Spanish Ballad. De amores trata Rodrigo. Analysis.

Romances / Ballads. De amores trata Rodrigo

Spanish romances/ ballads are widely recognised as constituting one of the largest and richest ballad traditions in Europe, with their popularity stretching from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

They began as anonymous poems of variable length transmitted orally in song or recitation by minstrels (juglares) in the courts of royalty and nobility and in village squares. By the end of the 15th century they had caught the attention of individual poets and musicians. In the 16th century, poets and musicians mined them for inspiration, dramatists found their catchy tempo and narrative flexibility ideal for furthering the plots of their plays, and even novelists inserted romance lines in their works.

Over the centuries, individual poets reworked older ballads and created their own. At the same time, the oldest ballads (romances viejos) continued to be recited in towns and villages by community or family members gifted with good memories, and new romances with local significance were constantly added to the vast repertoire.

The ballad metre and rhyming scheme — octosyllabic (8-syllable) lines with assonance at the end of the even lines— are amongst the romance’s most identifiable characteristics. Assonance is the pairing of the last two vowel sounds of a line irrespective of the intervening consonants. So, for example bArbA rhymes with lAnzAs or nEgrA with pEsA.

The rhythmic pattern of the octosyllable, with a consistently strong stress on the 7th syllable, has a musical beat –sometimes referred to as a “galloping”– that facilitates memorisation. Where a line ends with a stressed vowel, the syllable count of that line will add up to 7 but a theoretical e (called paragogic or post stress e) is appended to create the 8th syllable.

The following line is considered an octosyllable although there are only 7 syllables: al (1)/ chi (2)/co (3)/ con(4)/ el (5)/ may(6)/or (7). The o of mayor is stressed, therefore the paragogic or post stress e is attached to make the eighth: al/ chi/co/ con/ el/ may/or/(e 8). In this respect, it is useful to remember that all words in Spanish ending in a consonant (except n or s) carry the stress on the last syllable, unless indicated by a written accent earlier in the word (e. g. González).

Finally, in what was an oral society, the minstrels would enact as they were reciting and were adept at using common “tricks of the trade” that drew and kept the audience’s attention: e. g. dialogue, questions, exclamations, repetition, enumeration, exaggeration, contrast, parallelism etc.

The following medieval romance, De amores trata Rodrigo, was very popular.  It deals with King Roderic, the last Visigothic king, and the legend of the fall of Christian Hispania (Spain) before the advancing Moorish armies. There are 5 versions of this romance ranging from 36 to 70 lines: in

1. De amores trata Rodrigo, _ descubierto ha su cuidado,
a la Cava se lo dize _ de quien anda enamorado;
5. sacándole está aradores _ en sus haldas reclinado,
apretándole la mano, _ de esta suerte ha proposado:
9. –Sepas, mi querida Cava, _ que de ti estó apassionado;
pido que me des remedio, _ pues todo está a tu mandado;
13. mira que lo que el rey pide _ ha de ser por fuerça o grado.
La Cava, siendo discreta, _ como en burlas lo ha tomado;
respondióle mansamente, _ el gesto baxo, humillado:
17. –Pienso que burla tu alteza, _ o quiere provar el vado;
no me pidas tal, señor, _ que perderé gran ditado.
21. Don Rodrigo le responde _ que conceda lo rogado,
y será reina de España _ y de todo su reinado.
25. No concediendo su ruego _ de la Cava se a ausentado;
fuérase a dormir la siesta, _ y por ella huvo embiado.
29. Cumplió el rey su voluntad _ más por fuerça que por grado.
La malvada de la Cava _ a su padre lo ha contado,
33. que es el conde don Julián; _ el conde muy agraviado,
de vender a toda España _ con moros se ha concertado.

Translation: Roderic is in love, and he’s made his thoughts known; he’s told Cava about it, she with whom he is in love; she is cleaning him of mites while he is reclining on her skirt and, squeezing her hand, he makes the following proposition
“I want you to know, my dear Cava, that I’m madly in love with you; I beg you to give me some relief for everything is under your control; consider what the king is asking for, it will either be by force or willingly.

Cava, who is very discreet, has taken it as a ruse, and answered prudently and with lowered, humble face: “I think your Lordship is mocking me or he wants to test the water; don’t ask me for that, my Lord, for I will lose my honour.

