The Quest for El Cid

by Richard Fletcher
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314

At its core, Richard Fletcher's The Quest for El Cid is a key piece of historical revision in our understanding of the Spanish Middle Ages. In his book, he takes a scholarly approach to understanding a figure—Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar—who has been mythologized into a symbol of Spanish national identity.

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Fletcher discovers along the way that some aspects of El Cid's life can be traced to historical fact, but many others have been embellished as part of Spanish lore. In doing so, Fletcher challenges previously accepted history about the eleventh century, and paints a knowledgable and complex portrait of life on the Iberian peninsula during a time of highly factionalized strife and sectarian conflict.

El Cid was a nobleman and military leader in medieval Spain, during a time when the Iberian peninsula was divided between warring nation-states and private military factions, and wracked by the increasingly religious war between Christians and Muslims, known in Spain as the Reconquista. Over his lifetime, he served and was exiled by various kings, and eventually led his own army in battles against various nation-states and other powers, coming, by the end of his life, to rule an independent principality, Valencia, on the coast of Spain.

A major purpose of Fletcher's book is to disentangle the facts of El Cid's life and the circumstances of Spain during his lifetime from the many works of fiction and art that were written about him after his death. El Cid has become a major symbol of Spanish chivalry and a hero of the Reconquista, in part because of several epic poems, many plays, and even a move, starring Charlton Heston, about his life. Fletcher tackles the reality of El Cid as a person living in history: we really don't know very much about him, but we can do our best to understand his place in the time that he lived.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1349

Like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978), this biography is essentially the history of an era with the heroic career of an interesting and important individual thrust into the foreground to establish continuity and context. Like Tuchman, Richard Fletcher believes in the utility and propriety of popular history written with beauty and distinction. Fletcher also resembles Tuchman in that he is not afraid to take on the academic establishment—in this case, the school of Spanish patriotic history as personified by Ramon Menendez Pidal, whose 1929 book, La Espana del Cid, has formed much of the modem understanding of the culture and politics of eleventh century Spain. Unlike Tuchman, Fletcher is thoroughly familiar with his subject—the multiethnic civilization of the Iberian peninsula at the time that the Christian rulers of Castile and Le6n began their drive south to seize lands ruled by the Moors.

Fletcher could hardly have written a traditional biography for several reasons:

First, very little is known about El Cid personally; second, what is known is in the form of a medieval epic, which was not intended as a source for modem scholarly research; and, finally, Fletcher is a storyteller. “In the summer of the year 1099,” Fletcher begins, “there died in the city of Valencia, on the eastern seaboard of Spain, a man whose name was Rodrigo Diaz but who is better known to posterity as El Cid.” These words provide a marvelous beginning for his tale, and are almost as memorable as the first lines of the subsequent chapter: “Long ago, in the early years of the seventh century of the Christian era, there lived a middle-aged businessman who started to behave rather oddly.” This sentence is a powerful reminder of the continuity of the Spanish culture from the age of El Cid to that of Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha (1605-1615). Though Fletcher fails to sustain this quality throughout his essays on the Spanish past and reverts to the style of the professional historian, his repeated use of quotations from Moorish and Christian poets reflects his love of poetry and epics and his admiration of a well-told story.

Rodrigo Diaz (c. 1043-1099) was a knight from an aristocratic house in Vivar and a vassal of the king of Castile. He participated in his first campaign in 1063 under the king’s son, Sancho II. When his patron ascended the throne of Castile, Rodrigo became the commander of the royal forces. Sancho met a violent death in 1072, and sweeping changes in the administrative offices were carried out by his successor, Alfonso VI. Men such as Rodrigo, who only shortly before had driven the new king from Leon into exile among the Moors, were replaced en masse. Fortunately, the new king had the makings of greatness: Although Alfonso would not award Rodrigo with a high office, he did assist Rodrigo in private lawsuits and in arranging his marriage to a woman from a prominent family. This patronage proved to be less than the ambitious Rodrigo demanded, however; in 1081, after quarreling with the king, he went into exile.

