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  • Corpse, Codex, and Chronicle:Robert Southey Translating the Poem of the Cid
  • Alexander J. McNair

Descubierto el Sepulcro . . .

And when all had said Amen, the Abbot himself, with a little bar of iron, began first to move the lid of the stone coffin; and then the workmen and others easily lifted it off upon the bier, and thus the tomb was laid open . . . 1

Every translation starts with an open tomb; every translation of relics, that is. Robert Southey's version of this tomb opening, in the final book of his Chronicle of the Cid (1808), renders Spanish accounts of the translation of the Cid's remains which took place in January, 1541. Following the episode as told in Francisco de Berganza's Antigüedades de España, Southey writes that the Abbot and the entire monastery community of San Pedro de Cardeña "had resolved to see that holy body and relicks, by reason of the devotion which they bore to the blessed Cid, and that they might bear testimony in what manner he lay in that tomb, wherein he had been deposited so many years ago" (356).2 The sepulcher had been there, set upon four stone lions in front of the sacristy of the monastery's main chapel, since the church was rebuilt in 1447. The stone coffin is thought to have been provided by Alfonso X in the 1270s.3 In late 1540, the monks of San Pedro de Cardeña had decided to "beautify the great Chapel of the said Monastery with a rich choir and stalls, and new altars, and goodly steps to lead up to them" (354). The Cid's tomb, however, presented problems for the renovation: "it would neither be seemly for the service of the altar, because it was in the way thereof, nor for his [the Cid's] dignity, by reason that they might stumble against it" (354). Moreover, the account claims the tomb had "fallen into decay" and was "set badly upon the stone lions," so the decision was made to "translate his body" along with several others "to places [End Page 79] convenient for them" (354). The Abbot, Lope de Frias, planned to reconfigure the church for a combination of practical and aesthetic reasons. He was, in essence, presenting the main chapel and its honored tombs in a new way for the monastery and the larger community— "for the devotion of the people" (354). Before completing renovation, however, the Cid's corpse would see the light of day for the first time in three centuries; the Abbot was quite literally "re-presenting" the Cid to the Cardeña monks.

This renovation of San Pedro and accompanying translation of mortal remains are a physical embodiment of the process by which the story of the eleventh-century Rodrigo Díaz has been retold or re-presented to its audiences in every century since his death. The late twelfth-century Castilian audience of the Poem of the Cid needed a loyal vassal and crusader in the face of Almohad aggression, sixteenth-century Spain needed a Catholic hero-saint in the wake of the Reformation, and the twentieth century needed a role for Charleton Heston between Ben Hur and Planet of the Apes. The twenty-first century, following the lead of Hollywood's portrayal, has represented El Cid to the popular imagination as a multicultural voice of tolerance and moderation set against a backdrop of ever-growing fanaticism.4 Each generation redecorates, renovates, or rebuilds the existing structure to accommodate evolving needs and tastes. What the Abbot and his workmen found that day as they removed the giant stone slab from the top of the tomb had something for all these audiences. Southey continues:

. . . and there appeared within it a coffin of wood fastened-down with gilt nails, the hair of the coffin being entirely gone, and great part of the wood decayed also. Within this coffin was the holy body, now well nigh consumed, nothing but the bones remaining entire. On some of the bones the flesh was still remaining, not discoloured, but with a rosy colour, and the flesh also which had fallen from them. The body was wrapt in...


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