Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863

The critical reception of the Cantor de mio Cid must be studied in two parts: first, the evolution of the epic itself, and how the story was retold in the Middle Ages and in later literary periods, and second, the reception of the epic by modern critics.

The Cid's heroic...

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The critical reception of the Cantor de mio Cid must be studied in two parts: first, the evolution of the epic itself, and how the story was retold in the Middle Ages and in later literary periods, and second, the reception of the epic by modern critics.

The Cid's heroic deeds were recorded in a Latin poem, entitled the Carmen Campidoctoris, around 1093, and in a shorter Latin chronicle, or historical document, the Historia Roderici, around 1110. Although other fragments of the story of the Cid exist in several chronicles, including the prose Primera Crónica General, the Cantar de mio Cid is the only Spanish (Castilian) epic to have survived in near-entirety. A later text, written around 1250, bridges the gap between the epic and the romance tradition of literature: the Mocedades del Cid tells of the deeds of the Cid during his youth. This text is full of fanciful and romantic anecdotes about the Cid, contrasting strongly with the heroic, venerable Cid of the epic tradition. Interestingly, the epic version of the Cid's legend had almost no effect on later literature, it is the romance tradition that fed the fanciful ballads of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries The Spanish playwright Guillén de Castro's 1618 play, Las Mocedades del Cid, inspired Pierre Corneille to compose Le Cid in 1637, which provoked an important literary discussion in France about appropriate literary subject matter. In these romantic versions of the Cid legend, the authors focus on the relationship between Doña Ximena and Rodrigo, with the larger historical question of the battles between Christian and Moors relegated to the background.

While the epic was never entirely forgotten— the manuscript was rediscovered in Vivar in the sixteenth century and was passed among scholars for many years—it was not until the late nineteenth century that it began to receive serious scholarly attention. The single extant manuscript is now in very bad condition, due to the use of reagents, or acids, which were applied to places in the manuscript where the ink had faded (ultraviolet lamps and infrared photography are now the preferred methods to decipher difficult-to-read documents). In the late nineteenth-century, the Spanish scholar Ramón Menéndez Pidal turned his attention to the work, publishing a three-volume edition in 1908-11. Menéndez Pidal's dominant position in Cidian scholarship ensured the duration of critical topics that he thought were important. A scholar of the "generation of 1898," an intellectual movement that opposed the restoration of the monarchy and favored a political return to the "purified" origins of Spam, Menéndez Pidal believed that the Cid, as the "national epic of Spain," reveals the origin of Spain's national character. He also believed that the Cid should be studied as an accurate historical document. Finally, he supported the "traditionalist" viewpoint that the epic had been composed gradually in the oral tradition by generations of folk poets. The search for origins, with an interest in seeking the roots of European culture, and which often led to fanciful reconstructions of literary texts, was an important characteristic of nineteenth-century philology.

Menéndez Pidal's nationalist, historicist, and traditionalist views dominated the shape of Cidian scholarship for many years. The sharpest debate about this epic has involved the battle between the "individualist" belief in a single author of the epic, versus the "traditionalist" approach, which, following Menéndez Pidal and, later, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, insists that all epic literature has oral coposition at its core (see the "Author'' section above). Although the "individualist" thesis has lost ground, Colin Smith's recent book (1983) demonstrates that it is not yet dead. Other scholarly problems that have attracted attention revolve around the date of composition of the poem and of its manuscript; problems of authorship; origins and influences (especially French) of the themes in the epic; the relation of the Cid to other types of medieval Spanish literature, including the Romanceros and the Crónicas; aesthetic evaluation of the epic as literature; mythic or folkloric aspects of the Cid; and finally, the application of social science methodology to the study of this epic.

Menéndez Pidal's nationalism, the result of his political ideology, has not affected subsequent scholarship as much as his historicism. An important debate between this scholar and another eminent medievalist, Leo Spitzer, revolved around the place of history in this epic, which contains much accurate historical detail. While Menéndez Pidal thought that the Cid could be read as an historical document, Spitzer disagreed, writing that the fictional events (almost the entire second half of the poem) of the epic are as important as the historical elements, and must be weighed as such. In recent years, new historicist treatments have added an important facet to Cidian studies. María Lacarra, in particular, characterized this epic as a propagandist poem in which history is rewritten in order to better present a particular clan's interest. More recently, Joseph Duggan and Michael Harney have studied larger social structures of the era, linking them to problems that are raised in the text itself. Cidian criticism seems to have nearly surpassed the individualist/traditionalist battle, and is headed in a direction that can shed light on the cultural function of literature.

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