The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day

By Gerald Brenan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES

EPIC POETRY

CASTILIAN literature begins with the epic poem or cantar de gesta known as the Poema de Mio Cid. It was written round about the year 1140 and is the first poem of any sort that has come down to us in a Peninsular language. Now, as it happens, the first literary work in the French language was also an epic poem and was written about forty years before this time. This is the Chanson de Roland. These two poems are both great works of imagination, highly characteristic of their respective nations, and what is more, they came to birth in a peculiar historical relation to one another. I think therefore that it may be useful if I draw a comparison between them. Such a comparison will illustrate better than anything else could do some of the outstanding differences between the two nations and literatures.

I will take the Chanson de Roland first. It is a story based on an incident that took place during an expedition made by Charlemagne against the Moors of Saragossa in the year 778. But the historical element in it is very slight: in reality it springs almost entirely out of the events and feelings of its own time. Let us see briefly what these were.

Almanzor, the scourge of the Spanish Christians, died in 1002 and the Arab Caliphate broke up soon after. This gave the Christian states of the North the chance to regain lost territory. But they were still weak and to strengthen themselves they called in to help them volunteers from across the Pyrenees. From 1018 onwards, therefore, armed bands were passing almost yearly from France into Spain to assist the Kings of Navarre, Aragon and Castile. For the most part these bands consisted of Normans and Burgundians, who were the most formidable fighters of the day as well as the most ambitious and restless of the feudal peoples. Thus it was the Normans who, with the help of the Duke of Aquitaine, twice took

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