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The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the Conqueror: Intellect and Force in the Middle Ages

The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the Conqueror: Intellect and Force in the Middle Ages

by Robert Ignatius Burns

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The thirteenth-century monarch Alfonso the Learned of Castile and his contemporary rival James the Conqueror, of Aragon-Catalonia, are key figures who made enduring contributions to Western civilization--although neither is well known to American students. This book explores the contrasts and convergences not only of the kings but of the scholarly-cultural with the


The thirteenth-century monarch Alfonso the Learned of Castile and his contemporary rival James the Conqueror, of Aragon-Catalonia, are key figures who made enduring contributions to Western civilization--although neither is well known to American students. This book explores the contrasts and convergences not only of the kings but of the scholarly-cultural with the military-commercial society.

Originally published in 1985.

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The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the Conqueror

Intellect & Force in the Middle Ages

By Robert Ignatius Burns


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05451-3


Castle of Intellect, Castle of Force: The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the Conqueror


King Alfonso and King James were born into a world of stunning change. Each was to accelerate that change within his own kingdom, and to contribute to it in the wider world. The immediate background of both men was the Iberian peninsula, at that time a patchwork of disparate countries, cultures, and languages crowded into a geography of contrasts. Castile and Léon occupied the center, Navarre and Aragon the mountainous upper right-center, Portugal the Atlantic side, Catalonia the Mediterranean flank, and Islamic al-Andalus the bottom third, with a symbiotic Jewish society inside each host country and culture. Societies of conquered Muslims lay embedded within the frontier Christian states like frequent raisins in a pudding; conversely, Christian communities survived within the Islamic south. Castile and Léon had tended to drift together in random pattern, but would permanently unite only during Alfonso's lifetime. Upland Aragon was linked with coastal Catalonia into a common realm by the external factor of a shared ruler; otherwise the two were separated by language, economy, institutions, and mentality. Al-Andalus was the monolithic empire of the Almohad dynasty and religious orientation, centered on Marrakesh at the Sahara's edge.

Framing the top or north of all this was Occitania, the gentle regions of troubadour southern France, with their tangle of communes and counts, the language a cognate of Catalan. On the Mediterranean verge Genoese shipping tended to dominate the busy sea lanes. Here the Catalan port-cities tied directly to sister ports in Languedoc, Provence, Italy, the Adriatic's Slavic shore, North Africa, and the farther reaches of the eastern Mediterranean. The Spanish countries did not represent political evolutions alone, but a fierce geography. The Castilian tableland or meseta, bare and stern, is one of Europe's highest points; the Catalan coast recalls in its landforms Italy or Languedoc. Mountain walls, interrupted rivers, and broken country fragmented the land and its distinct peoples.

Our two kings appeared on this scene just as four great battles had transformed Europe. The battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, on the central Spanish highlands, precipitated the Almohad collapse. It began those intrigues and factions that shattered Western Islam into fragments, opened al-Andalus to virtually complete conquest by the Christians, and made North Africa a field of commercial exploitation by the Christian kingdoms. The battle of Muret in 1213, just south of Toulouse, ended Catalan hegemony in southern France; its confused aftermath threatened to split these linguistic-cultural affiliates apart, and to isolate Occitania as a vacuum of power vulnerable to takeover by its rough northern neighbor Francia. Just as Castile, Léon, and most of Islamic Spain were to fuse from now on, into an entity we think of as Castile, so Occitania and Francia would begin to merge into the single entity we call France. Our third battle was the bloody fall of Constantinople in 1204, before the seapower of Venice and her allies on the Fourth Crusade, which toppled the thousand-year empire of Byzantium. Recovery of rump-Byzantium after mid-century, much like the rump-emirate of Granada in mid-century Spain, could not conceal the disaster of colonial takeovers by Venetians, Genoese, French, and at the turn of the century Catalans. Finally, the battle of Bouvines in Flanders in 1214 rearranged the northern balance of power, signaling the expansion and rise of Francia as a major power, the temporary decline of England, the ascendancy of the Hohenstaufen-Ghibelline factions in Germany and Italy, and at mid-century the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire as an effective power in both countries, in the confusion of the Great Interregnum.

The logic of events unleashed by these four battles dictated the course of Iberian and western Mediterranean affairs for the lifetime of our two kings, through a roll call of subsequent battles on land and at sea. War was the dominant motif of their lifetime and century, an ever-recurrent fury of internal and external fighting, culminating in the twenty-year general war of the Sicilian Vespers just after both men died. The Mongol invasions before mid-century lent the violent scene an apocalyptic panic, and then a surge of hope as the far reaches of Asia opened to missionaries and merchants, as Islam diminished and seemed about to succumb before the Mongolian onslaught, as Catalans came to dominate the Mediterranean European trade of a weakened Alexandria, and as Mongol embassies negotiated for the cooperation of Spanish armies.

