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  • The Seven Satires of Alfonso X Involving Women, in English Translation
  • Joseph T. Snow

For Harvey Sharrer

The context

Alfonso was the firstborn son of Fernando III and Beatriz de Suabia (November 23, 1221). Though close to both parents, he was partly reared in Galicia by the family of Mayor Arias, and was thus familiar with the Galician-Portuguese language. As prince, he was active alongside his father in the military campaigns against Muslim al-Andalus, and especially that of Murcia in 1243. Married to Violante of Aragon in 1249, Alfonso ascended to the throne upon Fernando's death in 1252, at the age of thirty-one and ruled for thirty-two years. He died in Seville on April 4, 1284, ill and sidelined by the rebellion of his second son, Sancho IV, and his supporters.

That said, the court of king Alfonso X (1252-1284) was ever a busy place, and not only with the usual political deal making, but also with advancing [End Page 129] the conquest and repopulation of Andalusi territories (upholding a promise made to Fernando III on his deathbed). Additionally, Alfonso was involved in several touchy religious matters and with his extended and ultimately fruitless eighteen-year pursuit of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire (1257-1275).1 He was later deemed "El Sabio" (the Learned) for having been personally and intensely involved in transmitting old—and fostering new—horizons in learning and culture in his realms, for which accomplishments he is best known today.

In addition to a royal chancery that drew up official decrees and documents, many of which were recorded in a maturing Castilian in the process of supplanting the traditional Latin, Alfonso maintained a royal scriptorium which produced major works in a Castilian prose that these efforts arguably helped to standardize (Márquez Villanueva 38-41). These prose works include histories of Spain and of the then-known world dating back to Biblical times, the new codifications of Roman law propounded in the Siete Partidas, and many influential scientific tracts such as the Alfonsine Tables and a beautifully illustrated Lapidary, all works that still fascinate scholars today. For many of Alfonso's admirers, the sobriquet "Emperor of Culture," used by Robert I. Burns fits his life and work exceptionally well.

Determined to complete a rigorous didactic campaign of providing cultural services for the benefit of the kingdom and in an effort to upgrade the level of learning in the Spain of his day, Alfonso sponsored an almost endless supply of translations from Greek, Latin, Persian and Arabic necessary for the above-mentioned works and oversaw many of them through several redactions, often illuminated, during his thirty-two-year reign. However, our focus falls not on the prose works in Castilian, but rather on his poetical compositions in Galician-Portuguese. For his unsurpassed Cantigas de Santa Maria, Alfonso donned the guise, the persona, of a [End Page 130] Marian troubadour and, for the narrative miracles and praise songs to the Virgin composed by him and a select team of contemporary poets, he expanded them by adding musical transcriptions and magnificent full-page story book miniatures in successive redactions of this repertory up to the time of his death in 1284 (Snow, "Central"). In terms of etiquette in the thirteenth-century court of Castile and León, Alfonso, like his father and other Iberian rulers, welcomed many troubadours from north of the Pyrenees and from Catalonia as well as to a large numbers of Galician and Portuguese poets who composed their poems in a literary Galician-Portuguese, the lyric language of their century (Márquez Villanueva 111-114).2 Alfonso was not only an unflagging patron of the arts, but was himself a skilled poet in the language of the peninsular troubadours, having learned it early in life, as noted above.

Today, Alfonso's best-known poetic achievement is undoubtedly the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM), called justly the "la biblia estética del siglo XIII" (Menéndez y Pelayo 162). It is a repertory of 420 poems—with accompanying music and miniatures—celebrating the miracles and singing the praises of the Virgin Mary. For Alfonso, it was always a work-in...


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