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  • El Cid, the Impaler?: Line 1254 of the Poem of the Cid
  • Alexander J. McNair

He filled his imagination full to bursting with everything he read in his books, from witchcraft to duels, battles, challenges, wounds, flirtations, love affairs, anguish, and impossible foolishness, packing it all so firmly into his head that these sensational schemes and dreams became the literal truth and, as far as he was concerned, there were no more certain histories anywhere on earth. He’d explain that Cid Ruy Díaz had been a very good knight, but simply couldn’t be compared to the Knight of the Flaming Sword, who with one backhand stroke had cut in half two huge, fierce giants.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote1

When a ruler is at the head of his army and has a vast number of soldiers under his command, then it is absolutely essential to be prepared to be thought cruel; for it is impossible to keep an army united and ready for action without acquiring a reputation for cruelty.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince 2

. . . they should take his belongings and put him on a stake.

Rodrigo Díaz (El Cid) in Poem of the Cid 3

I. Cruelty Well Used?

In an anonymously published dialogue entitled Viaje de Turquía: La odisea de Pedro de Urdemalas [Voyage from Turkey: The Odyssey of Pedro de Urdemalas] of 1557, the title character recounts his capture at sea by Turks and after describing the gruesome execution of one of his galley’s captains (they cut off his arms, ears, and [End Page 45] nose) he remarks almost offhandedly that “they impaled the other [captain].”4 This is among the first appearances in print of the verb empalar, to impale, in Spanish. It also becomes the occasion for the word’s first definition in Spanish, since one of the discussants asks Pedro for clarification—”¿Qué es empalar?” (What is ‘to impale’?)—to which he responds with a graphic description:

La más rabiosa y abominable de todas las muertes. Toman un palo grande, hecho a manera de asador, agudo por la punta, y pónenle derecho y en aquél le espetan por el fundamento, que llegue quasi a la boca, y déxansele ansí vibo, que suele durar dos y tres días.


[The most violent and abominable of all deaths. They take a large stake, made in the manner of a skewer, sharpened to a point, they place it in an upright position, and on it they stick [the victim], piercing him from his fundament through almost to his mouth, and they leave him thus, still alive, to last for two or three days usually.]

This definition probably influenced the first official definitions of the word in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sebastian de Covarrubias in his Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language) of 1611 defines empalar as “a cruel and barbaric kind of punishment, skewering a man with the stake, as one would skewer a bird on the spit.”5 To “it is a cruel and barbaric kind of punishment,” the Diccionario de Autoridades in the eighteenth century would add “very ancient, with which the Turks and Moors usually take the lives of Christian captives.”6

Centuries before the first documented appearance of the verb empalar in Spanish, how would this “very ancient” death sentence be described by Iberian Romance vernacular? Could the Spanish language’s earliest surviving epic, the Poem of the Cid (1207), provide evidence of this “cruel and barbaric” punishment? This study seeks to answer these questions by exploring possible interpretations of line 1254, our third epigraph: “Tomássenle el aver e pusiéssenle en un palo” (they should take his belongings and put him on a stake). The line occurs in the context of the Cid’s successful siege and subsequent defense of Valencia:

Grand alegría es entre todos essos cristianos con mio Cid Ruy Díaz, el que en buen hora nasco. [...] Mio Cid don Rodrigo en Valencia está folgando, con él Minaya Álbar Fáñez, que nos’ le parte de so braço. Los que exieron de tierra de...


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