Historical Distortion and Propaganda

The Poema de Mio Cid’s (The Poem of My Cid) many examples of historical distortion and unexpected silences on the subject of figures who are known as having acted in the historical time period are evidence either of genuine misinformation concerning the life of Rodrigo Díaz – an unlikely occurrence due to the Poema’s contemporaneity to the events depicted – or of a tradition followed by other epic poets of employing the life of a popular figure in a narrative for the poet’s own purposes.[1] Each deviation in the Poema from what is historically verifiable about the life and circumstances of Rodrigo Díaz offers us a potential clue to the poet’s intention. The inclusion of themes which have their greatest relevance at the very end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries, such as the glorification of cupidity in warfare to attract fighting men to the Reconquest, the emphasis placed on legitimacy and thus the thematic parallels with the social and economic situation of Alfonso VIII of Castile, accords well with the dating of the Poema to shortly before the year 1207, and supports the notion that the only complete Spanish epic could well have been intended as a propagandistic work.

Geographically speaking, there is much discrepancy between the claimed locations of battles on the Cid’s campaigns in the Poema de Mio Cid and their importance and basis in historical fact. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the fact that the Cid’s most famous conquest at Valencia has only eleven lines devoted to it in the Poema, while hundreds of undocumented military campaigns which most commonly occur around the valley of the Jalón, between Medinaceli and Calatayud, are given much more emphasis in terms of lines and detail. The Poema’s narrative of the unhistorical systematic and straightforward conquest of Valencia was perhaps motivated by a desire to present the Cid’s achievements as a logical progression in terms of literary considerations, but equally the predilection shown by the poet for assigning military action to places near the valley of the Jalón could reasonably be said to link with the monastery of Santa María de Huerta: a great centre of religious influence in the area, patronized and visited by Alfonso VIII of Castile during the period of 1190 to 1210. This link between the setting of the Poema’s action and the king at the time of its composition has lead critics such as Joseph E. Duggan to suggest that the epic may have been performed for Alfonso VIII and Pedro II when they met at Huerta to discuss policy in the early thirteenth century.

In order to analyse the relevance of certain derivations from history present in the Poema, we must simultaneously consider the political situation at the time the Poema is thought to have been composed. Under pressure from the Pope to reconcile the hostility between the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, Alfonso IX of Leon agreed to marry the Berenguela, 17-year-old daughter of the then Castilian monarch Alfonso VIII. Historically, peace among the various Christina kingdoms of Spain was subject to such variables as the stability of marital relations, royal fertility, and the availability of dispensations from canons regulating consanguinity. Since Alfonso IX and Alfonso VIII’s daughter Berenguela had a grandfather in common, Pope Innocent III issued a directive demanding that the couple separate, and when this command was ignored, subsequently excommunicated the couple and imposed an interdiction on communities on which Alfonso VIII, his wife Queen Leonor and the couple resided. Since the Pope had cast doubt on the legitimacy of their marriage, this doubt would later spread to the offspring of this marriage: notably the future king Fernando III. The parallels this familial and political situation draws with the Poema de Mio Cid is striking, as the theme of the Cid’s legitimacy and thus the worthiness of his daughters to marry the Princes of Carrión are key themes in the second half of the epic.

As we have established, legitimacy and its connection with honour played a major role in twelfth and thirteenth century political decisions. It has been noted that, in terms of historical fact, there exists no evidence to support the marriage of the Cid’s daughters to the Princes of Aragon and Navarre, nor the Princes of Carrión: thus making the events depicted in the second half of the narrative either largely or entirely fictitious. The elevation in the Poema of Elvira and Sol can be seen as deliberate due to the state of relations between the three kingdoms at the turn of the thirteenth century, and if we consider the likelihood that the Poema was performed before Alfonso VIII and his ally Pedro II around this time, the children of the Cid’s worthiness to marry into the highest social echelons with the ‘a ondra e a bendiçion’[2] (‘honour and benediction’) proposals from the Princes of Navarre and Aragon consequently portrays their father as a figure who does not only enrich himself through warfare against the Muslims, but who manages to transmute this wealth into the highest status of the nobility.[3] It is possible also that the demonization of the Princes of Carrión relates to two powerful noble clans in late twelfth century Castile, the Laras of Molina descended from the Cid and the Castros, who were counts of Carrión and enemies of Alfonso VIII: this link is further strengthened through the poet’s decision to substitute the true names of the Cid’s daughters, María and Cristiana, for ones popular in the house of Lara. The clash between the family of Carrión and the Cid serves the function of providing a context within which a question can be raised and answered concerning the nature of the Cid’s descent from Diego Laínez, and thus the worthiness of both himself and his children to marry into royalty.

