El Cid was the honorary title of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar (or Vivar), Spain's national hero and great military leader. During his lifetime, Díaz fought for and against both Christian kings and Muslim rulers in Spain. The Moors gave him the name El Cid (from an Arabic word meaning "lord") in recognition of his skills on the battlefield. He gained a reputation for defeating superior opponents against overwhelming odds, inspiring many stories, poems, and legends.
The Life of El Cid Born around 1043, Rodrigo Díaz was the son of a minor Spanish nobleman. He spent his early years in the service of Sancho, a son of King Ferdinand I of Spain. When Ferdinand died, he divided his kingdom among his three sons. But Sancho wanted the whole kingdom and soon attacked his brothers. With El Cid commanding his troops, Sancho defeated his brothers.
On Sancho's death in 1072, his brother Alfonso took over the kingdom. Although El Cid had fought against him, Alfonso recognized the value of keeping the great warrior in his service. He gave Díaz a military position and married him to his niece to assure his loyalty.
However, two events changed the king's mind about El Cid. First, on a mission to collect tribute from the Moorish king of Seville, El Cid engaged in combat with an invading army led by Count García Ordóñez. Ordóñez was Alfonso's military commander and a bitter enemy of El Cid's. When El Cid won the battle and captured Ordóñez, the king faced divisions in the ranks of the army. Soon afterward, without seeking the king's permission, Díaz led an attack on a castle held by Moors in the kingdom of Toledo. Alfonso was furious and exiled Díaz from his kingdoms.
El Cid offered his services to the Moorish king of Saragossa in northeastern Spain, whom he served loyally for almost ten years. In 1082 he defeated an army led by the Moorish king of Lérida and his Christian allies. Two years later, he beat a large army led by the king of Aragon. Next the Almoravids, a Muslim dynasty from North Africa, invaded Spain and crushed an army commanded by Alfonso. Alfonso summoned El Cid to help fight the invasion but changed his mind again after the warrior Med to come to his aid in an important battle. This time he not only exiled Diaz but also had his family imprisoned.
In 1090 El Cid began a series of campaigns to gain control of the kingdom of Valencia in eastern Spain. After several battles and a long siege, he finally captured the city of Valencia from the Almoravids in 1094. He ruled Valencia for five years, turning its mosque—Muslim place of worship—into a Christian cathedral. During this time, many Christian settlers came to live in Valencia. Meanwhile, El Cid continued to win victories over his enemies until his death in 1099.
Tales of El Cid. After his death, Diaz was celebrated by both Christian and Muslim writers as a great warrior who never lost a battle. The most famous story is the Cantar de Mío Cid (Song of the Cid), written around 1140. One of the great epics of the Middle Ages, it combines fact and fiction to portray El Cid as the perfect Christian warrior. Some of the tales it includes contrast El Cid's honor and courage with the cowardice and brutality of the noblemen surrounding him.
Hero or Villain?
The legend of El Cid has varied widely over time. Interestingly, the hero's reputation suffers more in each retelling. In the early Cantar, Rodrigo is the perfect hero. The later Mocedades shows El Cid as rebellious and disrespectful. He is even accused of killing a foe who takes sanctuary in a holy place, a horrible offense in the Middle Ages. Works from the 1800s, based on early accounts by El Cid's Arab enemies, call him a traitor to his country and accuse him of many terrible deeds. This view of El Cid was widespread until it was disproved in the 1929 history Lα España del Cid.
Moors Spanish Muslims descended from the Arab conquerors
tribute payment made by a smaller or weaker party to a more powerful one, often under the threat of force
dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
One such story involves the counts of Carrion, two young nobles who married El Cid's daughters. The poem says that one day a lion owned by El Cid got loose and entered a room where his two sons-in-law were playing chess. While the two counts hid in terror, El Cid grabbed the lion by its mane and put it back into its cage. Humiliated by their cowardly behavior, the two counts asked to leave El Cid's court with their wives. On their journey, they stopped and severely beat the women. To avenge this outrage, El Cid arranged a personal combat between the counts of Carrion and two other noblemen. The cowardly husbands were killed, and El Cid's daughters married the victorious nobles.
Other, more extravagant legends about El Cid appeared in later years. In Las mocedades de Rodrigo (The Youthful Exploits of Rodrigo), written about 1350, the hero defeats opponents not only in Spain but also as far away as Paris. His enemies in the story include the French, the German emperor, and even the pope. The work also contains a tale in which El Cid shelters a leper beneath his cloak. While El Cid is sleeping, the leper reveals himself in a dream to be St. Lazarus and promises the hero that God will always help him. This legend emphasizes the image of El Cid as a warrior whose military skills were combined with Christian virtues.
Another tale from the same work describes how El Cid kills the father of his fiancée, Jimena, because the man had insulted his father. Jimena begs the king to avenge her father's death, and when the king refuses, she asks that El Cid be ordered to marry her instead. This peculiar story was the basis for Pierre Corneille's I636 tragedy Le Cid.