In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alfonso X

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and Collections
  • Reference Works

Medieval Studies Alfonso X
Joseph T. Snow
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0162


Alfonso X, king of Castile, León, and Galicia (b. 1221–d. 1284; reigned 1252–1284), the firstborn son of Ferdinand III and his German wife, Beatrix (Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen), has justly been called the Emperor of Culture, owing to the renaissance of learning he championed in the 13th century in the areas of history, science, law, and literary works. Like his cousin and patron of the arts, Frederick II, king of Sicily and Holy Roman emperor (1220–1250), Alfonso was called Stupor mundi. From his parents he received a strong religious upbringing and acquired and promoted his own devotion to the Virgin Mary. Alfonso believed he ruled with Mary’s favor, and he ceaselessly fostered her devotion throughout his realms. Owing to his Hohenstaufen blood inherited from his mother, a Ghibelline delegation from Pisa visited his court in 1256 to request that he accept a nomination for the then-empty throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Alfonso acceded and, backed by many European supporters, was elected in a double election in 1257 along with Richard of Cornwall. Alfonso pursued this nomination for eighteen years, until informed by Pope Gregory X in 1275 that he would not be named. In these years, Alfonso’s own natural intelligence and curiosity about the world impelled him to patronize many works—the prose works in Castilian, the poetic ones in Galician-Portuguese—in an effort to accomplish multiple goals: the elevation of the Castilian language (he had adopted it over Latin for all his chancery documents, and did much to standardize its written form); the didactic aim of raising the level of education of the peoples of his reign; and to be seen as a dignified successor to the imperial throne. For Alfonso, politics and culture were inextricably bound. Once he decided to sponsor prose works in the general fields of history, science, and law, his financial, spiritual, and creative support never waned and, at his death in 1284, some works, many in the process of new redactions, were left unfinished. Alfonso was reared in Galicia. At age sixteen he began his life as a soldier alongside his father, who had energetically untaken the conquest of territories still under the control of the Moors in Andalusia, reclaiming for a Christian Spain the crucial cities of Córdoba (1236) Murcia (1243, the forces were led by Alfonso), Jaén (1246), and, finally, Seville (1248). After 1252 and as king, Alfonso pursued actively the conquest of territories from the Moors and the Christian repopulation of Andalusian territories. In his eighteen-year-long pursuit of the emperorship, he used up much royal revenue, twice debased the currency, opposed important clergy, and was subjected, in 1272 and after, to the rebellion of many members of the leading noble families as well as members of his own family. When his oldest son and heir, Fernando, died in 1275, his second son, Sancho, led the rebellion against Alfonso and, although technically Alfonso still ruled, he spent the last two years of his life confined to loyal Seville. If, as it claimed, his political and economic legacy is without distinction, his cultural legacy more than upholds his fame as the father of the Castilian language, the giver of Roman law, his general histories of Spain and of the world, and an impressive scientific corpus that would spread to all of Europe.

Biographies and Collections

Given the important role played by Alfonso X in 13th-century Spain, much has been written about him and the varied works of which he was creator and royal patron. Alfonso’s life and reign are chronicled in Ballesteros y Beretta 1984, O’Callaghan 1993, González Jiménez 1999, and Martínez 2010. In order to provide the best library possible, Alfonso had countless manuscripts copied or borrowed, and others were received as gifts. All of these were brought to Toledo, where he provided space for workshops of Jewish, Christian, and Arabic translators to take works from Arabic and the other classical languages of the past and convert them into Castilian and, often, Latin. This scriptorium had trained crew chiefs for each work who supervised the redactors, copyists, and illuminators. Alfonso then supervised, personally in many instances, corrections and revisions he deemed necessary. Some works were always works-in-progress, as we know from the many surviving redactions and manuscripts. Alfonso is known to have been dissatisfied with one translation or version and to have commissioned another. Much can be learned about Alfonso’s intellectual pursuits in a number of edited volumes, such as Carmona and Flores 1985; Márquez Villanueva and Vega 1990; Katz, et al. 1987 (cited under Reference Works and Collections); Burns 1990; Fraker 1996; and Montoya Martínez and Domínguez Rodríguez 1999. The journal Alcanate is exclusively devoted to Alfonso and his life and works. Márquez Villanueva 2004 is an informed study of Alfonso’s cultural concept.

  • Alcanate: Revista de Estudios Alfonsíes. 1998–.

    Volume 1 dates to 1998–1999. It is an annual, sponsored by the Cátedra Alfonso el Sabio in El Puerto de Santa María, Spain, produced from papers on thematic issues from an annual international symposium. The most recent volume is 2013. It publishes articles, bibliographical accounts, and review articles.

  • Ballesteros y Beretta, Manuel. Alfonso X, el Sabio. Barcelona: Albir, 1984.

    This second edition of over 1,000 pages contains several important indices the 1963 edition did not include. It was the first important biography on Alfonso X and conjoins historical events, chancery documents, his literary output, itineraries, and affairs of political, religious, and cultural importance in his national and international campaigns, to present a full account of his life, cultural production, and political and economic involvements.

  • Burns, Robert I, ed. Emperor of Culture, Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth-Century Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

    Burns’s introduction is masterful and is followed by studies on Alfonso’s governing, his standardization of language, the Cantigas, his prologues, Jewish collaborators in the scientific works, his historiographic and legislative successes, and a bibliology [sic].

  • Carmona, Francisco, and Francisco J. Flores, ed. La lengua y la literatura en tiempos de Alfonso X: Actas del Congreso Internacional Murcia, 5–10 de marzo de 1984. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, Departmento de Literaturas Románicas, 1985.

    The thirty-two studies in this volume are wide ranging, with three dedicated to language employed by Alfonso, four to his histories, six to his poetic works, five to the legal works, and one to his library. The rest are on other works in his time period.

  • Fraker, Charles F. The Scope of History: Studies in the Historiography of Alfonso el Sabio. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

    This volume collects eight of the author’s studies that deal with specific subjects germane to both of Alfonso’s historical works.

  • González Jiménez, Manuel. Alfonso X el Sabio: Historia de un Reinado (1252–1284). 2d ed. Palencia: El Olmedo, 1999.

    An engaging and solid survey of the often turbulent reign of Alfonso X, with a strong basis in documents.

  • Márquez Villanueva, Francisco. El concepto cultural alfonsí. Barcelona: Bellaterra, 2004.

    Follows closely the wedding of Alfonso’s politics with his cultural program, and particularly focuses on aspects of Christian, Jewish, and Moorish elements absorbed into his cultural activities. The first edition was published in 1994. This edition is revised and amplified.

  • Márquez Villanueva, Francisco, and Carlos Alberto Vega, eds. Alfonso X of Castile: The Learned King (1221–1284); An International Symposium, Harvard University, 17 November 1984). Cambridge MA: Deptartment of Romance Literatures and Languages of Harvard University, 1990.

    The collection contains four studies on the Cantigas, one on Alfonso as patron of astronomy, another on Alfonso’s cultural concept, and one on the General Estoria.

  • Martínez, H. Salvador. Alfonso X, the Learned: A Biography. English translation by Odile Cisneros. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004181472.i-589

    The original was published in Spanish in 1993 (Madrid: Polifemo). A thorough accounting of the life and times of this monarch in the national and the international times he lived in. Each chapter is focused and well crafted, and the bibliography is ample and current. There are several pages of color illustrations.

  • Montoya Martínez, Jesús, and Ana Domínguez Rodríguez, eds. El Scriptorium alfonsí: De los Libros de Astrología a las “Cantigas de Santa Maia.” Madrid: Editorial Complutense, 1999.

    This volume contains three studies on Alfonso’s legislative works, eight on the poetic works, one on the scientific works, and two on other more general literary aspects of his production. Each study is grounded in solid bibliographical scholarship.

  • O’Callaghan, Joseph F. The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

    An excellent guide to the reign of Alfonso; especially strong on the political struggles occasioned by his pursuit of empire, the controversies over the succession, and accounts of his loyalists and enemies. Accounts of Alfonso’s cultural accomplishments are interwoven throughout.

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