History Hofstra Horizons Research

Hofstra Horizons: The Wise King

Simon R. Doubleday, PhD, Professor of History, Hofstra University

Sometime in or around the year 1237, a young Spanish prince, approaching the age of 16, opened a book of advice and began to read. The text was titled the Book of the Twelve Wise Men, and it had been commissioned by his father, Fernando III, ruler of the realms of Castile and León. “We, the twelve wise men whom you ordered to appear at your court,” the prince read, “have written down everything that a ruler should know, so that you might gaze into our book and study its pages. Although it is small, its judgments are good. We ask that you ensure that each of your children receive a copy, for the sake of their bodies and souls.” Wishing good health to the king and his loved ones, and reminding him discreetly of the three traveling magi of the Christian gospels, these fictional wise men would serve as guides through the manual that would teach the young prince how to live.

The book could not have fallen into the hands of a better reader. The prince – whose name was Alfonso – was a sharp and curious student. A manuscript illustration from the Book of Games, which Alfonso himself would compose much later in life, shows a young man (quite possibly our prince) playing chess with an older opponent dressed as a scholar, probably his tutor. As Alfonso X, king of Castile and León, ruling from 1252 to 1284 (Fig. 1), the prince would prove to be the most intellectually voracious of all medieval rulers. Heir to a tradition of kingship that had generally been more militaristic than cultured, he would oversee a farreaching artistic outpouring in his kingdom, foreshadowing the cultural rebirth that would seize Italy in the following century.

My current research aims to shed new light on this ruler, a man who, within a generation, would be celebrated as el Sabio, “the Wise King,” and who drank deeply from the wellsprings of many cultures – Muslim and Jewish, as well as Christian – that flourished and intermingled in medieval Spain. A decade after he opened the advice book, Prince Alfonso would stand awestruck before the walls of Ishbilya – Seville, the glittering capital of the Muslim realms of southern Spain – as his father, Fernando III, prepared his final assault on the city. As he stood in the vast Christian encampment, a virtual city of tents, he would marvel at the architecture before him: among them, the Tower of Gold, perched on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, and above all at the Giralda, the svelte minaret that mirrored its twin in Marrakesh (Fig. 2). Even after the city fell to his father’s armies, Alfonso so deeply valued the Giralda that he later threatened to put to death anyone who dared destroy a single brick of its facade.


My study of The Wise King (which is scheduled to be published by Basic Books in 2015) will trace the many sides of Alfonso, a ruler whose brilliant vision paved the way for the European Renaissance. A prolific author of works on astronomy, gambling, hunting, and the properties of stones, he would infuse his limitless personal energy into the compilation of an astonishing spectrum of histories, law codes, and other literary forms. For centuries after his death, the Alfonsine Tables – providing data for calculating the relative positions of the sun, moon, and stars – would ensure his immortality; Copernicus would still rely upon them in the 1490s, as a student at the University of Cracow, and his personal copy still survives. Today, Alfonso is best known for the Cantigas de Santa María (Songs to Holy Mary), a cycle of 400 lyric songs – windows into medieval Spanish life – whose words and music continue to envelop modern listeners in the fabric of 13th-century culture. In his cultural production, the imprint of the king’s pursuit of individual and collective happiness is visible everywhere. My book will trace his deep concern – both in his life and in his writing – with issues such as parenting; anger; greed; laughter; games (Fig. 3) and exercise, especially hunting; and friendship, a subject on which I will begin a separate NEH teaching project this year.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]“ My study of The Wise King … will trace the many sides of Alfonso, a ruler whose brilliant vision paved the way for the European Renaissance.”[/quote]

