Who wrote The Song of my Cid and when? The Theories


The author or authors of the Song of el Cid

As mentioned earlier, this story is based on the real life of Rodrigo Díaz, known as the Battler and later, as El Cid or Mio Cid (a title of respect that comes from the Andalusi Arabic word Sidi, ‘My lord’).

It is clear that “El Cantar de mio Cid” gives a version of the final years of El Cid that starts with the first exile, but it remains true in general to what occurred from the year 1089, in all cases with great freedom of detail. In addition, everything related to the marriages between El Cid´s daughters and the dauphins of Carrión (who most certainly did not exist) is clearly fictitious. The proportion of history and poetry is an important argument in the intense debates about the identity of the author of “El Cantar” and the exact date on which it was composed.

The two most extreme postures are those of Ramón Menéndez Pidal and Colin Smith.  The first considered that “El Cantar” was written by a minstrel from Medinaceli (a town in Castile that was at that time near the frontier with the Moorish kingdoms), written in the traditional and basically popular style and true to historical fact, composed sometime around 1140, less than fifty years after the death of El Cid. Later, based on certain stylistic aspects and on information that in his opinion, appeared to coincide with two different periods, he upheld the theory of a work composed by two minstrels. The first, associated with San Esteban de Gormaz (a town near Medinaceli) had been written in approximately 1110 and was responsible for the most historical elements of the poem, while the second, associated with Medinaceli, had extended the poem and included a series of novelistic features, in around 1140.

His theories about the type of author, although not always about the date, were maintained by experts in the oral tradition, such as Joseph Duggan, who upheld that the poem was improvised by a minstrel and immediately copied after being dictated, and that this text was the origin of the preserved version.

The other extreme is the interpretation of Colin Smith, who maintained that the colophon of the manuscript of “El Cantar de mio Cid” gives both the date of its composition (1207) and the name of the author, Per Abbat, whom he identified as a lawyer from Burgos who exercised this profession at the beginning of the 13th century. Thus, the author was an educated expert in law who was familiar with the life of El Cid through archive documents, and whose work was in no way related to the traditional style, but was the first Castilian epic poem, a literary innovation inspired by the French “chansons de geste” and classic and mediaeval Latin sources.

In his later works, Smith redefined these postures somewhat, and acknowledged that Per Abbat was probably the person who copied the text and not the author of the poem.  In all cases, he considered the author to be an educated man who was versed in law, who composed the work in approximately 1207 and probably did not invent the Castilian epic literary style, but profoundly renewed it. Although his identification of the author is practically unsupported today, critics admit in general that the poem was written at a late date, and his idea of the author being an educated poet who composed his work in writing is also widely upheld.

None of the proposals for locating the author made to date has any solid basis.  As already mentioned, the colophon of the original manuscript is the typical signature affixed by the person copying the test, and not of the author, for which reason there are no grounds for sustaining that Per Abbat was the author of the work, whereas the date on which it was copied (May 1207) serves only as the most recent limit for writing "El Cantar de mio Cid”.

As for the theories of Menéndez Pidal, they are based on the belief that the considerable geographic detail given about the regions of San Esteban de Gormaz and Medinaceli (in what is now the province of Soria) is due to the author’s origin, as shown in his greater knowledge of the area and his love for the region of his birth. However, this is not necessarily true, since an author from a different place could also have used the same degree of detail due to literary or other considerations.  Indeed, the poem gives the same degree of toponymical detail about other areas, such as the region of Calatayud or the Jiloca basin, which contradicts such conclusions.

The only thing that leads in a specific direction in this respect is the subjecting of different aspects of “El Cantar de mio Cid” to the frontier code of laws (as will be seen), in particular “The Jurisdiction of Cuenca” (composed sometime between 1189 and 1193). This leads us to think of an author from the south-east frontier of Castile, which at that time extended roughly from Toledo to Cuenca.

In particular, given the relevance of Álvar Fáñez in “El Cantar”, this could be the district of La Alcarria (in what is now the province of Guadalajara), where the town of Zorita de los Canes stands. This town was governed by that person between 1097 and 1117, as is referred to (anachronically) in verse 735 of the poem, and in addition, was later governed by an adaptation of the Jurisdiction of Cuenca. That region which was known in the 12th century as the “land of Álvar Fáñez”, whose toponymy is described in great detail, is the scene of the first battle of El Cid after leaving exile, and appears to be based on a historical expedition. However, while the hero took Castejón, the attack that took place further to the south was led precisely by Álvar Fáñez; a series of fictitious events that, however, could reflect the historical role played by Álvaro in that area, with no link whatsoever to the deeds of the Battler.