This bloody backdrop, its fire and iron a familiar element to both Alfonso and James, insured that both men would be warriors by trade. At the same time, it throws into strong relief the equally radical creative achievements of their lifetime. Paradoxically, all the promise of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance flowered now in great works of law, philosophy, religion, medicine, letters, translations, travel, technology, and art. The protagonists or celebrated symbols of such movements flourished during the reigns of our two kings — men like the philosopher Aquinas, the poet Dante, the merchant traveler Marco Polo, and the religious genius Francis of Assisi. Some of the greatest protagonists, as we shall see, came from the Spanish peninsula. The great figures included kings contemporary with Alfonso and James. No king is more central to the creation of France and its culture, for example, than the warrior and patron St. Louis IX. Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, quintessential patron of culture, is still the Stupor Mundi to southern Italians and Germans alike. The thirteenth century, whose decades our two Spanish kings nearly fill, was not "the greatest of centuries" in human and cultural terms, as is often said (the fourth and the twelfth, for example, have stronger claims to the title); but it was perhaps the most startling and dramatic century, a chiaroscuro of achievement and failure, the promise and the threat of Western civilization's future directions.

It is time now to introduce our two kings. James the Conqueror lived from 1208 to 1276 and ruled (in his own words) "from the Rhone to Valencia." His disparate realms of Aragon stretched down the Mediterranean, oriented outward toward Italy, North Africa, and the Near East. Though he has strong claims to literary, administrative, educational, and legal fame, James's renown is particularly as a military leader. He conquered the Balearic emirates and the extensive sharq al-Andalus, or Almohad Valencian and Murcian provinces (often bloodlessly, by maneuver), made Hafsid Tunis almost an economic dependency, took over the Hohenstaufen claims in Italy, and plotted joint action with the Mongols in the Near East.

His father Peter the Catholic (leader against the Albigensian Crusade) and his son Peter the Great (Dante's hero) were troubadour patrons and lively participants in troubadour activity. James, brought up by the Knights Templar at their bleak headquarters castle on the border of hinterland Aragon proper, left his only literary monument in a warrior's prose. The king's large book is unique: the only autobiography by a medieval king (except for an imitation by his great-great-grandson), a revelation of his values and psychology. James reorganized the great medical university at Montpellier, founded another university at Valencia, and helped the Dominicans create the unique network of polemical schools of Arabic in his realms. He published the first generally applicable Roman Law code in Europe, the Furs of Valencia. Partly by absorbing the Muslims' paper industry at Jativa, he was able to amass the first monumental archives of secular government in Europe. His relations with Muslims, both domestic and foreign, were remarkably enlightened for his time. For the Jews, his reign is often called "a golden age."

James's role was central in crystallizing the semirepublican institutions of his city-state region and in adopting the new public finance. He turned the main direction of his realms' expansion to a considerable degree away from their traditional hegemony in southern France toward that Mediterranean "empire" that would soon stretch its holdings from Sardinia and Sicily to Athens. A man of action, personally leading his armies, he laid the foundations of Catalan naval power in the Western Mediterranean and of an open-ended society rooted in world commerce, whose intellectual and literary culture was symbolized by such of his contemporary subjects as the physician Arnau de Vilanova, the troubadour Cerverí de Girona, the philosopher-publicist Ramon Llull, the Arabist Ramon Martí, the Jewish scholar Salomo b. Adreth, and the lawyer Ramon de Penyafort.

To supplement this thumbnail sketch of James's public achievements, a chronological approach can trace his life sequentially, relating private to political landmarks. His very birth, in a burgher's home at Montpellier in 1208, illustrates the convergence of his public and private turmoils. His father, a war hero of Christendom, in effect repudiated James by seeking a divorce from the heiress of Montpellier. James's mother, Marie I of Montpellier, in her own way abandoned him, fleeing to Rome to protect the infant's rights and dying there as the "Holy Queen" with a miracle-working tomb in St. Peter's. The orphan James remained in the hands of his father's slayer, Simon de Montfort, who led the Albigensian Crusade — a hostage at Carcassonne destined to marry Simon's daughter. James's later life was marked by ambivalence toward his hero-villain father and by awe of his saintly mother with her Byzantine Comnenoi antecedents. James's exploits in war and his exploits with women may well relate to this early trauma. Innocent III, greatest of medieval Christendom's political popes, wrested the six-year-old boy from Simon, placing both the boy and his kingdom under the protection of the Knights Templar. From his sixth to his ninth year the child grew up at the Monzón castle of these "lions in war and lambs in the cloister."

