the expense of his lord's. Alfonso had dissolved the contract between them and seized all of the property that Rodrigo held of him. As king, Alfonso had declared that Rodrigo had defrauded the realm, seized all of the good that he had won in battle against Count Ordóñez and confiscated all of his private holdings and possessions. As punishment for his "crimes," Alfonso had declared that he must leave the realm within three days, taking nothing with him and receiving aid or assistance from no one.

It is at this point that The Song of the Cid, or as much of it as has survived, begins.

2. The poem obscures what happened during the next few years. Rodrigo left, was joined by several fighting men who preferred to remain loyal to him rather than obey King Alfonso, and sought employment as a mercenary. He was turned down by the Counts of Barcelona, and so took service under the Muslim king of Zaragoza in 1082 and defended the Muslim kingdom against Christian attacks. Alfonso broke with the system by which the Muslims paid him what amounted to tribute, and, in 1085, captured Toledo, the old Visigothic capital. All of Europe was electrified by the news of this victory and by tales of the fabulous wealth that had been taken along with the city. The most famous single piece of loot was the table of Solomon, which was carved from a single great emerald. This was pure fantasy, of course, but one finds it recorded as fact in chronicles and annals written as far away as Denmark and Poland.

The rulers of the other Muslim states of Spain realized that they could no longer buy protection from the Christians, and called for help from North Africa. A zealous movement had arisen among the Muslims of West Africa. Converts to this sect, known as al-Murabitun, or Almoravids in English, retired to live in a fortified army camp (murabit), practice austerity, and fight to spread Islam. Their leader, Yusuf ibn Tashufin, crossed over into Spain where he joined his forces with those of the Muslim states. Alfonso had gotten used to the idea that Muslims could not fight -- it had been more than eighty years since the death of Almanzor and the disintegration of the Caliphate of Cordoba -- and went out to attack the Muslims. He met them at Zalaka, north of Badajoz, and they came very close to entirely wiping out the Christian army (1086).

Alfonso went into a panic, calling for aid from the French and threatening to guide the Muslims through the Pyrenees to attack France if he didn't get such help. He also told Rodrigo Díaz that it had all been a mistake, took him back as a vassal, and gave him permission to take and hold whatever Muslim territory he could. All of this was somewhat premature, since Yusuf ibn Tashufin , for some reason or another, took his army back to Africa. The Spanish Muslims were not able to hold the advantage that Yusuf had gained them, and Rodrigo managed first to establish control of, and finally to conquer the rich and beautiful Muslim city-kingdom of Valencia, with its fertile delta and its Mediterranean port (1094). The Almoravids returned to Spain to try to liberate Valencia, but were badly defeated by Rodrigo, the first time they had ever been beaten in battle.

Rodrigo held Valencia until his death in 1099. Legend has it that the Christians tied his dead body on his horse and let it out the main gate of the city. When the Muslims who were besieging the city saw him riding at them, they panicked and ran. Whatever the case, Rodrigo's wife, Jimena, held the city for three more years until Alfonso, convinced that the position could not be held forever, ordered her to withdraw. She left Valencia in 1102, burning the city behind her, and carried her husband's body back to Castile, to be re-buried at the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. Tales of Rodrigo's exploits began to circulate throughout Europe. Some time about 1150, his story was written down in an epic called the Cantar de mio Cid, one of the few Christian heroes of the Spanish Reconquest to be known familiarly by a Muslim title (Cid = sidi or "lord").

As time passed, more and more exploits were added to the story of the Cid, and they grew more and more fantastic until Rodrigo had become a fictitious character, a subject for ballads, songs, and children's tales. Early in this century, however, a young Spanish scholar, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, decided to devote himself to the study of the character of the Cid. He spent his entire life on the task and he lived to be ninety-nine years old. During the course of a lifetime of study, he rescued the figure of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar from the field of fiction and restored him as an historical figure. More than that, he placed him firmly in his times by unraveling the complex history of eleventh-century Spain. If you are interested in learning more about this, Menéndez' major book is The Cid and His Spain

3 Like many feudal epics, the Song of the Cid leads up to the climax of a trial, and, like many, the basis of its action is the relation between a vassal and his lord. Unlike most, however, it has a clear theme that is maintained, in one form or another throughout the poem: "What a good vassal, if he only had a good lord!" Almost every incident in the poem demonstrates either Rodrigo's nobility or Alfonso's lack of character, and many demonstrate both at the same time. One motif running through the story is Rodrigo's constant honoring of Alfonso in an attempt to get the king to take him back as his vassal, but a careful reader will also see that Rodrigo continually places Alfonso in positions that test the king's honor and that Alfonso continually fails those tests.

Consequently, one must consider every event carefully. There is one instance, for example, when the Cid sends his own vassal, Alvar Hañez, to Alfonso with a gift of a number of fine horses. It would appear as if Rodrigo is simply honoring Alfonso, but he is in fact tempting him. Alfonso should refuse the horses, since a lord accepts such gifts only from a vassal, or he should take the horses and take Rodrigo back into his favor. He does neither, being too pig-headed to recognize the worth of the Cid and too greedy to turn down the horses. Instead, he points out that Alvar Hañez is his vassal and in his favor although he has done nothing for Alvar and accepts the horses as a gift from Alvar, offering nothing in return. Which means of course, that Alvar ends up owing the Cid, something that Alfonso seems not to bother himself about in the slightest. The poem is full of such instances, and the end of the poem displays the king as completely dead to honor.

The poem also demonstrates how a good lord behaves towards his vassals through the example of the Cid and his followers. Alvar Hañez is portrayed as the happiest of all vassals, honored and enriched by his lord. He is so certain that the Cid will do the right thing that all he needs to think about is how to serve Rodrigo as well as he is able. Both Alvar and Rodrigo bring glory and riches to the other, and live in perfect harmony, trust, and comradeship. One must remember that romantic love in western literature did not appear until the early eleventh century, and the chansons de geste consider the most important human relationship to be that between vassal and lord. If you try to imagine the audience feeling the desperation of the Cid and the joy of Alvar Hañez with the same passion with which we follow a truly great love story, you will begin to recognize the greatness of The Song of the Cid

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