23. November 2021

A Shining Light of Culture With a Shady Side 800 Years King Alfonso X: A Shining Light of Culture With a Shady Side

He wrote laws and wanted to become Emperor: King Alfonso X of Castile would have turned 800 in November

King Alfonso X of Castile, known as the Wise, is regarded as one of the most fascinating figures in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. He ordered the translation and compilation of literature and tracts from Arabic on subjects such as chess and board games. As king, he published codes of laws and works of history and was a lover of astronomy. However, Alfonso also plunged the monarchy into crisis when he desired to become Holy Roman Emperor and failed to plan properly for his succession. Prof. Dr. Mechthild Albert and her team have been researching the man, his times and his impact in Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1167.

Depiction of Alfonso X of Castile based on an illustration from the Libro de los juegos.
Depiction of Alfonso X of Castile based on an illustration from the Libro de los juegos. - The book records the rules of various board games and was commissioned by the king. It is considered to be the first and most significant collection of chess problems in the Middle Ages. © CC0 / PD
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What must it have been like having different religions and cultures living side by side in medieval Spain?

What’s fascinating is the multicultural aspect: the Muslim culture of Al-Andalus was constantly exchanging ideas and discoveries with the Christian kingdoms in northern Spain, including Asturias, Castile, León and Aragón. The time between 711 and the fall of Granada in 1492 saw alternating phases of war and peace. This nearly 800-year period was shaped by two words: Reconquista – the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Christians – and Convivencia – Christians, Jews and Muslims living together in peace. However, “tolerance” here could also mean levying special taxes on the respective minorities.

How does Alfonso X of Castile fit into this period?

Alfonso X was born in Toledo on November 23, 1221 and played the role of a cultural go-between. Many people will already have come across him in historical novels, where he’s often portrayed as a precursor of the modern age, such as at the official celebrations being held in Toledo to mark the 800th anniversary of his birth. Just how important Alfonso X was for cultural transfer from the Arabic to the Latin world can be seen in how art, culture and science were promoted at his court. He had essays on chess and hunting and treatises on mathematics, agriculture, astronomy and astrology translated from Arabic and commissioned the so-called Alfonsine tables. Right up until the modern period, these were used to compute the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets and the timings of the equinoxes and solstices, something that was especially important for fixing liturgical feast days. He also wrote or commissioned almost 400 songs in honor of the Virgin Mary, who was particularly important for lending legitimacy to his rule.

This sounds very much like the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, who was also interested in laws and the arts. Are there any parallels?

Yes, I think it’s a very fitting comparison, not just because of their dynastic ties – Beatrice of Swabia and Frederick II were both grandchildren of Frederick Barbarossa, another Hohenstaufen – even though there was half a century’s gap between the two rulers. Especially given the laws they introduced and the multicultural, Christo-Muslim context, you can definitely compare Alfonso X with Frederick II and his rule on Sicily.

Even while he was still crown prince, for instance, he commissioned the translation of an anthology of Arabic fables that has just as intricate a structure as the tales from One Thousand and One Nights: this is Kalila and Dimna, a work that is still popular as a children’s book in the Islamic world, featuring parables about the lion king, the scheming jackal and the earnest ox. It served as a “mirror for princes,” a work that, through its didactic elements, set out to describe the ideal ruler and school heirs to the throne – a role that it fulfilled until well into the early modern period. And then, of course, there’s his Siete Partidas, his code of laws, which broke new ground in how it approached the ideas of ruling and exercising power.

How significant was the Siete Partidas for Castile and Europe?

Throughout Europe, the 13th century saw numerous attempts to standardize laws, such as with the Magna Carta, the Sachsenspiegel or the Constitutions of Melfi promulgated by Emperor Frederick II. In Castile, meanwhile, King Alfonso X ordered the compilation of the Siete Partidas, which are based on Visigothic traditions, Iberian common law and – thanks to the early lawyers from the University of Bologna – academically codified Roman law. As the name suggests, this code of laws was made up of seven parts. It played a critical role in modeling and codifying the rule of a monarch and is regarded as one of the most important contributions ever made to legal history. It continued to leave its mark even right up to the constitutions of the countries of Latin America following their independence from Spain in the early 19th century. The compilation governs the basic foundations of the Castilian monarchy, from the king’s divine right to rule all the way through to how society should live together day to day. This was also one of the areas we focused on in our research, which is reflected in our latest volume Alfonso the Wise and the Juridical Conceptualization of Monarchy in the ‘Siete Partidas’. Here, we provide detailed analysis of legal, socio-political, transcultural and art history aspects of the concept of power and rule in the Castilian monarchy at the time of Alfonso the Wise.

Light usually goes hand in hand with shade: Has Alfonso X also come in for criticism?

Yes, absolutely, mainly because of his imperial ambitions. Alfonso X was the son of Beatrice of Swabia and the grandson of the German king Philip of Swabia. In 1256, he claimed the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire and became the anti-king to Richard of Cornwall in the interregnum that lasted from 1257 to 1273. His scheme ultimately came to naught, however, with fatal consequences for both himself and Castile.

This was because he invested a lot of time and money in his plan in order to get influential players on his side. To this end, he increased taxes in his kingdom, debased its coinage and neglected various social problems and power struggles, which triggered uprisings among the nobility and the cities. He also failed to make a binding decision on his succession following the sudden death of his first-born son Fernando de la Cerda (1255–1275). This sparked a conflict that was won by his younger son Sancho (1258–1295). King Alfonso died in Seville in 1284.

On the one hand, Alfonso X was a shining light of culture. On the other, he forfeited what power he did possess as a result of his illusory political plotting to become Holy Roman Emperor and make Castile a great power in Europe.


Tracing King Alfons X
Tracing King Alfons X - Dr. Mechthild Albert and Dr. Ulrike Becker have been looking closely at Alfonso X of Castile and the novella-style wisdom literature from his kingdom. © Barbara Frommann


Alfonso el Sabio y la conceptualización jurídica de la monarquía en las ‘Siete Partidas’/Alfonso the Wise and the Juridical Conceptualization of Monarchy in the ‘Siete Partidas,’ Mechthild Albert, Ulrike Becker, Elmar Schmidt (eds.). With texts written largely in Spanish and English plus detailed English summaries. Studien zu Macht und Herrschaft, Volume 10. V&R unipress. €37.99



Power and rule: CRC and new center
The book of the Hispanic Studies sub-project “Power and Rule in the Novella-Style Wisdom Literature of Castile (1250–1350),” part of CRC 1167 “Power and Rule – Pre-Modern Configurations From a Transcultural Perspective,” appeared in a CRC 1167 publication series, Macht und Herrschaft (Power and Rule) and Studien zu Macht und Herrschaft (Studies on Power and Rule), published by Bonn University Press/Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Research into power and rule was resumed recently at the “Bonner Zentrum für vormoderne Ordnungen und ihre Kommunikationsformen” (“Bonn Center for Pre-Modern Regimes and their Forms of Communication”).


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