The Function of the Epic in Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna: Cantares

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Roberto J. González-Casanovas

The Function of the Epic in Alfonso X's Estoria de

Espanna: Cantares de gesta as Authority and

Example for the Chronicler

This article will examine the manner in which Alfonso X's

staff of historians incorporated heroic materials and narrative
techniques from epic poetry into their Estoria de Espanna (1270-
75).1 What concerns us here is not the question of particular

1 The present article is a revised and expanded version of my paper,
"Epic History and Literature in Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna: Cantares de
gesta as Authority and Example for the Chronicler," which I read at the
Columbia University Medieval Guild in New York City, on 3 March 1990.

Estoria de Espanna is the original title of the work, which was renamed
the Primera Crónica General de España by Ramón Menéndez Pidal in 1906, so
as to distinguish it from its sequels, among them the Crónica de Veinte Reyes,
Crónica de Castillo, Crónica de Alfonso XI, and Crónica de 1344 (once known
by scholars as Segunda Crónica General). Although in this article I refer to
Alfonso X as principal author/editor, he was probably responsible for directing
the chroniclers in their actual writing (as opposed to research or translation) on
the periods up to the Moorish invasion (711-22); it was his son Sancho IV,
often with the same historians under his supervision as had worked for his father,
who continued the history through the reign of his grandfather Saint Fernando III

There are many textual problems related to the manuscripts: the

chronicle was not finished by Alfonso X (whose staff reached only chapter 616
in the versión regia), only half revised by his successor Sancho IV (up to chapter
896), and partly reworked during the century after their death, so that many of the
latter chapters exist only in the versión vulgar or unpolished version. See Diego
Catalán, De Alfonso X al conde de Barcelos (Madrid: Gredos/Seminario
Menéndez Pidal, 1962) 17-94 and 95-204; José Gómez Pérez, "Elaboración de la
Primera crónica general de España y su transmisión manuscrita," Scriptorium 17
(1963): 233-76; and Ramón Menéndez Pidal, "Estudio sobre la Primera Crónica
General de Espa
ña" and "Notas preliminares," which serve as introduction to his
critical ed. of the Primera Crónica (Madrid: Gredos, 1955, rev. ed. in 2 vols.,
reprinted in 1978) I; xv-lvi and lvii-lxxii.

158 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

sources nor the accuracy of the "facts," but the authority of the epic

as history and its function as story.2 It should be noted at the outset
that epic and chronicle share certain general narrative traditions,
structures, and strategies.3 These include various rhetorical

2 Two fundamental studies on Castillan epic narratology in relation to
chronicles are: D. G. Pattison, From Legend to Chronicle: The Treatment of
Epic Material in Alphonsine Historiography,
Medium Aevum Monographs,
New Series 13 (Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and
Literatures, 1983), which was reviewed by Samuel G. Armistead, "From Epic to
Chronicle: An Individualist Appraisal," Romance Philology 40 (1987): 338-59;
and Fernando Gómez Redondo, "Fórmulas juglarescas en la historiografía," La
Corónica 15 (1986-87): 225-39.

Pattison's Conclusion (145-49) refers to certain epic techniques

employed in vernacular historiography: selection, conflation, adaptation, and
novelization. Armistead's critique of Pattison points out the cautious
neoindividualist approach, which prevents Pattison from drawing further
connections between oral traditions and written chronicles; the misleading
terminology of "legends" to indicate prosified epic songs; and the many explicit
references in the Estoria de Espanna (cited in pages 340-41) to oral sources
precisely as cantares [de gesta].

In his concise and suggestive article, Gómez Redondo offers a

catalogue, with subdivisions and examples, of the seven categories of formulaic
style that he finds present in Castilian chronicles: oral textuality, descriptive
detail, linguistic intensification, rendering of emotion, epic motif phrases,
intensification in narrative series, and plot structuring. He concludes his survey
by stressing the consequences of this oral influence for notions of genre: "La
formula juglaresca resulta, así, un puente tendido entre la imaginación del poeta
épico y el pensamiento del historiador oficial; puente por el que transitaron casi
todos los grupos genéricos de la literature de los siglos XIII y XIV" (237).

On Castillan historiography in relation to epic literature, see also

Samuel G. Armistead, "New Perspectives in Alfonsine Historiography" in
Romance Philology 20 (1966): 204-17; Brian Dutton, "Las fórmulas
juglarescas: Una nueva interpretación," La juglaresca: Actas del Primer
Congreso Internacional sobre la Juglaresca, Madrid, 1984, ed. M. Criado de Val
(Madrid: EDI-6, 1986) 139-49; John S. Miletich, "Medieval Spanish Epic and
European Narrative Tradition," La Corónica 6 (1977-78): 90-96; and Brian
Powell, Epic and Chronicle: The "Poema de Mío Cid" and the "Crónica de
Veinte Reyes" (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1983). Cf.
Mercedes Vaquero, "The Poema de Alfonso XI: Rhymed Chronicle or Epic?,"
diss., Princeton Univ., 1984.

3 The importance for the Alfonsine historians of historiographie
tradition (vs. oral tradition) and of vernacular prose stories (vs. lost epic songs)

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 159

conventions, didactic functions, sociopolitical codes, folk motifs,
modes of heroic characterization, and manners of representing
national events. In addition, each genre draws from the other at
crucial stages in its development: Latin chronicles influence epic
songs (oral and written), which in turn serve as models, along with
learned sources, for vernacular histories.4 The episodes on Pelayo,

is maintained by Colin Smith in "Epics and Chronicles: A Reply to Armistead,"

Hispanic Review 51 (1983): 409-28. Smith argues that the combination of
written Castilian sources and extensive prosifications of epic were more decisive
than cantares de gesta themselves in the literary development of Alfonso's
historiography: the oral sources were submitted at an early stage of redaction to
one general prosification (421) and the chroniclers' conventions constituted a
written tradition (427-28).

