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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Born on this Day in 1221: Alfonso X el Sabio

Alfonso X, el Sabio in a
20th-Century Painting
Alfonso X el Sabio arrived into the world in very good company, having in his family tree two saints, two great lawmakers, and one Holy Roman Emperor. He ascended to the throne at an especially dynamic and optimistic time in the history of his kingdoms. His father, San Fernando, had nearly doubled the size of the area he ruled by “reconquest” of Muslim-controlled territories in Andalucía. Motivated by the new skilled labor and refined culture within his borders, King Alfonso made an immense effort both to unite his kingdoms under one banner and to push that new kingdom, Spain, onto the European stage. He welcomed international scientists and craftsmen to his court, and there they worked together with Spanish Christians, Muslims and Jews to create the most voluminous and wide-ranging body of writings ever produced under the guidance of a single patron. Nevertheless, Alfonso was not to experience his cultural revolution as the astounding success it appears to be to modern scholars. By the end of his life, the king was ailing and alone, practically deposed by a rebellious son, and reviled by all but his most loyal subjects.
Children in Spain grow up regarding Alfonso as the practical creator of the Spanish language, a great scholar who spent so much time gazing at the heavens that the crown fell from his head. The lesson seems to be that great learning does not presage great leadership. How did such a learned and practical man bring such a disastrous end to an auspicious beginning? 
The Alphonsus crater on the Moon,
named for Alfonso X.
Alfonso’s insistence on the use of the vernacular for all court documents (including some foreign correspondence!) helped fix the forms of modern Spanish and established a naturally elegant style that would persist until the re-imposition of Latinized formations and syntax during the Baroque period. Although he did not personally author all of the works bearing his signature, as a bare minimum he planned and outlined the contents in detail and corrected the finished products for clarity and precision. The multinational, interfaith workshop he assembled and instructed has left a wealth of evidence of the kind of scholarship the king valued, including: the first major world history in a romance language; texts on astronomy and its instruments; a series of lapidaries; the largest collection of annotated music to have survived the Middle Ages; the magisterial Siete Partidas, which are practical interpretations of Roman law, explained in carefully reasoned essays; and the first chess treatise in the Western world.
As this incomplete list shows, Alfonso funneled his voracious curiosity into providing a complete catalog of useful knowledge for future generations. Contributing to every art and science of its time, it has influenced thinking in every discipline through the present day while also presenting vivid portraits of everyday life in thirteenth-century Spain. It shows Christians and Moors, women and men, beggars and kings, all cooperating and competing on equal footing. The legislative works in particular represent an ideal kingdom, which can be used to evaluate the real-life success of Alfonso’s policies. The scientific works remained state of the art for hundreds of years, having an impact on Christopher Columbus, Copernicus, and every serious stargazer until the mid-sixteenth century. The astronomy team calculated the length of the year we still use in the Western world today, which demonstrates just how successfully Alfonso’s scholars broke through the limitations of their time and place. Alfonso’s scholars practiced humanism before the Renaissance and religious tolerance in a time of pogroms and crusades.
Alfonso X ascended to the throne uncontested and well prepared at 30 years of age. He had already set in motion some of the key elements of his cultural projects. He had participated in some of his father’s military campaigns and felt ready to rule his new landscape according to some progressive theories of centralized government. But he was faced with a powerful noble class that felt entitled to unique privileges because of old laws known as fueros. These loose compilations held the validity of ancient custom, but generally clashed with the organized Roman-based law Alfonso was trying to establish for his outward-looking Spain. Our king found himself the victim of an eternal problem of visionaries: a populace too entrenched in the status quo to follow his dynamic lead.
The first turning point came early in the reign, when Alfonso was provisionally elected Holy Roman Emperor. At first blush, it was a dream come true for the promotion of Castile in Europe, but imperial politics distracted the king from urgent domestic matters and created insurmountable fiscal problems. The major example of growing discontent during the early part of his reign is the Mudéjar rebellion of 1264. The Muslim citizens living in many of the largest cities throughout Murcia and Andalucía rose up on the same day and besieged their citadels. The boldest even planned to kidnap the king and queen in Seville. Having gained support from the King of Granada, the rebels continued to cause problems for years to come and might never have been brought back in line if not for the help of Alfonso’s father-in-law, Jaume of Aragón. When the uprising was finally dealt with, Alfonso had learned some disheartening facts about his world. He could no longer trust any of the dependent Muslim rulers of the peninsula, even though they had been paying a yearly tribute in exchange for Castilian protection. Probably most disappointing, the king had to abandon his efforts to launch a “crusade” in Africa in order to maintain control at home. He would never extend his father’s legacy southward and claim more territory for Castile.
He had not given up on the dream of Empire—far from it. When his main competitor for the imperial title passed away in 1272, Alfonso was certain that he should go immediately to accept the crown. The noble families of Castile, on the other hand, had become more alienated with each extraordinary tax to raise funds to strengthen Alfonso’s candidacy and his bizarre insistence on Roman law. With Alfonso’s own brother Felipe as their leader, the nobles made an outrageous display of having suffered under the king’s policies and presented him with a list of demands. Alfonso met most of the requirements and evaded the more problematic ones in exchange for the money he needed to claim the Empire. Confused, the nobles gave up the castles that had been granted to them by the crown and, sacking the countryside as they left, went into exile in Granada, where they made a pact with its king. After a year of new demands, generous compromises, and genuine sacrifices as well as a life-threatening bout of fever, the king persuaded even the most obstinate magnates to return to Castile. He needed them for his imperial retinue.
Alfonso was finally able to make a physically draining journey to Beaucaire to see Pope Gregory X about resolving his imperial candidacy in 1275, only to be rebuffed. The twenty arduous years of campaigning had come to nothing. On the way back into Castile, things only got worse: his eldest son, Fernando, had died while attending to his duties as regent in Alfonso’s absence. Added to a father’s grief was the thorny problem of succession. Fernando had left behind two young boys. If Alfonso were to acknowledge his grandsons as his heirs, in accordance with Roman law and a binding contract he had made with the King of France, he would anger a large percentage of the powerful people in Castile, who, according to Germanic custom, felt that his second son, Sancho, represented a more viable solution. Sancho had already rallied the militias against the invasion his older brother had been attempting to crush, and he proved hard to ignore.
Read the poignant conclusion and get more links to great Alfonso stuff here.