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The Discovery of the Past
Alfonso the Wise & the Estoria de España

Totus Orbis: The Desire to Understand Everything

How did Alfonso acquire the epithet el Sabio (the Wise)? What is the nature of this wisdom, and how did he obtain it? To which academic fields or disciplines did he contribute? To which works do we owe his initiative? Today we consider this medieval king to be an important milestone in the history of knowledge; discover the reasons for this.

The Wisdom of the Wise King

The breadth, diversity and depth of the combined knowledge developed and transmitted by the king’s initiative, is incomparable throughout the Western High Middle Ages. It constitutes an unquestionable contribution to the intellectual heritage of humanity. In a Hispanic context, his legacy is the basis of the Spanish written language, which gives rise to a real Golden Age of Spanish tradition throughout the ages. Currently there is unanimous recognition of King Alfonso’s priceless contributions to the diverse disciplines of law, science, poetry, music, art, historiography and language. Both his personal ability to study and his commitment to what he considered to be responsibility of his royal duty, led the king to seek knowledge from the most intellectual people of the time: he looked to the past works of Muslim and Jewish scholars. Alfonso's translations of these works from Arabic into Latin or Romance were the route by which many became known throughout Europe. In this way, Alfonso’s early work is a natural continuation of the “Toledo School of Translators” that had already been carrying out translations of this type since the twelfth century. For this reason, Alfonso the Wise has been regarded as the “bridge between the East and West”. However, the level of the king’s participation in the development of the works that were circulated under his name is not entirely known. It is usually accepted that Alfonso surrounded himself with a team of collaborators who specialised in each of the branches of knowledge addressed, and that we owe the conception of the overall project, along with the design and supervision of the texts, to the monarch. He had a greater involvement in some works in particular, especially in the Cantigas de Santa María (Canticles of Saint Mary). A famous passage in the General estoria (General History) refers to the way in which the king composes a book:

The king makes a book, not because he writes it with his hands, but because he composes its reasoning, and he amends it, completes it and corrects it, and he shows how it should be made, and whoever he desires shall write it in this way.
The thing that remains certain is that the king worked alongside translators and Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars. This collaborative way of working is a good source of information about Alfonso: on the one hand Don Juan Manual declares in his Abbreviated Chronicle, that the king,

had a very large space to study the materials that he wanted to use in order to compose some books, that he stayed, at times, for a year or two or more, and according to those who lived at his mercy, if they wished to speak with him they would wait until he desired, and so he had space to study what he himself wanted to do, and to see and determine things from the materials that he ordered from the teachers and scholars that brought them to his court.

On the other hand, Bernado de Brihuega informs us of the demanding nature of the king: delegating the task of finding the texts which formed the hagiographic collection, the king obliged de Brihuega to visit the kingdom three times in order to search for them.

In any case, we must not forget that for the king, the ultimate goal of obtaining knowledge was none other than to serve as a gateway to eternal truths, and ultimately, to acquire the knowledge of God. He even declared this on more than one occasion throughout his work, for example, in the General estoria:

The more knowledge one has and the more they study, then the more they will learn and grow, and thus be closer to God.

Non ignarus Alfonsus

Marble slab with the inscription in leonine verses: Res tibi sit nota, domus haec et fabrica tota / quam non ignarus Alfonsus sanguine clarus / rex Yspanorum fecit. Fuit iste suorum / actus in Austrinas vices servare carinas. / Arte micat plena, fuit hic informis arena. / Era millena vicentena nonagena. [Oh reader, know that this house and all of its fabrication was made by the wise and pure blood Alfonso, the King of the Spaniards. It was this prince who told the vessels to remain for their conquest of the South. What was a sandy terrain is now a factory sumptuously built with art, in the year 1290]. Charity Hospital of Seville.

The king formed his wise reputation at a very young age. In fact, in his youth he promoted the Castilian translation of Kalila and Dimna, a masterpiece of wisdom literature. The evidence to support the king’s early reputation, which would accompany him throughout his life, is the foundation stone of the dockyards of Seville. This was placed in 1252, just a short time after his accession to the throne, and it refers to him as non ignarus Alfonsus (Wise Alfonso).