On the poetics (historical and theoretical) of the epic as oral and written

narrative, see C. M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1961) 179-214
and 254-98; Carolyn Bluestine, "Heroes Great and Small: Archetypal Patterns in
the Medieval Spanish Epic," diss., Princeton Univ., 1983; Milada Buda, "From
Truth to Fact: The Episteme of History in the Context of Early Narrative
Genres," diss., Brown Univ., 1985; Alan D. Deyermond, El "Cantar de Mío
Cid" y la épica medieval española (Barcelona: Sirmio, 1987); Alan D.
Deyermond and Margaret Chaplin, "Folk-Motifs in Medieval Spanish Epic,"
Philological Quarterly 51 (1972): 36-53; Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov,
Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage (Paris: Seuil, 1972) 198-99;
Northrop Frye, 'The Rhythm of Recurrence: Epos" and "Specific Encyclopedic
Forms," Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971) 251-62
and 315-26, as well as 'Theory of Genres," Perspectives on Epic, ed. F. C.
Candelaria and W. C. Strange (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1965) 114-20; Alvaro
Galmés de Fuentes, Epica árabe y épica castellana (Barcelona: Ariel, 1978) 139-
141; Angelo Marchese and Joaquín Forradellas, "Epica," Diccionario de retórica,
crítica y terminología literaria (Barcelona: Ariel, 1989) 129-32; Ramón
Menéndez Pidal, "Orígenes de la epopeya castellana," La epopeya castellana a
través de la literatura española (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1959,2nd ed.) 11-36, and
Poesía juglaresca y orígenes de las literaturas hispánicas: Problemas de historia
literaria y cultural (Madrid: Institute de Estudios Políticos, 1957,6th ed.) 240-
333; and Paul Zumthor, "L'épopée" and "Les chansons de geste," Essai de
poétique médiévale (Paris: Seuil, 1972) 322-38 and 455-66, as well as
Introduction à la poésie orale (Paris: Seuil, 1983) 103-24. See also these articles
in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. A. Preminger (Princeton:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1974): Albert B. Lord, "Narrative Poetry," 542-50, and
"Oral Poetry," 591-93; and Seymor M. Pitcher, "Epic Theory," 242-47.

4 In the case of the Cid cycle, for example, cf. the Latin Historia
Roderici (heroic chronicle) and Carmen Campidoctoris (epic panegyric), as well

160 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

Bernardo del Carpio, Fernán González, the Infantes de Lara, and the
Cid will be analyzed briefly in terms of historical interpretation,
ideological objectives, oral tradition, narratological strategies, and
contexts of reception.5 By investigating the process of assimilating

as the hybrid chronicles of Lucas de Tuy and Ximénez de Rada (histories with

materials and scenes from oral traditions), with the Castillan Cantar or Poema de
Mío Cid (cantar de gestd) and Estoria de Espanna (epic chronicle). See Alan D.
Deyermond, "Medieval Spanish Epic Cycles: Observations on their Formation
and Development," Kentucky Romance Quarterly 23 (1976): 281-303; Ramón
Menéndez Pidal, La epopeya castellana and Poesía juglaresca; and Colin Smith,
"Historias latinas y épica vernácula," Estudios cidianos (Madrid: Cupsa, 1977)
87-106, originally published as "Latin Histories and Vernacular Epic in Twelfth-
Century Spain: Similarities of Spirit and Style," Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 48
(1971): 1-19.

5 On questions of didactic narratology in thirteenth-century Spain, see
Diego Catalán, "La Biblia en la literatura medieval española," Hispanic Review
33 (1965): 310-18; John E. Keller, "Alfonso X and Eastern Fiction," Alfonso X,
El Sabio (New York: Twayne, 1967) 48-63, and Pious Brief Narrative in
Medieval Castilian and Galician Verse: From Berceo to Alfonso X (Lexington:
Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1977); María Jesús Lacarra, Cuentística medieval en
España (Zaragoza: Univ. de Zaragoza/Depto. de Literatura, 1979), and "El cuento
en la Edad Media," introduction to Cuentos de la Edad Media (Madrid:
Castalia/Odres Nuevos, 1986); Rameline Marsan, Itinéraire espagnol du conte
médiéval (Paris: Klincksieck, 1974); Ramón Menéndez Pidal, "De Alfonso a los
dos Juanes: Auge y culminación del didacticismo (1252-1370)," Studia Hispanica
in honorem R. Lapesa (Madrid: Gredos/Seminario Menéndez Pidal, 1972) I: 63-
83; Juan Antonio Tamayo, "Escritores didácticos de los siglos XIII y XIV,"
Historia general de las literaturas hispánicas, ed. G. Díaz-Plaja (Barcelona:
Vergara, 1969) I: 453-70; and John K. Walsh, "Religious Motifs in the Early
Spanish Epic," Revista hispánica moderna 36 (1970-71): 165-72.

