The Song of El Cid


1. The Muslims, mainly Berbers from nearby Morocco, invaded Spain in the year 711 and, within five years, had gained control of almost the entire peninsula. Not all of the conquest was a matter of force; several local leaders accepted Islam along with their people and even aided in the conquest. The Muslims did not particularly encourage such conversions, since they hoped to become rich in the new land, and fellow Muslims even new converts paid no taxes and were free men. Consequently, there was a large Christian population in Muslim lands (called Mozarabs) who adopted much Muslim culture and customs but clung to their Christian faith. There were some regions that the Muslims were unable to subdue, such as the Basques in the rugged Pyrenean lands of the North.

The most important Christian center, however, was in the Cantabrian Mountains, where, according to legend, a number of Visigothic warriors and clerics had taken refuge. Again according to legend, a group of these warriors met in a cave at Covadonga to decide what to do. They agreed to choose a king to lead them to the reconquest of their lands and to follow him as long as he respected them and observed their customs. Their choice was a fellow warrior named Pelayo (the same as Pelagius), and Pelayo and his successors established the Kingdom of Asturias.

The Asturians operated much as bandits, raiding from their mountain fastnesses, but they slowly extended the area of their control until they finally captured the city of León. León had been the chief military center in the North under the Romans (its name was "city of the legion") and it was extremely well-fortified. The Asturian monarchs transferred their capital to León, and their realm became known as the Kingdom of León.

In the 800's, they gained control of Galicia, the land to their west, and the kings claimed to have discovered there the tomb of Saint James the disciple and apostle. Saint James, as Santiago, became the patron saint of the Spanish Christians, and a great pilgrimage route to his tomb at Santiago de Compostela began to attract pilgrims from all over western Europe. At about the same time, the counts that Charlemagne had established along his Spanish frontier, led by the famous Raymond of Toulouse, established counties south of the mountains. The most important of these was in the northeast of the peninsula, Cataluña, with its capital of Barcelona. Finally, the kings of León established a heavily fortified district to the southeast, building castles and establishing garrisons to defend their kingdom from Muslim attacks from that direction.

This fortified district became known as Castilla, "The Land of Castles." The lands of Castile were not very fertile and there was almost continual skirmishing along the frontier, so, while the nobility of León grew rich and secure, Castile remained a land of numerous minor nobles with small holdings accustomed to hard fighting and constant danger. The Leónese nobles held their Castilian brothers-in-arms in some contempt, referring to them as "pig farmers," and so there was finally a conflict between them. The legend is that the count of Castile, Fernán Gonzalez (920-970), was out hunting with Sancho, the King of León (955-965), and Sancho began admiring Fernán's horse. Fernando offered to give the animal to his lord, but for various reasons Sancho insisted on buying it. He didn't have any money with him, but promised to pay the full price within a year, going on that the price should double every year that he failed to pay. He didn't. Later that year, he accused Fernán of plotting a rebellion against him and imprisoned him. The Castilians rebelled, Fernán escaped and a long civil war ensued. Fernán was finally captured, and Sancho was about to condemn him to death when Fernán demanded that Sancho pay him for the horse he had bought several years earlier. Since the price had been doubling each year, Sancho saw that he would never have enough money to pay the debt and could not fail to keep his promise without losing his honor in front of all of his nobles. He ended up by giving Fernán the county of Castile as an independent holding and setting him free.

In 1004, Almanzor, the military dictator of Muslim Spain died, and civil war soon broke out between many of the regions that had comprised that state. The Muslims soon began calling in Christian mercenaries, and the Christians -- as soon as they realized how weak and divided the Muslims were -- began to demand annual payments to protect the little states that asked for their protection and to threaten to attack others unless they also paid such protection money. Muslim gold began to flow into the Christian states, and their power grew. At about the same time that Almanzor died, a king known as Sancho the Great (1000-1036) (took over the kingdom of Navarra (the territory of the Basques) and managed to establish his control over most of the Christian states of Spain, including Castile. When he died in 1036, he divided up his territories like the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchs had done.

His eldest son, García, succeeded him as king of Navarra (1036- 1054); Ramiro, an illegitimate son, was given the county of Aragon (which he soon turned into an independent kingdom) (1036-1064), and another son, Fernando was given the independent county of Castile (1036-1037) and was married to the sister of Beremudo (1028-1037) the young king of León. The king of León attacked García of Navarra to get back some Leónese lands that had been taken over by the Navarrese. He was defeated and killed, and Fernando of Castile became king of León (1037-1065) by right of his wife, the heiress to the realm. León and Castile were again united, but under a man who valued the fighting men of Castile more than the wealthy nobles of León, who were always conspiring to reduce his power. Nevertheless, both states prospered under his firm and relatively long rule. When he died in 1065, however, he also divided his realms.

