Essay, Research Paper
Commentary on Poem of the Cid
Poetry played a vital role in the dissemination of information during the Crusade period. It provided a compact, easily memorized way of spreading news in a time bereft of the benefit of mass printing. According to Michael Routledge, who penned a chapter on Crusade songs and poetry in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, poetry was not only a way of recording and spreading news of current events, but also served to record and extoll the virtues and values of the ruling Medieval aristocracy. These values included commitment to one’s lord, and an acceptance of the feudal duties of auxilium (armed help in time of attack by enemies) and consilium (counsel and rendering of justice) (Routledge 97).
A fine example of poetry’s use in the above context can be found in Paul Blackburn’s translation of the medieval Spanish epic Poem of the Cid. The poem is a fictional account of the life of the eleventh-century adventurer and military commander Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. The poem’s title derives from Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar’s Arabic title, Sayyidi (the Cid) or “My Lord”. The poem’s content describes a series of events transpiring after the main character, the Cid, is exiled from his homeland. Within the body of the poem, situations extolling the medieval virtues of commitment to one’s lord, auxilium, and consilium are revealed.
The theme of commitment to one’s lord is prevalent throughout the Poem of the Cid. Initially, the Cid is exiled because his enemies have turned his lord, King Alfonso, against him. Despite being banished from his home and family, the Cid uses every opportunity that comes his way to show his valor and loyalty to Alfonso. In reality, being exiled should have turned a man like the Cid into a freebooter who had the right to earn a living however possible for himself and his followers. As a free agent, so to speak, the Cid would have been able to claim authority over whatever territory he conquered, and could even wage war against his former lord (Nelson 1). Instead, the Cid continues to carry out his duties as a vassal in absentia. The Cid’s adventures take him deep into the interior of Moorish Spain and yield a multitude of spoils. Throughout the poem, the Cid sends Alfonso a share of these riches, as a token of his loyalty. On three separate occasions, the Cid sends his loyal vassal, the knight Minaya, to deliver horses taken in battle to Alfonso. The horses, eventually totaling 330, serve as a catalyst for the Cid regaining his lord’s favor. The first attempt fails, but the second gains the Cid the right to be reunited with his wife and two daughters. The third equine gift, after his conquest of Valencia and subsequent defeat of a Muslim army sent to relieve the city, gains him back his former status.
In addition to portraying the Cid as a an exemplar of what a loyal vassal should be, the Poem of the Cid also serves as a guide on how to be a excellent lord. He is generous to his followers and is respectful of their ideas and advice. He trusts the loyal Minaya to act as his intermediary to Alfonso. During the trial to end the Poem, the Cid’s vassals offer up a challenge to arms in order to protect his honor (Nelson 1)
The University of Kansas’s Lynn Nelson sees the Cid’s reconciliation gifts as a test of Alfonso’s honor. She says the gifts appear to honor the king, but in effect are presented as a temptation:
“It would appear as if Rodrigo is simply honoring Alfonso, but he is in fact tempting him. Alfonso should refuse the horses, since a lord accepts such gifts only from a vassal, or he should take the horses and take (the Cid) back into his favor. He does neither….instead he points out that Manaya is his vassal and in his favor….and accepts the horses as a gift from Manaya, offering nothing in return. (Nelson 2).”
According to Nelson, Alfonso’s failure to act properly in each situation in which he is put by the Cid leads to the commitment theme of the poem being applied only to the Cid, who in her words, “was a good vassal, if only he had a good lord.” In contrast to Alfonso, Nelson believes the Cid exemplifies what a good lord should be. Both the Cid and his vassals bring riches and military glory to the other and live in perfect harmony, trust, and comradeship (Nelson 2).
As the word of the Cid’s successes in Moorish Spain spread, men flocked to his banner at every opportunity. The Cid’s host grows throughout the Poem as his original army of loyal vassals is swollen with volunteers who have come to share in the plunder. This mass movement was partially motivated by the medieval virtue of auxilium, or giving armed help to one’s lord in times of attack. While many of the knights who flocked to the Cid’s expedition were not his direct vassals, his reputation for generosity had drawn them to the promise of spoils galore.
