The Song of El Cid, the greatest Hispanic epic poem


When was the Song of El Cid composed?

The greatest of the Spanish mediaeval songs of deeds and one of the classic works in European literature bears the name of its hero, “el Mio Cid” (My Cid). It was composed at the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century, and had been completed by 1207, when a certain Per Abbat (or Pedro Abad) copied it in the form of a manuscript of which it, in turn, is the only remaining copy left today (the first and two of the inside pages are missing), dating from the 14th century and stored in the National Library in Madrid.

 The date of the poem recorded in that copy is supported by a series of indications based on material culture, institutional organisation and ideological motivations. Greater doubts exist as to where it was written, some saying that it was Burgos and others, the area near Medinaceli (currently in the province of Soria). The proximity of “El Cantar” to the customs and aspirations of the inhabitants of the frontier between Castile and Al-Andalus gives more weigh to the second hypothesis.

As for the potential sources of information about the hero, the author of “El Cantar” most certainly based his story on oral tradition and it also seems likely that he knew the “Historia Roderici” quoted earlier.


A synopsis of the plot of the Song of My Cid

“El Cantar de mio Cid” -also known in English as The Song of My Cid or The Poem of the Cid- as we have already mentioned, is a free version of the final part of the life of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, from the time of his first exile in 1081 to his death in 1099.

Although the biographic background is quite clear, the literary adaptation of the events is quite frequent and considerable, in order to give a coherent vision of the life of the main character, acting, from the start, in a way that only the historic Battler would act from 1087 and particularly, the second exile in 1088.

On the other hand, after the conquest of Valencia, “El Cantar” develops a plot that revolves around the unfortunate marriages of El Cid´s daughters to the dauphins of Carrión that lacks any historical fact. Thus, despite the undeniable proximity of “El Cantar” to the real life of Rodrigo Díaz (much greater than in other epic poems, even those about the same hero), it should be remembered that it is a literary work and not a historical document, and that it must be read as such.


The style and metric of the Poem of El Cid

There is no proof of the existence of previous songs of deed about El Cid that could have inspired the poet, but it appears clear that his literary models (not historical) were other epic poems from Castile and other countries, and in particular, the influence of the famous French “Chanson de Roland”, which was well known at that time. Therefore, the internal constitution of “El Cantar de mio Cid” is that of a typical song of deeds.

One essential feature is its use of heterometric verses, divided up into two halves, each one of which has between four and eleven syllables. The verses are joined in passages or stanzas that share the same assonant rhyme and are usually about the same theme.

There are no strict laws for the change in rhyme between each stanza, but that change is used sometimes to indicate internal divisions, for example, repeating the content of the previous stanza in greater detail (the twinned series technique) or to change from narration to the words uttered by a character (direct speech). Finally, the stanzas or series are grouped into three main parts, also called «songs» that comprise verses 1-1084, 1085-2277 and 2276-3730, respectively.

  • The first song tells of the adventures of the hero in exile in the region of la Alcarria and the Jalón and Jiloca valleys, where he obtains his booty and taxes from the Muslim population.
  • The second song focuses on the conquest of Valencia and the reconciliation between El Cid and King Alfonso, and ends with the wedding of his daughters to two noblemen from the royal court, the dauphins of Carrión.
  • The third song tells how the cowardice of the dauphins leads to them being scorned by El Cid’s men, and their departure from Valencia with their wives, whom they mistreat and abandon in the oak forest of Corpes. EL Cid brings a complaint before King Alfonso, who summons the court in Toledo, where the Battler challenges the dauphins. During the duel, in Carrión, the dauphins and their elder brother are disgraced, while the princes of Navarre and Aragón ask for the hand of El Cid’s daughters, and he finally sees them happily wed as they deserve.