Sancho (1065-1072), his eldest son, received the kingdom of Castile; Alfonso (1065-1109), his second son, became king of León, and his youngest son, García (1065-1072), was given the kingdom of Galicia. Sancho of Castile, aided by his young standard-bearer, Rodrigo Díaz of the Castilian village of Bivar, immediately began to reunite the realms. He deposed García in 1071 and took over Galicia; in 1072, he drove Alfonso out of León and had himself crowned king. Alfonso attempted to return from his refuge in Muslim Toledo but was defeated and again took refuge, this time with his sister, Urraca, in her city of Zamora. While laying siege to Zamora, Sancho was tricked into a conference near the city's walls, and was killed by one of Urraca's soldiers. Alfonso immediately returned to claim his kingdom of León. Since Sancho had died without heirs, he also claimed Castile.

When he arrived at Burgos, the capital of Castile to assume the crown, he found that the Castilians suspected him (probably correctly) of having planned the murder of their king, Sancho. Rodrigo Díaz acted as their representative and, in a famous scene, demanded that Alfonso stand on the steps of the church of Santa Gadea and, in front of the nobles of Castile, swear three times on the Bible that he was innocent of having conspired in the death of King Sancho. Alfonso swore, but was angry with Rodrigo for having demanded this of him and waited for an opportunity to take revenge on him.

It was some years before he felt that he could afford to dispense with the services of his most able warrior and the man most respected by the Castilian nobles. In 1080, he sent Rodrigo to collect the tribute owed by the Muslim city-state of Seville. When he arrived, he found that Count García Ordóñez of Najera, one of Alfonso's favorites, had been sent on a similar mission to the city of Granada and was preparing to attack Seville with a large army. Rodrigo had only a few men, but attacked Count García and defeated him in a spectacular victory. According to legend, Rodrigo went up to García during the battle, grabbed his beard and twisted his nose. These were absolutely deadly insults at the time, and García never forgave him. Rodrigo seized the goods of the attackers and then allowed them to go free.

When Rodrigo returned to Burgos, he found that García Ordóñez was already there and had told Alfonso that Rodrigo had stayed down at Seville for longer than was necessary so that he could attack the Granadans and take booty from them. Alfonso had not waited to have a trial. Rodrigo was informed that he had broken his oath of fealty and homage by being faithless and seeking his own advantage at the expense of his lord's. Alfonso had dissolved the contract between them and seized all of the property that Rodrigo held of him. As king, Alfonso had declared that Rodrigo had defrauded the realm, seized all of the good that he had won in battle against Count Ordóñez and confiscated all of his private holdings and possessions. As punishment for his "crimes," Alfonso had declared that he must leave the realm within three days, taking nothing with him and receiving aid or assistance from no one.

It is at this point that The Song of the Cid, or as much of it as has survived, begins.

2. The poem obscures what happened during the next few years. Rodrigo left, was joined by several fighting men who preferred to remain loyal to him rather than obey King Alfonso, and sought employment as a mercenary. He was turned down by the Counts of Barcelona, and so took service under the Muslim king of Zaragoza in 1082 and defended the Muslim kingdom against Christian attacks. Alfonso broke with the system by which the Muslims paid him what amounted to tribute, and, in 1085, captured Toledo, the old Visigothic capital. All of Europe was electrified by the news of this victory and by tales of the fabulous wealth that had been taken along with the city. The most famous single piece of loot was the table of Solomon, which was carved from a single great emerald. This was pure fantasy, of course, but one finds it recorded as fact in chronicles and annals written as far away as Denmark and Poland.

The rulers of the other Muslim states of Spain realized that they could no longer buy protection from the Christians, and called for help from North Africa. A zealous movement had arisen among the Muslims of West Africa. Converts to this sect, known as al-Murabitun, or Almoravids in English, retired to live in a fortified army camp (murabit), practice austerity, and fight to spread Islam. Their leader, Yusuf ibn Tashufin, crossed over into Spain where he joined his forces with those of the Muslim states. Alfonso had gotten used to the idea that Muslims could not fight -- it had been more than eighty years since the death of Almanzor and the disintegration of the Caliphate of Cordoba -- and went out to attack the Muslims. He met them at Zalaka, north of Badajoz, and they came very close to entirely wiping out the Christian army (1086).

