Alfonso. The learned of Castile. A Renaissance man in the Middle Ages, he marshaled the talents of Christians,Jews, and Moslems in an extraordinary outpouring of scholarship and art….
“He has such a passion for knowledge that all the good, learned men who go to him are well contented,” wrote the troubadour Girault Riquier about Alfonso X, the thirteenth-century king of Castile who was to go down in history as Alfonso El Sabio- The Learned. Most of the other poet-composers who frequented his court were equally enthusiastic about the treatment they received there. Folquet de Lunel rhymed and sang of it as a “court without pride or villainy… in which one listens to reason, a court where there are a hundred givers of rewards,” meaning that the arts were subsidized.
Alfonso’s domain extended well beyond the boundaries of Castile itself, encompassing the greater part of Spain. His southern provinces had been wrested from the Moors only a few years before his ascension to the throne in 1252. Culturally, Alfonso’s kingdom was thus strategically located on the cusp between East and West, and, unlike his more fanatical successors who tried to uproot everything that was non-Christian in Spain, Alfonso decided to make the best of both worlds. His court became a meeting place for Christian, Islamic and Jewish scholarship and art, as well as a refuge for the last of the troubadour poets fleeing the south of France in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade.
Alfonso’s lifelong interest in secularizing culture made him, as it were, the first Renaissance Man of the Middle Ages: one of his senior schlars, Jehuda ben Moses Cohen, described him as a king “in whom God has placed intelligence, and understanding and knowledge above all the princes of his time.” His task, as he saw it, was to mobilize the intellectual energies of Spain, and to that end he commissioned the leading scholars of the day to produce an imposing array of books on history, law,astronomy, magic, mythology, and gamesplay. It was not a question of his merely being a royal dilettante: he himself usually took a direct hand in the production of these manuscripts, either as contributing author or as royal editor in chief.
Alfonso’s astronomers were responsible for the compilation of planetary movements, based on Arabic models, known as the “Alfonsine Tables,” which, in subsequent editions, were to be essential to navigation down to the time of Columbus; their appearance in 1272 signaled the dawn of European science. As a lawgiver, Alfonso codified the Siete Partidas in which Roman law was reconciled to the ancient regional laws and customs of Spain. His chronicle of Spain ranks as the first history of a European nation, other than the Anglo-Saxon, to be written in a modern European language. His book on chess is the first European work of its kind, and also the most beautiful ever produced.