Treasure of Wisdom

The Estoria de España is preceded by a Latin poem in praise of King Alfonso, lauding his princely qualities. In this perception of Alfonso, he is hailed as decus Hesperie, theasaurus philosophie (beauty of Spain and a philosophic treasure), referring to the aspect of beauty that also conveys wisdom, as taught by Plato’s famous saying: “Beauty is the splendour of Truth.”

Nobilis Hesperie princeps, quem gracia Cristi
Ultrix perfidie saluauit ab omine tristi,
Priceps laudandus, Alfonsus nomine dictus,
Princeps inuictus, princeps semper uenerandus,
Qui meritis laudes superat, qui uindice fraudes
Ferro condempnat, quem fama decusque perhennat,
Hesperie gesta dat in hoc libro manifesta,
Ut ualeat plura quis scire per ipsa futura.


Si capis, Hesperia, que dat tibi dona sophia
Regis, splendescet tibi fama decus quoque crescet.
Rex, decus Hesperie, thesaurus philosophie,
Dogma dat hyspanis; capiat bona, dent loca uanis.

The noble Prince of Spain, by the grace of Jesus Christ,
Avenger of dispute, save him from all things sad,
Prince worthy of praise, Alfonso called by name,
Undefeated Prince, honourable Prince,
He who avenges deception with iron conviction, whose fame of lives on,
The facts of Spain are manifested in this book,
In a way that everyone can gain wisdom of future things.


Oh Spain, if you take the gifts that wisdom gives you
From the King, you will shine so much that your fame and beauty shall grow,
The King, who is glory of Spain and a treasure of philosophy,
gives his teaching to the Spaniards; let the good take from the good, and the vain give to the vain.

Judge and Jury

Alfonso’s greatest effort within the field of law was essentially the renewal of the kingdom’s legal landscape, which, until this point, had been based on a multiplicity of local jurisdictions and tax collections. This was in the interests of a legislative uniformity based on the rediscovery of Roman Law by the Italian jurists, some of whom, such as the famous Jacobo de Giunta, had already worked in the court of Alfonso’s father, Fernando III. The main legal works stemming from Alfonso’s initiative are the Fuero real, the Espéculo and above all the Siete Partidas.

The Fuero real (the Royal Code of Law) is a code of municipal laws that sought to unify the diversity outside the kingdom and to introduce the royal law in territories that had their own common law. Its enactment began in 1255 (with Aguilar de Campóo the first documented town) and it was progressively extended from Old Castile towards Extremadura, Transierra and the kingdom of Toledo, finally reaching Andalusia and Murcia.

The Espéculo is a code of laws to try cases in the king’s court, and to attempt to reach legal unification in the kingdom. It is certain that the work was still being drafted in 1255, however, it remained unfinished, perhaps due to a change in Alfonsine politics that marked his imperial candidacy from 1256, when the king would have replaced this project with the more ambitious Partidas.

The Siete Partidas is certainly a great Alfonsine contribution to the history of law. It was written between 1256 and 1265 (at least in its first version). It is an immense collection of more than 2600 laws, based on Roman law, but it also using sources from very different origins, both legal and philosophical or theological. Its encyclopaedic character surpasses the mere practical function of establishing itself as a true legal addition in all areas addressed. Moreover, it does not appear that the Partidas were enacted in Alfonso’s time, but rather almost a century later in the time of Alfonso XI, in the mid-fourteenth century. The relevance of the Partidas in Hispanic culture is confirmed by the fact that it was the current legislative code in parts of Latin America until the nineteenth century.

Divine Inspiration

Manuscript 20787 of the British Library, from the Alfonsine scriptorium, displays a copy of the Primera Partida, containing three images that, in the words of the art historian Bango Torviso, “illustrate the religious spirit that the monarch wishes to convey on the origin of laws in general, and in particular the authorship of the codex”. It is reproduced here, and it is interesting to note how “the monarch raises his head upwards as if seeking inspiration or approval from God, which is represented there in the middle of a cloudscape blessing the monarch, i.e. giving approval to the laws dictating his curate on Earth”. This image fits perfectly with two passages from Title One of the Primera Partida, corresponding to the eleventh and twelfth laws, about who has the power to make laws: “The Emperor or King can make laws for the people of his lordship and no other person has the power to make them at this time”; and how to act as the legislator: “The creator of laws should love God and have Him in mind when he makes them, because it is right and courteous”.

