It’s almost not news to say I’m on strike today, partly because there’s been so much of that on the blog in recent months but also because today, really, it might be quicker to say who isn’t. It might reasonably be said that something is wrong with the UK at the moment, and it is coming out in strikes the way a human body would come out in hives. But with the trains being part of that, I couldn’t get to join the picket or the rally so I have done strike blog instead! I hope it will make the point that all promises made to university staff since last time have been ignored and we are many of us still without a third to a quarter of our pensions despite the reason we lost them being admitted false, without pay that keeps pace with inflation, without equality between genders or races when it comes to that pay, without much progress away from temporary, prospect-less contracts for a decent part of the profession, and with unsustainable, impossible workloads with respect to which we are promised only ‘fairness’, but never reduction.1 I know there are other workers’ unions protesting worse situations, but I think my reasons for being out are reasonable even so. And besides, how very, pathologically, British even to consider not making a fuss because there are still some people who have it worse! Where can that end except with everyone squashed down into the bottom of the barrel, unwilling to complain because by then ‘we’re all in the same boat’? Sorry, horribly mixed metaphor, but you see my point. So, no, I’m on strike, and so you get extra blog.
I’ve had this post in stub since November 2019, when, having fairly recently actually read the Byzantine poetic novel Digenes Akrites for the first time (in English, I should say) I found myself at last able to comment on a number of studies I’d seen comparing this ‘two-blooded border-lord’ (more or less what Digenes Akrites means, as a name) to the heroic Castilian frontiersman of the twelfth century, subject of film and more, Rodrigo Díaz, or as he’s better known, el Cid.2 The stub had the title you see above, and read only:
“Because he’s basically Hercules/Samson with nice relationship ethics, not a human man with an army; also the race thing, as well as many more; why do people do this?”
I read this out to my partner and she said, more or less, “why don’t you just post that? It gets straight to the point.” And I considered it briefly, but I thought in the end that that would be a post for a very few people, whereas if I explained it even slightly it might be, you know, enjoyable for a public. So here goes.
So Digenes, the character, seems to be meant to have existed on the Byzantine-Islamic frontier in Anatolia, i. e. roughly the north edge of the present, or rather recent, Turkish-Syrian border, maybe in the late tenth or early eleventh century? It doesn’t much matter when, as he is archetypal more than historical. His name derives from the fact that he is son of an Arabic emir who carries off his mother, daughter of a Byzantine military commander in a raid, and who is then induced to convert to Christianity so as to marry her; these are Digenes’s two bloods, in a back-and-forth of loyalties which belongs, if anywhere, in the messy politics of the early Komnenian era just before the First Crusade.3 As the child grows it becomes clear he’s a physical and military prodigy, who hunts and kills beasts many times his size, defeats entire armies alone and bare-handed, and so on, and the poem is basically about him carrying off his own wife and going and settling part of the border with her, by defeating all comers single-handedly in between building a wasteland palace on the Euphrates, occasionally being called on to solve impossible situations by the Byzantine emperor (Romanos, either I or II one presumes, in some versions of the text, and Basil, presumably II, in others—but we’re not really moving in history here) by means of his extraordinary prowess and finally dying undefeated in his effectively home-made Eden.
As for el Cid, here there is more certainty. For those who don’t know, the historical Rodrigo Díaz grew up in Bivar, near Burgos in Castile, and became a military celebrity in the service of the Castilian king, but fell into disfavour for some reason and moved out to then-Muslim Zaragoza, where he served the Emir as commander for some years with great success, including against Castilian and Aragonese forces both regular and rogue. He then had a brief rapprochement with King Alfonso VI of Castile, but it didn’t work out and then he went rogue himself, moving into the gap between the south of Aragón and the Muslim world and eventually making his big move by besieging and taking the Muslim city of Valencia, where he ruled as king for the few years of his life, including repelling attacks by the Berber fundamentalist Almoravids who had reunified Muslim resistance to the recent Christian conquests. When he died, Valencia was abandoned as no-one else thought they could hold it. His earliest biographer records that, “Never was he defeated by any man,” though it should be said that that is at least in part because even that biographer shows him being quite picky about his battles.4 Still, after you’ve defied the king of Castile with one hand, the Commander of the Faithful with the other and taken the Count of Barcelona prisoner and ransomed him twice, it’s hard for anyone not to admit you knew what you were doing with an army.
