The ‘learned’ Alfonso X

The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance
Simon R. Doubleday
Basic Books 336pp £20

From the vantage point of today, the patronage of Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’ (‘the Learned’) of Castile (r. 1252-84) seems extraordinary for its time. Alfonso initiated what appears to have been a coherent programme of scholarship in the principal vernacular language of his kingdoms, Castilian, with a variety of works, dated or dateable to his reign, that bear his name. These include a magnificent illuminated compilation on astronomical and horological instruments, a translation of treatises on the virtues of stones, legal compilations and chronicles and a Castilian translation of the Book of Mohammed’s Ladder, which may have inspired passages in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Alfonso’s role as patron of these works is established not only by reference to him in the prologues, but also by several images that depict him as the author.

Other aspects of Alfonso’s reign, by contrast, were characterised by considerable political turbulence both at national and international level. His unsuccessful attempts to be crowned Emperor of the Romans were financially draining. In Castile, his early efforts to consolidate royal authority upset the noble class, a number of whom decamped to serve the Muslim king of Granada in 1273. Alfonso’s later plan to divide his kingdom between two grandsons and his second son Sancho ultimately sparked his de facto deposition in 1282. Such an eventful reign and such a wide-ranging literary legacy have ensured that the figure of the ‘Learned King’ continues to fascinate historians. 

Doubleday follows recent Spanish scholars, Francisco Márquez Villanueva and H. Salvador Martínez, in seeing Alfonso’s cultural patronage as a deliberate policy of cultural renewal for a kingdom that comprised vast areas of lands that were recent conquests from Muslim rulers. Yet Alfonso provided scarcely any institutional support for learning and the evidence of the manuscripts that bear his name suggests they were intended to reinforce his royal authority and imperial ambitions before the elite of Castile. Much has been made of Alfonso’s contribution to the cultural heritage of Europe, but knowledge of the works he patronised beyond Castile seems to have circulated in spite of the king rather than because of him. Latin, not Castilian, was the language of international scholarship and, as Doubleday implies, the contents of Alfonsine scientific texts travelled abroad more as a result of the efforts of scholars employed by Alfonso than at the direct behest of the king himself. Sometimes the argument that Alfonso anticipated the Renaissance comes across as rather forced. 

On the other hand, this biography imaginatively seeks to provide emotional depth to an account of Alfonso’s reign by using themes present in Alfonsine literary works to elaborate upon episodes in his life. For example, Doubleday considers the aphrodisiac properties of stones described in the Lapidario, a work initially translated when Alfonso was still a prince, in the context of what is known of his sexual life as a young man. Later, when citing a letter written by Alfonso to his young son Fernando, Doubleday unpacks the nature of medieval parenthood, bringing his arguments alive with reference to children’s toys excavated at the Tower of London and giving them depth by citing contemporary ecclesiastical writers on the subject. This can be illuminating and readers will no doubt enjoy the broad range of sources, Christian and Muslim, which Doubleday cites. But while he is at pains to stress the ‘heavy political agenda’ that underlies later chronicles of Alfonso’s reign, he makes little reference to the equally heavy political agenda that underlay the works the king himself commissioned. As a result, he sometimes reduces complex texts to simple ones. The poems and miniatures of the Cantigas de Santa Maria have an intellectually significant relationship, in which the images gloss the verses with deeper levels of theological meaning (in particular, they reinforce the doctrine of the Eucharist). The literal readings Doubleday provides, while lively, do this relationship a disservice. 

The works cited in the end-notes reflect contemporary scholarship but these are not signalled in the main text, leaving the reader to guess at their presence. However, the detailed family trees which open the volume are an excellent inclusion. Lastly, Doubleday’s text might have benefitted Alfonso’s editorial eye, to correct a number of anachronistic references, including that he sought to be crowned ‘Holy Roman Emperor’, a title which came about only in the 16th century but which is used throughout. Nor would Alfonso have referred to the Almohad minaret in Seville as the ‘Giralda’, as its weather-vane, or ‘giraldilla’, was added in 1568.

Kirstin Kennedy’s doctorate studies the manuscripts of Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’ of Castile. She is now a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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