Alfonso dictates the Partidas in the presence of God

British Library, MS 20787, f 1v.

To Find Out More

Isidro G. Bango Torviso, «La imagen pública de la realeza bajo el reinado de Alfonso X. Breves apostillas sobre regalia insignia y actuaciones protocolarias», Alcanate VII (2010-2011), 13-42.

Vicar of God on Earth

Alfonso’s adoption of the rediscovered Roman Law changed the king’s image with regards to the feudal vision (in which the monarch is a primus inter pares – ‘first among equals’) through a sovereign who incarnates the exclusivity of divine power on Earth. In the following text from the Partida Segunda it exposes the theoretical assumptions in which the notion of “sacred kingship” is founded in the divine origin of royal power.

Vicars of God are the kings of everybody in his kingdom, put there to maintain justice and truth as long as he is the emperor of his empire. And this is dutifully shown in two ways: the first is spiritual as shown by the prophets and saints, who our Lord gave the grace of knowing things certainly and making them understand; the other is according to nature, as the wise men showed that they were knowledgeable of natural things. And naturally the wise men said that the King is the head of the kingdom, so as the head commands the feelings in all of the parts of the body, the commandment is derived from the King, who is the Lord and head of everyone in the kingdom, and they should follow him and agree to obey him, and protect, maintain and keep the kingdom where his soul and head are placed in order, as they are the limbs.

King means ruler, and without fail the governor of the kingdom which belongs to him, and according to the wise men, notably Aristotle in the book called Politics, in the times of the Gentiles, the King was not only the guider and leader of the people and the judge of the whole kingdom, but he was the Lord of spiritual things, which are then made by reverence and honour of the Gods in which they believed, so they called him King because he reigned as much in the temporal world as the spiritual. And so he took the name as King from our Lord God, as He is said to be the King of kings, because He has that name, and He governs them and maintains them in their place on Earth to do justice and right, and they are obligated to maintain and to govern in justice and in truth to those of his lordship (Partida Segunda, título 2, leyes 5 y 6).

Alfonsine Cosmology

In the scientific field, Alfonso dealt with three main areas: astronomy, astrology and magic. Astronomy deals with the observation and calculation of planetary positions; astrology (now considered a pseudoscience) is based on the correspondence between man and the universe, and the information about nature and destiny that study of the horoscope offers; finally, magic is about transforming reality through supermaterial procedures. In the field of astronomy, the most important work driven by Alfonso is las Tablas alfonsíes (the Alfonsine Tables). This is a collection of elaborate planetary calculations according to observations made in Toledo between 1262 and 1272, which has been considered the first observatory in the Christian West, and that were used in Europe until modern times. In addition, the Wise King sponsored two other astronomical works that are preserved today in two royal codices: firstly, the Libros del saber de astrología (Books of the Understanding of Astrology), which contain both the Libro de la ochava esfera (the Book of the Eighth Sphere) -a description of the constellations and a series of treaties about the fabrication of astronomical instruments; and a fragmented manuscript with the translation of the astronomy tables of the Syrian astronomer Albateni (c. 858-929) and the Andalusian Azarquiel (c. 1029-1087), and el Libro del cuadrante señero (Book of the Solitary Quadrant).

With regards to the field of astrology, we owe three treaties to Alfonso’s initiative: el Libro de las cruces (the Book of the Crosses), el Libro complido en los juicios de las estrellas (the Book Composed in the Discernment of the Stars) and the Quadripartitum; the latter two were widespread in Europe thanks to their Latin translations. Furthermore, the Latin translations of the magical treaties known as the Picatrix and the Liber Razielis had a great impact in the West; the Castilian version is not extant today, as is the case with some similar texts in other languages, such as the Livre des secrez de nature (the Book of the Secrets of Nature) or the Clavis sapientiae (the Key to Knowledge). Others have been preserved in fragments, such as the Libro de las formas e imágenes, (the Book of Forms and Images) of which only the index remains, and the Libro de astromagia (the Book of Astromagic). Instead, we have the early Lapidario (translated in 1250) –this is a treatise that aims to harness the virtues of 360 stones through their relationship with the degrees of the signs of the zodiac.

