20.04.24 Gómez et al (eds.), King Alfonso VIII of Castile

Main Article Content

Thomas W. Barton

The Medieval Review 20.04.24

Gómez, Miguel, Kyle C. Lincoln and Damian J. Smith, eds. King Alfonso VIII of Castile: Government, Family, and War. Fordham Series in Medieval Studies. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2019. pp. x, 251. ISBN: 978-0-823-28414-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas Barton
University of San Diego

It is not an overstatement to claim that King Alfonso VIII of Castile has far less notoriety among specialists and non-specialists of Iberian history than he deserves, especially when compared with some of his more famous successors, such as Fernando III and Alfonso X, who have long ranked among the most recognized medieval monarchs by scholars and laypeople alike. Orphaned in 1158 by the death of his father, Sancho III, when he was just three years old, Alfonso faced seemingly insurmountable odds during and after his minority, as Castile's two most powerful noble families fought for control of his regency, and his self-serving uncles, who governed the neighboring kingdoms of León and Navarre, sought to profit from his vulnerability by encroaching on Castile's boundaries. Yet, as this much needed volume of essays on various aspects of Alfonso's period clearly illustrates, a combination of luck, leadership ability, and opportune support enabled this king to overcome his troubled minority and rack up a long list of impressive achievements throughout his long reign, decisively overshadowing his contemporaries who were born into comparatively enviable circumstances. Even though the editors of this collection were ultimately only able to publish a subset of the papers presented at a conference held at Saint Louis University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies during the summer of 2014, the incisively argued and often lively introduction and eleven essays that constitute the volume achieve a remarkable degree of coverage and synergy that is rarely witnessed in collections of this sort, especially one so modest in length. Taken together, these enterprising works make a strong case for viewing Alfonso VIII's reign as the most important turning point in Castilian premodern history in so far as his achievements ensured, once and for all, the unity of Castile-León as well as the kingdom's primacy within the Peninsula that would empower the agendas of his successors throughout the remainder of the medieval period.

The editors clearly put a great deal of thought into the ordering of the essays, which amplifies the cohesiveness and synergy of the volume. Indeed, the patent logic of the grouping and progression would have made it easy to break the contents into subsections, which could have helped further orient the reader.

In a brief, strategic introduction, Teofilo Ruiz, the current doyen of Anglo-American Castilian studies, adeptly reviews the historical and historiographical contexts and establishes the key themes and issues that preoccupy the works that follow.

The first essay, by the eminent Joseph O'Callaghan, draws on his long experience working with challenging Iberian diplomatics to distill monarchical concepts from the preambles of a number of Alfonso's most important charters. The concepts identified and assessed by O'Callaghan are then scrutinized from a different angle, using a distinct pool of evidence, in a clever and surprisingly expansive analysis by James Todesca on the monetary policy pursued by Alfonso that reflected the growing strength of his ruling position within Castile as well as the greater Peninsula over the course of his reign.

The next two essays delve into one of the essential but easily-overlooked sources of Alfonso's success as a dynast: his handling of the women in his family and the agency that it afforded them to have a hand in shaping Castile's fortunes within greater Europe. In their books on Alfonso's daughter, Berenguela of Castile, and diverse articles, Janna Bianchini and Miriam Shadis have each done much to explore the political power wielded by royal and aristocratic women, and the essays they have contributed to this volume are no exception. Whereas Bianchini examines how the share of the royal patrimony known as the infantazgo, which, she contends, was "a major factor in the unusual prominence of certain women in the Leonese-Castilian monarchy" (59), waxed and waned over the course of Alfonso's reign, Shadis incisively underscores the achievements of Alfonso's numerous daughters, who, through their roles in marriage alliances and other dealings, served to cultivate international royal relations and enhance the prestige of the Castilian dynasty.

