How a fragile text turned a real medieval Spanish knight into a myth.
[Monument erected to the Cid in Burgos, Spain, in 1955, sculpted by Juan Cristóbal González Quesada.]
Amadis may have been the greatest fictional knight in the world, but El Cid is Spain's most famous real knight — mostly because he, too, was immortalized in a literary masterpiece, The Song of El Cid.
The original manuscript of the 148-page epic rests in Spain's National Library in Madrid in a climate-controlled triple-locked safe. The goatskin parchment has been nibbled by insects and warped by time. The first three pages and two interior pages are missing, and others are torn, stained, or full of holes. The binding is cracked and falling apart, and, because the manuscript was treated with gallic acid in the 18th century to darken the rusting iron-based ink, the chemicals are eating away what remains of the pages.
Still, it's a treasure, the most complete text of its kind, and Spain's first great literary work.
The poem, in medieval Castilian, was probably composed around 1110 or 1140 by troubadours, though the details are subject to debate. It was apparently written down by Per Abbat in 1207, a cleric and scribe, who had heard it sung, although some scholars speculate that he actually composed it. A century later, the pages were bound into a book.
In the 1500s, the book was in the archives of the city of Vivar, and later it passed through a series of private owners before being purchased by the National Library in 1960.
Who was El Cid? Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar was born in Vivar, near Burgos, in about 1043, the son of minor nobility. As expected of a boy of his time and place, he became a knight. The Reconquest was a time of constant warfare in Spain: Christian and Moorish kings fought each other and among themselves, and a professional man-at-arms found mercenary work where he could.
Rodrigo originally served King Sancho IV and then his successor, King Alfonso VI, whom he had once defeated in battle. Perhaps because of that, he eventually lost Alfonso's support and was exiled in 1081. He wandered through Spain looking for work, and came to fight for the Moorish King al-Muqtadir of Zaragoza. It was there, due to his valor and success in battle, that he got the title of "El Cid" or "The Greatest."
As the fortunes of war changed, sometimes El Cid acted as an ally of King Alfonso despite their quarrels, and sometimes he fought against Alfonso's supporters.
El Cid conquered Valencia from the Moors in 1089 and reigned as lord of the city until his death in 1099. It fell to the Moors again in 1101, but his wife took his remains to be interred in the San Pedro de Cardeña Monastery in near Burgos, and they were taken in 1842 to the Burgos cathedral.
It had been an exciting life, full of deeds, intrigues, and conquests, and soon it was sung by troubadours as they traveled from town to town. The epic centers on the rocky relationship between El Cid and King Alfonso, and it turned the knight into a myth.
Regardless of why it's written, the meaning of a literary work changes with time. Some historians say El Cid acquired his mythical dimensions only after 1898, when Spain lost the last of its empire and its imperial identity. Promotion of The Song of El Cid became a means to re-establish a Castilian hero as the essence of Spanish culture, to the detriment, some critics say, of other regions of Spain — but Spain wouldn't be Spain without controversy.
In any case, The Song of El Cid characterizes Rodrigo Díaz as heroic and idealized, but with a distinct personality. He emerges as a pragmatic man who shows great tenderness toward his family. The work is realistic, unlike similar contemporary works from elsewhere in Europe: no dragons, sorcerers, magic weapons, or supernatural events.
There's even a little humor, a another common element in Spanish literature across the centuries, often with an ironic bite. El Cid is idealized, but not his society.
Just like Shakespeare's Hamlet in English, The Song of El Cid remains popular today, especially in Spain. You can read children's editions and scholarly critiques, watch television documentaries, enjoy spin-off literature — and of course get a DVD of the 1961 movie staring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, which diverges significantly from both the poem and history.
You can also see a scan of the manuscript online, read more modern versions, and consult scholarly works (in Spanish) courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional de España: