The Heroic Narrative in Spain

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The Heroic Narrative in Spain

The Multicultural Influence in Medieval Spain.

While the emphasis on group deliberation and the successful trial of Ganelon in the Chanson de Roland suggests a move towards universal law that supersedes the blood feud of the Scandinavian sagas, the heroic narrative in Spain even more clearly shows an intense interest in the development of a legal system, one of a number of literary themes that arose from the area's unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures. From the mid-eighth century—when a renegade from the Abba–sid dynasty in Persia, Abd al-Rahman I, brought an army to Spain, took possession of Córdoba, and proclaimed himself "emir" (commander) of al-Andalus—Muslim influence became firmly established in the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim conquest of Spain was accompanied by the transmission to that region of the cultural flowering that had occurred in the eighth through ninth centuries under the Abbasids in Persia, when a widespread effort to translate the great advances in science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy from Greek and Indian sources was undertaken. Great strides were also made in the development of legal treatises and commentaries on laws regarding taxation, religious practices, and rules of warfare. Under the Islamic emirs, medieval Spain was a rich cultural and ethnic mix of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, with over seventy-five percent of the population in al-Andalus (which took in most of the peninsula except for the small Christian kingdoms in the north) being non-Islamic. Resistance to the emirate began with the Christian king Alfonso II of Asturias (791–842), who modeled his reign on that of Charlemagne to the north. Alfonso's descendents, particularly Alfonso VI (1065–1109), moved the capital of his kingdom from Oviedo to León where they erected churches, endowed monasteries, and encouraged literature and the arts to flourish. Moreover, after centuries of isolation from the rest of Europe, starting in the tenth century and continuing throughout the Middle Ages, northern Spain became the destination of pilgrims from all corners of Europe who journeyed there to visit the shrine of St. James at Compostela, contributing further to the rich cultural mix that characterized medieval Spain. Along the pilgrim routes that extended through France over the Pyrenees, the chansons de geste were performed orally by French and Spanish jongleurs (entertainers). The reign of Alfonso VI coincided with the period of the First Crusade, when Christian knights were under the obligation as vassals to fight for the pope against Muslim possession of the Holy Land. This constellation of influences—the free intermixing of Christians and Muslims in Spain, the themes of the literary works performed along the pilgrim route, the longtime tradition of caliphate encouragement of interest in laws and legal practices—were uniquely melded into a historical figure who would become the hero of Spain in its national epic.

The Career of "El Cid."

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, whose exploits won him the title Mio Cid or "My Lord," was banished twice as an outlaw (from 1081–1087 and from 1089–1092) by Alfonso VI, king of León. In many respects, true to the traditional profile of career outlaws, Rodrigo hired himself out as a mercenary knight for both Christian and Muslim sides in the various wars that occurred during Alfonso's reign. In the first exile, Rodrigo served the Moorish emir Mu'taman of Saragossa in wars against his brother and the count of Barcelona. In the second banishment, Rodrigo captured the count of Barcelona and besieged the Moorish city of Valencia, taking possession of it in 1094 and dying there in 1099. After Rodrigo's widow Jimena Díaz buried him in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos, Valencia fell again to the Muslims. Out of these rather mundane threads of an outlaw's life was spun a rich literary tapestry and the greatest heroic narrative of medieval Spain.

The Poem of El Cid.

Although it is liberally embellished with fictional elements, the oldest nearly complete medieval epic of Spain, The Poem of El Cid, like its literary relation the chanson de geste, is deeply rooted in historical fact. However, the mode of development of the work, from oral narrative to written epic, resembles the pattern of the Roland and the more folkloric, supernatural Beowulf. From a few bare facts the poetic treatment of El Cid's career as an outlaw warrior developed in Latin chronicles and songs delivered by jongleurs (entertainers) to amuse visitors to Rodrigo's tomb. Sometime between 1201–1207, a century after the events which it portrays, the poem as it is known by modern scholars was most likely composed by a monk at the abbey at Cardeña, who may have been exposed to French heroic poems such as The Song of Roland and the William of Orange Cycle, which were performed for entertainment along the enormously popular pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James at Compostela. Blurring the historical facts through the lens of fiction, the Spanish poet invents several pivotal characters who enliven his plot either by befriending the hero—his right-hand man Álvar Fáñez—or by providing conflict for the protagonist—two obscure and cowardly Leónese minor nobles, known in the poem simply as the Infantes of Carrión. These villains marry El Cid's daughters and later brutally dishonor them by stripping them of their outer clothes and leaving them in a forest; thus the Infantes provoke the delayed vengeance of their father-in-law, a highlight of the poem.

