contributor.author: Jesus D. Rodriguez Velasco

title.none: Montgomery, Medieval Spanish Epic (Velasco)

identifier.other: baj9928.9904.014 99.04.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jesus D. Rodriguez Velasco, Universidad de Salamanca, jrv@gugu.usal.es

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Montgomery, Thomas. Medieval Spanish Epic: Mythic Roots and Ritual Language. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 176. $42.50. ISBN: 0-271-01738-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.04.14

Montgomery, Thomas. Medieval Spanish Epic: Mythic Roots and Ritual Language. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 176. $42.50. ISBN: 0-271-01738-4.

Reviewed by:

Jesus D. Rodriguez Velasco
Universidad de Salamanca
jrv@gugu.usal.es

The dialogue between epic forms and myth is a historical constant. It could even be asserted that so is the (philological, cultural, historical, anthropological...) need to read that relationship, to understand a myth's adaptation, origins, meaning, and transformation in the epic environment by the reader or listener. Aristotle understood it when he considered not what subsumes historical narrative and poetry, but rather what sets them apart: poetry employs storytelling not to replicate history, but to interpret it, to make it universal. So it makes sense to introduce a group of narrative elements, primitive or modern, universal or particular, anointed by a certain culture as significant fables (to use J.F. Lyotard's concept) which constitute narratives or, if you like, narrative myths, with which the author will do his work of bricolage (Levi-Strauss): creating new texts with consecrated and familiar motifs.

Since Dumezil, in his classic volumes on Mythe et Epopee (1968-), established the foundations of trifunctional mythology in the epic narrative of Indo-European peoples, scholars have been looking for the narrative links in fragmented Indo- European cultures and the way they have been passed along. The "Indo-European common background" is often invoked as the ultimate origin of these narratives, but after Dumezil, it is not enough to simply tag them as such. We are bound to understand them, understanding the process of cultural synthesis (cf. J.-C. Schmitt, Le Saint Levrier, Paris, Flammarion, 1979; or even A. Boureau, La papesse Jeanne, Paris, Aubier, 1988) and even the syncretic product which that synthesis engenders (cf. Only the last work of E. von Richthofen, Metamorfosis de la epica medieval, Madrid, FUE, 1989).

It is in this theoretical and epistemological field where Thomas Montgomery's work makes sense. His interest is focused on two essential aspects. First, the location and archaeological description (in Foucault's sense) of the constituent elements of the myth of heroic initiation and their distribution in a brief series of Hispanic epic stories, specially versions of the legend of the Siete Infantes de Lara transmitted in Alfonsine historiography, as well as the Cid legends included in the Mocedades de Rodrigo (a clerical work dating from the middle of the 14th century) and in the Cantar de Mio Cid (whose surviving text is a recension done in the first years of the 13th century). Second, Montgomery also incorporates other Hispanic epic stories, such as the Mainete and the Condesa Traidora which we know nowadays through their prose historiographic versions or through their fragmentation in ballads (romances). Nevertheless, Montgomery's readings are not insular; he is attentive to the works and traditions usually considered precursors of the Hispanic epic, especially the French epic and some of the Germanic tales from the Nibelungenlied to the Thidrekssaga. In this vein his innovative analysis and comparative readings introduce works of clear Celtic stock, from accounts about Cuchulainn (especially the Tain Bo Cuailnge) to the legend of Tristan, which had never been considered for the analysis of Hispanic epic myths.

Clearly we are at the threshold where a narrative motif become a literary realization, or, more precisely, several different literary realizations, and in that process several constituents of the narrative motif itself have been lost and recovered. Montgomery's research shows how these variations have emerged, the process of decanting a single content into different containers. Sometimes the motifs of the hero's initiation are preserved recognizably, as the furor belli, verging on the convulsive in the Siete Infantes de Lara and in the Mocedades, just as in the Tain. But even more important in my view are another series of effects analyzed by Montgomery which help explain some of the most amazing attitudes of the epic narrative. I offer as an example the subtle study of the initiation of the Infantes de Carrion in the Cantar de Mio Cid in which Montgomery demonstrates how many of the implicit elements of the mythic narrative motif of a hero's initiation are subverted. Together with these techniques of inversion, Montgomery analyzes other possibilities, such as the shift of certain core features of the myth, or of the dialogue between the feminine characters (an essential component in the mythic composite), and the progressive change of the motif among varied literary occurrences. In works like the Siete Infantes or the Mocedades, the clash--a real political and sexual tension--between the emerging hero and the woman in a position of power is a determining factor in the plot, while in others, such as the Chanson de Roland or the Cantar de Mio Cid, the tension or even the feminine characters have been completely lost (Roland) or have moved to a new field of action belonging to a periphery of the story. The place of Jimena in the Cantar is less influential than that of the daughters, Elvira and Sol, insofar as the inversion of the initiation myth can be applied to the Infantes de Carrion. This first, mostly archaeological, section of Montgomery's book finishes with a table charting the mythico-narrative components of the initiation of the hero in the works examined.