In the Alfonsine worldview these three areas cannot be separated, in a way that the astronomical data is at the service of astrological judgment, and the latter knowledge also serves the exercise of astral magic. In fact, the medieval concept of the universe can never be overemphasised “as a theophany, in which cause and significance coincide so that knowing whatever reality is putting oneself closer to knowing the others, and inevitably becoming closer to God” according to Francisco Rico, who insists on the necessity seeing, at the base of the Alfonsine project, this vision in which “nothing exists nor is left beyond understanding, outside of the great chain of Being”.

A Crater on the Moon

Alphonsus is the great crater that appears on the right-hand section of the photograph, taken by Ranger 9 in 1965.

Alfonso has been considered the most important astronomer of the Christian Middle Ages. Due to his work in this field, and above all the development of the Tablas alfonsíes, the Wise King recently received the honour of a crater of the moon being baptised in in name: Alphonsus. Alfonso’s text, the Tablas alfonsíes were the point of reference in Western astrology until the time of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

Speaking with Stars

The Libro de la ochava esfera (the descriptive treaty of the constellations headed in the Libro del saber de astrología) contains a passage corresponding to “the figure of Canis Minor”. This is interesting for several reasons: firstly, it provides a rationale for juridical astrology (i.e., one that makes judgments about the future); secondly, it contains a beautiful picture, which condenses the nature and feeling of astrology; the dialogue between man and Heaven, which for Alfonso is the derivation of knowledge; and thirdly, it has shows us how important Alfonso considered astrology to be, as the king considered it as “the most noble knowledge of the world”.

There are three things a man should do when he desires to complete something. The first is to understand the thing he wishes to achieve. The second is to know if good or ill wil come of it. And the third is if it is understood to be good, then to allow it to be completed. And in the end, astronomy decides what makes the work good or bad, and if it is bad or damaged then the man should leave it behind. He who makes the decision speaks with the stars and asks for advice, and the signs that are found is as if the stars are responding to him. And so the advice that is sought in such noble things, as celestial stars, should be taken. Moreover, it is a natural thing and of great reason, and the man takes the advice from the place where the understanding comes from. And not only this, but it is the most noble knowledge in the world, more than anything else. But he who needs it, should take advice before he does it, not after.

A Poet King

In addition to scholars, Alfonso X hosted musicians and poets in his court. Both Galician-Portuguese and Provençal minstrels and orators developed their work under the protection of the king. Some of their identities are known to us today, such as Martim Soares and Pero da Ponte, who were already prominent in the time of Fernando III. But the Alfonsine interest in poetry is not reduced to mere extravagance: Alfonso was raised with an appreciation for troubadour art. Currently more than forty sacrilegious cantigas (canticles or poems) are attributed to him, the majority of them Cantigas de Escarnio, in which the characters that appear are based on his surroundings, and are written in a satirical tone. We must also not forget the existence of nostalgic lyricism.

However, the most relevant poetic wok produced by the wise King is the Cantigas de Santa Maria (the Canticles of Saint Mary), a collection of over 400 poems in Galician-Portuguese dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in praise of her virtues and speaking of her various miracles. If, from a textual point of view, the Cantigas is a monument of tribute poetry to the Virgin, then its value increases if we consider the artistic and musical dimensions of the work. It comes to us in stunning illuminated codices accompanied by their respective musical notation (particularly in the Códice rico ['Rich codex'] of El Escorial). From a musical point of view, moreover, the Cantigas have been considered the most important repertoire of the European medieval lyric; and from the artistic point of view, the Códice rico contain more than 1250 illustrations that offer a true "window" to what daily life was like in the thirteenth century.

Furthermore, the level of the king’s intervention is unknown in the composition of the Cantigas, although it is generally agreed that, despite being the result of a collaboration (in which the poet Airas Nunes would have played a key role), the king played the main part in the work’s conception, as the style and wording of the poems are owed to him. With this, King Alfonso showed another side of Biblical tradition, which was traditional for his royal role as a poet-king. Additionally, one must remember Fray Juan Gil de Zamora’s contemporary biography of the king, in which he states that the king composed the Cantigas in the style of King David.

Poetry and Wisdom

The miniature in Códice rico of the Cantigas Biblioteca del Real Monasterio de El Escorial, ms. T.I.1, fol. 4.

