The Legend of Bernardo del Carpio 3B: Origins of the Legend

Scholars are agreed that the legend of Bernardo del Carpio, as we have it in the Three Earliest Chronicles, is a combination of three different stories.

I: Bernardo del Carpio proper, a Castilian-Leonese legend about a man who spent his life in a vain attempt to free his father from prison.

II: Bernardo the Carolingian, a Pyrenees legend about a nephew of Charlemagne’s who spent most of his life fighting against his kinsmen (Roncesvalles, Don Bueso) for his fatherland of Spain.

III: Bernardo the Catalonian, who founded Canal de Jaca, fought the Moors, and married into the local nobility.

Fusion of the Legends

OLD THEORY: The legend began with Bernardo the Catalonian. Later developments made the hero nephew of Charlemagne and created the legend of Bernardo son of Timbor, half-Spaniard, half-Frank, who had a very conflicted relationship with his mother’s country and family. Later still, probably after King Sancho united Navarre and Castile, Bernardo became nephew of Alfonso, and the story of Count Sancho was created. The new versions did not replace the old ones, however, but circulated simultaneously, and the PCG tried to reconcile them. This theory was held by such great scholars as Milá y Fontanals, Menéndez y Pelayo, and Menéndez Pidal.

NEW THEORY: The three legends arose independently. First the Catalonian and Carolingian Bernardos were fused, and later the legend of Bernardo del Carpio was combined with them, probably owing to the heroes having the same name. Jules Horrent was the first to propose this theory, which has won widespread acceptance. Scholars continue to dispute whether this final fusion was done by the people, or by one learned scholar, and whether the first fuser of all three Bernardos ascribed his deeds to the reign of one Alfonso, or whether the fuser was also the man who divided his exploits between the Chaste and the Great. The Alfonsine division, whether made by Lucas or by his source, was almost certainly made after the fusion of the Bernardo legends, in an attempt to explain how Bernardo could have both fought at Roncesvalles [778] and been the founder of Canal de Jaca [late 800s].

Direct Sources of the Chronicles

It is clear from Lucas, Rodrigo, and the PCG that they were drawing on pre-existing sources that are now lost, but it is unclear exactly what those were.

Cantar de Bernardo. Most scholars postulate an epic poem much like the Poema del Cid, whether written by minstrels or by the people. It may have given the story essentially as we know it from the PCG, or it may have only told the story of the Carolingian Bernardo as fused with the Catalonian.

Estoria de Bernardo. Some also postulate a prose work, either Latin or Spanish. They think it told the story of the Carpian Bernardo, though perhaps already with some contamination (Roncesvalles, Don Bueso) from the Carolingian and the Catalonian.

The origins of the Legends

Turning now to the origins of the three legends before they were combined, Bernardo the Catalonian’s history is easiest to trace. He is, all agree, Bernardo of Ribagorza, whose deeds were greatly expanded (the uncharitable would say “forged”) around the 1000s, when charters appear claiming he founded monasteries and repopulated cities after his victories over the Moors. Also from this time is the Memoria Alaonis (c. 1080-1090) which falsely claims that Bernardo was descended from Charlemagne. The real Bernardo of Ribagorza is shrouded in mystery, and the documents are contradictory. He was the son of Count Raymond I of Ribagorza, and probably married Teuda (Toda), daughter of Count Galindo Aznárez II of Aragon. According to unreliable legend, he expelled the Moors from Ribagorza and Sobrarbe in 835. Some sources say, however, that Toda Galíndez married Bernardo’s son, Bernardo II. Others say it was not Bernardo I, but his father, or even his great-grandfather, who repopulated Ribagorza.1

In Catalonia today (or at least, up until the 1950’s), local legend has it that Bernat, son of Charlemagne’s daughter Bellisent, was banished from France because of a family feud, and went to Spain to fight Saracens and giants with his magic instantly-killing sword. He won the hand of the Christian princess of Jaca, built the Castle of Sort, and lived happily ever after.1

