Alfonso the Wise
Cordoba is a beautiful city, approached from one direction by a Roman bridge over the Guadalquibir River, still in use more than 2000 years after it was built. The approaches to the bridge are guarded by the Calahonda tower, now a museum. This is the museum of ‘el patrimonio de la humanidad’’ – loosely to be translated as ‘the inheritance of mankind’. This is not really an accurate description, because the museum deals largely with the cultural inheritance left by Jewish and Islamic Spain to the world at large. In this museum, among important Jewish and Arab philosophers such as Maimonides, Averroes and Ibn Arabé is Alfonso el Sabio, Alfonso the wise. Alfonso the wise was Alfonso X, king of Castile and Leon.
I will argue briefly that Alfonso
the wise was a hugely important figure in the growing knowledge and scholarship
that ended the dark ages of Western Europe and paved the way for the Renaissance
Alfonso X was born in Toledo in 1221 and crowned king of Castile & Leon in 1252. You will need a very brief historical background:
The Moslem Arab invaders from North Africa crossed the straits of Gibraltar, defeated the Visigoths in 711 AD and overran most of the Iberian peninsula. They pressed on into France but were repelled by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732. The Arabs of Spain broke with the Caliphs of Baghdad and a number of kingdoms, both Moslem and Christian sprang up. The Arabs ruled the south, Al Andeluz, from Cordoba and Granada, while Kingdoms like Aragon, Castile and Leon dominated the north and Portugal the west.
By the late 12th century the archbishop
of Paris had a library of 4 books and the public library in Cordoba possessed
32,000 volumes, open to scholars of any nationality or faith. It was a time
of great Arab advances in medicine, surgery, mathematics, astronomy, astrology.
Greek writers of works lost entirely to Western Europe were translated into
Alfonso X was introduced into the mysteries of Ptolomaic astronomy, astrology and Ptolomay’s view of the construction of the universe. Alfonso remarked:
“If the Almighty had consulted me before he embarked on creation, I should have recommended something simpler.”
Alfonso X was a scholar,
writer and composer himself. He composed some beautiful music, reminiscent
of Hildergard von Bingham but using much more instrumentation (partly because
his contact with the Arabs influenced him by virtue of his familiarity with
their instruments). He composed a series of sacred songs in honour of the
Virgin Mary (the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ or ‘Cantigas
de Toledo’) as well as other works.
He translated Arabic texts into Latin, including an account of the Life of Alexander the Great, and commissioned the translation many others originally in Greek. He wrote extensively on astrological subjects, drawing up tables of houses and so on, and he was an extensive patron of the Arts and Scholarship, especially esoteric scholarship. He was patron to Jews –including Kabbalists, Christians and Moslems equally. Thus it was that much Greek philosophy, science and maths, preserved in Arabic, was translated into Latin and found its way back into Western Europe through France and Arabic Sicily to Italy.
Christians, Jews and Moslems managed to live together in Moslem Spain and positively flourished in the court of Alfonso the Wise, but the pope was not pleased and nor were the nobility of Castile. Attempts were made to excommunicate and depose Alfonso, but he survived and we benefited.
It speaks much of
the relation between Christians and Moslems in Spain, that his patronage of
followers of Islam and recognition of its cultural role did not prevent him
continuing the war of ‘reconquest’ and capturing Cádiz
Jews were expelled from Spain when the last Arab kingdom fell at Granada in 1492, as were all those Moslems who refused to be baptised Christian. Tolerance was replaced by the inquisition and the skill of Jewish and Arab craftsmen, by the plunder and exploitation of the Americas.