Alfonso went into a panic, calling for aid from the French and threatening to guide the Muslims through the Pyrenees to attack France if he didn't get such help. He also told Rodrigo Díaz that it had all been a mistake, took him back as a vassal, and gave him permission to take and hold whatever Muslim territory he could. All of this was somewhat premature, since Yusuf ibn Tashufin , for some reason or another, took his army back to Africa. The Spanish Muslims were not able to hold the advantage that Yusuf had gained them, and Rodrigo managed first to establish control of, and finally to conquer the rich and beautiful Muslim city-kingdom of Valencia, with its fertile delta and its Mediterranean port (1094). The Almoravids returned to Spain to try to liberate Valencia, but were badly defeated by Rodrigo, the first time they had ever been beaten in battle.

Rodrigo held Valencia until his death in 1099. Legend has it that the Christians tied his dead body on his horse and let it out the main gate of the city. When the Muslims who were besieging the city saw him riding at them, they panicked and ran. Whatever the case, Rodrigo's wife, Jimena, held the city for three more years until Alfonso, convinced that the position could not be held forever, ordered her to withdraw. She left Valencia in 1102, burning the city behind her, and carried her husband's body back to Castile, to be re-buried at the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. Tales of Rodrigo's exploits began to circulate throughout Europe. Some time about 1150, his story was written down in an epic called the Cantar de mio Cid, one of the few Christian heroes of the Spanish Reconquest to be known familiarly by a Muslim title (Cid = sidi or "lord").

As time passed, more and more exploits were added to the story of the Cid, and they grew more and more fantastic until Rodrigo had become a fictitious character, a subject for ballads, songs, and children's tales. Early in this century, however, a young Spanish scholar, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, decided to devote himself to the study of the character of the Cid. He spent his entire life on the task and he lived to be ninety-nine years old. During the course of a lifetime of study, he rescued the figure of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar from the field of fiction and restored him as an historical figure. More than that, he placed him firmly in his times by unraveling the complex history of eleventh-century Spain. If you are interested in learning more about this, Menéndez' major book is The Cid and His Spain

3 Like many feudal epics, the Song of the Cid leads up to the climax of a trial, and, like many, the basis of its action is the relation between a vassal and his lord. Unlike most, however, it has a clear theme that is maintained, in one form or another throughout the poem: "What a good vassal, if he only had a good lord!" Almost every incident in the poem demonstrates either Rodrigo's nobility or Alfonso's lack of character, and many demonstrate both at the same time. One motif running through the story is Rodrigo's constant honoring of Alfonso in an attempt to get the king to take him back as his vassal, but a careful reader will also see that Rodrigo continually places Alfonso in positions that test the king's honor and that Alfonso continually fails those tests.

Consequently, one must consider every event carefully. There is one instance, for example, when the Cid sends his own vassal, Alvar Hañez, to Alfonso with a gift of a number of fine horses. It would appear as if Rodrigo is simply honoring Alfonso, but he is in fact tempting him. Alfonso should refuse the horses, since a lord accepts such gifts only from a vassal, or he should take the horses and take Rodrigo back into his favor. He does neither, being too pig-headed to recognize the worth of the Cid and too greedy to turn down the horses. Instead, he points out that Alvar Hañez is his vassal and in his favor although he has done nothing for Alvar and accepts the horses as a gift from Alvar, offering nothing in return. Which means of course, that Alvar ends up owing the Cid, something that Alfonso seems not to bother himself about in the slightest. The poem is full of such instances, and the end of the poem displays the king as completely dead to honor.

The poem also demonstrates how a good lord behaves towards his vassals through the example of the Cid and his followers. Alvar Hañez is portrayed as the happiest of all vassals, honored and enriched by his lord. He is so certain that the Cid will do the right thing that all he needs to think about is how to serve Rodrigo as well as he is able. Both Alvar and Rodrigo bring glory and riches to the other, and live in perfect harmony, trust, and comradeship. One must remember that romantic love in western literature did not appear until the early eleventh century, and the chansons de geste consider the most important human relationship to be that between vassal and lord. If you try to imagine the audience feeling the desperation of the Cid and the joy of Alvar Hañez with the same passion with which we follow a truly great love story, you will begin to recognize the greatness of The Song of the 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.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas