Over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the loose assemblage of archaic counties and administrative units that comprised the regions of Aragon and Catalonia in northeastern Spain transformed into the centralized confederation known as the Crown of Aragon. The early "count-kings," counts of Barcelona and kings of Aragon, ruled and united these diverse lands though a combination of personal and administrative creativity. By the late thirteenth century, the Aragonese kings had widened ambitions and horizons.
The decisive turning point came with the reign of King Jaime I (r. 1213-1276). Over the course of four decades, Jaime managed to double the size of his kingdoms, expanding southward and into the Mediterranean. This tropism presented new challenges. For instance, expansion brought large Muslim and Arabic-speaking communities under the authority of the Crown of Aragon. In some areas, like Valencia, the subject Muslim population far outnumbered the Christian one. Nevertheless, these new conquests offered an opportunity for political experimentation. Inspired in part by the revival of Roman law and the Aristotelian tradition as well as the appearance of professionally trained bureaucrats across Europe, Jaime implemented a series of legal, fiscal, and administrative reforms, which both increased and consolidated his power, dressing the king in the trappings of an emperor. This aggressive legal, intellectual, and material transformation continued under the reigns of his successors, Pedro III (1276-1285), Alfonso III (1285-1291), and Jaime II (1291-1327), who pushed the Crown of Aragon into the central Mediterranean.
These imperial pretensions and ambitions met with strong resistance from the aristocracy, who recognized the threat to their customary powers, above all the Aragonese noblemen, for whom these Mediterranean adventures held the least benefit. Rebellions against royal power extended as far back as the 1220s but culminated in the civil wars of the 1280s. Royalists, backed by enthusiastic and extreme interpretations of the law, confronted the so-called "pactists," who called for a return to custom. For his part, Pedro was forced to make concessions in the Privilegio General of 1283. His son and successor, Alfonso III made further concessions, when he signed the Privilegios de la Unión in 1287. The degree to which this privileges restrained the Aragonese kings is debatable. These kings turned to new agents--Jewish courtiers, Muslim soldiers, North African and Sicilian exiles--to circumvent the entrenched noblemen. For his part, Jaime II began to title a new nobility to bolster his authority. All the same, these civil wars did have the effect of giving a legal character to the idea of "nobility," a concept that had remained ill-defined since republican Rome.
The intellectual and political crosscurrents that defined this tumultuous period are perfectly reflected in Guillelmus de Aragonia's De nobilitate anime, available in a wonderful new edition and translation by William D. Paden and Mario Trovato. A practical physician and speculative philosopher, who served in the courts of Pedro III, Alfonso III, and Jaime I, Guillelmus belonged to the recently revived Aristotelian tradition, which emphasized anthropological naturalism and philosophical nominalism. In addition to De nobilitate anime, he composed an influential commentary on Boethius, a study of Aristotle's Physiognomy, a work on prognostication by dreams, and others. The composition of De nobilitate anime belongs to the period between 1280 and 1290, which is to say, the heart of the period of conflict between the Crown of Aragon and the Aragonese nobility. In this work, Guillelmus defines nobility as an acquired habit (habitus acquisitus) rather than an intrinsic potential (potentia intrinseca) pertaining to some men on account of birth, wealth, or power. In short, he takes a pragmatic view of nobility: "nobilis enim nichil aliud est quam bene operans" (1.0.2). He argues that nobility is the ethical obligation of political life. In this sense, Guillelmus is more radical than Aristotle himself, who conceded certain "realist" considerations and limitations, and anticipates the work of the fourteenth-century Italian jurist Bartolus Sassoferrato.
De nobilitate anime reminds that the radical philosophical and political ideas of the late thirteenth century emerged from and ramified into surprising paths. Guillelmus draws upon Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Romance sources, combining and balancing philosophical maxims with rustic proverbs. Indeed, this manuscript has gained most of its attention and been most appreciated for the abundance of material drawn from the Occitan troubadours. The promiscuity of citations, however, is also indicative of a wider climate of intellectual creativity, in which several intellectual traditions clashed and combined, a process catalyzed by new translations from Arabic and Hebrew. What is striking is that if the Aragonese court drew upon similar currents--Roman law and Averroism--to transform kings into emperors, Guillelmus was not a royalist. Indeed, Paden and Trovato suggest that Guillelmus joined the aristocratic rebellions against King Alfonso. But if he threw his lot in with the noblemen, then he was clearly also a critic of their claims to customary rights. Nobility, he contended, lay in the soul, not birth, wealth, or the power to do violence. These are radical ideas that complicate the division of medieval Aragonese politics into a choice between royalists and pactists. Guillelmus charts a different course, a decidedly idealistic one, that anticipates the humanists.
Paden and Trovato present a new edition of De nobilitate anime based on six extant manuscripts, three of which were previously unknown. Two appendices catalog textual variants as well as the sources and analogues for Guillelmus' eclectic citations. The English translation is highly readable and faithful to the text. Finally, Paden and Trovato offer an excellent introduction. In addition to rigorously detailing their efforts to date this manuscript and properly identify the figure known as Guillelmus de Aragonia, they offer a useful discussion of the idea of nobility in history and philosophy and among the troubadours, the last receiving the greatest attention. The Introduction will serve as a useful guide to both scholars and students. Indeed, De nobilitate anime is an ideal edition and translation of a medieval text, one that will make a genuinely important contribution to scholarship and pedagogy. Scholars of medieval philosophy and poetry will find much to draw their interest. Within the classroom, one could easily substitute all or a portion of this text for a reading of Andreas Cappellanus or Brunetto Latini.
As with the finest of works, one could ask for more. The figure of Guillelmus, author of several influential works, remains a shadow. The world from which he emerged must certainly have shaped De nobilitate anime and its use of Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Romance sources. Paden and Trovato could have done more to develop the broader social context. For instance, Guillelmus may have been familiar with the Arabic-speaking Jewish physicians, who also served as translators for the royal court, but almost no attention is given to the significance of Islamic philosophy. To be sure, there must be more details about Guillelmus' life buried in the heaps of uncatalogued documents in the archives of the Crown of Aragon. All the same, it is the signal achievement of De nobilitate anime as an edition that it will inspire more research.