As for the existence of successive revisions or rewritings of the text, this has also been defended by other experts (e.g. Horrent). This stance shows the positive evolution of the work from a shorter original version that is limited merely to the facts, to the text transmitted by the original manuscript.

However, the conserved poem does not give the impression of being a text formed by adding successive parts or a more or less skilful grouping of several pre-existing texts, but rather “El Cantar de mio Cid” has an essential homogeneity in its plot and purpose that does not support such a hypothesis. In sum, everything points to a unit created by one author, who no doubt knew the traditional epic style well, in addition to the French epic style of those times.  Moreover, the poet appears to have a sound knowledge of the laws of that time, and at least some knowledge of Latin.


Date of the poem’s composition

With respect to this date, the only argument of any importance that allows us to think of approximately 1140, as did Menéndez Pidal, is the allusion made a Latin text of to 1147-1149 the “Poema de Almería”, which makes the following reference to the hero: “Ipse Rodericus, Meo Cidi sepe vocatus, / de quo cantatur quod ab hostibus haud superatur” (“El mismísimo Rodrigo, llamado usualmente Mio Cid, / de quien se canta que no fue vencido por los enemigos”, v. 233-234).

This allusion to a song about the hero seems to clarify that “El Cantar de mio Cid” had already been composed at that time. However, it should be remembered that in the Middle Ages that expression could mean simply “es fama que nunca fue vencido” (legend has it that he was never defeated). At all events, if the internal data of “El Cantar” leads us to consider a later date, that mention could refer to a previous poem about the hero, perhaps even a source of the conserved poem, but not to the poem itself, and this is, in fact, the case.

Indeed, there are many aspects that make it possible to set the date of “El Cantar de mio Cid” at the end of the 12th century. Some of these are linked to the reception of the new French chivalrous culture at the end of the century, which affected so many different aspects of material and mental culture. The use of what we could call chivalrous adornment would correspond to the first category, the purpose of which, however, exceeds the merely sumptuous, and takes on a complete emblematic and symbolic dimension.

This is what occurs with the over-dressing or profuse number of tokens that knights wore on their chain armour and the trappings their horses wore. Both these innovations in the attire of knights are documented for the first time in a seal dating from 1186 belonging to Alfonso II of Aragón. The same occurs with the weapons or heraldic emblems, again, a practice imported from France that was restricted in the Peninsula to royalty or great magnates until well into the 13th century, for which reason “El Cantar” attributes their use only to Bishop Hieronymus, of French origin. As for the new chivalrous mentality, this is translated into one of the epithets that is used to pay homage to El Cid in the poem. “el que en buen ora cinxo espada”, i.e., “el que fue armado caballero en un momento propicio”, under the auspices of the stars. Likewise, other aspects such as the attention paid to the ladies present in Valencia during the battle against King Yussef of Morocco reveals the introduction of a new courtly concept that is far removed from the previous epic tradition.

A similar chronology can be applied to part of the institutional vocabulary of “El Cantar de mio Cid”, particularly two key words used to describe society that are included in the poem and also its conflicts and internal tensions; “hidalgo” (nobleman) and “ricohombre” (wealthy man) are only recorded in 1177 and just before 1194, respectively. In addition, the idea of the monarch as a natural lord was upheld at that time, in other words, the direct and general sovereign of all the inhabitants or those born in a particular kingdom, regardless of the vassal-related links and this idea justifies the allegiance of El Cid to his king during exile, when he is no longer a vassal of King Alfonso.

Another important aspect is the behaviour of the hero with respect to the defeated Moors. In “El Cantar” there is no crusader spirit, subject to the dichotomy of conversion or death, but the Moors are fought for practical reasons: for mere survival, and in the long term, as a way to earn riches. For this reason the religious confrontation, although present in the poem, is a merely secondary factor.  This attitude is shown in the poem by making a clear distinction between the invaders from North Africa between the 9th and 12th centuries and the Muslims from Al-Andalus. The first are treated in an extremely hostile manner but the second receive better treatment, to the point that they are allowed to live alongside the Christians as Moors of peace (Moors subjected by surrender or a peace treaty).

This figure had arisen at the end of the 11th century but the invasions of the Moroccan tribes (the Almoravids in 1093 and the Almohads in 1146) led to the Christians preferring to drive out all the Moors from the areas they conquered. It was only at the end of the 12th century that this posture of greater tolerance was recovered, and this is shown in the poem, with mention being made of the existence of communities of Mudejars (Moors forced to submit to the power of the Christians).

That change in attitude coincides with an important renovation of Castilian law, which reached its apogee with the promulgation of the frontier code of laws during the last decade of the 12th century and in the compilation of noble law in the Ancient Jurisdiction of Castile, whose original text dates from the beginning of the 13th century. This legislation is mentioned in “El Cantar de mio Cid” in matters as important as relations with the king, the organisation of armies, the sharing of booty or duels between nobles.

