20 April 2016

The Intellectuals: Alfonso X’s Contribution to World Science and Culture

Juan Diego portrays
Alfonso X on the
series Toledo
He has a portrait hanging in the US House of Representatives in the Great Lawgivers series. A moon crater bears his name. His name is on the largest unified collection of annotated medieval music. Why do so many fields of inquiry praise the intellectual efforts of Alfonso X, el Sabio? What mark did he leave on the world to make us think he was so learned?

The short answer: his books.

In the General Estoria, we read: “The King makes a book, not because he writes it with his hands, but because he outlines the facts in it, and edits it and makes it right, and shows the way in which it is to be made… Just as we say that the King makes a palace, we don’t say it because he constructs it with his hands, but because he ordered it to be made…” The Book of the Sphere discusses at length the way King Alfonso worked as general editor. He came up with the idea for the book and what it should contain, and then went through it to take out extraneous parts and correct infelicities.

Alfonso X oversaw these projects to give himself access to the best knowledge in order to learn how rule his country more wisely, and a great additional benefit was that the books were created in Castilian and in Latin. They could then be consumed by Alfonso’s Castilian-reading subjects and Europeans farther afield. A wise populace is the beginning of a wise kingdom, and wise foreign friends make for smooth dealings and further the cause of that wise kingdom.

The collaborators made use of the finest sources available. They accurately cite Aristotle, the early Christian saints including Augustine, and eleventh-century philosophers such as Pedro Alfonso and Aelred of Rievaulx, to give the most basic examples. The scope of the intellectual activity has led to many scholarly volumes. Here’s a list of highlights.

The Alphonsus Crater on the Moon. Wikimedia Commons
• Alfonsine Tables
• Picatrix
Book of Knowledge of Astronomy
Book of the Forms and Images
Book of the Fixed Stars
Book of the Sphere, etc.
(More about Alfonso X’s astronomy on Unusual Historicals in July.)

Other Science
Lapidario—A book of erudition about types of stones.

Alfonso X in the US House of Representatives
• The Fuero Real—A pragmatic town charter that was granted to new towns in order to begin regularizing the rule of law throughout Alfonso’s kingdoms.
• Espéculo—Elegant and comprehensive legal theory with practical applications as an afterthought.
• Siete Partidas—A great book of medieval thought that also served as the basis of Spanish law for centuries.
• Specialized books of law—The Book of Gambling Houses, the Book of Frontier Commanders, various ordinances, etc.

• Book of Calila and Digna—This charming book is the first work of Castilian prose narrative. Based on ancient Indian texts via Arabic sources, two jackals (or lynxes) tell each other fables to illustrate complex and sometimes conflicting points of wisdom.
• Setenario—Often classed with the legal works, this book obsessed with the number seven is an unfinished compendium of the most secret kinds of knowledge and how to apply them.
• History of Spain—Tells the story of the Iberian Peninsula from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the thirteenth century.
• General History—An astoundingly wide-reaching world history from Biblical times.

• The Cantigas de Santa Maria—The largest collection of written medieval music in the world. More than 400 praise and miracle songs in Galician Portuguese for the Blessed Virgin with fun melodies and gorgeous illustrations. I attempted to describe how wonderful this collection is in this post. I investigate one exciting cantiga in this post.

Alfonso's sculpture at the National Library in
Madrid emphasizes intellect with books and a scroll.
Pastimes because leisure is important for refreshing the intellect.
• Various cantigas de escarnio e mal dizer—Profane, sometimes grotesque, mostly humorous, and at least one moving account of the weariness of a king in failing health (“Non me posso pagar tanto”).
• Libro de ajedrez, dados e tablas—A comprehensive illustrated compendium of chess strategy for the troubled intellectual. Ways to play dice, backgammon, and other games of chance are not as highly regarded.

Much of this body of work had far-reaching impacts in medieval Europe and modern world. The astronomy inspired and informed Copernicus, and the law works influence decisions today even in the American Southwest.

In order to begin my studies of Alfonso X, I had to vastly broaden my fields of expertise in addition to the strictly literary training I’d had up to that time. Perhaps Alfonso X’s greatest wisdom lay in the voracity with which he pursued all intellectual subjects. It seems there was nothing the Wise King wouldn’t want to investigate and read about further.

Simon R. Doubledays’ new biography (The Wise King, New York: Basic Books, 2015) seamlessly weaves the trials and tribulations of Alfonso X’s life and times into the writing of the body of work he left behind. He makes a good case that Alfonso X based his intellectuality on the model of polymath Muslim princes. Indeed, the translators and compilers frequently relied on rescued ancient documents in Arabic. Doubleday’s book is an excellent overview of a fascinating king—I learned a few things I didn’t know before. 

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical novel, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in 2016 by Bagwyn Books, and she is working on the sequel. On the contemporary side, her YA/NA paranormal Awash in Talent will soon be published by Kindle Press. Find out more her writing and bookish activities here or here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!