In the miniature below (reproduced from the Códice rico of El Escorial) the king is depicted sitting on a bench, reading a scroll to six copyists. If you look closely, you will find that the text on the scroll is the first two and a half verses, and ballad-prologue that open the Cantigas. No creation of Alfonso’s seems to escape the idea expressed in these verses: the indissoluble association between art and wisdom, beauty and truth, which is captured in this Latin-medieval formula Ars sine scientia nihil est (art without science is nothing). The nature of this is seen in the lines disclosed below “confïand 'in Déus, ond” (trusting in God, from where knowledge derives).

Celestial domna

The verse prologue that comes before the collection of poems in the Cantigas is a beautiful example of the king’s devotion to the Virgin. In it, the king is declared as the ‘troubadour’ of Mary, and he asks her for her approval, renouncing his status as troubadour to any other but her. As stated by Joseph Snow, a specialist on the Cantigas, the king is presented in his great poetic work as a poet “in search of a reward (the salvation of his soul) from the mercy of his celestial domna (woman) – María (Mary).”

Este é o Prólogo das Cantigas de Santa María, ementando as cousas que á mestér eno trobar.

Porque trobar é cousa en que jaz
entendimento, porên queno faz
á-o d’aver e de razôn assaz,
per que entenda e sábia dizer
o que entend’e de dizer lle praz,
ca ben trobar assí s’á de fazer.

E macar éu estas dúas non ei
com’éu querría, pero provarei
a mostrar ende un pouco que sei,
confïand’en Déus, ond’o saber ven;
ca per ele tenno que poderei
mostrar do que quéro algũa ren.

E o que quéro é dizer loor
da Virgen, Madre de Nóstro Sennor,
Santa María, que ést’a mellor
cousa que el fez; e por aquest’éu
quéro seer oi mais séu trobador,
e rógo-lle que me queira por séu.

Trobador e que queira méu trobar
receber, ca per el quér’éu mostrar
dos miragres que ela fez; e ar
querrei-me leixar de trobar des i
por outra dona, e cuid’a cobrar
per esta quant’enas outras perdí.

Ca o amor desta Sennor é tal,
que queno á sempre per i mais val;
e poi-lo gaannad’á, non lle fal,
senôn se é per sa grand’ocajôn,
querendo leixar ben e fazer mal,
ca per esto o pérd’e per al non.

Porên dela non me quér’éu partir,
ca sei de pran que, se a ben servir,
que non poderei en séu ben falir
de o aver, ca nunca i faliu
quen llo soube con mercee pedir,
ca tal rógo sempr’ela ben oiu.

Onde lle rógo, se ela quisér,
que lle praza do que dela dissér
en méus cantares e, se ll’aprouguér,
que me dé gualardôn com’ela dá
aos que ama; e queno soubér,
por ela mais de grado trobará.
This is the Prologue of the Songs of Holy Mary, concerning the things which are necessary in the art of composing songs.

Because trobar [= composing songs] is an art which requires
great understanding, therefore, he who undertakes it
must have this quality, and good judgement,
so that he may understand and be able to say
that which he understands and wishes to express,
for thus are good songs made.

Although I do not possess these two qualities
to the degree that I might wish, I shall nonetheless try
to show the little that I know of the art,
trusting in God, from Whom wisdom comes,
for with His aid I believe I can
accomplish to some extent that which I seek.

And that which I seek is to praise
the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord,
Holy Mary, the most wondrous
of His creations. Therefore,
I wish from this day forth to be Her troubadour,
and I pray that She will have me for Her

troubadour and accept my songs,
for through them I seek to reveal
the miracles She performed. Hence
from now on I choose to sing
for no other lady, and I think thereby to recover
all that I have wasted on the others.

For the love of this Lady is such
that he who has it is forever the more worthy for it,
and once he has earned it, never does it fail him,
unless, to his misfortune,
he departs from good and does wrong.
Thus, and in no other way, does he lose it.

Therefore, I will never depart from Her,
for I know full well that if I serve Her faithfully
I shall never be deprived of Her blessing.
No one ever failed
to receive it who humbly begged for it,
for such a prayer She always heard.