Another of the characteristic aspects of songs of deeds is their formula-based style, i.e., the use of clichés or set phrases, for instance, in the description of the battles or when referring to a character. Thus, El Cid is often called «el bueno de Vivar», «el que en buena hora nació» or «el de la luenga barba», while Minaya Álvar Fáñez is often presented during scenes of battles using the formula «por el codo abajo la sangre goteando».

These cases are linked to the verbal diffusion of “El Cantar” (by minstrels who recited it or sang it from memory, often accompanied by a musical instrument), but this also responds to an aesthetic effect (a taste for hearing the same topics told in the same way).

Other stylistic resources used by minstrels were considerable alternation and variety in the tenses of the verbs; the use of synonym pairs, such as «pequeñas son y de días chicas», and also inclusive pairs, such as «moros y cristianos» (i.e., everyone); or the use of what are known as physical phrases, for instance «llorar de los ojos» or «hablar de la boca», which underline the epic nature of the action.

As for the plot, as already seen, it deals with two main subjects: that of the exile and the Corpes outrage. The first is focused on the public or political honour of the Battler, and tells of the deeds he performs that enable him to recover his social status and also obtain the royal pardon; the second, on the other hand, presents a family or private affair, which also has to do with the honour of El Cid and his family, which is emphasised at the end, allowing his daughters to be wed to the princes of Navarre and Aragón.

Consequently, “El Cantar” can be characterised as a «poem of honour». This honour, be it public or private, has two dimensions: firstly, it is related to the good reputation of a person, with the opinion that that person's equals have of him in the social scale, and secondly the lifestyle of a person, insofar as his material possessions are indicative of the position he has in society. For that reason, El Cid is concerned with the king knowing his deeds and with sending him expensive gifts since they are the physical expression of the victories won by the Battler.


An epic tradition: the recovery of the honour

The double plot of the exile and the outrage follows a double curve that descends and ascends: from the expropriation of the lands of Vivar and his exile, he becomes lord of Valencia and recovers royal favour; then, following the loss of his family honour caused by the dauphins, the curve again ascends to its maximum peak, thanks to the his daughters´ weddings to the princes.

In both cases, the recovery of El Cid’s honour is achieved by methods that are practically unknown in epic poetry, which makes “El Cantar” not only one of the finest examples of this type of poem but also the most original. Indeed, the hero of Vivar, who is exiled due to the slanderous acts of his enemies in court, never considers adopting any of the extreme measures available in the epic repertoire (rebelling against the king and his advisers) but prefers to obey the royal order and leave Al-Andalus to earn his keep with booty won from his enemy, an option that was always considered legitimate at that time.

For that reason, the characteristic approach of “El Cantar” is placing emphasis on the spoils won from the Moors, against whom the hero fights not for religious reasons, but to survive, and who are allowed to stay in the conquered lands subject to his rule.

That does not mean that El Cid and his men have no religious sentiments; in actual fact, the Battler takes charge of adapting the mosque of Valencia for use by Christians, converting it into a cathedral for Bishop Hieronymus. Furthermore, the relationship between the hero and God is privileged, as seen in the appearance of St. Gabriel who comforts El Cid when he starts his cruel exile.

However, there is no clear ideal of a Crusade, nothing about «conversion or death». The Muslims in the conquered cities, although not regarded as equals, are not completely subjected. They are able to find their place in the ideal society of Valencia during the time of El Cid as Mudejar (Muslims who conserve their religion, system of justice and customs) but under the rule of the superior authority of the Christian governors and with certain restrictions as regards their rights. Without falling into the trap of considering this to be an idyllic situation, it is clear that no extremist religious sentiment can be appreciated in the ideals of the Battler.

As regards the outrage of Corpes, epic tradition demanded that a dishonour of this kind be solved by a cruel personal vengeance, but in “El Cantar de mio Cid” legal courses are used, by filing a suit before the king, through the channel of a challenge between noblemen. The customs of the ancient feudal law and private vengeance practised by those of Carrión are thus contrasted with the new legal system that was introduced at the end of the 12th century, whose practices respond to the use of the challenge as a method of repairing the offence.

