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20.08.19 O'Callaghan, Alfonso X

20.08.19 O'Callaghan, Alfonso X

Alfonso X of Castile-León remains one of the most reliably famous and well-studied monarchs, not just of medieval Iberia, but of the entirety of the European Middle Ages. Whether as "el Sabio", "the Wise King", or the "Learned King", Alfonso's reign, and in particular his prodigious literary, scholarly, and juridical work, has attracted scholarly attention regularly and reliably for years. The new book under review here, Alfonso X, The Justinian of His Age is at least the third English-language monograph on the topic in the last five years. [1] This is also, of course, well-trodden ground for Joseph O'Callaghan, as much of his own prodigious scholarly work has focused directly or indirectly on Alfonso X, from his 1989 The Cortes of Castile-León, 1188-1350 to his 1993The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile, to his 1998 Alfonso X and the Cantigas de Santa Maria. [2] Alfonso X even gets top-billing in the title of his 1998 Variorum edition of collected articles. [3] Naturally, this new book has deep roots in the author's older scholarship, and grows out of some the most fertile sections. Nearly thirty years after demonstrating the centrality of legal reform to the reign of Alfonso X, and in particular the significance of the famous Siete Partidas law code, O'Callaghan has returned to update and expand upon his earlier work. The result is a comprehensive analysis of not only the king's practical legal achievements, but of the ways in which his work reflected both the ideals and realities of thirteenth-century life.

The book begins with two chapters that are essentially introductory in nature, followed by eleven chapters, which each take up one field of the Alfonsine body of law, with a final conclusion. Each chapter is further divided into subsections, the first and last of which serve as convenient bookends, and deploy direct quotations of the various legal texts in old Castilian.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the king and his legal projects. O'Callaghan explains that the inspiration for the subtitle of the book comes from Edward Jenks, who called Edward I "the English Justinian" (3). The methodology of the study is also described: the expositions of the various sections of the Alfonsine Code are paired with practical examples and illustrations of the law, drawn from diplomatic and literary sources. The chapter concludes with a brief thumbnail biography of the king, making reference both to the political challenges (or failures) and cultural achievements of Alfonso's career.

The second chapter works to disentangle the various legal texts created during the reign, and to explain their promulgation. The project that created the Alfonsine codes was initiated under Fernando III, who ordered his son to complete it (9). These codes were essentially completed in two stages: the Espéculo (a law code itself, but probably intended as a guide for judges) and the Fuero real, likely promulgated in 1254 and 1256, followed by the later expansion on this original work, the Libro de las leyes, better known as the Siete Partidas, completed in 1265. The remainder of the chapter is largely dedicated to justifications made by Alfonso and his court for this major revision of Castilian legal practice. The king emphasized not only the expediency of a uniform law code for his realm, but the well-ordered society dedicated to the common good, which such a systematic revision could produce (21).

Chapter 3, "Creating a Dynasty", begins a series of chapters which "consider its [theLibro de las leyes] practical application in everyday life" (22). The first of these practical concerns pertained to the king and his dynasty. The rules for succession and coronation of the king, as well as the qualities that he should exhibit, are all discussed in the Siete Partidas, largely in the first two sections. The qualities of the queen and her court are considered next, followed by a lengthy prescription for the education, conduct, and marriage arrangements for royal children. Section two of the Siete Partidas also includes two interesting laws which directly reflect the concerns of Alfonso himself: the first a directive that the king should disassociate from disloyal relatives, reflecting his own poor relations with his brothers; the second an injunction that the realm should pass undivided to the king's heir, preventing the divisions of Castile and León that had only ended during his father's reign.

Chapter 4, "The King and His People", explores the nature of monarchical government laid out in the Alfonsine codes. The divine origin of the king's power was emphasized, as was his superiority in all temporal matters. The codes made extensive use of the theory of the two swords, the temporal and the spiritual, which should work jointly (42). Nevertheless, the king's authority in temporal matters was pre-eminent. The king's duty to his people, especially his duty to promote and enforce justice, and the people's duty to obey the king were paired. This ideal is juxtaposed to the actual trajectory of Alfonso's reign, which of course ended in the utter breakdown of the relationship between the king and his people.

The fifth and sixth chapters take up the king's role as defender, both of the Christian faith and of the realm. In the Alfonsine code, the king's duty to the Church was reflected in the inclusion of the main tenets of canon law, as elaborated over the previous century plus, into the first part of the Siete Partidas. O'Callaghan contrasts the king's deference to the authority and independence of the Church with the well-established practice of dominating the episcopate and appropriating resources whenever the monarch felt it necessary. Though the inclusion of canon law in the compilation of law reflected a "conception of the unity of law and of society", the active part played by many bishops in the rebellion that clouded the end of the king's reign again emphasized the gap between the theory and reality of Alfonso's political order. Defense of the realm was a rather more straightforward issue, dealt with at some length in the various pieces of the Alfonsine code. In addition to expounding upon Augustine's theory of just war, the law codes described military command and organization, knighthood, and the responsibilities and duties of the different groups within the realm. Perhaps most striking is the notion, found in the fourth of the Siete Partidas, that "men have a great debt to the land to love it, increase it, and die for it" (83).