1 Sholdod, Barton. Charlemagne in Spain. Geneva, Librarie Droz, 1966.

Bernardo the Carolingian may also be based on Bernardo of Ribagorza. Scholars debate whether the legend of the Ribagorzan grew to include such incidents as Roncesvalles and Don Bueso, or whether an independent Pyrenees legend eventually swallowed the legend of Ribagorza whole. Those who believe in an independent legend are uncertain whether it dates all the way back to the battle of Roncesvalles, or whether it grew up under the influence of French pilgrims to Compostela, as a Spanish rebuttal to the legend as told in the Song of Roland and the Pseudo-Turpin, which must have irked the Spaniards and excited their patriotism.

If Bernardo the Carolingian arose independently, he may be partly based on Bernardo of Septimania, son of William of Gellone [the inspiration for William of Orange]. He was given Barcelona by Charlemagne in 803, married one Dhuoda (a name very similar to Theuda or Toda, the Ribagorzan), and had a tendency to get involved in the wars of the Frankish kings and to plunder the countryside. He was, on one occasion, banished from the Frankish court for allegedly having an affair with Empress Judith, and fled to Spain. He was captured and executed by Charles the Bald in 844, for having sided with Pepin the Younger.

Bernardo del Carpio proper is a mystery. No trace of such a character, or anyone like him, is found in the history of Alfonso II or Alfonso III. His story most likely arose out of the same epic-legendary milieu as the Seven Sons of Lara, El Cid, Fernán González, and others, though it is very strange that, out of all the epics of old Spain, Bernardo alone should be devoid of historical foundation.

Scholars also disagree as to the kernel of the Carpian story. Mercedes Vaquero thinks the legend grew out of the dispute between Bernardo and Alfonso over the fief of El Carpio, and that the entire story of Count Sancho was a later addition.2 Most, however, hold that the story of Count Sancho is at the root of the legend.

Ms. Vaquero has suggested that the story was inspired by Pedro Fernández de Castro (c. 1160-1214). Pedro was the son of Fernando Rodríguez el Castellano (1125-1185) and Estafanía the Unfortunate (d. 1180), bastard daughter of Emperor Alfonso VII of Castile and Leon (r. 1126-1157). Fernando murdered his wife out of jealousy, and, according to (inaccurate) legend, fought alongside the Moors against the Christians on various occasions. Pedro fought both for and against Alfonso VIII of Castile (r. 1185-1214) and Alfonso IX of Leon (r. 1171-1230), always opposed peace between the two kingdoms, and fought on the side of the Moors at the Battle of Alarcos. He was, at various times, chief advisor to Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (r. 1184-1199) and majordomo of Leon. He spent some time in exile in Catalonia with his kinsmen the Counts of Urgel, and at last died in Morocco. Furthermore, his father Fernando Rodríguez was (mistakenly) believed to have fought alongside the Moors as well. So Pedro, like Bernardo, was related to royalty, the rebel son of a (supposedly) rebel father, sometimes fighting for his king and sometime against him, fought on the side of the Moors, and after his final banishment spent some time in Catalonia.3

Other historical figures have been proposed as models for Bernardo, or at least as having some influence on his legend.

King Bernard of Italy (797-818), bastard son of King Pepin of Italy, son of Charlemagne. He married Cunigonde of Laon, and begot Pepin, Count of Vermandois. Bernard later got involved in a rebellion against Louis the Pious, who had him blinded, and the procedure killed him. This Bernard has nothing but his name in common and his bastardy in common with he of El Carpio. Some scholars point out that Lucas claims Bernardo del Carpio served in the imperial household under Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) and Lothair I (r. 840-855), but nowhere does Lucas even hint that the Carpian became a king.