Literature in Ireland and

Just as early medieval literary audiences in England, on the Continent, and on the Scandinavian peninsula (and its colony Iceland) favored long heroic narratives, the same pattern predominated in medieval Ireland and Wales, two remote areas having few direct connections to English and Continental literature. These regions, whose cultural roots lay in the mythology of the Celtic tribes that had colonized these areas centuries earlier, produced works in the heroic mode that later were incorporated into developing Arthurian romances. For example, in Ireland, the great cycle of saga-like stories about such Celtic heroes as the "Hound of Ulster," Cúchulain—involving cattle-raiding, chariot-fighting, and beheading enemies—comprised a collection now generally referred to as the Táin. Like its Anglo-Saxon, Continental, and Scandinavian parallels, the Táin evolved out of oral celebrations of regional mythology from six centuries earlier and was collected in written form starting in the twelfth century in The Book of the Dun Cow. One of the Táin's heroic tales, Bricriu's Feast, may have contributed the beheading motif to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In medieval Wales, the equally ancient Celtic oral tales of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, involving interactions between the human world and that of Celtic faery, began to be written down in the eleventh century in a work that has come to be called the Mabinogi. Some parts of this collection were clearly sources for Chrétien de Troyes's romances, Erec and Enide and Yvain.

The Structure of El Cid.

From the outset, one of the distinctive cultural features of El Cid is its setting in a society with a highly developed "court" system where many people serve as the king's advisors, seeking to be among his favorites and thus receive lands and benefits. The poem's overlapping double plot, structured over three divisions or cantars (songs) which may have been orally performed on three separate occasions, concentrates chiefly on El Cid's second term of exile, purportedly instigated by false accusations about him made by jealous courtiers. The first plot depicts the hero's dishonorable exile and his gradual political rehabilitation, achieved by his strategic cunning, his display of physical prowess, and the favor of his Christian God towards him in a series of successful military campaigns against the Moors in the first cantar. In an epic exaggeration the Christian Cid loses only fifteen followers while the enemy Moors suffer thirteen hundred fatalities, yet the defeated Moors respect him so much that they are sorry to see him leave. In the second cantar, El Cid vindicates his personal honor, achieving a royal pardon for his triumphant capture of Valencia and, yielding to the king's will, marrying his daughters to the Infantes of Carrión, even though he knows that these alliances will lead to trouble in the future. The importance of the theme of courage as the distinguishing characteristic of the hero is emphasized at the beginning of the third cantar, which opens with an invented but powerfully effective episode in which the cowering Infantes physically disgrace themselves at the sudden appearance of an escaped lion. When El Cid so intimidates the lion that he is able single-handedly to recapture and cage the beast, he thus increases his own already considerable fame while disgracing his cowardly sons-in-law. The Infantes subsequently avenge their shame by abducting their wives, stripping them of their outer clothing, beating them brutally, and leaving them for dead in the wild oak forest. El Cid's nephew returns the hero's daughters to their grateful father, who brings a lawsuit against his sons-in-law in the king's court. Here the heritage of the caliphate interest in legal issues reflected in a major section of the plot can be seen. Because the king had arranged the marriage between the Infantes and El Cid's daughters, he shares the dishonor of his vassals. The trial culminates in a judicial combat between three of El Cid's followers, who successfully champion his suit against the Infantes and their family, defeating them in the field. In addition to receiving financial compensation from the Infantes, the hero is further honored at the story's end when the king arranges for El Cid's daughters' marriage to the princes of Navarre and Aragon. The poem's structure well displays in Rodrigo's behavior the hero's possession of fortitudo (physical courage) in the conquest of Valencia and the lion episode. El Cid exhibits sapientia (wisdom, discretion) in the self-restraint he shows in electing to prosecute rather than physically attack the Infantes, which causes them to lose more honor. The trial, a highlight of the text for the original audience, reflects the cultural inheritance of Muslim learning.


Joseph J. Duggan, The Cantar de mio Cid: Poetic Creation in Its Economic and Social Contexts (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Joseph F. O'Callaghan, A History of Medieval Spain (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975).