Chapters 7 and 8 cover the structures and procedures of royal justice. The careful staffing of the realm with alcaldes, adelantados, and teams of university-trained lawyers, as well as the ever-necessary scribes, reflects the king's efforts to create a uniform justice system to enact his law codes. Though the king himself would remain the ultimate judge and source of justice, the establishment of regular judicial procedures, systems of appeal, and clear definitions of jurisdiction speak to the ambition of Alfonso's project. The judicial process itself was spelled out in fascinating detail in the Siete Partidas and the Especulo,including the different oaths that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim witnesses made: a Christian with his hand on the Gospels or a cross, a Jew in a synagogue with his hand on the Torah, and a Muslim in the door of a mosque, reciting the Shahadah (122).

The ninth and tenth chapters take up the sections of the Alfonsine code dealing with interpersonal relationships. Chapter 9, "Marriage, Family, and Inheritance", traces the importation of canon law on marriage and children into the fourth Partida. In addition to the proper rules of Christian marriage, the code asserted the king's right to legitimize children born outside of those proper rules, as well as a process for adoption. The law also addressed the inheritance of family property, including the proper form of a will, and the legal procedure for dealing with the deceased's estate. Chapter 10 describes some of the other aspects of the "law of persons": the various legal statuses of men and women, slaves and freemen, nobles and commoners, children and adults, etc. In all of this, the Partidas put a special emphasis on liberty, "because it is a friend of nature, which not only men, but all other animals, love" (160). Special attention was given to the status and obligations of lordship, vassalage, friendship, and slavery.

Chapter 11, "The Law of Property", and chapter 12, "Trade and Commerce", covers the different forms of ownership of land and other forms of property, as well as the proper conduct of and regulations for commercial enterprises. In addition to covering the landed rights of the monarchy, Church, and nobility, the third Partida described common property rights, rental property, and even the ownership of wild animals (the rights to which were lost, should the creature escape out of sight). The property chapter also describes the Alfonsine code's provisions for contract law, lending, and the payment of debts. The chapter on trade and commerce describes the extensive market regulations enacted by the king, including attempts to set fair prices and wages, and to discourage guilds and private price-fixing. Fairs and foreign trade were encouraged, and the royal duties and taxes set. Special attention was given in the code to specific economic activities, like money-lending and usury (regulated for Jews, discouraged for Christians), and the Mesta's right to pasturage and the free movement of flocks.

Chapter 13 addresses the criminal code in Alfonso's laws. O'Callaghan remarks that the "catalog of crimes described in the Alfonsine Codes is, rather perversely, a tribute to human cunning and inventiveness" (225). A vast array of criminal conduct is described, from fraud to heresy to murder, and beyond. The array of punishments that the law might prescribe included execution (only for serious crimes), exile, imprisonment, mutilation, humiliation, and, of course, court-imposed fines. Though the king reserved the right to pardon convicted criminals, the emphasis of the code was on the maintenance of public order, and the exemplary punishment of those who threatened it.

The final body chapter concerns "The Law of the Non-Christian Peoples". These regulations were placed in the seventh Partida, alongside the criminal codes, demonstrating Alfonso's "abhorrence of both religions [Judaism and Islam]" (227). This section of the Alfonsine code, perhaps its most widely-known, spelled out the inferior position of the protected religious minorities in a Christian kingdom. Jews and Muslims were free to worship, so long as their religious activities did not interfere with, nor offend, the Christians. Social segregation was prescribed. Jews and Muslims formed their own communities, or Aljamas, and typically lived apart from Christians, in their own districts or suburbs. In order to inhibit conversion (of Christians), a variety of sexual and social relations were strictly forbidden, though the Castilian monarchs never enforced some of the most stringent apartheid regulations, like forcing Jews to wear distinguishing dress or badges. The disabilities imposed on Jews and Muslims who found themselves in the Christian courts emphasized their second-class status. The chapter also investigates the issue of the special tribute owed to the king (notably higher for the Jewish community and lower for the Muslim community). O'Callaghan closes the chapter by remarking on the fact that "medieval society was not inherently pluralistic", and noting that "Jews and Muslims, hedged about by legal and social restraints, remained peoples apart" inside a Christian kingdom (242-3).

The book closes with a reflection on the achievements of Alfonso X in the realm of legal scholarship and reform, especially noting the long shadow that the Siete Partidas would cast down the centuries, both in Spain and in the wider world. O'Callaghan ends the book by drawing a few lessons from the "Rex Magister", and specifically from the ideals of law, order, and governance envisioned in the Alfonsine codes (249). These thirteenth century ideals are cleverly juxtaposed with places in which the twenty-first century fails to live up to them. Though this part of the book may not age particularly well, it is effective in demonstrating the remarkable vision of Alfonso X to create a society in which carefully considered laws made justice available to all. It is a compelling vision, and a useful reminder that in today's world, where 'medieval' is a term most-often used as a pejorative, that the study of the past might hold critical lessons for even the most self-assured present society.



1. The others being Simon Doubleday, The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance (New York: Basic Books, 2015) and Kirstin Kennedy, Alfonso X of Castile-León: Royal Patronage, Self-Promotion, and Manuscripts in Thirteenth-Century Spain (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019).

2. Joseph O'Callaghan, The Cortes of Castile-León, 1188-1350 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); Alfonso X and the Cantigas de Santa Maria: A Poetic Biography (Leiden: Brill, 1998).

3. Joseph O'Callaghan, Alfonso X, the Cortes, and Government in Medieval Spain(Burlington: Ashgate, 1998).​