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Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
The Song of El Cid
The _Poema del Cid_ recounts the fictionalized adventures of Rodrigo Diaz, an eleventh-century Castilian who conquered much of Islamic Spain. Many of the events in the poem are historically accurate, but licenses have been taken by the poet, generally to allow more opportunities for the Cid to prove his valor and loyalty to King Alfonso. In fact, throughout the entire poem, the Cid is portrayed as an exemplary hero and vassal; he is also an ideal lord himself. The poet has created an ideal within the historical context of eleventh- or twelfth- century Spain.
The Cid is exiled because his enemies have turned King Alfonso against him. This, according to custom, gives Rodrigo the right to earn a living for himself and his followers, to claim authority over whatever territory he conquers, and even to wage war against his former lord. Essentially, by exiling him, Alfonso has relieved him of his obligations as a vassal.
These obligations, much like those of the characters in _La Chanson de Roland,_ revolve around fidelity, loyalty, and support. The Cid continues to act as a superbly successful vassal, sending Alfonso rich spoils from his conquered territories and humbling himself through his messengers. When restored to the king's favor, he defers to Alfonso's wishes, even when they conflict with his own, as in the case of his daughters' marriages.
Central to the feudal system is the fact that vassals of a lord often have vassals themselves. The Cid is presented as being an ideal lord as well, which seems to balance the humility he shows to Alfonso. He is generous to his followers, shows them respect, and accepts their counsel. Perhaps most importantly, he allows his vassals to serve him honorably. He often sends Minaya as a messenger, and the latter fulfills his duty much as Rodrigo obliges Alfonso. At the trial of the heirs of Carrion, who have dishonored and injured the Cid's daughters, and after the family of Carrion has made material restitution to the Cid, he suggests to his vassals that they should denounce the champions of the Carrion family. He then leaves, allowing his vassals the opportunity to distinguish themselves by fighting for their lord's honor.
This of course does not mean that the Cid is a coward. In fact, his bravery is legendary. However, he has achieved fame and honor, and allows his vassals to do the same. Minaya often asks for the distinction of leading a second wing of the attack in battle and is always allowed to do so. The Cid's willingness to accept these proposals does honor to Minaya by allowing him to place himself in a position to gain glory, and Minaya's eagerness to place himself in the thick of the battle does honor to the Cid since Minaya has absolutely no doubt that his lord will come to his aid should he get himself into too much trouble to handle alone.
The Cid's central function in the poem, however, is as a vassal and champion of Alfonso. As champion, the Poem never suggests that King Alfonso had any doubts of the Cid's courage or prowess. It is interesting to note that when Garcia Ordonez questions the Cid's exploits by suggesting that he is only interested in enriching himself, Alfonso counters by saying that Rodrigo is doing him more honor than Garcia, by conquering, however savagely, Moorish lands. Even before he agrees to the Cid's return, Alfonso admits that the Cid is acquitting himself marvelously. When he does return the Cid to favor, he constantly acknowledges the greatness of his accomplishments. He even allows him to name the time of their meetings, and in many ways treats him as an equal, rather than a relatively low-born vassal.
Of course, the real Alfonso treated the real Rodrigo much less favorably. He was always ready to accept the slander of the Cid's enemies and quite ready to believe that the Cid was greedy to the point of being willing to embezzle moneys due to his lord and to dishonor the semi-sacred role of acting as his lord's representative. The changes made by the poet are understandable in an historical context. Although the date of the poem's recording is open to speculation, it is certain that the time was a politically dangerous one. Alfonso VII had been able to reconquer much of Spain because the powerful Islamic Almoravid Empire was faltering. Later, however, the Islamic threat was renewed, and the Christian princes fought amongst themselves.
The poet, then, saw in the Cid an opportunity to create a hero who would exemplify the heroic virtues that seemed to be lacking in contemporary society. The Cid of the _Poema del Cid_ is loyal almost to a fault. He never fights as a mercenary for the Moors, as did the historic Cid, but instead gains territory for his king only at their expense. He typifies a brutal, vengeful Christianity. By offering an ideal of the kind of behavior the poet wished was more common, the Cid is presented as a hero perfectly suited to medieval Spain.
Like many if not most medieval literary works, the Song of the Cid can be read on various levels and interpreted in several, often complementary ways. The preceding analysis emphasizes the superficial level, on which the focus is on the Cid's loyalty and greatness as a vassal. This is the traditional level of interpretation and was the official one during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco since it was in fact a glorification of "The Leadership Principle."
In the sub-text of the Poem, however, King Alfonso is the protagonist and is portrayed as blind to the concepts of honor and respect. Let us take the trial that ends the poem to illustrate this.