As for didactic strategies found in Alfonsine historiography, see Manuel

Alvar, "Didacticismo e integración en la General Estoria (Estudio del Genésis),"
La lengua y la literatura en tiempos de Alfonso X: Actas del Congreso
Internacional, Murcia, 5-10 marzo 1984, ed. F. Carmona and F. J. Flores
(Murcia: Univ. de Murcia/Departamento de Letras Románicas, 1985) 25-78;
Gerald Lee Gingras, "The Medieval Castilian Historiographic Tradition and Pero
López de Ayala's Crónica Real de Don Pedro," diss., Indiana Univ., 1982;
Francisco Rico, Alfonso el Sabio y la "General estoria," 2nd ed. (Barcelona:
Ariel, 1984); R. B. Tate, "Mitología en la historiografía española de la Edad
Media y del Renacimiento," Ensayos sobre la historiografía peninsular del siglo
XV (Madrid: Gredos, 1970) 13-32; and Keith Whinnom, Spanish Literary
Historiography: Three Forms of Distortion (Exeter Univ. of Exeter, 1967).

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 161

oral (popular) and written (clerical) sources and by reconstructing
the hermeneutics of exemplary figuration, it becomes possible to
judge how successfully the Wise King put into practice in the
Estoria de Espanna the aims stated in his Prologue:6 to preserve
popular traditions, create an encyclopedia of national culture, and
interpret the patterns of heroism in the nation's past as lessons for
present times of crisis and as models for future unity.7

6 Estoria de Espanna, prologue, in Primera Crónica General, ed. R.
Menéndez Pidal, I: 3-4. On the importance of the Alfonsine prologues see
Anthony J. Cárdenas, "Alfonso's Scriptorium and Chancery: The Role of the
Prologue in Binding the Translatio Studii to the Translatio Potestatis," Emperor
of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and his Thirteenth-Century
Renaissance, ed. R. I. Burns (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)
90-108, and "The Literary Prologue of Alfonso X: A Nexus between Chancery
and Scriptorium," Thought 60, 239 (1985): 456-67.

7 On the cultural and political outlook of Alfonso X's reign and of the
literary works he sponsored, see Leonard Bloom, "The Emergence of an
Intellectual and Social Ideal as Expressed in Selected Writings of Alfonso X and
Don Juan Manuel," diss., Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1967; R. I. Bums, "Castle of
Intellect, Castle of Force," The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the
Conqueror: Intellect and Force in the Middle Ages, ed. Robert I. Burns
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985) 3-22, and "Stupor Mundi, Alfonso X
of Castile, the Learned," Emperor of Culture, 1-13; J. N. Hillgarth, "Ramon
Lull and Alfonso X of Castile," The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1976) I: 215-21; Keller, Alfonso X, 30-37; Francisco Márquez
Villanueva, 'The Alfonsine Cultural Concept," Alfonso X of Castile the Learned
King (Harvard Univ. Symposium, 17 Nov. 1984), eds. F. Márquez Villanueva
and C. Vega (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Studies in Romance Languages, 1990)
76-109; Joseph F. O'Callaghan, "Image and Reality: The King Creates His
Kingdom," Emperor of Culture, 14-32; Evelyn S. Procter, Alfonso X of Castile,
Patron of Literature and Learning (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951); and Cayetano
Socarrás, "Alfonso X of Castile and the Idea of Empire," diss., New York Univ.,
1969, and Alfonso X of Castile: A Study of Imperialistic Frustration (Barcelona:
Hispam, 1976).

For general interpretations of Alfonsine historiography, see Reinaldo

Ayerbe-Chaux, ed. and introduction, Estoria de Espanna: Antología (Madrid: José
Porrúa Turanzas, 1982); Benito Brancaforte, ed. and introduction, Prosa histórica
of Alfonso X (Madrid: Cátedra, 1984); Diego Catalan, "España en su
historiografía: De objeto a sujeto de la historia," introduction to Los españoles
en la historia by R. Menéndez Pidal (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1982) 9-67;
Francisco J. Díez de Revenga, ed. and introduction, Obras de Alfonso X el

162 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

Alfonso X wished to compile in the vernacular a history of
Spain from all available sources, both learned and popular.8 To this
end he had Latin and Arabic chronicles translated; likewise he
extended into Castilian letters the tradition of Latin historians who
paraphrased and amplified in prose the cantares de gesta. These epic
poems on heroes of the Reconquest were recited by professional
minstrels and collected by chroniclers as reliable documents and
exemplary episodes: Lucas de Tuy (known as the Tudense) and
Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada (known as the Toledano) had included
references from epic literature in the former's Chronicum mundi
(1236) and the latter's Historia gothica or De rebus Hispaniae (ca.
1243).9 What is significant about Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna

Sabio, Temas de España (Madrid: Taurus, 1985); Fernando Lázaro Carreter,
"Sobre el 'modus interpretandi' alfonsí," Ibérida 6 (1961): 97-114; Franciso
López Estrada, "Alfonso X: La historia," Historia 16, 96 (1984): 60-66; E.
Benito Ruano, "La historiografía en la Alta Edad Media española," Cuadernos de
historia de España [Buenos Aires] 17 (1952): 50-104; and Theodore Harvey
Shoemaker, "Alfonso X as Historian," diss., Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison,

On the collaborative effort and division of labor of translators and

historians in writing the chronicles under Alfonso X's (and Sancho IV's) orders
and supervision, see Diego Catalan, "El taller histórico alfonsí: métodos y
problemas en el trabajo compilatorio," Romania 84 (1963): 354-75; Gonzalo
Menéndez Pidal, "Cómo trabajaron las escuelas alfonsíes," Revista de filología
hispánica 5 (1951): 363-80; and Procter, "The King and His Collaborators,"
Alfonso X of Castile, 113-39.

