Today I bring you an interview/self-reflection that I acquire from Alfonso Boix, a Spanish scholar, writing from Valencia, about his true love and passion: the epic Iberian romance El Cantar de Mio Cid. I met Alfonso some years ago and had long deep discussions about medieval literature, but he always manages to bring it all back home. It’s all about El Cid: El Cid here, El Cid there, he just can’t help himself. And that passion is what has driven him to become and international, knowledgeable mind about this topic. With a PhD and several awards for his excellent work, here I present you a fantastic piece of research.
So, what is your research about?
I usually doubt if I deserve to be called a ‘medievalist’, as sometimes I believe ‘cidaist’ would be the proper adjective to describe myself as a researcher. I have been researching on the Cid’s life and legend for almost twenty years and, though I have also written articles and books on other literary fields –the Romantic period, or women in the Middle Ages–, these works have been nothing but daring intrusions which I enjoyed though I always knew they were just short ‘love affairs’. I have mainly dealt with the Cantar de Mio Cid, its structure and its inner symbolic code, and then spread my activity to other aspects such as the Cid’s real life or other texts –Historia Roderici¸ Crónica Particular del Cid…–. My most ambitious project is focused on a research to find a second manuscript of the Mio Cid –only one has been identified up to now, which is guarded at the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid–.
Why this obsession with El Cid?
I began researching the Mio Cid when I was 21, after reading a text from an Arthurian book which reminded me of some lines of the Cantar I had read when I was 8 or 9 years old. I want to believe it was not just something ‘at random’ and that my destiny was written since I was a child. This research led to others and, after finding Alolala –a castle which had remained lost for almost a thousand years–, I decided to develop more ambitious researches, combined with some ‘minor’ ones which would help me to reach the main targets.
This is the reason why, when I began my PhD studies, I decided to work on the Cantar de Mio Cid again: I had already been working on it for almost a decade and I knew the essential bibliography quite well. On the other hand, I did not want to get my PhD thanks to a different literary work of art: I began my career with the Cantar so, for me, my thesis was not just a research but also an homage to the epic Castilian poem.
After the compulsory courses to obtain my DEA –‘Diploma de Estudios Avanzados’, the Spanish equivalent to the MA in those years–, I developed my thesis dealing with the structure and literary gender of the Mio Cid, which I finished almost four years ago. It allowed me to reach some of those ‘main targets’ I had decided to undertake, as it proved that some ‘traditional’ concepts related to the Mio Cid which had been considered ‘unique’ were not so. Thus, the structural scheme of the poem, which resembles a ‘W’ (fall of the hero – rise – new fall – new rise) is indeed the famous Doppelwegstruktur identified in many chivalric works such as Chrétien’s Perceval; the poem itself had been compared to those of the French ‘rebellious vassals’ but, as Menéndez Pidal observed, the Cid is not a rebel against his lord, so the famous researcher believed the Cid was a unique character which showed features belonging to the Spanish ideal of a male hero. However, this ‘non-rebellious hero’ also exists in a minor group of French poems, a fact which allowed me to classify the Mio Cid as a chanson d’aventures, breaking some topics traditionally accepted by researchers and opening new perspectives on the epic poem.
Why do you think literature studies is so popular amongst medievalists, and other historians?
We should bear in mind something as simple –and sad– as the fact that no one who lived in the Middle Ages has survived to explain us how life was in that period. I have always believed that texts –not just Medieval ones, but from every age– are the messages people wrote and put in bottles (i.e. books) that crossed oceans of time till we found them to know they existed, what they did, their legends and everyday life. Archaeology is another crucial science to know how the past times were, but the importance of written texts is obvious: they’re not just the remains of civilizations, but the people who lived in past times explaining those remains. And it is our duty as philologists to read and understand those texts, helping historians who, on the other hand, also allow us to understand the texts better thanks to their researches and findings. So, this circle of mutual influence allows us to understand a period which, on the other hand, seems fascinating thanks to Romanticism, a movement which offered an idealized view of the Middle Ages, and which evidently makes us feel especially attracted by the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.
Now, tell us, what is your favourite part of El Cid?
It would be very easy for me to say I enjoy reading the whole Cantar de Mio Cid: it is true indeed! But I have a favourite episode, of course: the moment in which the Cid meets this young girl in Burgos who tells him the king has forbidden the citizens to help him. She is the first spark of hope in the poem, the first light in the Cid’s way to exile, and the contrast between the warrior and the child is extremely powerful. Battles, love and comradeship scenes are usual in the poem, but this episode is absolutely unique. I love it.
What advise would you give students getting into this sort of specialisation?
If I had to give some advice to new medievalists, I would tell them the only one that can make you ‘survive’ when you become a researcher: love what you do. It does not matter if it is the Cantar de Mio Cid, the Nibelungenlied or Beowulf; you can choose the 5th, the 10th or the 14th century… the only important thing is to choose it because you love it. Becoming a medievalist –or a researcher in any scientific field– is something similar to a marriage: you are going to spend long hours with your love, so you better feel real passion! And, if you ever decide to get divorced, your books are not going to ask you for some compensation while you leave them for another intellectual love. So, indeed… it’s better than a marriage!
After you decide to ‘get married’, you should attend conferences and meet people with common interests, especially those researchers who are well-known by their influential careers and that will give you advice for your specific interests. Don’t be shy to ask them, the wisest are always humble and open to give any suggestion if you are ready to listen to them.
And, finally, and most important of all: stay hungry! Never lose your passion to learn, discover new things, feel thrilled to know you are the first in centuries to read / know / understand whatever you discover. And let this passion become a drug that makes you crave for more. And, if you ever lose that passion… look for a new one. But never stop learning and feeling surprised by the path you follow: it’s got lots of treasures for those who accept them.
We hope you enjoyed Alfonso’s story and we would like to thank him for taking the time to share his passion with us!