What is the Poema de Mío Cid about?
The Poema de Mío Cid is fairly easy to summarise. Inspired by the life in exile of the historical Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (ca1043-1099), it is a fairly short epic poem, consisting of 3733 lines divided into three “Songs” or Cantares. The first Cantar (vv 1-1084) centres on the exile of the Cid, the second (vv 1085-2277) on his conquest of Valencia and the marriage of his daughters, the final (vv 2278-3733) on the abuse and abandonment of the daughters and the Cid’s appeal for justice.
The Poema has come down to us in a single manuscript, dated approximately the mid 1300s, but the date of composition and authorship are matters of controversy. For a long time, following the arguments of Spain’s greatest medieval scholar, Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869-1968), it was believed that the work was composed anonymously around 1140.
At the end of the poem, however, a certain Per Abbat states that he “wrote” (escrivio) the work in 1207. The problem is that the verb escrivir didn’t necessarily mean “to write” at that time, it could also mean “to copy,” so we don’t really know whether Per Abbat was the copyist or the author. Currently, the consensus is that he was the copyist. As for the date of composition, most scholars now support a date later than 1140, somewhere around 1200.
History or Fiction?
Although anchored in the political events of a frontier society in the last 20 years of the 11th century, the Poema is not a historical document but a literary composition.
Historically, for example, the Cid’s daughters were named Cristina and María –and not Elvira and Sol– and were never married to the Infantes of Carrión. One of the Cid’s most trusted military advisors and confidant in the poem–Alvar Fáñez– was not closely allied to him, and another, Martín Antolínez, who is present throughout the work, is a fictitious creation.
As for Rodrigo himself, although the poet depicts him as battling against the Christian Count of Barcelona, he discreetly draws a veil over the hero’s lengthy service to the Muslim leader of Zaragoza and other questionable allegiances. The historical Cid was, in effect, a mercenary.
Historical accuracy, then, was less important than reshaping the Cid’s life in exile, and a consideration of his relationship with the king of Castile, Alfonso VI. The result is a skilful literary work centred on the loss and recovery of the Cid’s possessions and honour in two general stages:
1) the years of survival (culminating in the conquest of Valencia, v 1212, the arrival of his wife and daughters in Valencia, vv 1592-1609, and the Cid’s successful defence of the city against the Almoravids vv 1712-30).
2) the appearance of the Infantes de Carrión (v 1372) and their marriage to the Cid’s daughters, and the Cid’s appeal to the king for justice following the abuse of his daughters by the Infantes. The first stage is historically inspired, the second fictional.
The Cid: A National, Crusading Hero?
Although simple from a narrative point of view, the Poema de Mío Cid is a rich and complex work that has generated many interpretations. We’ll start by questioning one popular interpretation, the myth of the Cid as Spain’s hero motivated by a crusading spirit and reconquista zeal.
It is not difficult to demonstrate that the Cid of the Poema cuts a heroic figure, but we should be cautious nowadays about the term “Spain’s” national hero because the Cid is if anything a “Castilian” hero.
But even here the poet does not wave a nationalistic flag. Rodrigo is referred to mostly as el Cid (from the Arabic sayyid: “lord”) or el Campeador (possibly from campi doctus/doctor: “master of the battlefield”) or as el Cid Campeador.
Only twice is he identified as a Castilian (Ruy Diaz el Castelano, v 748, and simply as el Castelano in v 1067). Castile is mentioned numerous times, but mostly in relation to the Cid’s travels and not in any nationalistic sense. The point is that the Poema is not about wars between kingdoms or religious conflicts; it follows the life of the Cid in exile and details how he survives and recovers his honour.
We should keep in mind, too, that for some regions of the country, e.g. Catalonia and Euskadi (or Basque Provinces), el Cid has no particular heroic resonance. Historical circumstances can explain this.
Broadly speaking, from the 16th century Castile determined the destiny of the country, so that Castile became synonymous with Spain, and the language of Castile became the de facto language of Spain. It wasn’t a great step, then, for Castile’s greatest hero, el Cid, to be viewed also as Spain’s greatest hero.
This view was reinforced in the 20th century with the publication of a ground breaking edition of the Poema (1908-11) by Spain’s great Medieval scholar, Ramón Menéndez Pidal. He followed this in 1929 with another fundamental study, La España del Cid (Spain of the Cid). Weaving through these works was Menéndez Pidal’s belief that the spirit of Castile was the glue that held Spain together, and that spirit was best exemplified by the Cid.The Cid is, if anything, a Castilian hero, and even here the poet does not beat a nationalistic drum.
It so happens that Menéndez Pidal’s convictions appeared at a time when Spain was undergoing severe political instability and a crisis of identity. This was reflected in growing separatist sentiment in Catalonia and Euskadi, which obviously undermined Castile’s authority. What was happening was, in fact, a renewal of historic struggles in Spain’s history between Castile’s strong centralist tendencies and regionalism.
Menéndez Pidal’s Cid was quickly appropriated by the Franco Nationalist propaganda machine during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39; e.g. Franco was compared to El Cid). Franco’s victory was soon accompanied by repressive measures, which included the suppression of Catalan and Basque freedoms and languages. Hardly surprising, then, El Cid does not resonate with Catalans and Basques!
