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REVIEW: "The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain and the Birth of the Renaissance"

Trevor Huxham CC

Russell E. Saltzman - published on 12/12/15

Alfonso X fostered the humanities and the accompanying cultural renewal long before the Italians

wise king

The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain and the Birth of the Renaissanceby Simon R. Doubleday.

If you read Simon R. Doubleday’s biography of King Alfonso X (1252-84), obviously start with the prologue.

Not so obviously, skip next to the epilogue. The details are in the middle and you can return to them later. But reading things out of sequence this way will aid in putting them in order later. Funny, I know, but that is the only way I could finally approach this book. This is an instance when skipping to the story’s last chapter pays off and spoils nothing.

Doubleday, professor and chair of history at Hofstra University and an Iberian medievalist scholar, clearly loves his subject. He probably meant for me to read it in an ordered sequence. But reading The Wise King as I did helped me finally understand how a middling 13th century medieval Spanish king of Castile and Leon retains any real historical significance beyond a laconically dry Wikipedia entry.

Alfonso X, after all, isn’t a household name in the English-speaking world. In Spain, though, it’s another story, one that includes why Alfonso came to be featured in a historical drama on Spanish television, why during his lifetime he came to be called “the Wise,” or why his Vermont white marble stone relief portrait hangs next to that of Moses the Lawgiver in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For starters, as medieval kings went, Alfonso X could read (so could his father, Ferdinand III, another rarity). Turns out, in Doubleday’s telling, Alfonso enjoyed learning. His academic passions included astronomy, literature and poetry, music, musical composition, natural science (or what passed for science back then), art and architecture.

He supervised the first codification of Castilian law, which, until the 19th century, governed portions of Louisiana civil procedure (that explains why his portrait hangs in the House of Representatives). He also enjoyed the multiethnic cultural mix of Christian, Jew, and Muslim Arab that characterized the Iberian Peninsula and the intellectual life it stimulated.

Alfonso X may unquestionably be characterized as a king who fostered the humanities and the accompanying cultural renewal long before the Italian Renaissance. He envisioned himself as a philosopher-king, and to some extent succeeded. This is the arena where Alfonso X deserves renewed and respectful interest.

While no one has uncovered any direct connection between Alfonso’s 13th-century Iberian Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance of the 14th— at least none that any Italian might acknowledge ― it is very unlikely, as Doubleday insists, that the first did not ultimately have something to do with the second.

I described Alfonso X as a “middling” medieval king. Apart from his intellectual and culture efforts, that’s exactly how I see his character from the book, regardless of Doubleday’s occasional tendency toward hagiography.

Alfonso’s military accomplishments were never much to write home about, but he did keep the kingdom intact against Arab pressures and he did push back. He became estranged from his wife. His 19-year-old heir died and his eldest surviving son led a civil war against him. He ached to become emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but the nearest he got was pretender to the title king of the Romans, and that the pope compelled him to surrender.

His diplomatic missteps not infrequently required the intervention of his wife before they became estranged. His personal life had all the drama of day time soaps, explaining why his character was fit for a Spanish television. Contrary to any achievement as a philosopher-king, he could devise a number of unquestionably cruel executions for his captive enemies. Yet his Catholic piety was authentic and his compilation of Marian hymns, the Cantigas De Santa Maria, is still in use.

What Doubleday finally has done with his subject is convincingly show that the Renaissance had a precursor in Iberia, and it was in great degree sparked, for all his flaws, by Alfonso X.

Russell E. Saltzmanis a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com.

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