The Cid of the Poema should not be viewed as a direct representation of Alfonso VIII’s grandson the future Fernando III, who was not yet then born, but instead he can be perceived as a representation of any of Alfonso VIII’s descendants, among whom there were many issues of consanguinity which he feared would lead to them being deemed unable to inherit the crown. That the character who articulates the doubt surrounding Rodrigo Díaz’s lineage in the Poema is Ansur González of the house of Carrión, and is then defeated in judicial combat by Muño Gustioz indicates the poet’s notion that in the divine view of things, the hero is in fact to be considered legitimate. By transforming his material, the author of the Poema used themes and outcomes that he knew would please his audience, one of these being the unsuccessful challenge to the legitimacy of an important political figure who was also the ancestor of Alfonso VIII. The manner in which the Cid’s daughters’ social rise is achieved with ‘bendiçión’ (‘benediciton’) is contrasted against the reference made much earlier in the narrative to the danger those helping the hero are placing themselves in:

‘antes de la noche / en Burgos d’él entró su carta / con grand rrecabdo / e fuertemente sellada: / que a Mio Cid Rruy Díaz / que nadi nol’ diessen posada / e aquel que ge la diesse / sopiesse vera palabra / que perderié los averes / e más los ojos de la cara / e aun demás / los cuerpos e las almas.’[4] (ll. 23-8)

(‘Great was the fear through Burgos town of King Alfonso’s rage. / Sealed with his royal seal, his letter had arrived, and it forbade / All men to offer refuge or succour to my Cid. / And he that disobeyed, truly he knew the cost / He would lose his goods, his eyes, / his soul and body would be lost, too.’)

The mention of danger to one’s soul could be said to relate to the interdiction Pope Innocent III had placed upon Alfonso VIII’s family, meaning that in effect the presence of the Catholic church and its rituals were suppressed in Leon, and that anyone who willingly received the royal family would be doing so to the detriment of their soul. In a world where faith and religion ruled supreme in everyday life, this interdiction would have caused a serious panic for both the royal family and the people of Spain. In the Poema, those who serve the Cid are ultimately greatly rewarded; his honour is restored, and his daughters and thus his line established as noble and eventually the line of kings, a fact proven by the spectator and descendant Alfonso VIII. Additionally, the poet goes to great lengths in the Poema to invent episodes to explain the steps by which the Cid achieved his elevation when in fact this was not explicitly necessary: his wife, Jimena, was of royal blood. Thus we see how the issue of legitimacy is manipulated in the Poema for a further purpose: that of striking a chord with political and social problems of the Castilian court in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The theme as a whole is emphasized by how it is made the subject of the third judicial duel, and this the final act of heroic achievement, followed by the declaration:

‘Oy los rreyes d’España / sos parientes son, / ’ a todos alcança ondra / por el que en buen ora nació.’[5] (ll. 3724-5)

(‘Today, his relatives sit upon the thrones of Spain, / And all are honoured, through he who was born in a good hour.’)

As Alfonso was a direct descendant of the Cid through his mother, and Pedro related to the Cid by marriage, this statement would have had an added resonance for the watching kings. This social message which implied that any knight, however obscure his origins, could aspire to accomplish similar feats and by holding up the poetic Cid as an example of this meant that the poet had served the requirements of the interested parties, however exaggerated and contrary to historical fact he had made his narrative. One of these requirements was to address the issue of legitimacy which surrounded the then Spanish royal family, and the other to inspire able-bodied fighting men to join the Reconquest by stressing the wealth they could gain in doing so.

The theory that the Poema de Mio Cid is concerned with promoting military values and attracting fighting men to the Reconquest[6] is proven by the attention shown to legal matters and to economic aspects of warfare in the narrative. In terms of dating the Poema, we can ascertain that the defeat suffered by Alfonso VIII at Alarcos in 1195 would have created the need for a large army to be assembled for the Reconquest’s cause, and the poet may have viewed his creation as the perfect opportunity to manipulate the story of a historical and nationally popular figure in order to recruit for the cause of Christendom: essentially, to produce a propagandist piece. José Fradejas Lebrero’s idea that the three cantares or songs of the Poema each deal with a different theme – riqueza, hombría and honra[7] riches, masculinity and honour) respectively – lead us to perceive the subject matter of the Poema as one appealing both to nobles and to peasants, hoping their deeds too might be told in song if they joined campaigns of their day.[8] The giving of gifts and spoils of war is almost obsessively depicted in the Poema, a practice which was very much still alive in the time of Alfonso VIII. The Cid is presented as being a fair and ceaselessly victorious hero, the supporters of whom were never short of rewards for their services.

