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22.02.24 Kinkade, Dawn of a Dynasty

22.02.24 Kinkade, Dawn of a Dynasty

Richard Kinkade, a life-long don Juan Manuel scholar, has done a very meritorious job of revisiting Spain’s tumultuous thirteenth century and writing an exhaustive, if not meticulous, chronological biography of don Juan Manuel’s father, the Infante Manuel of Castile. The narrative is extremely dense and highly detailed, which may prove daunting to anyone unfamiliar with the period. Though it seems like a very straightforward project, it could never be because the Infante’s brother was Alfonso X, el sabio, a larger-than-life character who overshadowed everyone and everything during his lifetime, including his other six siblings, of which Manuel was the youngest by almost thirteen years. Manuel came of age just as Alfonso became king, and Manuel stayed at the king’s side for almost thirty years, when chronic illness finally stripped Alfonso of his ability to rule. Immersed in a chaotic sea of political intrigue and familial infighting within his own kingdom of Castile, Alfonso was threatened from the outside by Muslim Arabs both in Granada and North Africa and by his own Christian neighbors to the north. What is patently clear from Kinkade’s research is that Manuel quickly became the king’s right-hand man, alferez y mayordomo mayor, advising him on almost everything that occurred both inside and outside of Castile. Dawn of a Dynasty is both a biography about infante Manuel of Castile and a larger look at the familial dynasty that gave birth to the pre-modern absolutist monarchy that came to fruition under the rule of the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand.

Kinkade, using royal chancery documents, identifies almost all of the time that the two brothers spent together. Indeed, Kinkade traces the travels of the two men across their kingdom from Burgos to Toledo to Seville and back again for almost three decades. The author uses a plethora of documents (twenty-seven pages of bibliography, one hundred and three pages of endnotes) in order to pinpoint the movements of Alfonso and Manuel from day to day and month to month as the pair crisscross their domains, pacifying rebellious settlers, raising money, and holding cortes for the numerous sovereigns that were in charge of the various areas that make up Castile. The question of written sources is addressed early on by Kinkade, who uses chronicles, histories, and remembrances from the period, but all sources are not created equal, a fact taken into account by Kinkade. Most of these sources are only a starting point for figuring out where Alfonso and Manuel were at any given point--dates, places, and people in older documents and chronicles are often wrong, contradictory, or erroneous, subject to the whims and caprices of human memory. Royal chancery documents, charters, laws, and grants are a much more accurate way of determining who was where and when because they contain places, dates, and the signatures of both Alfonso and Manuel. These documents often serve in Kinkade’s writing to rectify the mistaken, conflicting, or erroneous narratives written fifteen, twenty, or even a hundred years after the fact by chroniclers and historians who were never present at all, working from hearsay evidence that had long since lost any reliability or legitimacy. Frequently, Kinkade is able to document the day-to-day work of the crown. At the same time, however, it is often difficult to discern what kind of person either Alfonso or Manuel was. We know when and where they were, but other than signing charters or letters, we have no idea what they were doing.

The fact that Alfonso X is a larger-than-life character does pose a couple of problems for writing a biography about his little brother Manuel. One, more is said and written about the myth than the man: compiler of the Las Siete Partidas, organizer of the Toledo translation center, author of Las Cantigas de Santa María, Alfonso’s literary legacy far outstrips all other Castilian monarchs. Two, the literary legend Alfonso X, el sabio, overshadows king Alfonso’s shortcomings, including an ill-fated attempt at being named the Holy Roman Emperor by the pope, an attempt which, in the long term, nearly bankrupted his treasury and alienated friends and allies. Kinkade focuses on the political and economic realities of running a large kingdom with numerous problems, political conflicts, territorial fights, and economic woes, all of which created a large group of disgruntled subjects, many of whom disliked and mistrusted Alfonso. Indeed, one of the ongoing background conflicts which bothered Alfonso was the rebellious and problematic nature of his brother Fadrique, whom Alfonso executed in 1275, an execution that rocked Castile and eventually led to Alfonso being replaced by his son, Sancho IV. Manuel, the infante who would never be king, was involved in daily conversations with his brother as the two of them wove their way through a dangerous morass of people, governments, and enemies who would have done them harm. The thing we do not have in this book is what Manuel said or what positions he took until those fateful last years when he started to side with the future Sancho IV and issued his own opinions, independently of his older brother. Extensive research by Kinkade into original sources (there is an appendix of fifty pages of transcribed documents)--letters and other official communication between monarchs--sheds light on the difficult situations with which Alfonso and Manuel had to deal. It is clear that any biography of infante Manuel must also be a parallel biography of Alfonso, since the two were so intimately linked for almost their entire lives. Kinkade does an excellent job, however, of separating the two and avoids falling into pre-established historical conventions regarding the king, always backing up his conclusions with solid proof, even when he might have to contradict a previous scholar. This book is not as much a question of hero worship as it is an attempt to bring to life that man in the shadows who was always there, but of whom we know almost nothing because of press given to the famous brother. To make matters a little worse from a historiographic perspective, Manuel was also the father of don Juan Manuel, author of El Conde Lucanor.

Infante Manuel was also ambitious, but on a much smaller scale--Murcia. Throughout the book, Kinkade focuses on the “tierra de don Manuel,” how it came to be, and who took it over after his death. Though the infante was the major player in the king’s court, he also wanted to establish an area of his own over which he had complete control, unfettered by his brother to have his own kingdom, so to speak. At the time, Murcia was a small collection of towns in southeast Spain which had recently been taken over from Muslim control. Kinkade documents the difficulties of reapportioning the land and resettling it with Christian settlers, offering his readers a glimpse into the mundane world of fueros, charters, and water rights within Manuel’s small kingdom. The struggle for Manuel was constant: how does one run a small kingdom while advising the king, his brother, on the larger machinations at work in Castile?

Kinkade’s narrative hints at an almost overwhelming complexity between king Alfonso, Castile, and the rest of Europe and North Africa. The relationships between all of the royal houses of Europe are so complex that a reader needs a score card to keep all of the people straight. All of the marriages are political, and Kinkade’s chapter on the house of Savoy, of which both Alfonso and Manuel were a part, is dizzying to the point of being an unsolvable labyrinth out of which no one emerges unscathed. One appreciates Kinkade’s attempt to understand the morass of threads that make up that chapter, but I suspect that more than one person might throw in the towel as the interrelationships twist and turn their way through Europe and the peninsula. As it turns out, Alfonso and Manuel were not only brothers, but they were also brothers-in-law, having married two of the daughters of Jaime I of Aragon, which also meant that Pedro III of Aragon was also their brother-in-law.

Finally, the last chapter is a condensed version of the book’s narrative. Excluding all of the notes and historical asides, readers get a stripped-down version of infante Manuel’s life, from the time he joins his brother’s court in Seville at age fourteen to his death on December 25, 1283. Using broad brush strokes, Kinkade gives the reader a synopsis of his research: a busy royal life of traveling, battles, disappointments, compromises, failures, and triumphs. Manuel’s greatest success was probably the resettlement of Murcia or the birth of a viable heir who would later inherit Murcia, and his biggest failure was his inability to secure a peaceful transition for Sancho IV. Perhaps the most personal thing we learn about Manuel was his love and practice of falconry.