What Alfonso X el Sabio has done for us | Culture


“What have the Romans done for us?” Wondered the Judean rebels in one of the most famous gags of the Monty Python in Brian’s life. A rhetorical and humorous question because the Roman yoke had also brought them many advances in civilization. This Tuesday marks the 800th anniversary of the birth in Toledo of what would be King Alfonso X, entitled “El Sabio” until today. Exhibitions, publications, conferences and events of various kinds celebrate his reign, so now is the time to assess his legacy and ask what he did for us. “There has been a topic among some historians that Alfonso X was a bad ruler because he focused on cultural aspects, and that is not true,” says Inés Fernández-Ordóñez, professor of Spanish Language at the Autonomous University of Madrid and curator of the exhibition that in the National Library shows the Alphonsi codices that this institution treasures.

Where did this interest in culture come from? Alfonso succeeded his father, Fernando III el Santo, the unifier of Castilla y León, “noted for his warlike acts,” explains María Jesús Viguera Molins, from the Royal Academy of History, by email. “There have been several examples in history where a warrior king is followed by a wise king.” His childhood “was spent far from the court, in the care of a nobleman in Galician lands, where he received a solid training,” he wrote in the biography of the king that can be read on the website of the Academy of History Julio Valdeón, who died in 2009 Which does not mean that it did not develop military campaigns of the Reconquest. This historian points out the taking of Cádiz, in 1262, and part of what is now Huelva. On the back of these campaigns, he stood out for his “impulse to the repopulation process in the Guadalquivir valley”. Fernández-Ordóñez adds that when the monarch came to power, aged 30, in 1252, he had an important background in diplomatic and military missions commissioned by his father. “He had contacts with Arab scholars, legal experts from other countries, with other courts …”.

This expert in the texts produced under the Alfonsi reign agrees with Viguera that culture was the field of her great achievements. “From her he made the nucleus of his political action because he wanted to transform society and convince his subjects of the need to do so. He was a pioneer in thinking that the implementation of certain ideas can precede social changes “, adds Fernández-Ordóñez, a member of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), for whom he was also” a visionary in the dissemination of culture and in the transmission of knowledge. All this helped to generalize the writing of standard Castilian Spanish, especially in the legal field, with the incorporation of Latin words ”.

Statue of Alfonso X the Wise on the steps of the National Library.
Statue of Alfonso X the Wise on the steps of the National Library.KIKE TO

In this field of Law, “he commissioned theoretical works that would lead to the absolutist monarchy, such as the Code of the Seven games”, So called because it was divided into seven parts. “The Partidas functioned as a source of law in Spain until the Civil Code of the 19th century [1889] because it legislated on very specific issues. Later monarchs said that when there was no legislation on something, they would be resorted to ”. Viguera adds that with this text “legal content was extended to people of other religions and cultures.” While Lola Pons, philologist and researcher of the Language, in a column in this newspaper two weeks ago, highlighted that it was “the first legal provision that equaled all the subjects of their territories.” Today, in the US Capitol, his effigy is among the characters chosen for his relevance in the legislative history of the country.

However, Alfonso X found many problems to be able to apply the Partidas in his own reign because the nobles were not amused by his desire to centralize the law and they rebelled. It had to be his great-grandson, Alfonso XI, who in 1348 proclaimed: “We give by law the Book of Games made by my great-grandfather,” says Fernández-Ordóñez, who specifies that this Alfonso was the first of whom there is evidence who qualified his predecessor of “wise”.

“He was also a pathological narcissist, who loved to be portrayed. Very ambitious, he wanted to do some reforms too quickly ”. He collided with the nobility for the Games and for their fiscal policy, with new taxes. And with the Church for his desire to appoint him bishops and not accept the authority of the Pope. He proclaimed himself God’s representative on Earth ”. For this reason, Gregory X denied him his support in his aspiration to be king of the Romans, the emperor, as Charles I achieved in 1530. However, Alfonso X achieved “a very broad international renown for the alliances he drew with his imperial claims” , adds Viguera.

Detail of the 'Cantigas' of Alfonso X the wise, with a capitular, one of the resources that he introduced in the books of his time.
Detail of the ‘Cantigas’ of Alfonso X the wise, with a capitular, one of the resources that he introduced in the books of his time.