Lacking the tact and political skill of his wife, Queen Yolant (a queen whose full history remains to be written), the Wise King would not always prove to be successful in his dogged pursuit of happiness. His middle and later years unfold beneath a gathering storm of disasters, including the expensive and humiliating failure to impose his claims to the title of Holy Roman Emperor (once held by Charlemagne) and the civil war that engulfed him in the closing years of his reign, when his son Sancho usurped power in Castile. A 16th-century Jesuit historian would famously declare that Alfonso lost the earth because he was too busy gazing at the stars. It is easy to read the story of Alfonso’s life, as has often been done, as a pragmatic parable: a warning against an excess of intellectual enthusiasm. But this would be to distort historical reality. The Wise King’s political failures, and even the rupture of close family bonds, have more to do with the changing structures of power in 13th-century Spain than they do with his undoubted moments of misjudgment. Wisdom is not, in any case, to be measured merely in terms of political achievement. Alfonso’s response to a mounting sequence of troubles and catastrophes was an outpouring of some of the most sophisticated and beautiful works to have graced the Middle Ages. His efforts to wrestle with these crises – both inward and external – sometimes got the better of him. In the last dozen years of life, above all, he would stumble, fall, and often lose his battles with personal demons and political enemies. But throughout the reign, his struggle would be transformed and distilled, in his writing, into something sublime that speaks to us powerfully across the centuries.wordpress_horizons_s14_doubleday_002

Almost a century ago, the great American medievalist Charles Homer Haskins – sometime advisor to President Woodrow Wilson – rightly observed that the Italian Renaissance was not the bolt from the blue that had long been imagined. “The continuity of history,” he wrote, “rejects such sharp and violent contrasts between successive periods … Modern research shows us the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed.” Haskins’ magisterial study of what he subversively called the “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century” brought to light a different reality: the century into which Prince Alfonso’s parents were born had been a period of intense vitality, characterized by new prosperity, cultural energy, and a new concern for the inner life of man. The invasions that had menaced and reshaped Western Europe in an earlier period – among them, the great waves of Viking incursions – had come to a close; the consolidation of feudal kingdoms such as England and France allowed relative peace and prosperity; and the Mediterranean was reborn as a commercial hub for the first time since the “fall” (or better, the reconfiguration) of the Roman Empire.

Stimulated by the economic power of Byzantium – the eastern, Greekspeaking, torchbearer of the Roman legacy – Italian cities such as Genoa and Venice were already taking the lead, profiting from an increasing trade in luxury goods from the East. A renascent Church, asserting its claims powerfully against the secular kings and princes of Europe, became a great patron of learning. Cathedral schools and, from the later 12th century, the first universities – Bologna, Oxford, Palencia – stimulated a thirst for learning. Sadly, this was also a period that witnessed the birth of a persecuting society, intolerant toward internal dissidents as well as external threats, and hostile toward belief systems or practices that could not be reconciled with official doctrine. The crusading movement, which had first taken shape in the 1090s and which continued to shape the contours of the medieval imagination long after the fall of the kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin’s armies in 1187, can itself be seen as an expression of these accumulated energies. The consciousness of living in a new age had not yet crystallized: the great minds of the 12th century world were keenly aware of how much they owed to an ancient but still living, indeed towering, past. Yet many of those qualities traditionally associated with Renaissance Italy (such as the “discovery of the individual,” and the “rediscovery of antiquity”), and many of the social changes – including the rise of an urban middle class – can be traced back to the very heart of the Middle Ages.

Not everyone celebrated this transformation. New commercial prosperity, new confidence, and a newly elaborate code of courtly conduct clashed with older Christian sensibilities and moral principles; contemporary observers sensed a gulf between ideals and practice. One such author, the French abbot Guibert de Nogent, left a particularly memorable tirade against what he saw as the moral corruption of his day, which he associated particularly with the wiles of women: “In all their behavior nothing can be noted but unseemly mirth, wherein are no sounds but of jest, with winking eyes and babbling tongues, and wanton gait and all that is ridiculous in manners. The quality of their garments is so unlike that of the frugality of the past that the widening of their sleeves, the tightening of their bodices, their shoes of Cordoban morocco with twisted beaks – nay, in their whole person we may see how shame is cast aside.” It was the shoes that were for Guibert the very embodiment of human vanity and moral decline. Fashioned of Spanish leather and manufactured in the Muslim metropolis of Córdoba, in southern Spain, which at its height had some quarter of a million inhabitants and was by far the largest city in the west of Europe, they would have been transported north across the Pyrenees. But from our modern vantage point we can detect something more familiar: a pointed critique of the culture of consumerism and the thriving market in luxury goods, supplied in this case by long-distance trade routes connecting Morocco with France. And at the very core of this commercial network was Spain.