Therefore I pray, if it be Her will,
that what I shall say of Her
in my songs be pleasing to Her, and if it please Her,
that She give me the reward which She gives
to those She loves. He who has this assurance
will gladly sing for Her.

A Story from the Past

Historiography was another of the disciplines enriched by Alfonso. Along with his early dedication to cosmology and law, signs of activity of the Alfonsine historiographical workshop were already present before 1270. It is then that Alfonso's writers began to draw up simultaneously the two historical works that the king created: the Estoria de España (the History of Spain) and the General estoria (the General history), making Alfonso indispensible figure in European historiography of the Middle Ages.

The Estoria de España focuses on the past of the people who dominated the Peninsula from the beginning of time until the era of Alfonso. It is extensively dealt with in the display cases 3 and 4 of this exhibition.

The General estoria, along with the Partidas, is the most ambitious work undertaken by the king. It provides the narrative for the extensive history of all known people to the time of Alfonso himself. This great project of universal history is the unfinished icing on the cake: it is divided into six parts, corresponding to the six ages of the world of traditional historiography. However, we only have first four parts completed. The work is structured around the Biblical story, which in turn, includes classic Latin and early French, British, Arabic, Hispanic and Latin medieval sources. As scholars, we are sure that the project was still ongoing in 1280, when in the spring of that year the copyist Martin Pérez Maqueda dated a finished copy of the fourth part of a codex from the royal scriptorium. In all likelihood, the king’s death in 1284 put an end to the project, with the fifth and sixth parts barely even planned. In any case, the General estoria, as much for the immense wealth of material that it transmits as the singular treatment of its contents, is now considered the “mirror of thirteenth century Spain”.


Miniature from the General estoria showing in the upper half, the king, surrounded by his collaborators, receiving the codices of the work, and on the bottom half, the miraculous birth of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Biblioteca Apostólica Vaticana, ms. Urb. Lat. 539, f. 2v.

There has been a lot of speculation about the potential identities of Alfonso’s collaborators. However, only a couple of names are certain: Bernado de Brihuega and Fray Juan Gil de Zamora. That being said, Alfonso liked to be included in miniatures as being surrounded by his collaborators, as in this picture, from a codex of the fourth part of the General estoria, and there are other similar scenes in the manuscript of the Cantigas and the Libro de los juegos. In this example, the miniature is completed, in its bottom half, with a relevant scene of the miraculous birth of Nebuchadnezzar, the story that begins the volume.

«Then I saw the Aleph»

The elegy of the king in Latin verse that commences the Estoria de España (which is referred to in the display case 2 - object 1) contains a passage that conveys Alfonso’s feeling towards his study and the dissemination of the past. Exposing the reader to historical fact and highlighting figures with exemplary characters displays one purpose of the work: to guide the reader to imitate the virtuous actions and avoid the vicious ones. In this sense, the chronicle teaches as much about the past as it does about the future, depending on the preordained and intelligible aspect of that which has been ultimately willed by God. This concept of history, which Alfonso expressed on more than one occasion, changes the historiographical codex into a type of Aleph or crystal ball that sees into the past, present and future.

Hinc per preterita quisquis uult scire futura
Non dedignetur opus istud, sed memoretur
Sepius hoc legere, quia quibit plura uidere
Per que proficiet et doctus ad ardua fiet,
Nam sciet an ceptum quodcunque scit id uel ineptum
Finem pretendat, seu finis ad optima tendat,
Per quod peiora fugiens capiat meliora.


If you want to know the future from the past,
Then do not despise this work, but instead keep in in memory.
Often one sees with reading those things you can take advantage of,
And these difficulties will teach you what to do
You will know everything if you accept it as such or if it is hopeless,
You will go to the end, or the end will show very good things,
From fleeing the worst things, you will take only the best

The Alfonsine Babel

One of the Wise King’s greatest innovations was his uncompromising commitment to Castilian as the chosen language for the transmission of knowledge, at a time when the chosen language for the transmission of culture was usually Latin. This decision had at least two practical motives: the informative, and the educational purpose that presided over his cultural project. Of course, when undertaking this project he made a conscious decision to raise the intellectual and moral ideas of his court. According to what is expressed in el Setenario, in the times of Fernando III, the king would not have wanted to turn his kingdom into an empire until he had achieved the educational status of the emperors that preceded him. Alfonso clearly saw how he could achieve this goal through the adoption of a vernacular language that was understood by everyone, in order that he could overcome “the great fault of Latin for the loss of books about good and proven philosophy”, as stated in the prologue of the Book about the judgement of the stars. Through this bold resolution, Alfonso was the ultimate pioneer in the medieval West, prompting Dante to also opt for vernacular language within his works, through contact between Dante’s teacher, Brunetto Latini, and the Wise King.