For five years, Rodrigo served as a mercenary of the Muslim ruler of Zaragoza, fighting against the princes of nearby petty Moorish states. In the course of these operations he gathered together a private army, which would sustain him throughout the remainder of his complex military career. In the political chaos of these years, the only dependable forces were those that a charismatic and successful warrior could raise privately. The vulnerability of the Moorish states attracted the attention of outsiders. When Alfonso took Toledo, the Almoravides crossed the straits from Morocco, hoping to recover the city and impose their stern puritan interpretation of the faith on the more tolerant Moors. The first clash of crusade and jihad—at Sagrajas in 1086—resulted in an overwhelming Almoravide victory. With Rodrigo now unemployed and Alfonso frightened by his new enemies, the way was open for their reconciliation.

Rodrigo drove a hard bargain with Alfonso. Re obtained a promise of hereditary possession of any and all lands he could conquer from the enemy. While Alfonso concerned himself with the defense of Toledo, Rodrigo moved southeast toward Valencia. The immediate problem facing the Christians was disunity in their own ranks. In particular, Count Berenguer Ramon refused to subordinate Catalan ambitions completely to Castilian leadership and abandon his own plans to annex Valencia and put his armies at the disposal of Rodrigo. Even after Rodrigo had defeated the count, however, Berenguer failed to become the loyal vassal Alfonso wanted but sought to make himself independent of Castile. Rodrigo collected tribute from the local Muslim princes, made alliances with more distant Moorish rulers, and appointed Jews to administer his government. In the ensuing years, Rodrigo defeated both Alfonso and the Almoravides, and in 1094, he captured the city of Valencia. Rodrigo’s death in 1099 brought to an end his plans to establish a dynasty; within three years, the city was besieged by a powerful Almoravide army. Alfonso responded to the call for help from Rodrigo’s widow; upon viewing the situation, however, he declared himself unwilling to commit troops permanently to the defense of a city so far from his domains. The king abandoned the burning city to the Almoravides but carefully brought Rodrigo’s body back to Castile.

An unknown poet (or poets) took this story as the basis for the great Poema de Mio Cid (c. 1140; The Poem of the Cid). The historical knight was absorbed into an epic hero. In contrast to the real Rodrigo, El Cid of the poem was emphatically Castilian, Christian, and loyal to his lord, King Alfonso VI. Although this fictional character was calculated to appeal to thirteenth century Spaniards, it was so far removed from reality that eventually someone had to perceive the discrepancy. It was Reinhart Dozy, a Dutch Arabist and historian, who in 1849 described the Cid as more Muslim than Catholic.” A persuasive Spanish reaction to Dozy’s hostile portrait was not forthcoming until Ramon Menendez Pidal’s 1929 biography reconciled the apparent contradictions of literature and history. At a time when national unity was threatened, Menendez’ scholarship gave a foundation to patriotic arguments that Castile must provide the leadership in unifying Spain and that Castilians alone could personify Spanish virtues. Menendez’ Cid was subsequently used by Francisco Franco’s propagandists and the Nationalists who dominated his military dictatorship to justify their most barbaric acts in the name of the Catholic church and Spain—a development which pained the politically moderate Menendez. That the Falangist portrayal of the Spanish past had less to do with the historical Rodrigo Diaz than even the Cid of Charleton Heston (Menendez was the technical adviser to the film) should not be surprising: History has been the handmaiden of politics before and will be so again. In any case, Fletcher’s Rodrigo Diaz is heroic enough to satisfy all but the most extreme fanatics and human enough for the skeptics—in a complex world of deadly enemies and unreliable friends, he rose by sheer skill and bravery to previously unimagined heights. If in the end he was unable to provide for the defense of his conquests, Diaz left an example for posterity which was worthy of epic poetry. In a world that needs heroes made of more common clay than Menendez’ paragon, Fletcher’s Cid is preferable for his very plausibility.

The remainder of Fletcher’s book—arguably the better half—describes the society of this age, particularly its art, poetry, arms, and attitudes. This teeming scene would be incomprehensible if the author intended his readers to remember the individual rulers, generals, and poets he presents. Instead, his aim is to render intelligible the beautiful but cruel and complex world of El Cid.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, March 15, 1990, p.1414.

The Economist. CCCXIII, November 4, 1989, p.111.

History Today XL, April, 1990, p.57.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 15, 1990, p.237.

Library Journal. CXV, March 1, 1990, p.98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 9, 1990, p.2.

New York Times Book Review. XCV, April 8, 1990, p.35.

The Observer. October 1, 1989, p.49.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, February 2, 1990, p.72.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 6, 1989, p.1098.

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