King Fortunio of Sobrarbe (r. 802-815). This king, various chronicles tell us, married the daughter of Count Galindo Aznar, allied with Alfonso and Marsil to lead Asturians, Biscayans, Alaveses, Navarres, and the men of Sobrarbe against Charlemagne, and fought in the Battle of Roncesvalles in 809, when Roland and the Peers were slain. He had two daughters: Theuda, who married Bernardo of Ribagorza; and Galinda, who, some say, married Sancho Garces, who became king after Fortunio’s death. However, King Fortunio did not actually exist. The entire Kingdom of Sobrarbe is a fifteenth-century fabrication, made to glorify Aragon, and would not be worth mentioning here if serious scholars had not been deceived and attempted to link Fortunio to the Bernardo legend.

Sulayman b. Yaqzan al-Kalbi l-Arabi. The Moorish governor of Saragossa who invited Charlemagne into Spain in the first place. Late accounts tell us that Charles took him as hostage when he prepared to leave Spain, but that his sons attacked the camp and set him free. He may have been a participant at Roncesvalles, if the Moors were really part of that battle. The identification of him with Bernardo, however, seems to be first made by Pedro Chalemta, but as he presents neither evidence or explanation, one can hardly take him seriously.4

People and Places

Alfonso II is said in some sources to have married Bertinalda, a French princess, though the marriage was never consummated. This story is first found in Bishop Pelagius of Oviedo’s Chronicon (1132), and repeated in the PCG. Pelagius never mentions Bernardo, however. Lucas calls her Berta, Charlemagne’s sister. Perhaps she was invented to explain why Alfonso was willing (and permitted) to raise Timbor’s son as his own.5

Timbor herself is unknown outside of Spain, as is Don Bueso.

Sancho Diaz and Jimena first appear in Lucas. Sancho has been identified with Nepociano, who attempted to claim the throne after Alfonso II’s death and was defeated and blinded by Ramiro I, but this is extremely unlikely.

A tomb said to be Count Sancho’s is in S. Román de Entrepeñas. Unfortunately, that monastery was not founded until the 900’s.6 Also, Saldaña was not a County until that same century. Barrios del Luna, where the Count was imprisoned, is a real castle, now in ruins.

Doña Jimena’s alleged tomb is in the monastery of Saint Vincent and Saint Pelayo, in Oviedo, with “Castisima Scemena,” inscribed on it in ninth or tenth century letters. The only Jimenas known to have lived during this period are the queens of Alfonso III and Fruela II, who are buried elsewhere. Since few believe that Jimena the mother of Bernardo actually existed, most scholars attribute this tomb to the first abbess.7

There are many El Carpios in Spain, but the most likely candidate for our hero’s fief is a fortress in the debatable land between Castile and Leon, which changed hands frequently. Bernardo’s alleged tomb is not there, however, but in Aguilar de Campo. The tradition is at least as old as the 1500’s, when Charles V visited there.

In short, there is no evidence that Bernardo del Carpio or any of his family (Alfonso excepted) ever existed.

1 Katherine P. Oswald, “The Formation and Transmission of the Legend of Bernardo del Carpio” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2015), pp. 12-13.

2 Vaquero, Mercedes. “Relaciones feudo-vasalláticas y problemas territoriales en el Cantar de Bernardo del Carpio”, Charlemagne in the North: Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference of the Société Rencesvals, Edinburgh, 4th to 11th August 1991, eds. Philip E. Bennett, Anne Elizabeth Cobby and Graham A. Runnalls, Edinburgh, Société Rencesvals British Branch; London, Grant and Cutler, 1993, p. 475-484.

3 Oswald, pp. 17-19; and gen . ref. for dates.

4 Pedro Chalmeta, “Rozaballes & Bernardo,” Arabica 55, no. 1 (2008).

5 Jules Horrent, La chanson de Roland dans les littératures française et espagnole au Moyen Âge (Liège: Presses universitaires de Liège, Les Belles Lettres, 1951), , Book II, Part II, Chapter IV, Note 44.

6 Vicente José González García, Bernardo del Carpio y la Batalla de Roncesvalles (Oviedo, Spain: Fundación Gustavo Bueno, 2007) p. 59.

7 González García 2007, p. 50.


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