Such similar copying and transmission of knowledge involved intense translation work, especially from Arabic to Castilian. In the Alfonsine workshops the Jewish translators served as a bridge between the two languages as specialists in both Arabic and Castilian. In this sense, the Wise King held in high regard Arabic culture and language, as seen in the foundation of Seville in 1254 of a “study and general schools of Latin and Arabic”, where Muslim and Christian teachers collaborated in education. This interest dates back to Alfonso’s childhood, when, after the conquest of Murcia in 1243, he may have attended the classes of the famous teacher Ibn Abu Bakr al-Riquiti in the madrasa of the city, where the latter may have supported Alfonso’s education in Arabic. We must remember, however, that Alfonso’s work was not only transmitted in Castilian, but there were also secondary translations into Latin or other romance languages such as French, which made it possible for specific Arabic texts to be accessible across the Pyrenees. Today this allows us to know about some of the works whose Castilian versions have not been preserved (such as is the case of the astro-magical treaty known as the Picatrix or el Libro de la escala de Mahoma). To complete this Tower of Babel we must remember that the most personal work by the king, the Cantigas, is written in Galician-Portuguese, and that the king welcomed many Provençal poets at his court.

From Islam to Dante (passing through Alfonso)

Buraq, the fantastic mount of the Prophet, according to a sixteenth century Mogul miniature
The Alfonsine translation of Viaje nocturno (Isrâ) and Ascensión (Mi‘râŷ) about the prophet of Islam (in which Mohammed first moved instantly from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascends to the seventh heaven to Iomos riding a fantastical horse, Buraq) is known as Libro de la escala de Mahoma, it is likely that it was known by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and would have inspired him in his composition of the Divina comedia (Divine Comedy). Currently, only the Latin and French translations have been conserved (thanks to the notary Bonaventura de Siena), while unfortunately the Castilian text has been lost.

Alfonsine Kabbalah

If the quality and quantity of Alfonso’s textual corpus is outstanding, no less is is the volume of work lost through the centuries and known to us only indirectly. In this regard, it is worth noting a passage from don Juan Manuel's Libro de la caza, in which the admired nephew of the king lists a series of translations of which we no longer have written copies: the Jewish Talmud and Kabbalah (that is, the canonical and esoteric Hebrew scriptures), and the “whole portion about the Moors”, which alludes to the Alfonsine version of the Qur’an.

Furthermore he translated all of the Moors’ law, so that the errors that Mohammed, the false prophet, put there and are still there today should be seen. Then he translated the whole Jewish law and even Talmud and another hidden science that they called Kabbalah. And he did this so that it should be seen that their law is but a figure of the law that the Christians had, and how wrong the Moors and the Jews are and how they are in the state of losing their souls.

Beyond the Texts

Apart from the written work that has been bequeathed to us by the Wise King, we must remember some other contributions that Castilian cultural history owes to his initiative.

Of particular note in this sense are his vital contributions to music and the plastic arts, of which the most outstanding example are the Cantigas, a work which encompasses musical scores, artistic miniatures and poetic texts (display case 2 – object 4). Alongside this, both civil and ecclesiastical architecture and gothic sculpture also benefited from his patronage, nowhere exceeded by the beautiful cathedral of Leon (the greatest artistic work of the king) and the statues of the cathedral of Burgos (in the cloisters of which one can see to this day among others, the magnificent sculptures of Alfonso offering a wedding ring to his wife Violante). Other lesser art forms, such as stained glass (in the cathedral of Leon) or metalwork (the superb triptych reliquary known as the Tablas alfonsíes in Seville Cathedral being the most exceptional example) also fell into the broad church of Alfonso's patronage.

