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Quest for El Cid Hardcover – 7 Sep 1989
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About the Author
Richard Fletcher is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of York and is the author of numerous books on medieval Spain, including the forthcoming Moorish Spain.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Other reviewers have mentioned that the great merit of this book was to debunk the legendary El Cid and to show was he was more likely to have been. This is certainly true. He was a noble warrior and an early medieval warlord. He was out for what he could get for himself and not necessarily ready to do anything for "King and Country". He was also proud, arrogant, headstrong, hard, cruel and spiteful and made quite a few enemies at the Court of his king - Alfonso VI King of only Leon up to 1072, to which he added Castille and Galicia after the murder of his brother - with which he quarrelled and who exiled him. Soi he went to serve with his men as a mercenary commander for the Muslim King of Zaragossa for five years. He also was ambitious: he strived to carve an independent principality for himself out of Muslim territory, conquered Valencia and managed to hold on to it until his death, against both Muslims and Christians. As Fletcher mentions, he had a lot in common with his near contemporary: Bohemond of Hauteville, the Norman warlord who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade and who became the First Prince of Antioch. In addition to this major quality - telling the "true story" as opposed to the patriotic legend - the book has two other major strongpoints.
One is to make the world and times of El Cid come alive, explaining the state of Spain and of the Christian and Muslim Taifa (or faction) principalities and presenting the society of the times. This was not yet the "Reconquista" and it was no Crusade movement, according to the author. A mercenary commander could perfectly well cross-over and serve a lord of another religion without appearing to be a traitor or a renegade. The Caliphs of Cordoba were no more and their state had broken up into dozens of taifas around one or a few towns and their surrounding countryside in the hands of a wide range of strongmen who were not all military men. It is this implosion and the associated infighting that lasted for decades that allowed the Christians principalities to expand by taking sides and by putting in place what has been called a protection racket where large tributes were extracted from these mostly very rich cities in exchange of not attacking them. In this in this environment that Rodrigo Diaz made a name for himself, defeating all of his enemies in battle, whether Muslims or Christians, and capturing two the Count of Barcelona.
Another related quality is Fletcher's presentation of the context of Muslim and Christian Spain - Al Andalus and "The Heirs of the Wisigoths", to paraphrase two of the first chapters of the book. The presentation is concise, but it includes all that is needed to "get the picture", including the economics of the land and, in particular, the relative poverty of the Christian states until 1031 and the break-up of the Caliphate, with Castille (the region that is nowadays termed Old Castille) being the topic of another chapter tellingly titled "A Few Men in a Small Land". Added to this, a chapter discusses the sources and their problems while another one is devoted to presenting the lives and careers of a number of El Cid's contemporaries. I found this collection of vignettes particularly interesting, especially since they showed that Rodrigo Diaz was not "one of a kind" but much more probably the most successful of his kind.
A superb read which I definitely recommend for all those wanting to know the true story that lies behind Charlton Heston's performance, and for all the others as well...
There are several obvious problems with this approach. First: the original sources are too poor to provide the detailed biography that the poems can provide. And second: the Cid (despite the excellent film) is not as well known in English-language legends and history books. This means that many of the ideas he's trying to refute have never made it over to the English-speaking world leaving many of his refutations confusing. It'd be like writing an expose on King Arthur in Mongolian; it just doesn't have the same impact.
Fortunately, the book does not succumb to either of these problems. The holes in the original sources can be filled in somewhat with a detailed study of the background and lead up to the Spain of the Cid. The taifa states of al-Andalus offer detailed information on life in Muslim Spain and are less commonly discussed in English making an outline of their history necessary in any event. The first half of the book in fact, is simply setting the stage for the exploration of the Cid's career. The second half discusses what is known of the Cid's life and provides basic literary criticism of the chronicles and poems.
Whether he succeeds in disproving the ideas which he is trying to refute is a bit harder to judge. He outlines many of these, and many of the nationalistic ones are fairly obvious in any event, but someone who never grew up on legends of the Cid or engrossed themselves in Cidian historical criticism is unlikely to know how effective his arguments are against the more compelling mythical view. This is the primary book on the Cid in English and as such is likely to form the basis for future English-language interpretations of that figure. People wanting to know more about the Cid and Spain of the eleventh century should check out Pindar's The Cid and His Spain, which is the chief book that Fletcher is arguing against.
Some areas do fall a bit flat here and there. The chapter on similar mercenaries from across Europe went a bit far in seeking comparable examples. Rodrigo's career is best understood within a Spanish context, something that he makes very clear in the rest of his book, which makes it confusing to see that forgotten here. But on the whole the book does a good job of both keeping the readers' interest and explaining the background even while arguing against an approach that few readers will be familiar with.
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