Through this, a clear difference is established between the spoiled, young dauphins who represent the social values of the rancid nobility from the interior and the Battler and his family, who are members of the lower noble class and even villeins, who have earned the title of nobles due to their heroic deeds on the frontier. That contrast is not, as has sometimes been considered, between the inhabitants of León and Castile (García Ordóñez, the arch enemy of El Cid, is from Castile), but between the higher noble class, rooted in values stemming from the past, and the lower noble class, which is at the forefront of social renovation.

The prudent, discreet actions of the hero from Vivar are an example of the restraint embodied by El Cid in “El Cantar”, but this depends not only on a personal ethic option, but also on a specific ideological background. In this case, it responds to the «frontier spirit», which encouraged the Christian colonisers inhabiting the frontiers between the Christian kingdoms and Al-andalus.

That spirit was expressed, in particular, in a series of jurisdictions known as «de extremadura», whose laws were taken into account in the poem, both in the final suit and in sharing the booty, during the victories won by El Cid.  The guiding light for these frontier ideals is the capacity to improve one’s social lot through one’s own merits, in the same way as “El Cantar” concludes with the apotheosis of the honour of the Battler who, from his initial despair, finally succeeds in seeing all his efforts and tribulations rewarded.


El Cid, a discreet hero

The great epic heroes of the Middle Ages were expected to perform impossible deeds and maintain radical attitudes, often above and beyond what was commonly accepted.  With only a few exceptions, El Cid is separated from that model and constitutes a different one. In the “Crónica Najerense”, young Rodrigo opposes his moderation to the pompous declarations of King Sancho, and this attitude continues in “El Cantar del rey don Sancho”, during the next century.

In addition, in the original “Mocedades de Rodrigo” the character is both prudent and discreet, and only in the rewritten text of the 14th century and some romances inspired by it does the figure of an arrogant, rebellious Rodrigo take shape (more in keeping with the tastes of those troubled times).

Where the hero’s discretion is seen most clearly is in "El Cantar de mio Cid". In the first passage or stanza of this work, it is said: “Habló mio Cid bien y tan mesurado: / — ¡Gracias a ti, Señor, Padre que estás en lo alto! / ¡ Esto me han urdido mis enemigos malos!”. Instead of cursing his enemies, the Battler thanks God for the trials to which he is subjected. More than an accusation, the last verse quoted represents a statement of fact.

From then on, Rodrigo must survive with his men and endure the hardships of exile. But even though he is condemned, he also sees a future laden with promise. When after a short while, El Cid observes a bad omen during his journey to exile, he is not discouraged but exclaims “¡Albricias, Álvar Fáñez, pues nos echan de la tierra!” The goods news is the exile itself, as it opens up a new stage in which El Cid will be able to take advantage, as will most certainly be confirmed later.

The point where this characteristic discreet attitude on the part of El Cid is most clearly seen is in the last part of the plot. Following the outrage suffered by Elvira and Sol in the forest of Corpes, the usual thing, in accordance with the requirements of this type of literature, would be for their father to gather his men and launch a savage attack against the property of the dauphins of Carrión and their families, killing all those who stood in his way, and destroying their lands and palaces.

However, El Cid does not decide on this bloody course of action, but uses the regulated legal procedure for repairing offences between noblemen: the challenge. After informing King Alfonso of the outrage, the court of the kingdom meets and the Battler challenges the dauphins before it. The king accepts the challenge and three of El Cid’s men fight the dauphins and their elder brother. The victory of El Cid’s men leads to the offence being repaired with no deaths and no bloodshed, in accordance with more advanced legal customs of those times. Centuries before films about lawsuits became fashionable, the venerable “Cantar de mio Cid” showed the dramatic possibilities of legal proceedings and put them at the service of its hero´s wisdom and restraint.


Author: Dr. Alberto Montaner Frutos

Rev. ALC 11.06.19