Throughout this section of his book Montgomery touches on a number of topics that, in our view, deserved greater attention. Their in-depth study, or at least their contextualization through the work of others, would have clarified their mythic underpinnings and elucidated one of the author's persistent concerns: the relationship between narrative constraints and the embroiled social and political environments in which the actual poems were forged. I will mention just two examples here which seem particularly significant. The first deals with bloodlines and breeding, the second with the drive (apparent from the middle of the 12th century) to fill out the genealogy of a myth.

Many of the epic and familial conflicts Montgomery analyzes are at heart the discords of a youth apprenticed as a warrior in the home of his maternal uncle. Montgomery appreciates that this is a common arrangement in medieval times and cites a long tradition of research to support it. The work of Jose Enrique Ruiz Domenec, La Memoria de los Feudales (Barcelona, Argot, 1984) is invaluable here. One of Ruiz Domenec's chapters (based on the Tristan legends, which would work well for Montgomery) is dedicated to discussing how normal feudal/aristocratic upbringing in the 12th century becomes a locus for literary conflict. Through the analysis of a series of legal instruments (notarial records, protocols, etc.), Ruiz Domenec shows how the education of a lad in the home of his maternal uncle (avunculus) is targeted at consolidating the interfamilial alliances between the boy and his female cousins. This matrimonial stratagem served, in theory, to circumvent the first barrier of consanguinity. Nonetheless, Ruiz Domenec observes, in proposing a new form of alliance outside the family circle (to a certain extent, chivalric adventure), the literature of the 12th and 13th centuries starts to reveal the insidiousness of the inbred nucleus and feudalism's theory of education tied up in the youth, his maternal uncle and the latter's daughters. One of the factors that ends up in crisis in this nucleus is precisely the possibility that the maternal aunt (dona Llambra in the legend of the Infantes de Lara, and Iseut in the legend of Tristan) will become enmeshed in some way in the fusion of the nucleus, often with strong sexual overtones.

Jean Frappier observes that children beget their parents and that is how he explains the external chronology of epic cycles. On the basis of an epic exploit, the authors (juglares or others) went on to cultivate a whole genealogical tree. And they not only begat the parents but even grandparents: noble lines need to be validated in all four branches so the presence of grandparents is fundamental: Garin de Monglane in the case of Guillaume d'Orange, Lain Calvo in the case of the Cid. Since, as Montgomery notes, the Mocedades may boast more ancient roots than the Cantar de Mio Cid--even though the Mocedades we now have is later in terms of actually production--the Mocedades was composed under a different aegis with a self-awareness of its transgenerational nature. It knew that it needed to confect through its narrative what the histories had already cobbled together: a family tree for the Cid. Genealogy is indisputably not only a mythic and aesthetic requirement for the Cid epic, but a historiographic one as well. On this score the substantial contributions of Georges Martin, Les Juges de Castille (Paris: Klinckseick, 1992) are fundamental. Martin probes the background of the creation of the myth of the judges of Castile, Lain Calvo and Nuno Rasura, and shows how the Hispanic historiography in Latin and romance takes up this myth until it is fully woven into the epic and heroic canvas of nascent Castile. Martin's other studies do much the same for the more canonical epic repertoire (Histoires de l'Espagne Medievale (Paris: Klinckseick, 1997).

Montgomery touches on many other fertile veins running through medieval epic societies and brings them into full view in the second portion of his book. We cannot examine them all here, but some are as important as the relation between the initiation of the hero and the economy of bestowals and gifts, for which the works of Erich Kohler would have been most useful (starting with his Ideal und Wirklichkeit in der hofischen Epik, 1972, and continuing with his analysis of seigniorial liberality and its identification with caritas christiana in the chivalric code of the 12th century).