8 The sources of the Estoria de Espanna have been studied by C. E.
Dubler, "Fuentes árabes y bizantinas en la Primera Crónica General," Vox
romanica 12 (1951): 120-80; José Gómez Pérez, "Fuentes y cronología en la
Primera Crónica General de España" Revista de archivos, bibliotecas y museos
67 (1959): 615-34; R. Menéndez Pidal, "Estudio" and "Fuentes" to his ed. of
Primera Crónica General, I: xxxv-xlviii, I: lxxiii-cxxxii, and II: cxxxix-ccviii,
and "Tradicionalidad de las Crónicas generales de España," Boletín de la Real
de la Historia 136 (1955): 131-97; and Procter, "Historical Works,"
Alfonso X of Castile, 78-112.

9 See Lucas de Tuy, Chronicum mundi, in Crónica de España, ed. J.
Pujol (Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia, 1926); and Rodrigo Ximénez de la
Rada, De rebus Hispaniae, in Opera, ed. F. A. Lorenza, 3 vols. (Madrid: Vidua
Ioachimi Ibarra, 1782-93). On Ximénez de Rada or the Toledano, see José

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 163

is the concept of history itself as a form of popular didactic
literature, as well as the practice of historiography as vernacular
narrative.10 Hence the epic will be considered as a narratological

Gómez Pérez, "La más antigua traducción de las Crónicas del Toledano,"

Hispania 87 (1962): 1-17; and Benito Sánchez Alonso, "Las versiones en
romance de las Crónicas del Toledano," Homenaje a Menéndez Pidal (Madrid,
1925) I: 341-54. Cf. Colin Smith, "Historias latinas y épica vernácula."

10 That the originality of Alfonsine historiography consists in large
measure of its use of cantares de gesta, as well as its recognition of the affinity
between epic and chronicle as popular narrative, has been noted by R. Menéndez
Pidal in the "Estudio" to his ed. of the Primera Crónica, I: xli-lvi, by Diego
Catalan in "Poesía y novela en la historiografía castellana de los siglos XIII y
XIV," Mélanges offerts à Rita Lejeune (Gembloux: J. Duculot, 1969) I:423-41,
and by Eric von Richthofen in "The Problem of Fiction Alternating with
Historical Documentation in the Cid Epics and the Castillan Chronicles,"
Revista canadiense de estudios hispánicos 6 (1982): 359-76.

Von Richthofen underscores the composite narratology of cantares and

crónicas (365), which evolve into historical novels or romances; he also
emphasizes that only medieval Christian Spain fully accepted and integrated the
epic in its historiography (373).

Catalan claims that Alfonso X's historians brought about two

fundamental changes in Peninsular historiography: the secularization of
historical writing (426-28) and the vulgarization of historical reception (441).
Vulgar national chronicles led to the evolution of Castilian prose by following
popular linguistic and literary models (cantares de gesta prosified into novelized
histories). However, according to Catalan this process signifies a "degeneration"
of post-Alfonsine historiography (423-24), as official chronicles become more
like historical novels.

Menéndez Pidal stresses the novelistic use of epic sources (xli-xliii);

questions the relative weight of verse and prosified versions of the cantares de
gestas (xliii-xliv); establishes the value of epic materials as documents of
national history and monuments of literary history (xliv-xlix); explores the
Castillan aspects (historical, linguistic, ideological, and generic) of Alfonsine
historiography (xlix-lvi); and posits that Alfonso X's imperial and universalist
aspirations in politics and culture, which in the Estoria de Espanna were in
tension with the aims of a nationalist and popular appeal, led to the neglect of
the fecho d'Espanna in favor of the General e Grand Estoria as an encyclopedic
world chronicle (xxxiv-xxxv).

It is worth noting that Alfonso X's contemporary, ally, and father-in-

law James I the Conqueror, king of Aragon (reigned 1213-76), was engaged in
similar projects of vernacular historiography and didactic prose: his
autobiographical chronicle, Llibre dels fets, and moral treatise, Llibre de doctrina

164 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

model for the chronicle in terms of literary tradition, poetic intention,
generic action, heroic type, exemplary rhetoric, and a hermeneutics
for reading history as story.

I. The authority of the Castilian epic tradition

Alfonso X's purpose in writing the Estoria de Espanna was

twofold: to gather all the information on the fecho d'Espanna, or
historical action of the Spanish peoples, and to interpret it in terms
of bien or mal fazer, according to the political and moral worth of
the heroic actions of its leaders.11 It must be noted that in practice

(or de saviesa), were written during the same period as Alfonso's Estoria de

Espanna. See Burns, ed., The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the
Beatrice Jorgensen Concheff, "The Hypothetical Epic-Narrative
Sources for the Catalan Chronicles of James I, Desclot, and Muntaner," diss.,
Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison, 1976; Martin de Riquer, Historia de la literatura
catalana (Barcelona: Ariel, 1964) I: 394-429; and Josep M. Sola-Solé,
"Introducció" to Jaume I's Llibre de doctrina (Barcelona: Hispam, 1977).

On the development of vernacular prose literature in thirteenth-century

Castile, see Rafael Lapesa, "Creación de la prosa romance: Alfonso el Sabio,"
Historia de la lengua española (Madrid: Escelier, 1968) 165-72; Derek W.
Lomax, "La lengua oficial de Castilla," Actele celui de-al XII-lea Congres
International de Lingvistică şi Filologie Romanică (Bucharest: II Académie de la
R.S.R., 1971) 411-17; and Margherita Morreale, "La fraseología bíblica en la
General Estoria: Observaciones para su estudio," Linguistic and Literary Studies
in Honor of Helmut Hatzfeld, ed. A. S. Crisafulli (Washington: Catholic Univ.
of America Press, 1964) 269-78, and "Vernacular Scriptures in Spain," The
Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. G. W. H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1969) II: 465-91.

