24 April 2013

Traitors & Turncoats: The Wife of García Fernández in Historical Epic

By Jessica Knauss

Our main source for Castilian epic poems are the traces they’ve left in – of all things – historical writing. Especially in the workshop of Alfonso X el Sabio in the thirteenth century, medieval Spanish men writing about their local past turned to the stories they knew from minstrels and other oral traditions. It doesn’t seem so odd when we consider that these heroic sagas are more often than not about real-life figures. Spanish literary realism has long roots.

This Castilian historic/epic tradition, which has a looming responsibility in forming the notion of Spain, relishes anecdotes about traitors who persist in the Spanish imagination even today. Readers may be familiar with the betrayal of King Sancho that sets off the cycle of El Cid. An earlier royal meets a similar bloody end in the “Romance of Prince García.” The story on which I base my first novel, The Seven Noble Knights of Lara, tells of a betrayal that wipes out an entire generation of Castilian warriors.

The chapter of history known as “The Traitor Countess” is so full of betrayal that the title refers to not one countess, but two.

In the story, García Fernández is Count of Castile, the highest secular authority in the land at the end of tenth century. His wife Argentina takes a liking to a minor French noble and escapes with him. García’s subjects pressure him to go after her and erase this stain on his honor. When he arrives, he meets the French nobleman’s daughter, Sancha. In exchange for marriage to the count, she lets him into her father’s – and new stepmother’s – bedroom, where he hides in wait of the signal. When she tugs on the cord she’s tied around his foot, García emerges from under the bed and decapitates the lovers, thus regaining honor for himself and his independent county.

The new countess is welcomed in Castile, but comes to yearn for more power, which she intends to gain by marrying a Moorish prince. She malnourishes García’s horse so that it seems fit, but fails him in battle. García is taken prisoner to Córdoba, capital of the Islamic caliphate, where he is executed.

But Sancha can’t run off with her Muslim lover until she does away with her son, Sancho, García’s heir. Sancho finds out about his mother’s plans and when she offers him a drink, he insists she take it instead. Thus she dies from her own poison.

Scholars love the themes of female disruption of power in this story, but perhaps more fascinating for the historian is the way it adapts historical facts to create an even more exciting drama. García was the Count of Castile, and his heir was Sancho. García perished in battle against Muslim foes. But Sancho’s mother was not called Sancha, and García had only one wife. Her name was Ava and she left no evidence of even attempting to betray her husband or son.

I’ve often wondered why the fictional version ended up in the history books when the facts made more sense. My hunch is that the man who compiled the histories, King Alfonso X, was preoccupied with themes of traitors and turncoats because of treasonous demands the Castilian nobility made of him and the series of revolts in every corner of the realm during his reign. His son Sancho eventually deposed him, but that treason probably occurred too late to affect the writing of the histories.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this psychological reading is that in the epic versions, all traitors come to the end they deserve, as in the violent deaths of both of the traitor countesses. It didn’t always turn out that way in real life.

Jessica Knauss is seeking representation for her first novel, The Seven Noble Knights of Lara. Learn more about Jessica and her writing at: