The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people. It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade and although there is some truth in this much of it in reality was simply due to the expansionist territorial ambitions of competing northern Spanish kingdoms such as Asturias and León.
In legend the focal point of the story of the Reconquista has been the heroic tale of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar or El Cid, the National hero of Spain and revered by many as being single handedly responsible for the victory of the Catholic Kingdoms over the North African Moors but whilst El Cid was undoubtedly a great warrior and soldier he was only one of many who contributed to the Crusade.
A hero needed a wife and El Cid was married in either in1074 or 1075 to Doña Ximena of Oviedo, a city in the modern day Principality of Asturias in the north of Spain but in the eleventh century part of Alfonso VI’s Kingdom of Leon and Castile.
The anonymous Latin prose history of the life of El Cid, the’ Historia Roderici’ identifies Ximena as the daughter of a Count Diego of Oviedo, but there is no evidence to confirm this and the later Poema de Mio Cid names her father as an equally unknown Count Gomez de Gormaz and some historians have laterly concluded that this is one and the same person. Tradition states that when the Cid laid eyes on her for the first time he was overcome by her great beauty and fell in love with her on sight. If she looked like Sophia Loren then that isn’t all that surprising!
The explanation for the Cid’s pre-eminence in the history of the Reconquista is the responsibility of Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who was the foremost Spanish historian of his age and the author of the standard biography of Rodrigo, first published in 1929. Pidal gave substantial credibility to the ‘Poema de Mio Cid’, which was a work written at the height of the crusading age but, crucially, fifty years after the Cid’s death and in an age without rigorous record keeping then fifty years is a long time in which to get historical ‘drift‘. Then, his valiant deeds against the Muslims made him a suitable exemplar to inspire a generation of holy warriors fighting the Crusades, and his life quickly moved into the realms of legend.
In the eighth century almost all of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by hostile Muslim armies from North Africa. Only a number of areas in the mountainous north that roughly correspond to modern Asturias, Cantabria, Navarre and northern Aragon managed to resist the initial invasion and many years before El Cid this was to become the breeding ground of the Reconquista.
Life under Moorish occupation was rather mixed, for many it wasn’t that bad and under Islam, the status of Christians and Jews was recognised, there was great religious and social tolerance and in return for a small tax they were free to practice their own religion but for others there was persecution and intolerance and this forced the disaffected to migrate north to take refuge in the Christian Kingdoms. Conversion to Islam proceeded at a steadily increasing pace however and by the end of the tenth century Muslims of ethnic Iberian origin are believed to have comprised the majority of the population of Andalusia.
In legend the story of El Cid and the reconquest has acquired a rather simple plot of Christian Spain against Muslim Moors but throughout this period the situation in Iberia was much more complicated. As well as fighting against each other Christian and Muslim rulers commonly fought amongst themselves, the Berbers of North Africa, who had provided the bulk of the invading armies, clashed with the fundamentalist Arab leadership from the Middle East and to further complicate matters interfaith alliances were not unusual. The fighting along the Christian Muslim frontier was punctuated by prolonged periods of peace and truces and distorting the situation even further were the legions of mercenaries who frequently switched sides and fought for cash.
El Cid lived at this confusing time and he too at various times had Muslim allies and at other times worked for Muslim paymasters against Christians because he was, in short, a warrior for hire, a mercenary, who spent much of his career fighting for whoever paid him the most.
In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but again this is not strictly the case because history teaches us that (except for the Nazis) there is always two sides to any argument. At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe. Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished. Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe. The indigenous cultures interacted with Muslim and Jewish cultures in complex ways, thus giving the region a distinctive culture. Outside the cities, the land ownership system from Roman times remained largely intact as Muslim leaders rarely dispossessed landowners, and the introduction of new crops and techniques led to an improvement and expansion of agriculture.
However, by the eleventh century, Muslim lands had fractured into rival kingdoms and this encouraged the northern Christian kingdoms to take advantage and expand southwards with the opportunity to greatly enlarge their territories and consolidate their positions.
As early as 739 Muslim forces were driven from Asturias and a little later Frankish forces established Christian counties south of the Pyrenees and these areas were to develop into the Kingdoms of Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia. The capture of Toledo in 1085 was soon followed by the completion of the Christian powers reconquest of all the northern territories. El Cid’s greatest contribution to the Reconquista came during this phase of the war and his finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094, which he later died defending in 1099.
After a period of Muslim resurgence in the twelfth century the great Moorish strongholds in the south fell to Christian Spain in the thirteenth, Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 leaving only Granada in the south, which since 1238 was a dependent vassal of the King of Castile.
In 1469, the crowns of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. In 1478 the Moors were driven from the Islands and in 1492 the Christians captured Granada, ending seven hundred and eighty-one years of Islamic rule in Iberia. The Treaty of Granada guaranteed religious tolerance toward Muslims but the new state of Spain was beginning to flex its muscles and the year 1492 marked the arrival in the New World of Christopher Columbus and a law requiring Jews to convert to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition or face expulsion from Spanish territories. The Catholic Monarchy instigated a policy of unrestrained ethnic cleansing and not long after, Muslims too became subject to the same requirement.
Other posts about El Cid:
El Cid and Alvar Fáñez – another hero of the Reconquest
El Cid and his horse Babieca
El Cid and his Wife Ximena
El Cid and La Tizona
El Cid and Saint James
El Cid and Alfonso VI
El Cid and the Castle of Belmonte
El Cid – The Film Fact and Fiction