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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Alfonso X of Castile (1221–1284)

“KING ALFONSO,” records the Jesuit historian, Mariana, “was a man of great sense, but more fit to be a scholar than a king; for whilst he studied the heavens and the stars, he lost the earth and his kingdom.” Certainly it is for his services to letters, and not for political or military successes, that the meditative son of the valorous Ferdinand the Saint and the beautiful Beatrice of Swabia will be remembered. The father conquered Seville, and displaced the enterprising and infidel Moors with orthodox and indolent Christians. The son could not keep what his sire had grasped. The fortunate young prince, at the age of twenty-five, was proclaimed king of the newly conquered and united Castile and Leon. He was very young: he was everywhere admired and honored for skill in war, for learning, and for piety; he was everywhere loved for his heritage of a great name and his kindly and gracious manners.

In the first year of his reign, however, he began debasing the coinage,—a favorite device of needy monarchs in his day,—and his people never forgave the injury. He coveted, naturally enough, the throne of the Empire, for which he was long a favorite candidate; and for twenty years he wasted time, money, and purpose, heart and hope, in pursuit of the vain bauble. His kingdom fell into confusion, his eldest son died, his second son Sancho rebelled against him and finally deposed him. Courageous and determined to the last, defying the league of Church and State against him, he appealed to the king of Morocco for men and money to reinstate his fortunes.

In Ticknor’s ‘History of Spanish Literature’ may be found his touching letter to De Guzman at the Moorish court. He is, like Lear, poor and discrowned, but not like him, weak. His prelates have stirred up strife, his nobles have betrayed him. If Heaven wills, he is ready to pay generously for help. If not, says the royal philosopher, still, generosity and loyalty exalt the soul that cherishes them.

  • “Therefore, my cousin, Alonzo Perez de Guzman, so treat with your master and my friend [the king of Morocco] that he may lend me, on my richest crown and on the jewels in it, as much as shall seem good to him: and if you should be able to obtain his help for me, do not deprive me of it, which I think you will not do; rather I hold that all the good offices which my master may do me, by your hand they will come, and may the hand of God be with you.
  • “Given in my only loyal city of Seville, the thirtieth year of my reign and the first of my misfortunes.
  • “THE KING.”
  • In his “only loyal city” the broken man remained, until the Pope excommunicated Sancho, and till neighboring towns began to capitulate. But he had been wounded past healing. There was no medicine for a mind diseased, no charm to raze out the written troubles of the brain. “He fell ill in Seville, so that he drew nigh unto death…. And when the sickness had run its course, he said before them all: that he pardoned the Infante Don Sancho, his heir, all that out of malice he had done against him, and to his subjects the wrong they had wrought towards him, ordering that letters confirming the same should be written—sealed with his golden seal, so that all his subjects should be certain that he had put away his quarrel with them, and desired that no blame whatever should rest upon them. And when he had said this, he received the body of God with great devotion, and in a little while gave up his soul to God.”

    This was in 1284, when he was fifty-eight years old. At this age, had a private lot been his,—that of a statesman, jurist, man of science, annalist, philosopher, troubadour, mathematician, historian, poet,—he would but have entered his golden prime, rich in promise, fruitful in performance. Yet Alfonso, uniting in himself all these vocations, seemed at his death to have left behind him a wide waste of opportunities, a dreary dearth of accomplishment. Looking back, however, it is seen that the balance swings even. While his kingdom was slipping away, he was conquering a wider domain. He was creating Spanish Law, protecting the followers of learning, cherishing the universities, restricting privilege, breaking up time-honored abuses. He prohibited the use of Latin in public acts. He adopted the native tongue in all his own works, and thus gave to Spanish an honorable eminence, while French and German struggled long for a learning from scholars, and English was to wait a hundred years for the advent of Dan Chaucer.