Having accepted the Cid back into his good graces, Alfonso proposed that the Cid marry his daughters to two youngsters of a rich and old Leonese family of which Alfonso thought highly. The Cid did not like the match and told the king that he would not marry them so himself, but that he would give them to the king, his lord, to be married honorably. Alfonso then married them to the young Leonese, the princes of Carrion (no jokes, please.) The newly-weds joined the Cid in the rich city of Valencia, which he had conquered from the Muslims. The Cid heaped his sons-in-law with costly gifts, and they accepted them eagerly without much thanks. They proved to be mere fops, and cowards to boot, and the Cid's vassals did all they could to hide the youths' flaws from the Cid. One afternoon, as the Cid lay napping, a "pet" lion escaped its cage and entered the room where the Cid was sleeping. The Cid's vassals stepped between the Cid and the lion, but the sons-in-law were terrified to the point of incontinence and hid as best they could. Despite their best efforts, the Cid's vassals could not restrain their amusement, and the princely Heirs of the noble family of Carrion suffered the humiliation of being laughed at. After this episode, the princes decided to return to Carrion, smarting under the poor figure they had cut generally and fearing that the Cid would discover how shamefully they had reacted at the approach of the lion. Although they had been careful to take all of the gifts they had received from the Cid, their self esteem had been badly shaken and, as they rode, they tried to find some acceptable rationale to restore their sense of personal dignity. Once out of range of the Cid, they turned on their wives, saying that they should never have married such low-born sluts. They regained their sense of personal worth by degrading their wives. They tore off the girls' clothes, beat them senseless with their riding crops, and left them to the wild animals of the forest. Luckily, one of the Cid's followers found them and took them home.
The Cid sent word of this shameful act to the King, and Alfonso said that he would arrange a trial where the Cid could seek justice. The Carrion family relied upon a class solidarity with the king in expecting that Alfonso would recognize the validity of the boys' claim that their wives had been too low-born to be accepted into the family of Carrion. Their consternation was considerable when they discovered that Alfonso was determined that they should stand to answer the Cid's charges. When the date for the trial came, the Cid and his vassals put on their mail and belted their swords and went into the court wearing them under their cloaks.
Stop right here! What is going on? It is illegal to wear weapons or armor in a trial before the king. It is the king's responsibility to keeps order and protect the litigants, and the wearing of weapons or of drawing them is an act of lese-majeste punishable by death since it impugns the honor of the king by suggesting that he was not capable or willing to guarantee a fair trial. But the Cid _does_ wear armor and carry a weapon. Why? He clearly does not trust Alfonso's ability or inclination to defend him from attack. This is _not_ the attitude of a loyal vassal. Why should the Cid regard Alfonso with such contempt? Well, ask yourself why the Cid is in Alfonso's court in the first place. Because of the dishonoring of his daughters? That is certainly what Alfonso says, but the Cid's daughters had not been dishonored; Alfonso had accepted them as his wards before the marriage.
Alfonso is completely oblivious of the fact that it was he who had been dishonored. When the princes claim in court that they should never have married so far beneath them, why didn't Alfonso explode, and remind them that it was he who had arranged the marriage and that royal wards stand in honor as the daughters of the king? This explains why the Cid encourages his vassals to fight the champions of the Carrion's; this is not his battle, it is Alfonso's. But Alfonso has no sense of honor and is quite unlikely to redeem the girls' honor by punishing the Carrion family as they deserve. The final stinger comes with word that the Cid had accepted proposals for the hands of his daughters offered by the kings of Aragon and Navarre. Alfonso had clearly dishonored the Cid's daughters by marrying them so far beneath their real worth since he had handed them over to the young men of a noble Leonese family when they were actually of a status to be sought by kings equal to himself. He made such a misjudgment because even in this he had no idea of the respect a vassal such as the Cid deserved. True, the Cid did commend all the lands he conquered to Alfonso, but Alfonso could not even hold what the Cid had conquered. After the Cid's death, historically, his wife Jimena held and ruled Valencia as the kings vassal, Alfonso finally ordered her to return to Castile and to abandon the city on the grounds that he could not protect her. The Cid's vassals lost the rich fiefs they had won under their late lord, and Alfonso did nothing to compensate them for their loss. One might note that Minaya never had reason to fear that the Cid, his lord, would protect and aid him under any circumstances whatever. I could expand much more on this level. The leitmotif of the poem is "What a worthy vassal if only he had a worthy lord!" Superficially, the poem emphasizes the Cid's worthiness, but the sub-text concentrates on the worthlessness of Alfonso.
There is yet another level of interpretation, one that is suggested in the many episodes in which Alfonso treated the Cid like an equal. This is _not_ what the Cid wanted. He wanted Alfonso to behave like a lord and to treat him as a proper vassal, and so we see that, time and again, the Cid breaks the rules and offends against Alfonso, always hoping to goad Alfonso into reprimanding him and establishing the proper relationship between them, but always failing.
A couple of examples will have to suffice to suggest the operation of this level of interpretation. When Alfonso and the Cid approach the Guadalquivir for their reconciliation conference, the Cid is so overcome by the sight of his lord that he throws himself from his horse, and rolls on the ground eating grass like an animal. The king crosses the river and raises him to his feet. Very pretty. But at such conferences, it is the subordinate who crosses the stream. This is important enough that some conferences between equals were held in midstream scarcely a comfortable arrangement. After the reconciliation, Alfonso gave his followers leave to join the Cid, if they wished. Almost all did so, whereupon the Cid presented Alfonso with a gift, a large number of finely saddled horses that were paraded in front of Alfonso.
The scene is dramatic. There is the Cid, surrounded by his old vassals and by the warriors who have deserted the king, and there is the king, sitting on a throne looking at his prize horses with empty saddles. But Alfonso doesn't mind; he is more taken with the valuable horses and ornate saddles than with the fighting men who should have been riding them.
There may be more levels, but I cannot see them. At this last level that I can see, the Poem of the Cid is a rich psychological drama, inviting the reader to peer into the motives for every action. It is the tale of the Cid's greatest battle, that of awakening his lord to honor, and it was the only battle in which he was defeated. It was, however, the only battle that really counted.
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