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  • Iconicity, Romance and History in the Crónica Sarracina
  • Marina S. Brownlee (bio)

Though seemingly alien discourses, romance and historiography are perennially linked. Far from offering an atemporal imaginary universe that bears no resemblance to historical specificity, romance is constructed as a response to it. Rather than simply projecting for the reader the naïve appeal of a prelapsarian escapism from the harsh realities of history, romance involves a continuous and sophisticated reinvention of itself as a response to an ever-changing historico-political configuration. It is, in fact, a reciprocal relationship. We frequently see history appropriating romance paradigms explicitly, as, for example, when Bernal Díaz chooses to present Spain’s New World conquest and colonization as a continuation of the exploits of Amadís [see Gilman].

Whatever form it takes, romance is committed to the celebration of a coherent system of socio-political values. This extra-textual frame of reference can take a variety of forms—from political propaganda that offers a self-aggrandizing depiction of the nobility or patron for whom the text is produced, to escapist fantasy—futuristic or archaizing. It is nostalgia for the lost world of chivalric romance which Cervantes embodies in the figure of Don Quijote, a foolish old man driven mad by his obsession with this perennial literary form. Cervantes is rightly credited with a brilliant and programmatic use of romance constructs to communicate the ongoing historical crisis of the Spanish empire. A byproduct of this romance scrutiny of history was his invention of the modern novel.

Testimony to the long-standing interaction between romance and history in Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, is evident in the fact that its first romances were based on history, the so-called “romances of antiquity.” In those texts historical figures and events are evoked for the purpose of legitimating the present, vernacular poets as they celebrate the empowering myths projected by their society, as well as their own literary endeavors by invoking venerable Latin models. The well known translatio studii et imperii topos offers such allegory of empire.

At the same time, the confrontation of romance and historical representation can also have a destabilizing effect, and this is programmatically explored in Pedro del Corral’s Crónica sarracina (c. 1430). His text ponders the possibilities of romance and historiography in an obsessive manner and he accomplishes his task by examining representation of the most iconic figures associated with the fall of Spain in 711, namely, La Cava and her father, Count Julián, King Rodrigo, and Pelayo, the messianic hope of the Reconquest effort which would last nearly 800 years.

Of related and perhaps even broader importance, Corral’s text merits careful reading because its exploration of iconicity related to Spain’s fall offers meditations on the workings of ideology, which inevitably proposes “imaginary or formal solutions to unresolvable contradictions” [Jameson 79]. Ideology—its unmasking—is intriguingly posited by Corral in powerful ways.

If we turn to Corral’s text, we find a work offering an extraordinary consideration of history and romance—their profound interaction—whose full title reads, La crónica [End Page 119] del rey don Rodrigo con la destrucción de España (The Chronicle of King Rodrigo with the Destruction of Spain). My interest in the Crónica here is primarily to consider the mechanisms by which it gestures boldly toward what Žižek has described as the project of the postmodern critique of ideology—though it is clearly a recurring cultural constant—namely to “designate the elements which point towards the system’s antagonistic character, and thus ‘estrange’ us to the self-evidence of its established identity” [Žižek 7]. A reading of the Crónica provides an extended paradigm of such estrangement.

Iberia is the area of the Mediterranean which underwent the most protracted encounter between Christianity and Islam, and the events of the Moorish invasion of 711 constitute Spain’s unique foundational subject-matter—on a par with the Troy legend and with King Arthur [see Deyermond 355]. Like them, the retelling of 711 is all about forging mythic connections in order to legitimize empire in a temporally remote time-frame. What interests me in this essay is...