The latter half of Montgomery's book concentrates on the expressive systems of the epic and expressly on the ritual character of the Cantar de Mio Cid. The Cid is, ultimately, the only extant epic text in Castilian and it bears a certain venerability and integrity (the Mocedades being a decidedly late composition and the Roncesvalles merely a tiny fragment). Montgomery, employing diverse formal linguistic perspectives, studies how epic discourse becomes epic form and explains itself through a formulaic style, a complex texture of linguistic, rhetorical and poetic models precisely laced throughout the text and linked, in a sense, to a series of specific isomorphic nets (the terms are my own). Put another way, Montgomery's accomplishment consists of demonstrating how the aesthetic paradigm proper to epic redeploys non-formulaic linguistic models in a formulaic setting in order to meet the needs of epic ritual expressiveness which, as seen above, predates the epic text itself. A given epic, therefore, will be delimited by three fundamental coordinates: the pre-existing myth, the historical construct imposed on it, and its ritual expression.

The limits of this review will not allow a full account of each of these categories, but we must at very least recognize that their analyses always derive from a socio-cultural critique, confronting thereby the sources for the dialogic frames surrounding the characters, and the models employed in their direct address. But more significantly we will also come to appreciate how these dialogic frames and their points of reference expose the inherent tensions between speaker and listener and even between author-narrator-performer and the characters he sets in motion. Montgomery comes to suggest the possibility of glimpsing a juglar's self-affirmation through his mastery of epic registers and in the telling of his very story, an implicit challenge to all other unknown performers who might attempt to repeat his tale. This potential for self-validation is perfectly consonant with Montgomery's basic premises and is nicely documented in other epic traditions. We need only mention passages from two French epics from the 12th century, that of the anonymous Girart de Roussillon and the Chanson des Saisnes by Jean Bodel: Bone cancon e ville vos ai aduche, E des morz acesmaz feite e estruche. El n'ai les claus des canbres o lei conduche; Per toz vilans juglarz l'ame deduche. Ja ne voil qu'en ait uns la caire suche Car un cante treis vers, tote iert destruche. Le premeran fu longe e est refuche; Per oc s'es lius e clare, plane e duche; Astre mon grat le cante qui la refuche. (La Chanson de Girart de Rousillon, 1-9)Qui d'oir et d'antandre a loisir et talant face pais, si escout bone chancon vaillant don li livre d'estoire sont tesmoing et garant. Ja nuls vilains jugleres de ceste ne se vant, qar il n'an sauroit dire ne les vers ne le chant. ( Chanson des Saisnes, vv. 1-5) Similar examples could be piled one atop the other from any number of epics from the cycles of Guillaume or the Crusade cycles, but they would all point in the same direction of supreme significance: beneath each lays a self-definition as author, a will to detach oneself from the formless sea of performers and position oneself in the artistic world of letters, for within epic one finds an aesthetic dimension that, without denying its mythic roots, plants itself firmly in a courtly circle. The epic of the 12th century is an archaic form to be sure, and not the only narrative register at the disposal of the artist and his world of recipients, so that the choice of this form and not another (the roman, say) is meaningful all by itself. One of the most interesting aspects of this phase of the artistic evolution of the epic is its vindication of oral performance, rescued from its downcast state, and for which I suspect Montgomery would have found ample support in an examination of chant.

The performance of epic is, after all, not a mere declamation or recitation but, as Jean Bodel (in his Chanson des Saisnes), or some unknown poet ( Canso de la Crozada) remind us, a type of chant, a melody unique for each cantar de gesta, even when allowing for variation. The theoretical work and actual performances of Antoni Rossell are absolutely essential here: "Cancion de gesta y musica. Hipotesis para una interpretacion practica: cantar epica romanica hoy", Cultura Neolatina, 51, 3-4 (1991), 207-21, to cite only a single item from his recent bibliography, or his recordings of the Cantar de Mio Cid issued in eight CDs to date by Tecnosaga de Madrid. Rossell's rendition is, admittedly, a reconstruction, but firmly rooted in the paradigms of medieval music. And listening to the Cantar de Mio Cid actually sung, savoring its pauses within verses, the display of anisosyllabism, the acoustic effects and the patterns of formulas, completely changes one's sense of the text; from now on this type of work must be taken into account for all future study. It is still possible to read the epics of the 12th through the 14th centuries according to the schema developed by Homeric scholars, but is far from naive to reflect on the cultural, musical and literary perspectives of that same period.

Montgomery's opus represents an important point of reference for the study of Hispanic epic. Not only does it reaffirm many worthy ideas about employment of myth in epic but it serves up new insights on the linguistic expressiveness of epic in its ritual aspect, illuminating the text and the process by which its author links it to its universe of letters and himself to his listener.