With the next three articles, the volume turns to consider military strategy and war. Sam Zeno Conedera's piece reviews the important roles the home-grown and international military orders played in Alfonso's defensive and offensive military objectives, and in particular how they inspired a degree of confidence on the part of the king and offered him a level of service that the infighting noble families often could not. Carlos de Ayala Martínez's profound expertise is widely recognized by Hispanists and medievalists alike, and his nuanced essay explores the development and utilization of a crusading discourse by Castile's monarchy and ecclesiastical leadership leading up to the military and strategic culmination of Alfonso's reign, the victory over the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. These themes are then ably picked up and taken in a new direction by Miguel Gómez in an essay that examines the political and diplomatic context surrounding this decisive battle as well as its momentous implications for the Castilian crown and the strategic balance of power within Iberia.

The next two essays shift attention to Alfonso's developing relationship with influential potentates further afield whose collaboration proved to be essential to his successes. In an elegant contribution book-ended by the failed attempt to canonize Alfonso in the sixteenth century, Damian Smith offers a nuanced picture of the vicissitudes of the royal-papal relationship and, in so doing, touches upon many of the central topics addressed by the other essays in the volume (to the point that I might suggest that readers consult this essay first before moving onto the others). Far from simply presenting an overview, Smith offers some enlightening and wise insights in his brief piece, among them how Alfonso's case illustrates how ecclesiastical historians, no matter how much they might want to, cannot "get away from history as battles...because many of the battles were vitally important" (176). Martín Alvira Cabrer then turns to consider Alfonso's relationship with Peter II of Aragon, which, he shows, was hugely important to explaining the Castilian's success as a monarch, in general, and on the battlefield, in particular. Employing a rich mixture of sources, Alvira Cabrer unravels many complicated facets of the monarchs' overwhelmingly positive relationship and finds few signs of discord aside from a small amount of circumstantial evidence (such as the long-term presence of Castilian "desnaturados" like Pedro Fernández de Castro within the Aragonese political environment). Despite their collaboration, the legacies of these two men, he concludes, could not have been more opposed. Alfonso died a good death surrounded by family and passing along a fiscally healthy, intact kingdom to his heir. Peter II, on the other hand, was slain unexpectedly at Muret, leaving behind an unprepared boy heir (James I), a problematic regency, and a devastated royal fisc, much as Sancho III had done to Alfonso half a century earlier.

Smith's and Alvira Cabrer's attention to geo-ecclesiastical affairs segues nicely into Kyle Lincoln's prosopographical study of the Castilian episcopate during Alfonso's reign. Notwithstanding Castile's "substandard" archival resources, Lincoln comes to a number of interesting conclusions regarding the kingdom's bishops that underscore some of the points made in earlier essays: that they were predominately drawn from the class of men Ruiz has characterized as non-noble "middling sorts" (205) and that the overwhelming majority derived from cathedral chapters rather than from monasteries.

An elegant and cogently argued final essay by Thomas Burman is less well integrated into the themes of the collection. I am told that another planned contribution that would have helped connect Burman's article to the rest of the volume ultimately did not materialize. The piece nevertheless plays an important role in rounding out the volume by devoting much needed attention to the dizzying complexity of the bi-directional transmission of ideas and influences and general interconnections of cultures within the Peninsula and wider premodern Mediterranean world during Alfonso's time, a phenomenon that Sarah Stroumsa has likened to a drop of colored liquid falling into a turbulent whirlpool that eventually tints the entire body of water (234). Revisiting a controversial debate that he started over two decades ago when he proposed that the triad of divine attributes (power-wisdom-goodness) that appears in certain Iberian-Christian summaries of Muslim theology (or kalām) derived from roughly contemporaneous Latin theological principles, Burman (while fully acknowledging the murkiness of the evidence) maintains his position by asserting that the likeliest scenario remains "the rather straightforward notion that a Latin idea managed to infiltrate a community of Arabic-speaking Christians who worshipped in and were studying Latin" (231).

Anyone who has edited a collaborative volume knows how challenging and time-consuming these projects tend to be, and it is to these editors' credit that they persevered to bring this impactful, well-crafted, and unusually cohesive collection to light. While each essay makes a timely and enduring contribution to our comprehension of Alfonso's milieu, serious readers, from advanced undergraduates to senior faculty, will benefit from engaging with the entire volume, which truly is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken together, these collected studies make a powerful case for viewing Alfonso VIII's reign as one of the most important turning points in the history of Castile, and, by correlation, of the greater Peninsula and Western Mediterranean region.

Article Details