The Wise King also urged the consolidation and creation of study centres outside of his own court, as indicated by the giving of statues to the University of Salamanca in 1254, or the creation of “the general study of Latin and Arabic” in Seville in the same year. In all of this, one must add the restoration of old buildings that the king had ordered, such as the pantheon of the church in Toledo – Santa Leocadia de Alcazar, or the aqueduct of the city of Segovia.

To Find Out More

Ángela Franco Mata, «Alfonso X el Sabio y las catedrales de Burgos y León», Norba, 7 (1987), 71-82. Rafael Cómez Ramos, «Tradición e innovación artística en Castilla en el siglo XIII», Alcanate 3 (2002-2003), 135-164.


The stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Leon where Alfonso and his imperial attributes appear, with the Pope.
Numerous "portraits" of King Alfonso have survived. Obviously, they are not natural images (which did not figure in the medieval mind), but rather a foreshadowing of the royal or imperial role represented by Alfonso. The figure of Alfonso is presented through miniatures, statues, coins, stamps and windows. Of this great figurative collection, today the renowned image of Alfonso presents him alongside the Pope, in the windows of the Cathedral of Leon as an emperor with a sceptre and cruciferous globe.

Segovia Bridge

Hidden amongst the hundreds of pages of the General estoria, there survives only an isolated reference to the restoration of the aqueduct of Segovia (or the ‘bridge’ as it is called in the text), as ordered by Alfonso two centuries before it was carried out by the Catholic Kings. Connected with the mention of Espan, the nephew of Hercules and resident of the city, it is stated:

And Espan founded, near the mountains of Duero, a city […] they called Segovia. And the bridge was made where the water now flows to the city, but it was being destroyed and King Alfonso remade and adjusted it, and the water came to the city as it used to, and it was a long time that the city had not received water […] (General estoria, 2ª Parte).

Sounds From Another Time

In Celestial domna we have included the prologue to the Cantigas, where the first verse begins “Because ‘trobar’ is an art which requires...”. Now you have the opportunity to listen to this version of the work by the SEMA group.

Grupo SEMA, «Prólogo: Porque trobar e cousa en que jaz…». En Ramillete de cantigas, villancicos, ensaladas, romances, pavanas, glosas, tonos e otros entretenimientos, GASA, 1987.

Alfonsine Workshop

El problema de Dilaram. Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, ms. T-I-6 (fol. 38). © Patrimonio Nacional.

Check the King

Of all the Alfonsine literature that has been mentioned, one must not forget the collection of courtesan recreational texts in the codex of the royal scriptorium entitled Libros de ajedrez, dados e tablas (Books of chess, dice and tables) concluded during the king’s imprisonment in Seville during the conflict with his nobles and his son Sancho (1283). The purpose of the compilation is made explicit in the prologue: “For God desired happiness for men, and so that they could bear pain, and work when they have to, men looked for many ways to achieve this happiness”. Moreover, the ‘Escurialense Codex’ (ms. T-I-6) contains 150 beautiful miniatures that accompany the text. The Libro de ajedrez, in particular has a total of 130 chess problems, two thirds of which come from Arabic sources and would not have been known until the 19th century, had it not been for the Alfonsine initiative.

The most famous of all of them is known as the "Queen's problem". According to legend, the young Dilaram (whose name means "heart's rest") was the beloved of a chess expert who, in the middle of an intense game, would up promising Dilaram as a wager. But the game became very difficult for the lover, to the point that he was threatened with checkmate in just one move. Just when he was about to resign, Dilaram, who was present for the game, shouted to him "Sacrifice the two rooks, not me!". The expert instantly saw what the hint meant and in five daring moves (including repeated checkmates) he was able to win the game and retain his lover.

Which are the five wining moves? Playing the following moves, and choose the correct move in each case, bearing in mind that:

a) You are playing white, and move first.
b) In medieval chess, the bishop moves precisely two squares and can pass over other pieces; the queen can only move one square diagonally.

The play begins. First move.

To Find Out More

César Bordons Alba, «El ajedrez, juego de reyes», Alcanate, 5 (2006-2007), 191-263.

Fernando Gómez Redondo, «El ajedrez y la literatura (4). Jaque al rey», Rinconete (2 de agosto de 2012).

Titus Burckhardt, «El simbolismo del ajedrez», en Símbolos, Palma de Mallorca: Olañeta, 1992.