Those loyal vassals who attended the Cid from the beginning of the story, Manaya, Martin Antolinez, Pedro Bermudez, etc., fulfill their auxilium duties with enthusiasm and vigor. The text of the Poem could be used as a primer for how auxilium should be rendered by a loyal vassal. Instead of hanging back and participating in a peaceful fashion, vassals like Manaya ask to be in the vanguard of the assault, striking the first blow. Those unable to be in the initial charge volunteer instead to take part in the flanking or rear actions, strategies that paid off each time with the defeat of larger Muslim forces. Even after gaining great victory, the Cid’s loyal vassals exemplify graciousness in victory, as they never grow boastful or arrogant despite their many successes. At the end of the story, when their lord’s honor is at stake, and his spirit and integrity are under assault rather than his physical body, Antolinez, Bermudez, and Muno Gustioz all render auxilium by challenging their lord’s assailants to trial by combat. All three end up victorious, vindicating their lord’s honor and rendering justice.
The final virtue, concilium, or rendering of counsel and justice, is also evident throughout the Poem of the Cid. Within the Cid’s band, the concept of concilium is practiced before just about every major decision facing their group. The Cid values his vassals opinions, and holds their counsel in high regard. While being besieged after taking Valencia, the Cid calls together his most loyal followers to decide how to take on the Muslim hordes of the King of Morocco. It is this trust that allows the Cid’s vassals to serve him so unerringly, they know at all times that after listening to their advice, he will digest all information and make the proper decision (Nelson 2).
On the other hand, the relationship between the Cid and Alfonso is used to illustrate how consilium can be altered and warped beyond its original intention. After Alfonso accepts the Cid back into his good graces, he proposes a marriage between the Cid’s daughters and the heirs of a wealthy Leonese family. The Cid does not agree with the union, but instead turns his girls over to the king as wards. The king then marries the girls honorably (Nelson 1). Despite being showered with riches, and living in the Cid’s quarters in Valencia, his new son-in-laws decide to abandon their marriages in secret and flee home. Using the ruse of returning to their home city with their new wives, the two young men abandon the Cid’s daughters in the wilderness to die and flee. Luckily, the Cid’s cousin suspects foul play, and retrieves the girls and returns them to safety. When word reaches Alfonso of what has transpired, he agrees to arrange a trial at which the Cid can seek justice against his two sons-in-law. The problem with this arrangement, Nelson says, is that since the responsibility of marrying off the Cid’s daughters was Alfonso’s, it is he that was dishonored. It is the Cid’s motivation, in asking for a trial, to give Alfonso a chance to acquit himself honorably, and acknowledge that it is the king who is responsible for dispensing justice (Nelson 1). Instead, Alfonso further dishonors himself, relinquishing his right to dispense consolium, by allowing the Cid’s nobles to challenge the son-in-laws and their supporters to trial by combat. To Nelson, the Cid’s distrust of the king’s motives are evident in the Cid’s actions on the day of the trial:
When the date came, the Cid and his vassals put on their mail and belted their swords and went into court wearing them under their coats. It is illegal to wear weapons or armor in a trial before the king. The king keeps order and protects the litigants, but the Cid does wear armor and carry a weapon. Why? He does not trust Alfonso’s ability or inclination to defend him from attack (Nelson 1).”
Being seemingly oblivious to the fact that he has been wronged is Alfonso’s great fault. Instead, the Cid must resort to dispensing justice through the actions of his vassals.
When taken in its entirety, the Poem of the Cid can be used as a primer for those interested in knowing what behavior was expected of a noble and his lord in medieval Spain. It is clearly evident that the attributes of commitment to one’s lord, giving auxilium, and rendering consolium were expected of all proper rulers. The Poem can be seen as a morality play in which the Cid constantly strives to be a good and proper lord to his followers and a good and proper vassal to King Alfonso, only to be failed by those above him.
Blackburn, Paul. trans. Poem of the Cid. ed. George Economou. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
“Some Comments on the Song of the Cid”. Lynn H. Nelson.
“The Song of El Cid”. Lynn H. Nelson.
Routledge, Michael. “Songs”. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. ed. Johnathon Riley Smith. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Schneider, Joe P. “El Cid”. The Catholic Encyclopedia.