As for crusader, el Cid is indeed a good Christian. He calls on Spain’s patron saint, St James (Santiago) before battle (e.g. v 1138), thanks God for his victories, has a dream visitation from the Archangel Gabriel (vv 405-09) and contributes to Christian territorial expansion at the expense of the Moors (v 1191).
He also has within his entourage a bishop, Jerome, who is openly intolerant of Muslims. However, Bishop Jerome is significantly not Spanish but a French monk drawn by the Cid’s fame (vv 1292, 2371) from the Abbey of Cluny. He has come specifically to kill Moors.
playing for example a major role in popularising the
pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It was also a
former prior of the Abbey, Pope Urban II, who called
for the First Crusade in 1095.
Before every battle Bishop Jerome celebrates mass and urges the soldiers to battle with promises of paradise for those who fall (v 1705). And the Bishop is no mere orator. He begs the Cid the honour of striking the first blow in battle (vv 2371-3), and is such an impressive fighter that he even elicits the poet’s admiration: God, how well he fought! (v 2387). The Bishop brings with him the crusading zeal that swept France at the end of the 11th century (the First Crusade set out for Jerusalem in 1095).
But does this mean that the Cid and his Spanish followers are fired by the same zeal? If we look carefully at the Poema, it soon becomes apparent that nowhere do we read of Christianity’s superiority over Islam. There are no references to Muslims abandoning their faith nor is any attempt made to convert them nor are their beliefs denigrated.
The conquest of Valencia in 1094 and the defeat of the fundamentalist Almoravids by the Cid –the end of the first stage– would surely have been a fitting moment to proclaim the crusading spirit of the Reconquista. But as in previous battles against Muslim adversaries, the Cid’s victory is measured, not in religious terms but by the value of the booty won or the parias (tributes) paid (vv 904, 914). This, in effect, gives us a clue that it is material survival that fires Rodrigo and his men at this moment.
Survival and Wealth.
Exiled by the Castilian king, Alfonso VI, left penniless and disgraced, Rodrigo is forced to take up arms to survive. But first he needs money, so the poem opens with the detailed process behind a loan extended to Rodrigo by two Jewish moneylenders, for which the Cid’s emissary, Martín Antolínez, extracts a 10 % commission!
Soon, military success brings wealth in the form of booty and possessions. Indeed, the word ganancias (spoils) runs through the poem like a leitmotiv, but especially in the first half of the poem. Repeatedly we are informed of the gold, silver, horses, livestock, and clothing won and the wealth earned. Even Colada, the sword that acquires such symbolic value later in the poem, is first identified in terms of its monetary worth, 3,000 marks (v 1010).
And the Cid’s conquest of Valencia –which then becomes his possession– dwells on the hunger suffered by the besieged inhabitants of the city (the Cid took away their bread v 1173) and the countless treasures won by the victors.
All the Cid’s success, of course, not only confirms his credentials as soldier, survivor, and leader, but it also demonstrates the power and fame he has achieved. His army grows with each achievement and his renown crosses the seas (vv 1154, 1156).
The conquest of Valencia, the high point of Rodrigo’s material success, completes the first stage of the Cid’s rehabilitation, a matter confirmed by Alfonso’s permission for his family to join him in the city, and a public restoration of all his confiscated possessions (vv 1360-63). It is soon after this (v 1882-83) that the Infantes de Carrión confirm their earlier decision (v 1374) to ask for the Cid’s daughters, Elvira and Sol, in marriage.
This sets in motion the second stage: justice and the restoration of the Cid`s honour. However, being members of the upper nobility, the Infantes direct their request to the king and not to Rodrigo, asserting at the same time that the proposed marriage will honour the Cid. Rodrigo, however, is less than enthusiastic (v 1938), but agrees to obey the king, who also sees the marriage as a source of honour for the Cid (v 1905).
Significantly, when the Cid and Alfonso meet to arrange the marriage, the Cid hands Elvira and Sol over to the king for the latter to give them away (2085-2099). This has been carefully worked out because when Elvira and Sol are subsequently abused by their husbands (vv 2720-2748), the king’s honour is also tarnished.
Following news of the abuse, and before the court gathered at Toledo, the Cid reminds Alfonso that it was he who gave away Elvira and Sol. Nevertheless, when the Cid formally presents his grievance, he does not begin with his daughters’ abuse.
His first demand is for the return of his swords, Colada and Tizón (which he had won, as he pointedly observes, like a man v 3154) and the money he had given the Infantes on their departure for Carrión. Only then does he turn to his greatest grievance … which so dishonoured me (vv 3254-56), and call for a duel.
The duel is fought in the king’s presence between the Cid’s champions (the Cid has returned to Valencia) and the Infantes; their defeat –they are not killed but surrender– completes their disgrace. The Cid is now publicly vindicated and his honour restored. The Poema ends with even greater recognition of his worth: the news that the princes of Navarre and Aragón request the hands of Elvira and Sol in marriage (v 3717).
Blackburn, Paul transl Poem of the Cid Norman, Oklahoma 1966 (1998)
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for El Cid London 1989
Hamilton, Rita & Perry, Janet The Poem of the Cid Manchester 1975; Penguin 1984 Prose translation, with very useful introduction.
Lowney, Chris A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2006
Montaner, Alberto ed Cantar de Mío Cid Barcelona 1993
Smith, Colin Poema de Mío Cid Madrid 1996
A very useful web site –in both Spanish and English– on matters relating to the Cid can be found at: www.caminodelcid.org