11 On the ethical hermeneutics of the Alfonsine chronicles, see Hazel
Dorothy Allen, "Christian Doctrine in the General Estoria of Alfonso X," diss.,
Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison, 1960; Gerald Lee Gingras, "Virtue and Vice:
History Explained in Alfonso X's Primera Crónica General" Thought 60,239
(1985): 430-38; and Peter Linehan, 'The Politics of Piety: Aspects of the
Castilian Monarchy from Alfonso X to Alfonso XI," Revista canadiense de
estudios hispánicos 9 (1985): 385-404.

For the political contexts of Alfonsine historiography, see Burns,

"Castle of Intellect, Castle of Force"; Jerry R. Craddock, "Dynasty in Dispute:
Alfonso X el Sabio and the Succession to the Throne of Castile and León in
History and Legend," Viator 17 (1986): 197-219; Charles F. Fraker, "Alfonso X,
the Empire, and the Primera Crónica" Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 55 (1978):
95-102, and "The Fet des Romains and the Primera Crónica General" Hispanic

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 165

the comprehensiveness was to prove selective and the exemplarity to
serve as royal (even imperial) propaganda. The first aim, to write
the complete history of Spain rather than of Castile, was epic in

Compusiemos este libro de todos los fechos que fallar se

pudieron della [Espanna] Et esto fiziemos por que fuesse

sabudo el comienço de los espannoles, et de quáles yentes fuera

Espanna maltrecha,... et cómo fueron los cristianos después
cobrando la tierra; et del danno que uino en ella por partir los
regnos, por qué se non pudo cobrar tan aýna; et después cuérno
la ayuntó Dios, et por quáles maneras et en quál tiempo, et
quáles reyes ganaron la tierra fasta en el mar Mediterráneo; et
qué obras fizo cada uno, assí cuémo uinieron unos empós otros
fastal nuestro tiempo. (EE Prol: I, 4)12

This concept of history as the drama of the birth, growth, crisis,

decline, and recovery of a nation, all of whose leaders are seen as
actors who influence the course of events by their personal traits and
individual deeds, represents in itself an encyclopedic form of epic
literature that, as Northrop Frye has pointed out, owes much to the
historiographic and narratological model of the Bible.13 That the
medieval historian should apply the patterns of epic history and
literature taken from the Bible, which was the principal authority and
the primary exemplar of his day, to the writing of a national
chronicle follows from the clerical tradition of the Christian Latin
world as a whole. What is central to the Estoria de Espanna,
however, is the account of the Reconquest, or Christian crusade for
the recovery of the land and its inhabitants from the Muslims. After
dealing in the first part of the chronicle with classical and clerical

Review 46 (1978): 192-220; and Socarras, Idea of Empire and Imperial

12 Quotations from the Estoria de Espanna (EE) are taken from R.
Menéndez Pidal's ed. of the Primera Crónica General, and those from the General
Estoria (GE) from Antonio G. Solalinde's ed. of Part I (Madrid: Centro de
Estudios Históricos, 1930).

13 See Northrop Frye, "Specific Encyclopedic Forms," Anatomy of
Criticism, 315-26, and the chapter on narrative in The Great Code: The Bible and
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) 169-98.

166 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

sources for the Roman and Visigothic prehistory of the Reconquest,
Alfonso's historians turn to the more familiar and vivid times of the
recent past. In doing so, they combine the biblical epic model with
national epic legends: one serves as a narrative framework and moral
point of reference; the other provides the narrative episodes and the
poetic mode of presentation. The link between national chronicle
and epic story, providential history and heroic annals, is to be found
in the action of the community (fecho d'Espanna) that emerges from
the interplay of extraordinary deeds (gestas) and outstanding men

Alfonso's second aim, the interpretation of Spain's history

according to the good or evil done by her leaders, combines the
didactic functions of the biblical and epic chroniclers with those of
the national epic poets. The relation between history as memorable
actions that unfold in time and history as exemplary acts that emerge
in writing is made clear in the Prologues to both the Estoria de
Espanna and the General Estoria. In the former Alfonso writes:

Los sabios ancianos ... escriuieron otrossí las gestas de los

príncipes, tan bien de los que fizieron mal cuemo de los que
fizieron bien, por que los que después uiniessen por los fechos
de los buenos punnassen en fazer bien, et por los de los malos
que se castigassen de fazer mal, et por esto fue endereçado el
curso del mundo de cada una cosa en su orden. (EE Prol: I, 3)

In the latter introduction, he states that the sages

[F]izieron desto [los fechos que son passados] muchos libros,
que son llamados estorias e gestas, en que contaron delos
fechos de Dios, e delos prophetas, e delos sanctos, et otrosí
delos reyes, e delos altos omnes, e delas cauallerías, e delos
pueblos; et dixieron la uerdat de todas las cosas e non quisieron
nada encobrir, tan bien delos que fueron buenos como delos que
fueron malos. Et esto fizieron, por que delos fechos de los
buenos tomassen los omnes exemplo pora fazer bien, et delos
fechos delos malos que recibiessen castigo por se saber guardar
delo non fazer. (GE, Part I, Prol: 3)

