Luis Millones

Bernardo del Carpio Defeats Charlemagne on the Beaches of Piura

May 23, 2018

Some time ago, it was brought to my notice that San Lucas de Colán, a minor settlement in the homonymous district of Piura, celebrated the apostle James. Though there are many studies of this martyr, the telling of his story that reached the Americas was a product of the Reconquista—and the version of the saint the Spaniards brought with them, a warrior. A marvellous cathedral in Compostela—claimed to be the place to which his bones miraculously transferred from Jerusalem—guards the sepulchre of Spain’s military patron.

Reports of this commemoration were not new to me. Even as a young man, I had been privy to more than one of these homages, all the more since I began to teach at the Universidad de Huamanga and my fieldwork extended into Cuzco and Apurímac. On such occasions, the phrase coined by Emilio Choy—”from James Matamoros to James Mataindios“, in allusion to the enemies of a Spain once conquered by Islam and to the indigenous Americans who were, in turn, conquered by Spain—made sense to me, since every recount of the saint found him materialising in the heat of battle to the inexorable advantage of his stalwarts.

The celebration of St. James in San Lucas de Colán, Piura. Note the idiosyncratic garments of the ‘Moors’ with their chain-mail masks and headdresses.


In those parts of the Peruvian sierra, St. James was adopted by the native populations as Ilapa, the pre-Columbian god of thunder and lightning. One could say that there was the perception of one god under two names: a perfect case of mestizaje or syncretism. This was not, however, the case in Colán, where the local population had never heard of Ilapa, and the ancestors of which had not been quechua. Societies much closer to the Moche—but the history of which has since been lost—had flourished here, and St. James Matamoros presided their feast, the height of which consisted in his fight against the ‘Moors’. Here was, in no uncertain terms, a faithful mirroring of Spanish dramatisations the first script for which had been drafted in the year 900 DC, and variations of which are enacted even to this day in Spain and Mexico.

The celebration of St. James in San Lucas de Colán, Piura. The eclectic style of the ‘Christians’ has callbacks from the Moche to the hussars.


During the late sixteenth century, the port of Paita was the main point of entry to Viceregal Peru, and so it ranked among its more Hispanicised domains. This may account for the neat translation of St. James’ Iberic celebration without much by way of local influence. He was also a mainstay of the Catholic sanctoral that loomed over Hispanic military life, the warcry of which is Santiago y cierra, España (‘Saint James and charge, Spain’), in remembrance of the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, where Alfonso VII of Castile routed Muhammad-an-Nasir’s Almohade army and, with it, the Moorish expansion.

Upon completing my fieldwork I returned to Lima, where an informant handed me a list of all the festivals held in San Lucas de Colán throughout the year. As expected, it included the feast of the Virgen de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy) in early October. Less expected was the name beside hers: that of Bernardo del Carpio.

It had been years since I’d heard a single mention to the antihero of La chanson de Roland, the French geste written in 1123 by an anonymous author [even as its last page reads: “Here ends the story [that] Turoldus”–of whom nothing is known—”completes” (declinet)]. My mind raced to the scene in Don Quixote where the curate and the barber are purging Alonso Quijano’s library to decide which books they should keep and which should be burned. I dug up my edition of Cervantes and tracked down the source of my error: it hadn’t been Quijano’s friends who had passed judgement on del Carpio; but the canon who, towards the ending of Part One, discussed the truth of knightly prowess with Don Quixote, asserting that while no one would deny “[…] there was a Cid […] nor a Bernardo del Carpio; [there is great reason to doubt] that they performed all the exploits ascribed to them”.

Be as it may, as soon as one becomes tangentially aware of the Hispanic epic, the immediate problem calls for solving: how can one explain the presence of Charlemagne, Roland and del Carpio—medieval characters, the lot of them—in Colán?

San Lucas de Colán is an artisanal fishing cove 45 meters above sea level. It is a mere 28 kilometers from Paita and administratively dependent on the district capital. Despite the plenteousness of the Pacific, the locals have a hard time making ends meet. César Pardo Chumacero, the president of Colán’s guild of artisanal fishermen, explained the situation as follows: “We have always struggled with the bigger boats. My grandparents told me there was a time when one could just set out to sea and land species that don’t exist anymore. This area was once rich in flounders (Solea solea or Solea vulgaris). People used to talk of catching sea-bass (Centropomus nigrescens), but now they are found only once in a blue moon. It’s hard to land something like that today, because of all the drag fishing and trawlers (bolicheras). Though it’s true that a Supreme Decree exists forbidding both within five miles from the shore, they just break the law. We’re constantly attending meetings with the local guilds and struggling for the law to be upheld but, like I’m saying, they just ignore it”. 

I ask him what the draught of the embarkments not allowed within the five miles is. “We’re speaking of a storage capacity from 20 tons on up. But what have the fisheries and their owners done to work around this? They’ll build embarkments that are only slightly smaller and then barge in anyway. What is actually prohibited is purse-seine fishing and trawling—it’s in its very name that it’ll drag anything in its path, from the smallest species to the largest”. He then explains that the boliche from which the boats take their name is a dragnet with very small holes woven from coconut fibre, the purpose of which is to capture everything it can to sell for processing as fishmeal. He laments that the fishing of anchoveta (Cetengraulis mysticetus) by the bolicheras scares away the other fish that feed on them. Then, there’s the mounting presence of sea-lions, which tear into artisanal nets to take off with their spoils. This is a difficult problem to address since, according to law—a law which is upheld—their hunt is terminally forbidden.

