Thirteenth century Spanish poetry is notable for the genesis of native epic verse; unfortunately, scholars of the thirteenth century Spanish epic have barely five thousand lines of text with which to work, in comparison to the million lines of verse available to French medieval scholars. Adducing plot summaries in later chronicles, some critics postulate the existence of lost epics, while others suggest that many poems of epic nature were never written down because of their oral means of transmission. In any case, Spanish scholarship has been left with four national epic poems: Cantar de mío Cid (early thirteenth century; Chronicle of the Cid, 1846; better known as Poem of the Cid), Las mocedades de Rodrigo (fourteenth century), and Cantar de Roncesvalles (thirteenth century; Song of Roland), composed in traditional epic meter (assonant lines of fourteen to sixteen syllables), and Poema de Fernán Gonzalez (c. 1260), composed in cuaderna vía, a syllabic meter distinguished by its rigidity of form.
The single most important epic composition of the thirteenth century was Poem of the Cid. Like the other epics of its period, Poem of the Cid is the subject of ongoing critical debate concerning the nature of its composition. The so-called traditionalist critics argue that the Spanish epic originated in popular culture, in the songs of traveling entertainers or juglares. The most popular of these traditional songs, so the theory goes, were set down in manuscript and preserved for future generations. In contrast, the so-called individualist critics believe that the great epics of medieval Spain were the work of individual poets, shaped by individual genius. Finally, the oralist critics argue that the epics of this period were transmitted exclusively by oral performance and were not committed to writing until a later date.
A manuscript of Poem of the Cid does exist, yet a gap in the transcription of the date, “MCC VII,” has convinced the traditionalists that the date of composition was actually 1307. The individualists see the gap as typical of scribal transcription and build an argument for a date of 1207. Traditionalists argue that Per Abad, the name appearing at the end of the manuscript, refers to a copyist, while the individualists suggest that he was the actual author of the epic. In The Making of the “Poema de mío Cid” (1983), a book C. C. Smith calls “bold,” Smith affirms that his work is the first in which the following proposition is argued: that the Poema de mío Cid, composed in or shortly before 1207, was the first epic to be composed in Castilian; that it was in consequence an innovatory and experimental work, in ways apparent in the surviving text; and that it did not depend on any precedents or existing tradition of epic verse in Castilian or other Peninsular language or dialect.
Smith goes on to assert that Per Abad was the actual author of the poem, not merely the copyist. Regardless of the exact method of composition of Poem of the Cid, however, it seems reasonable to assume that juglares sang verse narratives of this type, commemorating historical events and following a general, though loose, metric pattern.
Composed in traditional Spanish epic meter, Poem of the Cid is the story of a nobleman who is banished from the kingdom of Castile, survives the rigors of exile by defeating Moorish forces and fending off Christian encroachments on his territories, and finally achieves renown by conquering the Caliphate of Valencia. The work is divided into three cantares, or “tales,” which highlight the rise and fall of the Cid’s fortunes.
A powerful noble, the Cid is banished when King Alfonso VI of Castile heeds the insidious rumors of the Cid’s enemies. Feudal relationships in the poem are not clear, and the reader is left with the impression that the two hundred men who join the Cid in exile do so of their own free will. The Cid leaves his wife, Jimena, and his two daughters, Sol and Blanca, in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña for safekeeping.
The second division of the poem, the Cantar de Bodas, relates the Cid’s triumph in his struggle to survive. Fighting Moor and Christian alike, he multiplies his fortune and his prestige. With the conquest of Valencia and the betrothal of his daughters to the sons of the Count de Carrión, a match specifically arranged by the King of Castile, it appears that the Cid’s achievements are complete.
In a masterful juxtaposition of villainy and nobility, however, the third division of the poem, the Cantar de Corpes, plays havoc with the Cid’s world prior to a resolution in the final verses. The engagement of the Cid’s daughters to future counts is an extraordinary achievement, given his status as a middle-line noble, yet the Cantar de Corpes reveals the cowardice, egotism, and greed of the de Carrión brothers. The brothers, known as the Infantes, decide that their wives are not worthy of them; but they do not want to lose their dowries. Convincing the Cid that it is time to return to Carrión, the Infantes, once well away from Valencia, take their wives into a secluded glade, beat and strip them, and leave them to die. Fortunately, a retainer, disobeying the Infantes’ orders to stay away from the area, rescues them.
The conclusion of the poem celebrates the triumph of civilizing order over brutality justified by birth. Instead of pursuing and punishing the Infantes, the Cid appeals to Alfonso VI, who by this time has come to consider the Cid an equal, to summon a convocation of nobles to judge his accusations against the Infantes. In the trial, the arrogant brothers are stripped of honor: First, the Cid demands that his swords be returned by the Infantes, then the dowry of his daughters; finally, the Cid accuses the brothers of menos-valer, or “less worthiness.” The Infantes, enraged at this affront, call for a duel and subsequently lose to the Cid’s champions. As the crowning glory to the Cid’s success and the triumph of judicial process, emissaries from Navarre and Aragon appear, requesting the hands of the Cid’s daughters for their kings.
Poem of the Cid is a monument to the individual whose dedication to right values is ultimately rewarded and whose salient qualities are protection of his family, generosity to all, religious devotion, and loyalty to the established order. The Cid’s concern for his family is presented early in the poem as he leaves them in the care of the monks at San Pedro de Cardeña, promising to reward them richly. Parting causes such anguish in him that the poet observes that “parten unos d’otros como la uña de la carne” (they part like a fingernail pulling away from the skin).
The oldest manuscript of the poem signed by the enigmatic Per Abad is missing the first folio and two others within the work. The meter, as has been noted, is traditional to Spanish epics: mono-rhymic assonanced lines divided into half by a caesura and normally totaling fourteen syllables, though the irregularity of the meter, as shown in the third line of the following passage, is a puzzle to critics.
Dezidle al Campeador, que en buen hora nasco,que destas siet sedmanas adobes con sos vassallos,vengam a Toledo, estol do de plazdoPor amor de mío Cid esta cort yo fago.