Now, I say ‘earliest biographer’ there because this picture comes straight out of the Historia Roderici, a Latin Life that was written about him, perhaps by a bishop of Salamanca who had been one of el Cid’s churchmen at Valencia, and so an eye-witness source, albeit here via quite a lot of interpretation by Richard Fletcher.5 But it’s not necessarily the standard view of the man, because much more famous is a rather later Spanish epic poem, the Poema or Cantar del Mio Cid, as seen above in its oldest preserved form. This leaves out all Rodrigo’s fighting for Muslims – in fact even has the King of Zaragoza becoming his vassal rather than the other way around – and makes much more of his loyalty in exile to the King of Castile despite that ruler’s misinformed maltreatment of him, which is partly caused in this version by the king’s failure to prevent the murder of Rodrigo’s daughters after their marriage, at royal command, to some noble ne’er-do-wells called the Infantes of Carrión. But the undefeated hero still stamps larger than life through this narrative, including the chief victory against the Almoravids. Now, this version of the story is one of the great literary monuments of the Castilian language, taught on literature syllabi in Spain like Beowulf is in the USA.6 Furthermore, it got taken up big-time by a very influential historian in the 1920s, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and he based on it a book which was much translated but also very compatible with Franco’s subsequent vision of a Catholic Spain built on its unified Christian resistance to foreign ideologies, and which for both of those reasons was the basis of the eventual Technicolor epic film that you may indeed have seen.7 If you haven’t, by the way, do, it’s fantastic and contains some of the most realistic-looking medieval fight-scenes I think have ever been filmed, and it’s why anyone outside Spain usually knows the story, if they do.
So, it is perhaps unsurprising that, especially among Spanish-origin Byzantinists, there has arisen this tendency to take the Iberian border independent who was never ever defeated and rack him up against the Anatolian one and say, look, er… And indeed, one of my objections to this work has always been that there seems to be no conclusion anyone can reach from doing this that goes deeper than, “maybe frontier culture bred similarities”.8 But my other objection is that despite their border setting, the stories aren’t actually very similar. I’m conscious that unless you’ve actually read both texts, you can only take my word for this or not. I’m also conscious that, by even doing this negative comparison, I’m in danger of writing yet another of these comparative articles about which I was complaining. But let’s embrace these ironies and move from environment inwards towards the hero:
- Digenes’s frontier is basically empty; he can take space in it and almost no-one even notices, he’s hard to find and there’s no other settlement for a basically irrelevant distance. Rodrigo’s frontier is studded with fortresses and every part of it belongs to someone, a fairly close city and then a kingdom which claims the city. Armies cross it all the time and no-one can hide in one place for long. It’s also a lot more mountainous, for what that’s worth.
- In Digenes’s world there’s only one Christian polity, ineffective and distant though it might be, while the Islamic one is indefinite, fragmented and unclear of hierarchy. In el Cid’s world, the Islamic world has unattended limbs you can lop off but it’s all one tree, and a tree that can sometimes swing all of its branches at you at once, while the Christian kingdoms are plural and always opposed to each other; in the Historia Roderici he is opposed by Christian and Muslim forces together but only once two Christian polities working together, and then they have Muslim help.9 One might say that these are mirror images, but if you ask it’s more like through the looking-glass.
- While we’re talking about single combat, that’s almost the only time el Cid is foolish enough to attempt such a thing. Otherwise, he always fights with an army behind him, and indeed one of the motives the Poema and the Historia share is his attempts to manage his men’s loyalty in difficulties, which the Poema uses to compare their fallibility to el Cid’s own undaunted loyalty to a lord who treats him far worse than he treats his men.10 Digenes, by contrast, almost never has a following, almost always fights single-handedly and is often naked and bare-handed when he does so.