In the same year of that failure, 1275, his son Fernando dies, called to succeed him. The last years of the King of Castile and Leon until his death, in 1284 in Seville, are dramatic due to the hostility of who would finally be his successor, his son Sancho IV, who was in a hurry for the throne and whom he disinherited, but to who forgave on his deathbed. “In addition, he had a disease, perhaps a tumor, which deformed his face and caused horrible pain, which affected his character, more irascible,” explains Fernández-Ordóñez.

To argue the convenience of those reforms that encountered so many obstacles, “he commissioned works of a historical nature,” such as the First General Chronicle of Spain, which was written between 1270 and 1283. Here the name of Spain “is a territorial identification, the Iberian Peninsula. This text supposes an identity and narrative mold that will last until the 19th century and, in part, until today, because it is organized around the successive inhabitants of the Peninsula ”. Likewise, Viguera emphasizes that this story is an example of his interest in including the other cultures that were in his territory, Arab and Muslim, when he said that it was a story “as well of Moors as of Christians, and even of Jews.”

Along these lines, the Toledo school of translators is associated with his reign, “which was not as we know that term today, but a practice that came from the end of the 11th century, with Alfonso VI, when the ecclesiastical rites of the Visigothic period and those of Rome were adopted by the Cluniac reform, which motivated the arrival of many religious, especially from France ”, explains Fernández-Ordóñez. “Arab treatises were already being translated into romance and from there into Latin, the great Alfonsi contribution is that the romance version, which was previously discarded, is going to become the final version with him.” Lola Pons highlights that from the Alphonsi scientific texts, words such as: angle, twilight, diameter, sphere, pole or planet were added to Spanish. Viguera, researcher on the history of al-Ándalus, emphasizes “the integration and transmission of elements from other cultures” and that the king “maintained the use of some Andalusian constructions, such as the mosque of Córdoba”, as well as “Mudejar art, which is another example of his practical vision ”.

Page about chess in the 'Book of games' by Alfonso X the Wise.
Page about chess in the ‘Book of games’ by Alfonso X the Wise.NATIONAL HERITAGE

For the writer and cartoonist of EL PAÍS José María Pérez, Peridis, who has novelized in a trilogy part of the Spanish Middle Ages, Alfonso “knew how to take advantage of a moment of synthesis, of opportunity, several languages ​​were known and he benefited from that confluence of the two worlds, without wanting to end the eastern part”. For Peridis, the dark side of Alfonso is the episode of the arrest and execution of his brother Don Fadrique, which he probably ordered because of his participation in a conspiracy against the king.

Astronomical passion

It was the same person who manifested great astronomical passion. For a non-scientific purpose, such as “knowing what decisions to make based on the movement of the stars, he applied a scientific method, such as ordering two Jewish astronomers from Toledo to observe them for at least nine years,” says Fernández-Ordóñez. Hence the treaty The Alfonsi tables, “Which were valid until the time of Copernicus.” In his honor, there is a crater on the Moon called Alphonsus and a small asteroid named Alphonsina.

The king also looked up to the sky to express his devotion to the Virgin, a cult in vogue then in Europe, for which we lead to his most famous literary work, the Cantigas. There are more than 400 poems in Galician-Portuguese, with various editions, since 1266, that tell of the miracles of the Virgin and in which, in that narcissistic mania, he becomes a troubadour who sings to the mother of God. For Fernández-Ordóñez, the Game book, richly illustrated, in which there is a part dedicated to chess and another to dice.

In all these works that “facer” ordered, he put himself as the author, “not because he writes with his hands”, as a text of his time said, but “because he composes the reasons for the”. Finally, I include in the volumes a visual and typographic display hitherto unknown in the Peninsula. In line with Europe, they are volumes “with a prologue, numbered chapters and titles and other resources to make them more visually attractive,” concludes this expert. An insatiable curiosity for knowledge described in a chronicle of that time: a king “scouring of sciences, requiring doctrines and teachings.”

A centenary with an epicenter in Toledo

This Tuesday an exhibition with Alfonsi codices opens in El Escorial (Madrid), with the presence of Queen Sofía, in addition to the one already inaugurated at the National Library. In the case of the former, the set of seven Alfonsi codices that arrived at the Royal Library between 1573 and 1591 is presented to the public for the first time. However, the great exhibition to celebrate the eighth centenary of Alfonso X the Wise will be in Toledo, where he was born. It will be in March, at the Santa Cruz Museum, with 180 pieces from 55 lending entities. Titled Alfonso X: the legacy of a forerunner king, you will go through its different facets. In the coming months also in Toledo will be held, within the framework of the eighth centenary, an international congress, a series of conferences, concerts …


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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