While recent historians have suggested that the roots of the Renaissance can be found in the close contact between Italy and the Islamic world – particularly the Ottoman Empire – which emerged in the 14th and 15th centuries, these links had existed for more than half a millennium in the Christian and Muslim realms of Iberia, which the sixth-century bishop Isidore of Seville had termed “the Ornament of the World.” It was to the monastery of Ripoll, in northeastern Spain, that the “Scientist Pope” Gerbert of Aurillac had traveled at the end of the 10th century in search of mathematical and astronomical knowledge. It was in the spiritual capital of Spain – Toledo – that an intellectual revolution unfolded in the 12th century (Fig. 4). Here, in a city that embodied the complex coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, translators brought to light a world of ancient wisdom, preserved in Arabic, as well as the work of recent Muslim thinkers, setting aflame the imagination of Christendom. The long road to the re-emergence of Western Europe as a cultural powerhouse had been paved on the streets of Cordoba, Seville, Saragossa, Toledo, and a dozen other Spanish cities. Prince Alfonso – Alfonso the Wise – was both the inheritor of this slow-burning revolution, and its greatest architect.


Christian Spaniards of the 13th century often saw Muslims in general, and the rival Almohad empire – based in Morocco – not merely as enemies and certainly not as barbarians, but as patrons of a sophisticated civilization that was, in many respects, superior to their own. Alfonso himself was dazzled by the Almohads: this was a surprisingly bookish regime, living by the word as much as the sword. The central mosque in their capital, Marrakech, was called the Kutubiyya – a name deriving from the Arabic for “books” – precisely because of the large book market that thrived in the shadow of the minaret. Some of the greatest philosophical works in the history of medieval Spain would be composed under the patronage of the Almohad movement. This wave of cultural energy could not be stopped, even by battle. In July 1212, nine years before the birth of Prince Alfonso, a coalition of Christian forces had met the Almohad army on the plateau just north of the olive-growing city of Jaén, and had won a resounding victory. Yet even as much of southern Spain was overrun by Christian troops, the spirit of the place seemed to have conquered the hearts and minds of the conquerors. Dozens of churches in the Christian realms were constructed in an Arabized architectural style, now emptied of Islamic significance; wooden ceilings replete with bilingual symbols were designed in accordance with Islamic patterns. New forms of pottery, inspired by Islamic models, begin to proliferate, suggesting that ordinary Castilians were more frequently consuming foods whose Arabic origin is betrayed by their name: among them, eggplant (berenjena), artichoke (alcachofa), and sugar (azúcar). Meanwhile, in the sphere of elite literary culture, a tsunami of translations from Arabic into Latin washed over the Iberian Peninsula.

On a grander scale than in any other corner of Western Europe, the multiple realms comprising the modern territories of Spain and Portugal were the arena for a kaleidoscopic interaction among peoples, religions, and cultures: an arena in which conflict was the handmaiden of cultural rebirth. It was this world into which Alfonso was born. Far more than his intellectual predecessors, and far more than his military-minded father, he would be seduced and mesmerized by the glories of al-Andalus: the sector of Iberia that had been ruled by Muslims. In the years to come, Alfonso would draw on both Christian and Muslim forms in a series of works that would elaborate upon his deeply humane vision of the world. The Wise King was intensely, and personally, involved in the conception of these works, and while we cannot envisage him as if he were a modern author, single-handedly composing these texts, his spirit infuses them all. In the words of the Universal History composed under his aegis: “The king makes a book, not because he writes it with his own hands, but because he sets forth the reasons for it, and he amends and corrects and directs them, and shows how they should be done.” Across his realms, after his accession to the throne in 1252, he would rebuild a new Christian culture in the image of its supposed adversaries, and rewrite the history of Europe.


Simon Doubleday, professor of history at Hofstra University, teaches a range of courses in the history of medieval and Renaissance Europe. He holds a BA in history (First Class Hons.) from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge (1988), and a PhD in medieval history from Harvard University (1996).

He has co-edited three volumes of essays concerned with the contemporary relevance of the distant past and the intersection of historical inquiry with ethical issues and social justice: Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (Routledge, 2011); In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West, and the Relevance of the Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); and Border Interrogations: Crossing Spanish Frontiers (Berghahn, 2008). He is also the author of The Lara Family: Crown and Nobility in Medieval Spain (Harvard University Press, 2001) and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies. His book The Wise King is scheduled to be published by Basic Books in 2015.


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