In these prologues Alfonso X shows as much admiration for the

sages, who preserve the past and draw lessons from it, as for the
heroes whose deeds shape history and figure as models in its
stories. What is clear is that the "sages" include both epic

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 167

chroniclers and epic poets, for they are committing to memory only
the most important events as they affect the national self-image, they
are considering not the bare facts but the truths to be drawn from
exceptional experiences, and they are describing not what has
already happened but the destiny of a nation as it evolves through
the present into the future.14 These sages are retelling, like the
minstrels, the story of Spain's heroes; at the same time they are
rewriting, like the clerks, the history of all the Spanish people. For
Alfonso, the cantares de gesta and the estorias de sabios are equally
valuable as sources and models for the epic story of the fecho

What, then, is the particular contribution of the Castilian epic

poets to this attempt to rewrite Spain's history as an epic story? The
answer, in the case of the chronicle of the Reconquest, will become
manifest when a contrast is made between: (1) those parts that are
based, according to Ramón Menéndez Pidal, entirely on the clerical
sources, in particular the Tudense and the Toledano; (2) those that
assimilate oral poems on the heroes of Castile indirectly through
prosifications; and (3) those that quote directly from the narratives
and dialogues of epic cantares de gesta.15 Examples of the first
model can be found in the passages on the "Loor de Espanna" (c
558), "Duello de los godos" (c 559), and Pelayo (c 564); of the
second, in the sections on Bernardo del Carpio (c 619) and Fernán
González (c 684); and of the third, in a series of chapters on the
Siete Infantes de Lara (cc 737-42) and the Cid (cc 838-934). What
is significant is that for the Alfonsine historians all three categories
of national epic legends are of equal worth as "authorities." The
distinction, then, proves to be not historical but literary: all provide
dramatic episodes, heroic types, and ethical lessons; yet only the
cantares de gesta themselves can offer the poetic language of
depiction and imitation that captures the reader's interest, the vivid
characterization of protagonists and antagonists that appeals to the

14 See Francisco Rico, "Pretérito perfecto, indicativo presente,"
Alfonso el Sabio y la "General estoria," 85-96.

15 For the sources of the chapters on the Moorish invasion and
Christian Reconquest of Spain (cc. 555-1135), see R. Menéndez Pidal, "Fuentes"
to his ed. of Primera Crónica General, I: cxxxi-cxxxii and II: cxxxix-ccviii.

168 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

reader's emotions, and the exemplary experience of human
individuals in a critical time which is lived out before the reader's
ears and eyes.

II. The function of the cantares de gestas as narrative

As Alfonso X's historians (who continue to work under his

son Sancho IV) move, in the second part of their chronicle of Spain,
from the beginning of the Reconquest in the remote eighth century to
its culmination in the founding and expansion of Castile in the tenth
through eleventh centuries, there is a tendency to rely more on
contemporary epic poems, whether in original versions or prose
synopses, than on the clerks' historical summaries. This tendency
is reinforced by the circumstance of the survival of epic songs in
Castilian from later centuries (twelfth to thirteenth), but not from the
earlier periods. The growing proximity in time calls for a greater
immediacy in narrative style, which is supplied by the cantares de
gesta that are still extant in Alfonso's times. Likewise, the growing
importance of the leaders of Castile's struggle for survival,
autonomy, and dominance leads to a heightened mode of
representing their heroic figures that relies more on the poet's
imagination than on the chronicler's erudition. Although Alfonso's
historians in effect consult and adapt all available sources, their
underlying directive to serve royalist and nationalist propaganda
privileges native epic songs in the vernacular.

The evolution in the epic dimensions and perspectives of the

history can be traced in the shift in the narrative voice. First comes
the orator's praise and lament in the rhetorical presentation of Spain
as a person who experiences God's blessings and curses.16 The
pedagogue then explains the patterns and symbols with the
paradigmatic comparison of the figures of the early heroes, Pelayo,
Bernardo del Carpio, and Fernán González, to the divinely-
appointed judges of the Old Testament, as well as to the legendary

16 See John O. Ward, "Some Principles of Rhetorical Historiography
in the Twelfth Century," Classical Rhetoric and Medieval Historiography, ed.
E. Breisach (Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan Univ./Medieval Institute
Publications, 1985) 103-65.

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 169

heroes of the neighboring Franks. Finally, the poet relives the
human story of extraordinary times through the dramatization of the
deeds of the heroes, the Infantes de Lara and the Cid, in all their
greatness and with all their flaws.

The Alfonsine historians begin their chronicle of the

Reconquest with the "Loor de Espanna," so as to make the transition
to the period of crisis and heroism.17 That is why they describe the
nation in terms of a great knight and courtier: "Espanna sobre todas
[las tierras] es engennosa, atreuuda et mucho esforçada en lid, ligera
en affán, leal al sennor, affincada en estudio, palaciana en palabra,
complida de todo bien ..." (EE c 558:I, 311). As long as Spain is
true to her knightly estate, she will be strong and united; her leaders
will remain identified with her. But as soon as she betrays her
greatness and allows herself to be led by bad leaders, she will be
divided and brought low; her leaders will then be isolated in their
folly and weakness: "Este regno tan noble, tan rico, tan poderoso,
tan onrrado, fue derramado et astragado en una arremessa [de los
moros] por desabenencia de los de la tierra que tornaron sus espadas
en sí mismos unos contra otros, assí como si les minguassen
enemigos; et perdieron ý todos ..." (EE c 558: I, 312). By
personifying the chivalric ideals in the nation, the chroniclers stress
the collective nature of the suffering due to the invasion, as well as
of the victory in the crusade to come. The "Duello de los godos" is
transformed into mourning for Spain herself:

Fincó toda la tierra uazía del pueblo, lena de sangre, bannada de

lágrimas, conplida de appellidos, huéspeda de los estrannos,
enagenada de los uezinos, desamparada de los moradores, bibda
e dessolada de sus fijos, coffonduda de los bárbaros, esmedrida
por la llaga, ffallida de fortaleza, fflaca de fuerça, menguada de
conort, et desolada de solaz de los suyos. (EE c 559:I, 312)

The epic story of Spain's trial and vindication thus becomes

identified with the stories of the struggle of her people (from the
Romans and Visigoths to the Asturians and Castillans), among

17 See José Jiménez Delgado, "El 'Laus Hispaniae' en dos importantes
códices españoles," Helmántica 12 (1961): 177-259; and Josefina Nagore de
Zand, "La alabanza de España en el Poema de Fernán González y en las crónicas
latinomedievales,"Incipit 7 (1987): 35-67.

170 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

whom the heroes will stand out as prototypical exemplars of virtue
and valor, as well as agents of divine providence in the crusade
against the Moors.18

After referring to Visigothic Spain in the rhetorical terms of

general heroic traits and personified actions or reactions, in much the
same way as the Latin chronicles of the Toledano,19 Alfonso's
historians turn to the figure of Pelayo, the first hero of the
Reconquest to be singled out in legend.20 In their attempt to explain
the extraordinary feat of the Christian victory at Covadonga, they in
effect compare the Spanish leader to one of the biblical judges:

Dios poderoso de todas las cosas, pero que era ya yrado contra

ella, non quiso oblidar la su misericordia, et menbróse de la su
merced, e quiso por ende guardar all inffante don Pelayo pora
ante la su faz, assí como una pequenna centella de que se
leuantasse después lumbre en la tierra. (EE c 564:I,318-19)

But the hero is as yet a collective agent submerged in the epic sweep

of the story of God's dealings with the nation in its time of crisis:
the Asturians, Basques, and Aragonese of the mountains "quiso los
Dios guardar por que la lumbre de la cristiandad et de los sus sieruos
non se amatasse de tod en Espanna" (EE c 564:I, 319).

It is when the chronicle of the Reconquest begins to develop

from the story of the nation into a nationalist history that the heroes
of Spain grow in individuality and stature. It is also then that the

18 On the Visigoths in the chronicles, see Aníbal A. Biglieri, "Ascenso
y caída del reino visigodo según la Primera Crónica General" Hispanófila 32
(1989): 1-11; Alan D. Deyermond, "The Death and Rebirth of Visigothic Spain
in the Estoria de Espanna" Revista canadiense de estudios hispánicos 9 (1985):
345-68; and Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Los godos y la epopeya española, 2nd ed.
(Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1969) 9-57.

19 On the sources of the "Loor" and "Duello" of Spain, see R.
Menéndez Pidal, "Fuentes" to Primera Crónica General. I: cxxxii.

20 R. Menéndez Pidal, "Fuentes," II: cxli. See also Elizabeth Kyle
Freyschlag, "A Consideration of Pelayo in Spanish Literature," diss., Stanford
Univ., 1965.

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 171

Alfonsine chroniclers, following the model of the Tudense and the
Toledano, begin to incorporate epic legends and poems into their
narrative. This occurs for the first time with Bernardo del Carpio,
who emerges as the heroic counterfigure to Charlemagne and
Roland, the protagonists of the French epic legends.21 The latter are
now cast as symbols not only of bravery but also of expansionist
politics, which the Spanish nobles and lords now oppose with as
much force as they once resisted the Moors. The nobles advise the
king (Alfonso II):

[Q]ue reuocase lo que enbiara dezir al emperador [sil quisiese

venir ayudar contra los moros, quel daríe el reyno]; sinon quel
echaríen del reyno et cataríen otro sennor; ca más queríen morir
libres que ser mal andantes en seruidumbre de los franceses. Et
el que más fuerte et más rezio era en esta cosa su sobrino
Bernaldo fue... (EE c 619: II, 353)

But in the epic account of the battle of Roncesvalles, in which the

combined forces of "Spaniards" and Moors defeat the "French," the
action is summarized and enunciated in an impersonal narrative
voice: "Bernaldo tollió de sí en aquella ora el temor de Dios, et fue
ferir en vno con los moros en los françeses ... et fue la fazienda
muy fuerte et muy ferida ademàs, et murieron ý muchos de cada
parte" (EEc 619: II, 353).

Once the French menace is overcome, the nationalist history

evolves into the epic story of Castile itself, as the leading component
of the Spanish peoples in the climactic phase of the Reconquest.
The historical figure and legendary exploits of the founder of the
county, Fernán González, lend themselves to paradigmatic treatment
as the narrative combines a panegyric of the Castilian knight with
another example of providential history.22 First, the epic material is

21 R. Menéndez Pidal, "Fuentes," II: cxlv-cxlvi. See also Marcelin
Defourneaux, "La légende de Bernardo del Carpio," Bulletin Hispanique 45
(1943): 116-38; and Pattison, From Legend to Chronicle, 11-22.

22 R. Menéndez Pidal, "Fuentes," cliv-clviii. See also Juan Bautista
Avalle-Arce, "El Poema de Fernán González: Clerecía y juglaría," Philological
Quarterly 51 (1972): 60-73, revised and included in Temas hispánicos medievales
(Madrid: Gredos, 1974) 64-82; and Pattison, From Legend to Chronicle, 23-42.

