The Medieval Review 11.02.07

Hernando, Julio F. Poesía y violencia: Representaciones de la agresión en el Poema de mio Cid. Referencias 8. Palencia: Cálamo, 2009. Pp. 204. . $30.99 ISBN 978-8496-932470.

Reviewed by:

E. Michael Gerli
University of Virginia

Nearly three decades ago, Colin Smith remarked that the Castilian Poema de mio Cid (ca. 1207) is different and that it departs from many epic stereotypes. In his Poesía y violencia, Julio F. Hernando seeks a deeper understanding of the work's difference through an examination of the representation of violence in it. The Poema from its outset is in fact constructed around many epic paradigms that anticipate violence and thus elicit clear epic expectations in its public. Yet, while this is so, Hernando argues , and I fundamentally agree, the work's epic prospects exist not so much to be celebrated but to be made problematical and, ultimately, to be denied and made over. Using the concept of sacrificial violence as developed by René Girard, the Poema , according to Hernando, traces the displacement, change, and domestication of the violence associated with the aggressive epic hero, originally grounded in the figure of the rebel vassal, in the end transforming him into a dutiful member of the court. Situated at the threshold of courtliness, the Poema thus portrays the socialization of the hero and his incorporation into a world governed by the monarchy, civility, justice, and the law. The Cid in the Poema is thus transformed from the autonomous, self-directed warrior into miles, or knight, incarnation of loyalty, sobriety, perseverance, and generosity, defender of right; the loyal, civilized subject who at the Poema's conclusion crosses the threshold of courtliness to take his place at the right-hand of the throne. This turn is complemented by the advocacy of an underlying ethos that also departs from epic patterns; one that propounds only the ethical use of force, and only in those cases where it is employed to bring justice and protect those who are not socially enfranchised or capable of using force to defend themselves.

The moving hand in all of this is likely a clerical one; doubtless a learned lay author with ties to the court who in the text seeks to forge a strategy of rhetorical persuasion whose end is the legitimization of the Cid as noble knight--miles--a celebration of his personal honor, and a demonstration of his ties to royalty in order to incorporate the hero and his descendants into the genealogical history of the monarchies of Castile, Navarre, and Aragon during the first years of the thirteenth century. The result is the emergence of a new ideology that synthesizes the authority of the monarchy with chivalric practice (in the person of the Cid) and aims to dispute the political power of the high nobility at court and in civic life generally.

In his reading, Hernando asserts that violence is purposely developed in the first two cantares of the Poema, and that it, and those who practice it in anything but the name of justice, are then turned aside, denied by the institutional imperatives of the monarchy and the court in the final cantar. In this way, the Poema reflects the changing social and political horizons of thirteenth-century Castile, and portrays the beginnings of the enfranchisement of the newly emerging order of citizenry, the so-called caballería ciudadana, or the rising lower, urban social group of petty nobles which circumvented the landed aristocracy just as it established direct, close ties to, and a dependence on, the monarchy. While this argument concurs with recent historical scholarship concerning the relationship between the crown and the lower noble orders later in the century (especially at the time of Alfonso XI and the promulgation of the Ordenamiento de Alcalá and the creation of the chivalric Orden de la Banda, as recently shown by Jesús Rodríguez Velasco's Order and Chivalry: Knighthood and Citizenship in Late Medieval Castile [Philadelphia: Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 2010]), the evolution of violence Hernando identifies in the poem is, in fact, a subtle, complicated affair affected by more than questions of changing political imperatives and issues of social rank, privilege, and agency.

In some instances, the neat patterns of violence identified by Hernando may be as much a manifestation of critical desire and a wish to explain them in terms of Girard's theoretical paradigm, as they are an actual expression of the text itself. To be sure, some readings and the observations that accompany them at times fall short, while at other times they seem overdetermined and miss the forest for the trees, as in the discussion of the episode of the Robledo de Corpes. One important example from it will suffice. In his discussion of the evocation of the wild beasts of the wood that introduces the Corpes episode in canatar III of the Poema, alluding to the Cid's earlier kicking of a door in Burgos in the opening scenes of the text, Hernando observes "la misma violencia que en Burgos se descarga en la puerta de la posada y que, después, amenaza a los mismos vasallos del Cid queda aquí, figurativamente, flotando en el aire" ("The same violence that is discharged on the door of the inn at Burgos, and which later threatens the Cid's vassals, remains here, figuratively, floating in the air") (129). Yet, other than the evocation of the wild forest beasts and the adumbration of a carnassial brutality in the text there, he discovers no further explicit images or themes that tie the passages to the door episode beyond violence itself. In that initial occurrence in which the Cid kicks at the door from astride his horse in Burgos, however, the expected explosion of epic violence is immediately contained by the improbable intervention of a nine-year old girl, who astonishingly invokes twice the full legal penalties for abetting a fugitive that is the object ofira regia (royal wrath). Speaking softly, the young girl admonishes the Cid for his impulsive conduct and reminds him that nothing can be gained by aggression or harm to the people of Burgos.

What does tie the Corpes episode to the assault on the door is in fact more than a general air of bestial brutality culminating in an example of sacrificial violence: the violence depicted in both episodes is a type of aggression that is circumscribed and defined by gender contrasts. As they are being beaten by their husbands, the brutish Infantes de Carrión, the Cid's daughters, for example, acquire a voice for the first time in the glade at Corpes, only to implore mercy from their spouses with reasoned cause. Ironically, they beg the Infantes not for their lives, but for execution by Colada and Tizón, the swords the Infantes now carry and that the young women's father won in battle, rather than be beaten and dishonored by an ignoble death. To be sure, Hernando pays too short shrift to the role of gender in shaping attitudes toward violence and aggression in the Poema since much of the mayhem depicted in it is ultimately, in one way or another, unequivocally gender bound and grounded in a new attitude toward, and respect for, women. Gendered sensibilities and contrasts are pervasive in the Poema and seem to be the decisive motivating factors that move the plot and lead to the deflection of violence in the work, propelling events toward the realm of romance and courtly literature. Indeed, the main conflict of the Cid with his sons-in-law, the aristocratic Infantes, is configured around an explicit sexual politics centered on women; on the marriage of the Cid's daughters, placed in a universe of misdirected masculine aggression and domestic abuse; a masculine hostility that, although aimed at the Cid, is channeled mainly through the mistreatment of these women by the high-born Infantes. Our first encounter with the Poema's gendered design comes in the opening scenes of the work, where the nine-year-old girl, looking up at the imposing figure of the Cid astride his horse, tempers the hero's aggressive acts by speaking to him in a discourse that stands out for its complicated combination of reasoned, feminine innocence and wisdom. This is followed by the dramatic prayer uttered by doña Ximena in which she implores divine protection for her husband as he departs Castile (the prayer is immediately answered and the Cid's destiny vouchsafed by Gabriel, the Angel of the Annunciation, in a dream that comes to the hero) and the promise of the Cid made to his wife to one day honorably marry his infant daughters.

That said, Hernando's book is both subtle and provocative, and stands out as one of the most interesting critical statements on the Poema in quite some time. To say this is to give high praise. I am sure that Hernando's observations will go a long way toward stimulating an overdue rethinking of the work as epic and to opening up a deeper understanding of the socio-historical forces that move it and the Cid's portrayal in the text.