    Greatest achievement of all, he codified the common law of Spain in ‘Las Siete Partidas’ (The Seven Parts). Still accepted as a legal authority in the kingdom, the work is much more valuable as a compendium of general knowledge than as an exposition of law. The studious king with astonishing catholicity examined alike both Christian and Arabic traditions, customs, and codes, paying a scholarly respect to the greatness of a hostile language and literature. This meditative monarch recognized that public office is a public trust, and wrote:—

  • “Vicars of God are the kings, each one in his kingdom, placed over the people to maintain them in justice and in truth. They have been called the heart and soul of the people. For as the soul lies in the heart of men, and by it the body lives and is maintained, so in the king lies justice, which is the life and maintenance of the people of his lordship….
  • “And let the king guard the thoughts of his heart in three manners: firstly let him not desire nor greatly care to have superfluous and worthless honors. Superfluous and worthless honors the king ought not to desire. For that which is beyond necessity cannot last, and being lost, and come short of, turns to dishonor. Moreover, the wise men have said that it is no less a virtue for a man to keep that which he has than to gain that which he has not; because keeping comes of judgment, but gain of good fortune. And the king who keeps his honor in such a manner that every day and by all means it is increased, lacking nothing, and does not lose that which he has for that which he desires to have,—he is held for a man of right judgment, who loves his own people, and desires to lead them to all good. And God will keep him in this world from the dishonoring of men, and in the next from the dishonor of the wicked in hell.”
  • Besides the ‘Siete Partidas,’ the royal philosopher was the author, or compiler, of a ‘Book of Hunting’; a treatise on Chess; a system of law, the ‘Fuero Castellano’ (Spanish Code),—an attempt to check the monstrous irregularities of municipal privilege; ‘La Gran Conquista d’Ultramar (The Great Conquest Beyond the Sea), an account of the wars of the Crusades, which is the earliest known specimen of Castilian prose; and several smaller works, now collected under the general title of ‘Opuscules Legales’ (Minor Legal Writings). It was long supposed that he wrote the ‘Tesoro’ (Thesaurus), a curious medley of ignorance and superstition, much of it silly, and all of it curiously inconsistent with the acknowledged character of the enlightened King. Modern scholarship, however, discards this petty treatise from the list of his productions.

    His ‘Tablas Alfonsinas’ (Alfonsine Tables), to which Chaucer refers in the ‘Frankeleine’s Tale,’ though curiously mystical, yet were really scientific, and rank among the most famous of mediæval books. Alfonso had the courage and the wisdom to recall to Toledo the heirs and successors of the great Arabian philosophers and the learned Rabbis, who had been banished by religious fanaticism, and there to establish a permanent council—a mediæval Academy of Sciences—which devoted itself to the study of the heavens and the making of astronomical calculations. “This was the first time,” says the Spanish historian, “that in barbarous times the Republic of Letters was invited to contemplate a great school of learning,—men occupied through many years in rectifying the old planetary observations, in disputing about the most abstruse details of this science, in constructing new instruments, and observing, by means of them, the courses of the stars, their declensions, their ascensions, eclipses, longitudes, and latitudes.” It was the vision of Roger Bacon fulfilled.

    At his own expense, for years together, the King entertained in his palace at Burgos, that their knowledge might enrich the nation, not only certain free-thinking followers of Averroës and Avicebron, but infidel disciples of the Koran, and learned Rabbis who denied the true faith. That creed must not interfere with deed, was an astonishing mental attitude for the thirteenth century, and invited a general suspicion of the King’s orthodoxy. His religious sense was really strong, however, and appears most impressively in the ‘Cantigas à la Vergen Maria’ (Songs to the Virgin), which were sung over his grave by priests and acolytes for hundreds of years. They are sometimes melancholy and sometimes joyous, always simple and genuine, and, written in Galician, reflect the trustful piety and happiness of his youth in remote hill provinces where the thought of empire had not penetrated. It was his keen intelligence that expressed itself in the saying popularly attributed to him, “Had I been present at the creation, I might have offered some useful suggestions.” It was his reverent spirit that made mention in his will of the sacred songs as the testimony to his faith. So lived and died Alfonso the Tenth, the father of Spanish literature, and the reviver of Spanish learning.