And so the fishermen supplement seafaring with salt-farming and planting their parcels of minimally arable land; setting up paltry family businesses that sell beverages or candy and that are only bankable, at best, during the summers.  

IIRSA Highway (North, Section 6), arriving to San Lucas de Colán, Piura, Perú. Accessed on 27 April, 2018. 
Monument of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, Navarra, Spain. Accessed 27 April, 2018.


But what of Bernardo del Carpio? If we adhere to history, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass was but an impasse in Charlemagne’s consolidation as King of the Franks and the Lombards. By December 800, he would—some claim, reluctantly—top off this double crown that of Holy Roman Emperor. But before this came to pass, he had to subjugate the nobles whose prerogatives had shown signs of unsteadiness once he decided to restructure his dominion. In a broader frame, between the fall of Rome and the isolation of Byzantium—a time to which we must append the spreading of the Crusadorial fevers and the fear of the Arab threat that overtook the Iberian Peninsula—Charlemagne established the template for the Europe of the coming centuries.   

As part of this process, he became interested in Saracenic Saragossa, which he was unable to capture and from which he was driven to retreat across the Pyrenees. He had already entered into talks with Duke Lupo II of Gascony, who put himself at Charlemagne’s disposition, to the chagrin of his lords (since the surrender of the Basques would find their lands split among Frankish earls and transformed into borders).

On 15 August 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army—including the famous Twelve Peers of France—was cut off by Basque and Arab troops led by Lupo. “[I]n a desperate act of vengeance”, the Carolingian army “sacrificed the paladins who should have seized the local positions of command”. [1] Beyond the singular defeat of Charlemagne, Roncevaux had Lupo the Betrayer dying in prison and his children held as hostages. The court would install his son Adalric at Auch as one “chosen from among the great landlords of Gascony, and not among the Franks” (ibidem).

As to the battle itself, it became a feat of quite a different nature when, three centuries later, it was written into an epic poem, with the once almost unknown combatant Roland refashioned as a hero. To cite Italo Calvino: “[t]he only thing the Matter of France has to say about [Roland] concerns his last battle and death. Everything else: his life, his birth, his family tree, childhood, youth and adventures prior to Roncevaux, would be found in Italy under the name Orlando”. [2]

Which brings us to our antihero, Bernardo del Carpio: thought to be the son of Jimena, the sister of Alfonso II, the Chaste, who fell pregnant by Don Sancho San Díaz, Count of Saldaña—and majordomo to her brother. [3] Twice-affronted, the king—who had wished to marry her to someone who could further his political ambitions—confined Jimena to a convent and then blinded Sancho prior to locking him up in Castillo de Luna, León. Other versions of the story exist, one of which makes Bernando—like Roland—the son of Timor, a sister of Charlemagne who made the intimate acquaintance of this same Don Sancho while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela [4]—this being, naturally, the destination of the Way of Saint James.

With no children of his own, Alfonso would have taken the boy Bernando under his wing. Their bond was one of parentage and patronage until the latter fatefully discovered that his real father was a prisoner. Though Sancho’s freedom was promised to him, it was only granted once the ill-fated Count of Saldaña had died. Bernardo’s relationship with Alfonso grew fraught, and he may have fought not only on his uncle’s side but on Charlemagne’s, too. As with El Cid, with whom he has been all too frequently compared, del Carpio served Christianity, but he was also struck alliances with Arab chieftains. His most important role, however, played out during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, more than one version of which makes him responsible for slaying Roland.  

Though there is evidence that Roland was a real, historic character, del Carpio may just be a literary creature. Despite this, every year in early October, a colareño will be dressed as him in order to engage, defeat and convert the ‘Moors’ of Colán in a theatrical pageant held under the aegis of Our Lady of Mercy—Peru’s own Holy Patroness of Arms.

[1] Mussot-Goulard, Renée. Carlomagno. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2014 [1984], p. 88.

[2] Calvino, Italo. Orlando Furioso. Madrid: Siruela, 2014, p. 13. See also, Ariosto, Ludovico. Orlando Furioso. Milano: Aldo Grazanti, 1978 [1532].

[3] Various. Romancero. Barcelona: Crítica, 1994, p. 68.

[4] Rubio García, Luis. “Historia y poesía: Bernardo del Carpio”. Estudios Románicos12, 7-30. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 2000, pp. 12-13


Anonymous. Cantar de Roldán. Madrid: Gredos, 1994 [~1170]. 

Ariosto, Ludovico. Orlando Furioso. Milano: Aldo Grazanti, 1978 [1532]. 

—–. Orlando Furioso (prose narration by Italo Calvino). Madrid: Siruela, 2014. 

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Obras completas. Madrid: Aguilar, 1960. 

Millones, Luis & Renata Mayer. Santiago Apóstol combate a los moros en el Perú. Lima: Penguin Random House, 2017. 

Mussot-Goulard, Renée. Carlomagno. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2014 [1984]. 

Various. Romancero. Barcelona: Crítica, 1994.


Luis Millones is a Peruvian anthropologist and professor emeritus at the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, Lima, and the Universidad San Cristóbal de Huamanga, Ayacucho. His latest work includes Después de la muerte (2010); Taki Onkoy: de la enfermedad del canto a la epidemia (2007) and Dioses familiares (2000). Recent collaborations include Santiago Apóstol combate a los moros en el Perú (2017) and Dioses y animales sagrados de los Andes peruanos (2013), with Renata Mayer; as well as Los mitos y sus tiempos. Creencias y narraciones de Mesoamérica y los Andes (2016); Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica (2015), and Animales de Dios (2012), with Alfredo López Austin.

Translated from Spanish by Mónica Belevan.

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