Alfonso X The Wise

Prose as a need of the Court



Since Alfonso X accessed to the thrown of the Castilian and Leon kingdom, in Seville, in 1252, as the successor of Fernando III; until, in 1369, Pedro I died in Montiel, in a premeditated criminal way; and Enrique II is entrenched king for the same Christian domain, little more than a century is running, in which the literature in vernacular language is highly sponsored, gaining a firm status thanks to some works of great creative quality. In 1369, a year marked by several changes in the Trastámara’s family dynasty: the queen in Aragon; Pedro IV in Catalonia and Valence; Carlos II of the Évreux house, in Navarre; and in the Portuguese kingdom, Fernando I of the Bourgogne house.


In this period, the precedent big conquest over Arab domains in Spain became secure; and now, war occurs principally around the Strait of Gibraltar, on which the Castilian kings want eagerly to dominate. The Castilian kings are the most actives in the Spanish Reconquest.


Once occupied the strategic locations of the Strait by the king of Castile; the Arab kingdom of Granada  - which was called Nazarene in the XIII century because of the fact that Yúsuf ben Nazar was the founder of the local dynasty -  remained isolate and hardly received military help from the North of Africa. In that time the intense Arab culture influence ceased, remaining only in the relationship between Arabs from the Nazarene Kingdom - who always more tend to live in the Spanish way – and the dominant Christian Kingdoms of Portugal, Aragon and Castile.


During this period, the kings of Castile are following a politic tending to strengthen their power: Alfonso X is the big theoretician of the king’s government. For his legislative works, he use to collect out of the situation he is living in, the principles more favourable to his ideas, process them together with some interpretations of the Roman Law, converting himself as the great legislator, theoretician at least, of a monarchy.


In that period of time, Latin language maintains its prestige as a media to express high level in spiritual activities, and also for the works that must be kept in its original integrity.  This occurs in the Church, and also in Universities, in order to guarantee an universal knowledge.  But oral lectures were given in local language. To preach was a good way to extend the religious matters to the plain Christian people, to strengthen their faith and inform them about what is evil and good in men and communities.


One of the results of Alfonso X’s cultural politic during his reign, between 1252 and 1284, was the establishment of the prose in Castilian literature. He promoted quantity of works and organized the practical office they needed to compose them. He wanted his kingdom to be provided by a Corpus of Knowledge adequate to the circumstances of his time, and accessible through a literary prose written especially for those who stood around him in the court,   and  also for  those  who, living  far away, wanted to maintain such a cultural degree. The labour of Alfonso X has an immediate predecessor: his father, Fernando III. The court of that king was visited by troubadours, and also Alfonso X receives them in his court. He writes and sponsors some religious works like the ones called “Cantigas de Santa María” (Saint Mary songs), and also other kind of works. He obtains with them a good status in lyric, in the Galician language used in that time for poetry. (He put together a collection of more than 400 songs in honour of the Virgin Mary. I do not think he wrote them all, but what is true is that they are deeply influenced by him). The first work written in Castilian related with Alfonso X is a version of “Calila e Dimna”, situated in 1251 by one of the most reliable chronologies, a little before he was proclaimed king.


As a result of this working together, directed by the king, the vernacular prose became always more rich. Redactors had to express in that way works until then only found in cultural languages: Latin or Arab. Alfonso X not only limited himself to order that Latin and Arab works were translated, or at least part of them; that Castilian epics were turned into prose to accommodate them in the net of his works; he did more than that. These documents were previously selected, discussed and elaborated. The rhetoric served to organize and give an appropriate style to each work, according to the convenience of its category.


The collection of books promoted by the King is like a big Encyclopedia and contains all the material he estimated necessary to reach his aim. We can compare the diversity offered   by   this  collective  work  with   “ Li  Livres  dou

Tresor” by Brunetto Latini,  but  taking  in  mind that  the “Tresor” is a personal work and that, at the contrary, Alfonso X worked together with a big number of writers and compilers. The “Tresor” is organized in two parts. The first is about theology, universal history, physic sciences, geography, art to build houses and natural history. The second is about ethic and moral, and politics (rhetoric and grammar, dialectic and art of government).


If we compare this course with the one promoted by Alfonso X, we would found that, in the “Latini”, the dominating idea is that sciences are subordinated to politics in order to give the governor the adequate knowledge to exercise his power. In Alfonso X, we found quite a different manifestation: it is the King who put the knowledge at the reach of his subjects, choosing for this aim the books the more adequate; putting a limit to the theological questions that are proper to ecclesiastic doctors and expressed in Latin; increasing history: the Universal as well as the Spanish one. From the knowledge of the nature, he choose the parts men are more interested in, as astrology and gemstones. And in the arts of politics, he formulates the theory of good govern in a general proportion, attending, at the same time, the kingdom and jurisdiction laws. At the end, he includes also the leisure, with entertaining books suitable for the court (books of chess, dices and play-boards).


In scientific literature, he made write for a physic world knowledge, one able to have some influence on men. But these books are the less known of his cultural labour (books of astronomy or astrology knowledge); a collection of treaties about the movement of the sky, stars and planets; and instruments needed to observe and measure them: maps and watches, etc. …


Among the legislative treaties written in the court, the more important is the one titled “Las Siete Partidas“ (The Seven Parts), which represents the intention to establish legal bases in order to regulate the government of the kingdom. The content of this work is divided in seven parts; the first refers to the principal laws and to the canonical ones; the second refers to public laws of government and administration; the third is about justice, administration and wealth; the fourth, about marriage and relationship; the fifth refers to the commerce: by boat and overland, and to the property; the sixth is about testaments; and the seventh, about crimes and penalties. The bases supporting this development come partially from the Roman Right and the law of that epoch.


The driving force given by Alfonso X to the literature would not remain without continuity. First of all, his son, Sancho IV, and just after him, his nephew, Don Juan Manuel, made real efforts to follow the way of the great king, in literature studies and sponsorship, making possible for the prose, during the XIV century,  to reach a status almost as important as poetry, in quality and originality. We can appreciate that particularly in the book “El libro del Buen Amor” (The Book of Good Love) by Juan Ruiz.  Many are the different forms of prose cultivated from the end of the reign of Alfonso X until the second half of the XIV century. The edition of the “Lucidario”, based on the “Speculum Naturales”, and the translation   of   the   Tresor  of  Brunetti  Latini,   both executed during the reign of Sancho IV, give a testimony of continuity in the interest for scientific prose.


Author: Manuel Garrido

English version by Mariette Cirerol



Cantigas” (songs) from Alfonso the Wise, where we can see a Muslim musician

playing together with a Christian one, in perfect harmony and peace.