Wednesday, 6 May 2009

El Cid

The period between 500 and 1250 has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people. It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade and although there is some truth in this much of it was simply due to the territorial ambitions of competing northern Spanish kingdoms such as Asturias and León.
On returning from Spain I thought I might buy a DVD of the film but it seems quite difficult to get hold of and also quite expensive so I suppose I will have to wait until it gets a rerun on TV one Christmas.

El Cid is a historical epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren and tells the story of the heroic warrior as he sets about recovering Spain from the Moors. With its charismatic stars, a cast of thousands (wearing real armour and using real swords) and its grand themes of love, loyalty and justice, it perpetuates a glowing image of the greatest hero in Spanish history. El Cid was a towering and talismanic figure, the perfect chivalric knight, devoted to his wife and children, a magnificent warrior, unerringly true to his word and merciful to his opponents. Most of all, he was sworn to the service of God and dedicated to saving Spain from the fearsome invaders from North Africa.

The reality of course is that this wasn’t a completely accurate portrayal of the great warrior and the life of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar (c. 1043-99), known to us as ‘El Cid’, from the Arabic sayyid, ‘lord’, differed from the film version in many crucial respects.

One aspect of the film that that is somewhat confusing is the relationship between the Cid and some of the Spanish Muslims who he holds in high regard and treats with respect and here we begin with an aspect of the film, which is, broadly speaking, accurate. The Cid’s generosity to some of his Muslim opponents and his alliances with local Muslims against other, more fundamentalist, Islamic armies are squarely based on fact.

Three centuries before El Cid lived, the Muslims of North Africa had conquered Iberia but slowly the Christians had regained control of the top part of the peninsula and the two faiths established a practical live and let live arrangement. Relations between the two faiths in Spain had yet to be sharpened by the inflammatory and inflexible rhetoric of crusade and jihad and furthermore, it was quite common for local groups of Christians and Muslims to make alliances to fight other Christians and Muslims. But things were changing and El Cid lived just as the age of the Crusades was beginning and the Christians probably had their eye on the bits of the peninsula with the very best beaches.

El Cid lived at this time and the film shows him having Muslim allies, even though it carefully omits the numerous occasions when he acted for Muslim paymasters against Christians because he was, in short, a warrior for hire, a mercenary, who spent much of his career fighting for whoever paid him the most and the film also pays tribute to his formidable military prowess for which others were prepared to pay. His finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094, which is shown in the film on a grand Hollywood epic scale, complete with siege towers, cavalry charges and the full clash of arms.

So there is at least some truth in the film and its plot but it on the whole it is a highly romaticised version of the story. The explanation for this lies in the identity of its historical consultant: Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who was the foremost Spanish historian of his age and the author of the standard biography of the Cid, first published in 1929.

Despite Pidal’s eminence, the portrait of the Cid he suggested to the movie-makers was flawed in two ways. First, in the evidence he used: Pidal gave substantial credence to the Poema de Mio Cid, a work written at the height of the crusading age and, crucially, fifty years after after the Cid’s death. Then, his valiant deeds against Muslims made him a suitable exemplar to inspire a generation of holy warriors fighting the Crusades, and his life quickly moved into the realms of legend.

The second reason for Pidal’s characterisation of El Cid lies in the overlap between the historian’s version of medieval Iberia and many of his own perceptions about the Spain of his own lifetime. To him, the notion of a patriotic hero uniting his troubled country was highly attractive and one that fitted the nationalist mood of Spain in the 1930s. Hence Heston’s El Cid repeatedly demands a victory ‘for Spain’, but in fact Spain as a national entity was of little relevance in the eleventh century and ‘for Castile!’ would have been a more likely rallying cry.

The famous end of the film is based entirely on legend. Shortly before he died he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death. So he was clothed in a coat of mail and was mounted upon his favourite horse, fastened into the saddle and at midnight was borne out of the gate of Valencia accompanied by a thousand knights. They marched to where the Moorish king and his army was camped, and at daylight made a sudden attack. The Moors awoke and it seemed to them that there were as many as seventy thousand knights, all dressed in robes of pure white and at their head El Cid holding in his left hand a banner representing reconquest and in the other a fiercesome sword. So afraid were the Moors that they fled to the sea, and twenty thousand of them were drowned as they tried to reach their ships.

This blog entry is based on a review of the film by Dr Jonathan Phillips of the University of London.

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