Alfons X (El Sabio)


Alfonso X, the thirteenth century Spanish King of Castile and León, has been called a Renaissance man before the Renaissance. As a warrior prince, he led fierce Spanish armies against the Moorish occupation. As a politician on the European stage, he contended for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, he made his court a multicultural haven for artists, scientists, and musicians -- Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. The king himself composed poetry and learned treatises, and left an enduring cultural legacy that continues to this day.

Alfonso achieved the unified throne of Castile and León in 1252 upon the death of his father, Fernando III "the Saintly." He immediately embarked upon an ambitious program of military and political campaigns that would last throughout the 30 years of his reign. By the end of his life, his contemporaries were disillusioned by his ambition; modern historians have repeated their accusation that he dealt too harshly with his own family members and risked the political stability of the entire realm. However, he unquestionably fostered within the Spanish court a cultural and intellectual renaissance. His sobriquet "el Sabio" means both the Learned and the Wise, reflecting Alfonso's support of both learning and the wisdom that results from it. Alfonso was the first king to codify the Castilian language in both written and spoken courtly records; he himself composed a history of the world in that language, as well as codes of law and treatises on astronomy. For lyric poetry, Alfonso favored Galician-Portuguese. Both that language and his court's poetry are related to the Provençal lyrics of the Troubadors, many of whom took refuge in Alfonso's court during the Albigensian Crusade. Alfonso was buried in Seville Cathedral. His will bequeathed the Cantigas de Santa Maria to the Cathedral for singing on Marian feasts; this custom still takes place in the twenty-first century.

The Cantigas represent Alfonso's most enduring cultural contribution. Four sumptuous manuscripts preserve a collection of over 400 Gallician songs to the Virgin Mary compiled in Alfonso's court between 1250 and 1280. Most of the Cantigas relate miracles the Virgin performed for Compostela pilgrims; every tenth poem lauds her outright. Alfonso himself probably wrote a number of the elegant poems. The manuscript illuminations preserve his physical portrait for posterity, and also document the vibrant musical life of his court: its images record some 40 different musical instruments played by nobles and commoners, women, Jews, and Muslims.
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