Such generosity and good fortune in the Poema is distorted for recruiting purposes: the difficulties and discomforts of military life are skirted over, the poet instead choosing to focus on the exaggerated Moorish death toll in the course of several campaigns and to only recount the death of a limited number of Christians. In comparison to other medieval epics which deal with the topic of war, the Poema appears much more distorted: in the Chanson de Roland, Christians do indeed battle with infidels who far exceed them in number, but the French author does not take the liberty of claiming that the Christian army return almost unscathed. To consider the Poema as this ‘programa de incitación heróica y guerrera’[9] (‘program of heroic and warlike incitement’) is to suggest then that it was perhaps, in its written form at least, rendered under the king’s patronage sometime between 1195 and the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, which proved to be one of the most decisive victories for the Reconquest. In the Poema, the Cid is short of money at the beginning of his exile, and though he is shown to finance his campaigns in a devious fashion using the faked treasure chests, his needs and concerns mirror those of Alfonso VIII, whose appeal for help from the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre to defeat the Almohad Empire was also the same as his great-great-grandfather’s.[10]

To conclude, there are elements in the Poema de Mio Cid which justifiably lead us to associate its version of events as ahistorical and rooted in the conflicts, whether social, political or economic, pertaining to the century of its composition. If the Poema truly was performed in front of Alfonso VIII and Pedro II at Huerta at the turn of the century, the glorification of battle, cupidity and the pertinent parallels between the Cid’s legitimacy and the social problems in the Castilian court at that time would certainly have pleased both monarchs, who would perhaps even have been aware that the famous Rodrigo Díaz’s greatest achievement at Valencia had been neglected in favour of his minor exploits local to the area, an emphasis on military acquisition of wealth and on honour[11] – but nonetheless respected the work as one indisputably orientated in their favour. A work of propaganda the Poema may well have been – its practical themes, portrayal of a hero’s victorious return from exile and defeat combined with its circulation in a time of crisis for the Reconquest may have incited many a fighting man to join the cause of Christendom. Despite the latter, we know that the Poema thrived both in oral and written form due to the narrative’s sense of immediacy and to the widespread fame of the Cid legend, and its relevance to the Reconquest and to the problem of legitimate succession in thirteenth-century Spain could well have been a factor in this popularity.


Estudios épicos,: El Cid, Aula Magna, 3. Ceuta: Instituto Nacional de Enseñanza Media, José Fradejas Lebrero

The ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’: Poetic Creation in its Economic and Social Contexts, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Joseph E. Duggan, Cambridge 1989

The Making of the Poema de Mio Cid, Cambridge 1983, Colin Smith

A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages, London 1971, A.D. Deyermond

[1] The ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’: Poetic Creation in its Economic and Social Contexts, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Joseph E. Duggan, Cambridge 1989, p. 58

[2] Poema de Mio Cid, ed. Ian Michael, Madrid 1984, l. 3400

[3] The ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’: Poetic Creation in its Economic and Social Contexts, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Joseph E. Duggan, Cambridge 1989, p. 78

[4] Poema de Mio Cid, ed. Ian Michael, Madrid 1984, ll. 23-8

[5] Poema de Mio Cid, ed. Ian Michael, Madrid 1984, ll. 3724-5

[6] The ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’: Poetic Creation in its Economic and Social Contexts, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Joseph E. Duggan, Cambridge 1989, p68

[7] Estudios épicos,: El Cid, Aula Magna, 3. Ceuta: Instituto Nacional de Enseñanza Media, José Fradejas Lebrero, p. 49

[8] Estudios épicos,: El Cid, Aula Magna, 3. Ceuta: Instituto Nacional de Enseñanza Media, José Fradejas Lebrero, p. 68

[9] Estudios épicos,: El Cid, Aula Magna, 3. Ceuta: Instituto Nacional de Enseñanza Media, José Fradejas Lebrero, p. 68

[10] The ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’: Poetic Creation in its Economic and Social Contexts, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Joseph E. Duggan, Cambridge 1989, p. 69

[11] The Making of the Poema de Mio Cid, Cambridge 1983, Colin Smith, p. 166