Don Roderic replies asking her to (grant) his request and she would be queen of Spain and of all his kingdom. Since she didn’t grant his request, he left Cava, and went to have a siesta, and (then) sent for her. The king got his way, more by force than (her) willingness. The wicked Cava told her father, who is the Count Julian; and the very offended count has agreed to sell (betray) Spain to the Moors.

Historical background: The rapid conquest of the peninsula by Muslim forces was something that the defeated Christian Visigoths sought to explain in terms that made sense to them. And so tales were embroidered, the most popular of which were those that viewed the disaster as divine punishment for the sins of Roderic, the last Visigothic king (Wright 42). 

According to these legends –the source for the cycle of romances about Roderic– Count Julian, the Visigothic governor controlling the straits of Gibraltar, had sent his daughter, Florinda, to Toledo to be educated at the court of Roderic. There, Roderic, overcome by Florinda’s beauty, seduced or raped her.

When the humiliated Florinda sent word to her father of what had happened, Julian immediately enlisted the help of Muslim troops to exact revenge upon Roderic, whose defeat quickly led to the establishment of al-Andalus, Islamic Spain.

This ballad cycle –which probably started to circulate in the late 15th century — depicts the event as a disaster for Christendom for which Roderic must pay penance.  His punishment is not only to lament the destruction of Spain –“yesterday I was king of Spain/ today I am not king of even a town”– but to suffer the indignity of having a snake knaw “that part that is most to blame/ for my misfortune and my shame.”  These lines, however, come not from the above romance but from two others, which form a part of the sequels to it. In this ballad –which constitutes one version/variant of several that deal with the seduction/ rape of Florinda– there is an ambivalence towards both Rodrigo and Florinda, or as she is called in the romances, la Cava, which was actually a pejorative term from the Arabic meaning “whore”! .

Metre and rhyme: This romance consists of 36 octosyllabic lines with an assonance rhyme of a-a on the even lines (for practical reasons of space, the romances are often written in lines of 16 syllables –as here– with a break at the end of the eighth, so that here, for example, so that De amores trata Rodrigo is line 1, and descubierto ha su cuidado is line 2. Metrically, they are divided as follows: De a (1)/mo (2)/res (3)/ tra (4)/ta (5)/ Ro (6)/dri (7)/go (8)/, des (1)/cu (2)/bier (3)/to ha (4)/ su (5)/ cui (6)/da (7)/do (8)/

The relationship between Roderic and Cava initially seems close for she is seen at the beginning (ll. 5-6) to be grooming him (or more literally “getting rid of his mites”, a most unHollywood image, but one which conveyed the idea of intimacy enjoyed by lovers at the time.).

She is cautious after Roderic has declared his love for her, believing that he is joking. Roderic insists, offering her his kingdom and she appears to have been won over. Still, the act of love requires mutual willingness and that was not forthcoming, for Roderic clearly got his way by force and not agreement.

As a result of Roderic’s sin, Spain was lost, but Cava and her father are also implicated in this loss, for had she not complained to her father he would not have betrayed his country (and Spain would not have been lost!).

This is a short narrative which starts without preamble.  The story of Roderic and Cava was well rooted in the public mind, but the poem adds a human edge by giving voice to each individual: the king insistent, Cava resisting.

Dialogue adds drama and the preponderance of the present tense at the beginning brings the action into immediate focus. This is not an event of the past, but with undoubtedly the minstrel’s articulation and body language, the listeners would be living the action in their imagination. 

There are very few adjectives to slow down the action and the emotion. We do not know, for example, what Roderic and Cava looked like or how they were dressed, both of which would require adjectives. Verbs, however, generally carry the action forward and here verb tenses predominate and the conversation is rapid and to the point.

The ending requires no elaboration, but it does carry considerable impact in implicating both Cava and her father in the destruction of Spain. The poem is an excellent encapsulation of the effects of human emotions and even more so since it is the background to the fall of a nation: a king’s lust, a young woman’s anger and a father’s pride. The price of the rape of Cava was high in the public imagination, with more blame being apportioned here to Cava and her father.

However, a modern reading (bearing in mind the “Me too” movement) would probably attribute the subsequent disaster to the initiator of her disgrace, Roderic, who has abused his status and imposed himself on the unwilling Cava.  A longer version portrays a more anguished Cava who is eventually persuaded to confide in her maid and to follow the latter’s advice to write to her father in Ceuta.