And this is because the two characters are fundamentally not the same archetypes. As it says in that stub, Digenes is basically a demi-god, mixed parentage and supernaturally powerful, to whom the most obvious comparison is Hercules. Rodrigo has a historical basis, but I don’t even mean that; one could certainly argue that the Rodrigo of the Poema is a fictional figure to all intents and purposes, with the fact of his actual existence a mere complication. But even as a fictional figure, his archetype is the ultimate knight, a human being whose prowess, manifest almost always as skill at war rather than skill at arms, was realisable by other human beings. One could compare William Marshal, not least because of the same Belisarius-like motif of continuing loyalty despite a lord’s suspicion and contempt.11 This hero is a type we see elsewhere in his age. Digenes isn’t really meant to be from the age in which he’s set, I don’t think, and certainly not the one in which he was being told. And then there’s the question of blood, which in Spain would be an ugly one perhaps involving words like ‘limpieza‘; whatever el Cid is and whomever he served, there’s no doubt that his origins are safely Castilian and Christian.12 The whole point of Digenes, his very name, is that he combines two ancestries, and he mostly serves neither. And because of this, while Digenes Akrites the poem is also a monument of Greek literature in a way, it’s not the same way – Greek culture doesn’t need this medieval novel as a foundation stone, having the Classics, but even if it did, there are other medieval Greek novels – and Digenes the character is no kind of heroic archetype for the modern Greek nation.13 He’s someone set in a non-time and a non-place where impossible things can happen, and there may be a message in that but it’s not the same one as in the Poema del mio Cid, or indeed any other source about him.
Now, if someone who can handle both languages enough to convince wants to write that up as an article, go right ahead; I ask only to be named as co-author and to do the proof checks before submission if it’s being written in English. (Nothing personal, I just care a lot about punctuation and referencing.) But otherwise: can we stop, now? They aren’t the same thing.
1. This is a common enough trick in academia now that there is actually academic literature about it: see Jack Grove, “Academic workload models: a tool to exploit staff and cut costs?” in Times Higher Education (THE) (6 February 2019), online here, reporting on Rebecca Hewett, Amanda Shantz & Julia Mundy, “Information, Beliefs, and Motivation: The antecedents to human resource attributions” in Journal of Organizational Behavior Special Issue (2019), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1002/job.2353.
2. For example, Ioannis Kioridis, “The Wife’s Prayer for her Husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial): Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107. Cf. also n. 8 below.
3. John Mavrogordato (ed./transl.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), has a really useful study of the manuscripts as well as the actual thing, but there are several other translations; that’s just the one I have. For the Komnenian situation here, see Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-86.
4. “Historia Roderici”, transl. by Richard Fletcher in Simon Barton & Richard Fletcher (transl.), The World of el Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest, pp. 90-147, c. 74 (p. 146); cf. c. 15 (p. 107). I should say, by the way, that I could probably double these notes if I were also giving references in Spanish; but I’m guessing that if you read Spanish and are reading this, you probably already know where that stuff is…
5. Ibid., pp. 90-98, based on Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (New York City NY 1990).
6. For the Poema, see in English Peter Such & John Hodgkinson (edd./transl.), The Poem of My Cid (Warminster 1987), or otherwise R. Selden Rose and Leonard Bacon (transl.), The Lay of the Cid (Berkeley CA 1919), online here.
7. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, The Cid and his Spain, trans. Harold Sunderland (London 1934, repr. 2016); Helen Nader, “Encountering the Cid” in Jason Glenn (ed.), The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources (Toronto 2011), pp. 177–188, more or less retells this work’s story in summary, with Fletcher’s critique noted only in references. For an analysis of the politics which led to the making of the film, see John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (London), pp. 63‒148.
8. A conclusion already reached by Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22, which I might have thought got all there was to be got out of the theme, but cf. n. 1 above…
9. “Historia Roderici”, c. 37 (pp. 122-123 in Fletcher & Barton).
10. Geoffrey West, “King and Vassal in History and Poetry: A Contrast between the ‘Historia Roderici’ and the ‘Poema de Mio Cid'”, in Alan Deyermond (ed.), ‘Mio Cid’ Studies (London: Támesis, 1977), pp. 195–208.
11. For William Marshal, see among numerous (so many) biographies David Crouch, William Marshal, 3rd ed. (London 2016; 1st ed. London 1990).
12. “Historia Roderici”, c. 2 (p. 99 in Fletcher & Barton) tracks his ancestry back 9 generations in the northern part of Castile.
13. Margaret Mullett, “Novelisation in Byzantium: Narrative after the Revival of Fiction” in John Burke (ed.), Byzantine Narrative: papers in honour of Roger Scott, Byzantina Australiensia 16 (Leiden 2006), pp. 1–28; cf. Michael Angold, “The Poem of Digenes Akrites: the frontier and the Byzantine identity” in Convivencia, defensa y comunicación en la frontera: En memoria de Don Juan de Mata Carriazo y Arroquia, Estudios de Frontera 3 (Jaén 2000), pp. 69–79, online here.