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21.09.20 Kennedy, Alfonso X of Castile-León

21.09.20 Kennedy, Alfonso X of Castile-León

Alfonso X's 800th birthday is nigh: he was born on November 23rd, 1221. Although he is physically dead (April 4th, 1284), his astrologers, Mosheh ha-Kohen and Rabbi Zag Yitzhaq ben Said, established a new era that they called the Alfonsine Era, and that started in 1252, the year in which Alfonso was crowned in the city of Toledo. [1] Eras do not properly end, and Alfonso's has not ended in many different respects: some of his legal work is still part of contemporary legislation, and his complicated (and, frankly, not yet explored in depth) theory and practice of central jurisdiction in a multi-confessional kingdom is still part of some of our political debates. It is, therefore, welcome, to see new titles on Alfonso and his work populate our bookshelves.

Kirstin Kennedy's book is a good addition. It is an elegantly written contribution to one specific question in the Alfonsine era: to what extent did the king himself intervene in the production of his works? Kirstin Kennedy offers a multifaceted response to this question by examining the manuscripts that, containing Alfonsine works, can also be dated to Alfonso's lifetime. Her project is to explore whether Alfonso could have had contact with those manuscripts, and whether he did advance ideas, corrections or modifications. Through this examination, her answer is--yes, of course Alfonso was interested in examining the progress of the works he had commanded in all four workshops of law, history, science, and poetry. What is new here is not that Alfonso was an active participant in the works he commanded, but rather that the close examination of the manuscripts is a powerful tool to understand how this intervention took place and what the relationship is between particular interventions and Alfonsine politics. In other words, this book contributes two different things: a survey of Alfonsine relations with his own cultural production; and a set of methods and procedures to investigate how manuscript culture can unveil the genetics of a given work within a series of political conditions.

The book is based on a PhD dissertation (Oxford, 1999) with an enticing title (that I prefer to the actual book title), "Wise after the Event", which plays with the English idiom, the attribute of Alfonso in history, and how in fact his interventions on the manuscripts allowed him to reassess his positions and political stances, and to convey them in reviewed versions of the works, including the miniatures and the text (maybe it also plays with Anthony Phillips' 1978 record, but that I don't know).

One important characteristic of this research is the role played by context, comparison, and analogy, in combination with a fair amount of conjecture. Reading Kennedy's book is not just about getting into Alfonso's workshops, but also into other cultural projects contemporary to Alfonso's, including Jaume I of Aragon, the French king saint Louis, Henri III of England, or even Frederick II's projects. Well-documented or well-studied aspects of those workshops help Kennedy to understand some of Alfonso's activities. For instance, when analyzing images of the king in some of the manuscripts, in chapter 3, she compares them with trends in other European kingdoms, before focusing on the particularities of Alfonso's depictions: unlike other kings, he seems to be presented as much younger than he was, and with no hint of his maxillo-facial asymmetry--probably due to a tumor or a similar condition. The image of the king as it appears on many manuscripts unveils an aesthetic-political trend to foster Alfonso's self-promotion through work that, as Kennedy suggests, was created not for the king's court itself, but for audiences across the political spectrum around the king. The image of the king does not only reflect his physical aspect: heraldry or textual situation can be central to the formation of this image, as Kennedy discusses in cases like the Cantigas from the so-called códice de los músicos, or in the case of the manuscript containing the Libro de las formas e ymágenes (Escorial MS h.I.16), in which Alfonso's clothes are in dialogue with the colors of the sky, and with the king as a master instructing some members of his intellectual class (see chapter 3, and in particular pages 137-139).

When there is lack of evidence for empirical observation of empirical facts (which, of course, is often the case), interpretation frequently appears in the conditional mood in Kennedy's book. Would have Alfonso used his time of convalescence--accidents and illnesses made him spend long periods of time in one single location, for instance--to review manuscripts, to study, to read? Maybe. Or maybe not. There is absolutely no way to say. Because these suppositions sometimes affect the very interpretation of the manuscripts Kennedy examines, I would say that they need to be observed with care and a critical eye.

Chapter 4 ("Codices laid out for a King") is a beautiful insight into how Alfonso's works, including historical and scientific ones, were laid out, how many scribes participated in their production, what the characteristics of those scribes are, and what the process was whereby--according to those paleographical and codicological examinations--the book was produced. The beauty of this chapter concludes with interesting remarks about the differences between manuscripts with no signs of reading (which Kennedy guesses were prepared for the king's library) and other codices whose external aspect makes the author suppose that they were "made for scholars or clerics in contact with the court who were anxious for their own copy of the scientific and historical information they contained" (183).

The audience of the manuscript is based on suppositions, and this is something that can also be found in the following--and last--chapter of the book (5: "The Circulation of Alfonsine Texts: Astrological Works and Chronicles"). It is unlikely that Alfonso had a royal library, argues Kennedy, and she suggests examining the circulation of Alfonsine works not only looking at either complete or fragmentary copies, but also looking at scribal interventions in specific Alfonsine manuscripts, in order to determine whether they were produced for a general audience or for a specific audience. What this audience looked like is more difficult to pinpoint, but Kennedy offers a few ideas.

I have enjoyed reading this book, and in particular chapter 3-6, which are the ones that invite the reader to replicate methods of analysis, or to engage in a conversation about how paleographical and codicological analysis can be used to determine specific audiences, royal interventions, forms of self-promotion, and political and legal claims. Chapters 1-2, plus the introduction, are also useful for those who want to gain familiarity with Alfonso X and with Alfonsine culture.



1. Alfonso X [Mosheh ha-Kohen and Rabbi Zag Yitzhaq ben Said, who re-worked the Toledan tables by Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm ibn Yaḥyā al-Naqqāsh al-Zarqālī al-Tujibi]. Las Tablas Alfonsíes de Toledo. Ed. José Chabás and Bernard R. Goldstein. Toledo: Diputación Provincial de Toledo, 2008.