16.10.29, Doubleday, The Wise King

Main Article Content

A. Katie Harris

The Medieval Review 16.10.29

Doubleday, Simon R. The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance. New York: Basic Books, 2015. pp. xxix, 304. ISBN: 978-0-465-06699-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
A. Katie Harris
University of California Davis

In recent decades, the "global turn" has cracked open some of the hoariest old chestnuts of European history, bringing to them new perspectives and interpretations fostered by a greater awareness of Europe's borrowings from other cultures and areas of the globe. The Renaissance is among the most prominent historical moments currently undergoing a global shift or reorientation, as scholars look beyond Italy--and indeed, beyond the confines of Europe--to uncover the deep debts and borrowings from other cultures, especially from the Islamic world. Simon Doubleday builds upon this trend and upon enduring popular interest in the Renaissance to entice readers into this new, highly accessible biography of Alfonso X "the Wise" (1221-1284), king of Castile and León. Doubleday's portrait of Alfonso is that of "a 'Renaissance man' before the Renaissance" (xviii), one whose engagement with the advanced culture of Islamic Al-Andalus enriched Europe's literature, architecture, and arts, and, in so doing, laid some of the groundwork for the cultural renewal that would follow in Italy and beyond.

Over the course of nine chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue, Doubleday blends biography with a careful consideration of Alfonso's literary and scientific production. The chapters are both chronological and topical, exploring key moments in the king's career together his personal characteristics and his intellectual pursuits. Doubleday deftly balances Alfonso's military exploits and political ventures with his cultural projects, and digs deep into his literary works to uncover hints of his emotional life. He artfully links the vicissitudes of Alfonso's personal life to his scientific and literary productions, including commissioned translations (but remains cautious about the degree to which we can consider Alfonsine works like the devotional songs compiled in the Songs of Holy Mary (Cantigas de Santa María) to be autobiographical). Extended metaphors, discussions, and images drawn from books like the Book of Games (Libro de los juegos), the Siete Partidas, or the numerous translations of Andalusi treatises on astronomy and medicine commissioned by the king provide jumping-off points for deeper exploration of Alfonso's life and career, and the culture of his court and of medieval Iberia more broadly. Images of hunting found in León's cathedral and in the Book of Hunting Animals (Kitab al-Jawarih; Libro de los animales que cazan), for example, tie a consideration of the social significance of falconry and hawking in Castilian and Andalusi society to a discussion of Alfonso's quest for the imperial title of King of the Romans, while remedies contained in Alfonso's luxury edition of the Book of Stones (Libro Lapidario) are the springboard for insight into the illness and depression that seem to have plagued the king in the conflictive latter years of his life. Though this approach often simplifies these highly complex works, the end result is a readable, compelling, and fully-rounded portrait of Alfonso and his age, one that avoids or even debunks common stereotypes about medieval Europe. Doubleday's Alfonso engages with the same problems that beset contemporary people, albeit with different tools and assumptions; his struggles are both thoroughly of their era and wholly recognizable to a modern general reader.

Doubleday brings the same nuance to Iberia's multi-faith, multicultural society and Alfonso's encounter with Islamic Al-Andalus. He avoids the romantic, rosy-tinted view of convivencia and inter-religious cooperation often found in more popular accounts and the concomitant exoticizing of medieval Iberian history, and conveys instead both the limits of Castilian religious tolerance and the prestige and appeal of Andalusi literary and scientific culture. Doubleday uses Alfonso's fascination with the rich intellectual heritage of Islamic Al-Andalus and the resulting commissioned translations of important works of science, medicine, astronomy, and literature as windows into the king's emotional and intellectual world, and as critical catalysts to cultural changes ongoing in other parts of Europe, including, eventually, the Italian Renaissance. The connection between the "Castilian Renaissance" (i.e., thirteenth-century Castilian court culture) and its better-known Italian heir are more gestured at here than thoroughly probed and examined, but this is understandable. Doubleday's aim is not to lecture but to entice readers who, for all their familiarity with the luminaries of Italian humanism and Renaissance art, have likely never heard of Alfonso the Wise nor considered the connections between Italy and other areas of the Mediterranean and the Islamic world.

The Wise King does not attempt to be a complete history of the reign, and there are some areas left somewhat underdeveloped. We learn little here about relations with the Church or with the towns, for example, or Alfonso's monetary and fiscal policies. Instead, Doubleday focuses on the principal political issues of Alfonso's reign, including relations between the different Iberian kingdoms, military ventures in North Africa, the mudéjar revolt, the civil war and the succession crisis, and the Moroccan invasion. He devotes special attention to Alfonso's efforts to push Castile into the center of European politics by securing for himself the imperial title, and to the cultural program fostered by his political project. Propaganda, it seems, is no modern novelty, and patronage of the arts and sciences can advance political agendas as well as the quest for knowledge. Here too, Alfonso's medieval world may seem familiar to modern readers.

The substantial foundation of solid scholarship on which Doubleday's interpretation rests is not to be found in citations within the text, but instead is consigned to endnotes, as is common in books meant to appeal to a broad audience. While readers will appreciate the useful map and genealogical charts, it is much to be regretted that, though many of the wonderful images that illustrate the original manuscripts of Alfonso's scientific and literary production are described in the text, only a very few are reproduced, and none in color. Nevertheless, The Wise King will bring a much deserved wider audience to Alfonso X and the Iberia of the thirteenth century.

Article Details