The Medieval Christian King Inspired by the Muslim World

In another dynamite post featured in the History News Network, Simon R. Doubleday summarizes his most recent book, a biography of the Spanish ruler Alfonso X (1252-84), which is entitled The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance. Doubleday, a professor and chair of history at Hofstra University, sums the former Spanish ruler as follows:

In the early 1260s, a Christian Spanish ruler—Alfonso, king of Castile and León—fearfully paced the hallways of his palace in Seville. His father had extinguished the military threat from a militant Muslim movement from North Africa, the Almohads, whom one historian has hyperbolically described as “the Al Qaeda of the Middle Ages.” But a new enemy, the Marinid empire, was now gathering strength in Morocco. Hundreds of mujaheddin were streaming into the Spanish-Muslim kingdom of Granada.

The king’s fear was well founded. A subject population of alienated and resentful Muslims were brooding in the towns and villages of Andalusia. In a medieval intifada, inspired by the expectation of military support from Granada and Morocco, they now rose up violently against Alfonso’s authority. Not long afterwards, the Marinids invaded, wreaking a trail of destruction across his realms.

These were times of pure, unadulterated terror. Thirteenth-century Spain was no paradise of multicultural tolerance, but a land of high tension and gut-wrenching fear. Fear, as we know from painful experience, is the handmaiden of violence and intolerance. Yet even in the midst of terror, the Christian king felt deeply drawn towards Arabic culture, and alchemized it into something sublime.

The alcázar in Seville, where Alfonso paced, was a fortified Almohad palace. The king lived there in a spirit of profound admiration for the culture of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), if not for its faith. Besieged by nightmares, haunted by the specter of betrayals, and faced by the alarming prospect that the tide of Christian Reconquest might be completely reversed, he embarked on a frenetic campaign of creativity and cultural patronage. At every step, this campaign was inspired by imaginative engagement with Arabic culture.

Alfonso soon came to be known as El Sabio, The Wise. In modern rulers—presidents and prime ministers—intellectual accomplishment can sometimes be an electoral liability, but for their medieval counterparts it had long been a desirable attribute. Even the Almohads had lived by the word as much as the sword, fostering the cultivation of philosophy, medicine, and natural sciences, and Alfonso followed their lead.

The king’s fascination for Arabic culture powerfully shaped his study of the stars and their impact on human affairs, for which he remained famous across Europe for centuries. Astrology was a highly developed form of rational inquiry that had enjoyed immense prestige at the courts of the Muslim rulers of Córdoba and the caliphs of Baghdad. The astrologers’ conviction that men were linked to the rest of the cosmos by immutable laws of nature bears much in common with modern scientific assumptions.


In his 2013 paper entitled “Alfonso X of Castile: Alfonso the Tolerant?”, Michael Ruiter examined elements of Alfonso X’s rule to critically access the claims of his widespread religious tolerance during his reign. In the conclusion of his piece, Ruiter wrote:

Despite this positive outlook there remains one irredeemable factor in determining Alfonso’s tolerance, the converts from Christianity to Judaism or Islam. In putting to death those who convert to Islam or Judaism who are then, by definition, among the members of one of those respective groups, Alfonso X intentionally prevented the acceptance or endurance of Muslim and Jewish practices for those individuals. However, there remains the possibility that Alfonso misapprehended such individuals to be Christians stepping outside the bounds of law rather than Jews or Muslims being prevented from practicing. Yet such misinterpretations do not excuse Alfonso of intolerance, since, by his own logic in the Siete Partidas, ignorance of the law does not excuse one of penalty from it.

Likewise, Alfonso’s ignorance as to the religious identity of the converts cannot excuse him of this misinterpretation and Alfonso cannot, therefore, be called tolerant. Other than the issue of converts, Alfonso does however, come close to tolerance. Without looking at the other 426 Cantigas de Santa Maria, nor the other six Partidas, one can see that his intent in unifying Spain politically and religiously is not meant to be at the expense of the continuance of Islam and Judaism. Due to his proximity to the above-outlined definition of tolerance, Alfonso X was perhaps close enough to earn the sobriquet of Alfonso the Restrainedly Tolerant.”

In an interview with Deborah Kalb, Doubleday was asked: “You write of Alfonso that ‘single-handedly, he exorcises the myth that medieval Europe was mired in a dark age.’ How do you think he was able to accomplish this?”

Doubleday replied that:

One of my favorite reviews of The Wise King so far points out that anyone who still believes that medieval Europe was a dark age is still living, in effect, in the dark ages.

The whole notion that medieval Europe was a backward, ignorant place is an invention, a concoction of early modern intellectuals who thought their own culture was qualitatively superior to any other that had existed in the past.

The reality is much more dynamic and colorful: the 13th century is full of talented, sophisticated rulers such as St. Louis IX of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the so-called stupor mundi (the wonder of the world).

This is interesting because I had never thought about the “dark ages” in this way before, and it amplifies historical misinformation in the modern world.

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