Political and Economic Aims of Medieval Institutions

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As an epic, compared with other examples from the genre, the Cantar de mio Cid stands out not so much in its form as in its content as a literary reflection of history. A text that probably underwent many transformations as oral literature before it was written down by a talented poet, the Cantar de mio Cid shares the epic epithets, stock themes, and formulas typical of other early epics. As the tale of a heroic individual whose existence is well documented, the Cantar offers a unique example in the epic genre of the relationship between literature and history. The link between the Cid as a man, the legend that quickly evolved about his deeds even during his lifetime, and the use of this story as a political tool during the turbulent twelfth-century in Spain, during which time the descendants of the Cid won the throne of Castile, lends itself to a fascinating reconsideration of the way literature is used to change history.

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Since the Cantar de mio Cid does recount the tale of a famous historical figure who is also well-documented, one of the most important questions to ask about the epic surrounds the cultural and historical impetus behind its composition. Why, in 1207, was the epic first written down? Why was it again recopied 100 years later? With regards to the events that are recounted in the epic itself, one can ask why certain fictional elements were added to the historical narrative, as well as why certain historical elements were retained while others were omitted. Two interesting phenomena illustrate the way this epic was used to promote the political and economic interests of certain medieval institutions many years after the Cid died. One example of the way that the poem was used to promote the political interests of King Alfonso VIII of Castile and his allies in the late thirteenth century demonstrates the propagandistic element of epic literature. A second example of the exploitation of the epic illustrates its "commercial" use: the development of a tomb-cult, a sort of tourist site at the Abbey of Cardeña, where the Cid was buried.

The hypothesis that the Cantar de mio Cid was written as a praise-poem for the king of Castile's (Alfonso VIII) ancestor and the king's allies, the Lara family, who were related to the Cid by marriage, has been discussed above (see the "History" section above) and is best summarized by J. Duggan, who follows María Lacarra in much of his argument. Duggan explains that the question of family integrity and illegitimacy, which dominates the narrative even over the conquest of Valencia—a monumental historical event—is related to the twelfth-century political struggle between Castile and Leon. It is important to remember that the historical Ximena, the Cid's wife, was of royal blood, cousin to Alfonso VI of Castile. In the epic, however, no mention is made of this, and the poet concentrates on the insults that are hurled at the Cid by the Infantes de Carrión, who maintain that the Cid is a member of the lower class: "Who ever heard of the Cid, that fellow from Vivar? Let him be off to the river Ubierna to dress his millstones and collect his miller's tolls as usual. Who gave him the right to marry into the Carrión family?" (11. 3377-81) The Infantes insist that the Cid's daughters are not wives, but concubines, suggesting that they are illegitimate, or are born of an illegitimate parent. Duggan shows that the poet's insistence on "clearing the Cid's name'' relates to a crisis that centered on the marriages of Alfonso IX of Leon and Alfonso VIII of Castile.

A common practice in the Middle Ages was to marry a member of an opposing family to restore peace between two warring clans; the historical Ximena was married to the Cid in a peacemaking gesture on the part of Alfonso VI. At the height of the tension between Alfonso IX and Alfonso VIII, after the disastrous battle of...

(The entire section contains 15431 words.)

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Critical Evaluation


Extended Historical Criticism