Alfonso X

Alfonso X
   King of Castile and patron of the arts and sciences, Alfonso X, called El Sabio (the Wise, or the Learned), was also a significant lyric poet and composer in his own right, and in that role is best known as the author of some 400 songs in praise of the Virgin.
   Alfonso was the son of Fernando III and Beatrice of Swabia. As a young man he seems to have been well trained in military pursuits and educated in the arts and sciences. He ascended to the throne of Castile and Leon on the death of his father in 1252. Alfonso married Violante, the daughter of King Jaime I of Aragon, with whom he shared an interest in the reconquest of Muslim Spain: Early in his reign he fought a number of Moorish wars and conquered Cadiz in 1262. Meanwhile, he had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1254, but the election was disputed and he was never crowned. Generally a weak sovereign, his indecision concerning his succession after his first son Fernando died in 1275 led to diplomatic problems with Aragon and France, and to open revolt at home when his second son, Sancho, led a rebellion in Alfonso’s final years, ultimately seizing the throne when Alfonso died in 1284.
   Far more successful were Alfonso’s efforts to make his court the intellectual and cultural center of Iberia. Calling himself the King of the Three Religions, Alfonso drew to his court Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars to work on a program of compilation, translation, and literary creation designed, in part, to encourage the use of the vernacular in learning and in poetry. He sponsored the scholarly production of compilations in various areas. His Las siete partidas was an anthology of legal practices going back to Roman times, begun with the hope of standardizing such practices—a hope not realized until the following century. In history, two great collections were begun under Alfonso’s patronage: One, the Crónica general, is a vernacular history of Spain up to the 13th century; the other, the Grande e general estoria, is a vast history of the world up to the time of the Virgin Mary’s parents. In science, Alfonso’s court made significant contributions to the study of astronomy and astrology, with three important works translated or adapted from Arabic sources by Jewish scholars—one of these, a text of astronomic tables, was a standard reference in Europe for hundreds of years.
   In addition, Alfonso’s court was famous for his literary contributions, for the king was both a generous literary patron and was himself a poet of some distinction. Many poets had left the repressive court of the Portuguese king Alfonso III (whose long feud with Alfonso X ended when the Portuguese king married Alfonso X’s illegitimate daughter—a union that produced another poetking, DINIS). Thus the Castilian court became the center of Galician-Portuguese poetry, and Alfonso X himself, moved by their lyric productions, chose the Galician-Portuguese tongue as the vehicle for his own verses.
   Alfonso’s best-known work is a collection of 422 Cantigas de Santa Maria or songs in praise of the Virgin Mary. Generally these take the form of brief narratives relating miracles wrought by the Blessed Virgin’s intercession. In Cantiga VII, for example, an abbess who has slipped in her vows finds herself pregnant and is summoned to appear before the bishop. But Mary is miraculously able to save the nun:
   But the lady without delay
   Began to call the Mother of God;
   And, as from one who was dreaming,
   Saint Mary had the child taken
   And sent for rearing to Saxony.
   (Keller 1962, 304)
   Alfonso wrote five other religious poems concerning the life of Christ, in addition to some 45 secular lyrics. A few of these are love poems but most are political lyrics. Of the secular poems, the best known is Non me posso pagar tanto, in which he expresses a desire to leave behind the pressures of his world and take to sea as a merchant—a sentiment that any monarch might have felt occasionally, but perhaps would have been particularly fitting during Alfonso’s turbulent final years:
   Rather, I wish to travel alone
   And go like a merchant
   In search of a land
   Where I cannot feel the sting
   Of the black or the spotted scorpion.
   (Jensen 1992, 8.3, ll. 48–52)
   ■ Burns, Robert I., ed. Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and his Thirteenth-Century Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
   ■ Jensen, Frede, ed. and trans. Medieval Galician-Portuguese Poetry: An Anthology. Garland Library of Medieval Literature 87. New York and London: Garland, 1992.
   ■ Keller, John Esten. Alfonso X: El Sabio. New York: Twayne, 1967.
   ■ ———,trans. “Cantigas VII.” In An Anthology ofMedieval Lyrics, edited by Angel Flores, 303–305. New York:Modern Library, 1962.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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