172 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

interpreted by the chronicler in prototypical terms: "era ya a essa
sazón grand cauallero, . . . muy uerdadero en su palabra, et
derechero en juyzio, et buen cauallero en armas, et muy esforçado,
et ganó mucha tierra de moros,... et ensanchó Castiella quanto él
más pudo" (EE c 684: II, 390). Then, the epic hero is presented,
from the clerical point of view, as the knight of God:

Quando este conde Fernand Gonçález uio que era sennor de

Castiella, alçó las manos contral cielo et gradesciólo mucho a
Dios et dixo: «Sennor, ruégote que me ualas et que me ayudes
en tal guisa por que yo te pueda seruir et sacar Castiella de la
premia en que está.... Et, Sennor, seyendo yo tu uassallo, et
faziéndome tú merced et ayuda, cuedo yo sacar a Castiella
destas premias.» (EE c 684: II, 390)

With this prayer, quoted from a clerical version of the epic poem,23

the Alfonsine chroniclers mark the passage to the story of Castile as
found in the cantares de gesta themselves.

From this point on in the chronicle the techniques found in

epic poetry—such as presenting directly heroic actions, opposing in
a dramatic manner the scenes with heroes and antiheroes, and
quoting in a straight-forward yet expressive way the heroes'
dialogue—will be employed to great advantage in the historical
narrative. This is precisely the case in the stories of the Seven
Infantes de Lara and of the Cid, in which the narrative pattern of
providential history gives way to miscellaneous episodes from epic
legends and poems that then circulated in various versions. Without
entering into great detail, it is possible to note key passages in which
epic techniques are now fully developed.

In the case of the Seven Infantes de Lara, the history of the

crusade against the Moors and of the rise of Castile is transformed
into an epic story of feud, injury, murder, vengeance, betrayal, and
massacre.24 In the process, the heroes are shown by the chronicler

23 Cf. lines 185-193 of the Poema de Fernán González, ed. Juan
Victorio (Madrid: Cátedra, 1984) 85.

24 R. Menéndez Pidal, "Fuentes," II: clix-clx. See also Cesare Acutis,
La leggenda degli Infantes di Lara: Due forme epiche nel Medioevo occidentale
(Turin: Einadi, 1978); John J. Cummins, 'The Chronicle Texts of the Legend of

González-Casanovas / Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna 173

from the perspective of the poet. The scene of Gonzalo González'
defenselessness while bathing in his underclothes provokes Doña
Lambra, whose reaction unchains a series of acts of escalating
violence, in which the dramatic action, as in the best epic poetry, is
as much verbal as physical:

Donna Llambla . . .quandol uio assí, . . . pesol muy de

coraçón, et dixo ...: «Assí tomaré yo uengança de la punnada
et de la muerte de mío primo Aluar Sánchez, ca esta ioglería a
muchos empeeçerá ...» Los otros hermanos . . .
començaron de reýr, mas non de coraçón; et díxoles [Gonzalo]
estonces: «hermanos muy mal lo fazedes ... si a algún de uós
contesçiesse esto que a mí, yo non querría uiuir un día más
fasta quel non uengasse ...»

Ellos fueron estonces pora ella, et tomáronle por fuerça el

omne que teníc so el manto, et matárongele luego ý delante
... et de las feridas que dauan en ell, cayó de la sangre sobre
las tocas et en los pannos de donna Llambla, de guisa que toda
fincó ende enssangrentada.... Et lloró ella, et fizo tan grand
llanto sobrell . . . et rompió todos sus pannos, llamándose
bibda et que non avíe marido. (EE c 737: II, 433-34)

This poetic climax in the narrative prepares the reader for an

historical climax in the chronicle, as the scene of a battle is described
in vivid terms: the Infantes are shown to die bravely at the hands of
the enemy through the treachery of their uncle, Doña Lambra's
husband, who thus avenges her injury:

Quando [Gonçalo Gonçález] los hermanos uio descabeçados

ante sí,... con el grand pesar et la grand sanna... dexóse yr
a aquel moro ... et diol una tan grand punnada en la garganta,
que dio luego con él muerto a tierra; et tomó muy aýna aquella
espada con que los él descabeçaua, et mató con ella más de XX
moros dessos que estauan en derredor dell, assí como cuenta la
estoria. Mas los moros non cataron ya las feridas, et la
muchedumbre dellos cercáronle, et prisiéronle a manos, et
descabeçáronle ý luego. (EE c 742:II,441)

the Infantes de Lara" Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 53 (1976): 101-16; Ramón

Menéndez Pidal, La leyenda de los Infantes de Lara, in Obras completas, I,3rd ed
(Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1971); Pattison, From Legend to Chronicle, 43-56; and
Juan Portera, "La venganza en los Infantes de Lara y en el Cid" La juglaresca,
ed. M. Criado de Val, 247-52.

174 Olifant / Vol. 15, No. 2 / Summer 1990

By quoting and imitating epic poets, the chronicler has gone from a
synopsis to the deed itself.

In the section on the Cid, which the Alfonsine historians did

not have time to shape and revise as a coherent whole, there is even
more reliance on cantares de gesta for both the episodes and the
narrative.25 The epic sweep of the Reconquest's heroic actions
disintegrates into a series of epic scenes drawn from various poems;
these include the Cantar de Sancho II y Cerco de Zamora and the
Cantar or Poema de Mío Cid. Yet the lack of historical focus in this

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