In sum, it is clear that these are by no means isolated elements that could be due to interpolation, but the framework that supports “El Cantar” at all levels, and which, aside from possible forerunning elements in its poetic form, lead us to consider that it was written, without doubt, in approximately 1200.


Sources used by the poet

As regards the historical data about the hero in possession of the poet, one century after the death of El Cid, it is difficult to determine exactly which sources he used to obtain the information used. Critics have basically pointed in the following directions: one or several pre-existing epic poems about El Cid that would have been written during the time of the hero, based on a direct observation of his deeds; historical documents related to him (such as those that exist today in Burgos Cathedral and the Diocesan Museum of Salamanca, one of which contains the signature of Rodrigo) and the “Historia Roderici”, a Latin biography that is quite complete, written in about 1185. 

The first of these possibilities is not likely, due to the lack of this type of testimony in songs of deed, and the lack of these points to "El Cantar de mio Cid” itself being created through the evolution of an original poem written on closer observation of the facts, but as already seen, the conserved text does not support that option. Even so, it cannot be denied that some kind of song about El Cid existed previously, such as the one that is apparently quoted in the “Poema de Almería”.

The second option poses a similar problem, since the diplomas and in general, the mediaeval documents conserved do not contain the type of information necessary to develop the plot of an epic poem. However, the inclusion of certain figures living at the same time as El Cid among the characters but who had nothing to do with him, leads to the suspicion that the poet used historical documents, at least as a secondary source. The third alternative is much more plausible and in fact, there are many coincidences between “Historia Roderici” and “El Cantar de mio Cid”, especially in the part related to the conquest of Valencia.

The main objection to this hypothesis is that the poem makes no mention of the period when El Cid enrolled in the service of the Moorish kings of Saragossa, which, on the contrary, is described in great detail in the Latin biography. However, the same occurs in another two texts that are also based on “Historia Roderici”, and select the information it contains in a similar way. These are “El Linaje de Rodrigo Díaz”, a document that also contains a biographic summary of the family origin (Navarre) of El Cid and “Carmen Campidoctoris”, a Latin panegyric that enumerates the main battles fought by the hero.

Given that these two compositions were written on a similar date (around 1094), everything points to the fact that during the last decade of the 12th century, the vision of El Cid as a hero was widespread, and in all cases confronting the Muslims, which leads to the omission of any reference to the services he rendered in Saragossa. In turn, some oral rumours during the times of Rodrigo were collected by the collaborators of Alfonso X the Learned when gathering the materials for his “Estoria de España” in around 1270.

This just proves that the author of “El Cantar de mio Cid" knew different tales and information through these channels, almost one century before. To this, we should add, obviously, the free inventive rein of the poet, that has such a considerable effect on the whole as it does on the details. In short, it appears that the epic poet probably based his work on “Historia Roderici” and other information from different sources, particularly the oral tradition, and also on documents and perhaps some songs of deeds that existed previously about our hero, materials which he rewrote to suit his own purpose and completed with his own imagination. 

Certain examples may illustrate this method of proceeding. The first campaign in which El Cid took part on leaving Castile takes place in the Moorish kingdom of Toledo and, in particular, the basin of the river Henares. That was approximately the scene of the unauthorised battle that led to the historic exile of Rodrigo Díaz. It thus appears that the author of “El Cantar de mio Cid” transferred historical facts to a later time. By doing this, he obtained two advantages, namely, establishing as the only cause of exile the negative rumours about the hero and using in the hero’s favour a series of events that had caused him harm, in historical terms.

Later, when El Cid fought in the battle of  Jiloca, he camped on a hill which due to that cause, “El Poyo de mio Cid así•l’ dirán por carta” (v. 904). That name (historically documented) most certainly had nothing to do with the deeds of the hero, but the poet (or perhaps the local traditions on which he based his work) continued to relate the name of that hill to that of the famous Castilian warrior.

In sum, the action of “El Cantar de mio Cid” could have perfectly well ended with the hero being granted a royal pardon following the conquest of Valencia, but the poet preferred to prolong it by using a fictitious plot that served both to develop a more novelistic part and to culminate the exaltation of the hero, to the point of including the royal marriages of his daughters, depicting, in turn, a legendary version of the true weddings of the daughters.

The result of this creative combination of materials that existed previously and invented materials is the composition of a poem with a well-constructed plot based on two main themes: the reconciliation between El Cid and the king, and the avenging of the dishonour done to his daughters by the dauphins of Carrión.

Author: Dr. Alberto Montaner Frutos

Rev. PAB: 29.10.18