To give strong royal presence to his disordered realms, the boy-king led his troops as an armored knight by the time he was ten, had taken two castles by storm at twelve, and by thirteen had married Leonor, daughter of the king of Castile (a marriage not physically consummated for some time, he confides). At seventeen he led his first invasion of Islamic Spain, failing to overwhelm coastal Peñíscola in 1225. After imposing peace on his rebel nobles in 1227, James in 1229 mounted his amphibious conquest of Majorca island; the other large Balearic island, Minorca, submitted as tributary in 1232. These he constituted a separate kingdom. From 1232 to 1245 he fought a series of stubborn campaigns to subdue the prosperous cities and regions of Islam from below Tortosa all the way to the borders of Murcia, organizing that conquest as the Kingdom of Valencia. Every decade thereafter, James had to contend with serious revolts in the Valencian regions. In 1266 he even crossed down into Murcia, to help Alfonso the Learned reconquer that rebellious kingdom. And James ended his life on the Valencian frontier in 1276, battling vainly to contain the most serious revolt or countercrusade.

James never relinquished hope of reestablishing his dynasty's position in southern France, though he was reasonably prudent in his machinations and challenges to the new presence of Francia there. In 1258 by the treaty of Corbeil, he renounced much of his southern French claims, but that was not so definitive an act as events have since made it seem. His treaties and adventures in North Africa confirmed his control of trade there, particularly at Tunis. While establishing his colonial kingdom in Valencia, a formidable and multifaceted enterprise, James found time for two abortive crusades to the Holy Land, for a gaudy but abortive project to crusade in support of the Latin empire of Constantinople, for coping with several nobiliary revolts led by rebellious sons, and for a principal role at the second ecumenical Council of Lyons. Though invited to head the Guelph cause in Italy after the conquest of Valencia, and indeed invested with the sonorous title of Admiral and Captain General of the church, James shifted ground as his rivals the French made their presence ever more widely felt in the Mediterranean and in Italy under the machinations of Charles of Anjou. James married his heir Peter to the Hohenstaufen heiress of Sicily, thus setting in motion the confrontation between Anjou and Peter that eventuated in the war of the Sicilian Vespers and the conquest of Sicily for Aragon.

James's domestic life was equally busy. Not long after the start of his Valencian crusade, the king's first marriage had been annulled and his ex-queen and son sent away. In 1235 James married Violante (Catalan Violant), daughter of King Andrew of Hungary. After her death, he married Teresa Gil de Vidaure in 1255, repudiating her ten years later despite angry papal intervention. James also found time for over half a dozen long-term lovers or formal concubines. Besides his six sons and three daughters (one of whom married Alfonso the Learned), James produced at least two illegitimate sons.

If King James himself were asked about his greatest achievements, he would probably pass over legal, educational, institutional, political-commercial, and other phases of his reign, and present us instead with a copy of his autobiography, the Llibre dels feyts. This combined his proudest achievement, the conquest of the Balearics and Valencia, with a revelation of his inner sentiments and self-view, done vigorously in his vernacular Catalan. He worked at it, on and off, through most of his busy reign; and it sparkles with life even today. James did not pen the book himself, of course, but rather worked through redactors and secretaries, whose identities and personal contributions to the whole have long been under debate. These were not ghostwriters but collaborators, and they incorporated many prosified poems through which the king's exploits had been broadcast in his own day. Martí de Riquer, the premier literary scholar of Catalonia, sums the current consensus on the book's basic authenticity: "without any reserve" it is the king's own, and "its essence is the personal memories of the monarch." It was already famous in a Latin version, some thirty-five years after James's death, when King James II ordered a copy from his own original, and when the king of Majorca requested such a copy for himself. Our earliest surviving Catalan version is a splendid copy made in 1343 at Poblet monastery from a lost original. "The most superficial reading" of the Catalan, as Riquer's examination concludes, shows it to be "the personal work of James," his "autobiography or memoirs." Miquel Coll i Alentorn analyzes the stages of redaction as two — at Játiva in 1244 for the first three hundred chapters, and at Barcelona in 1274 for the remainder, with the last twenty chapters and the prologue wholly the work of assistants.

The king's memoirs reveal both his womanizing and his Marian piety, his brutal and his tender moments, and his childlike vanity. He is concerned to show himself a warrior without fear; on the other hand, "I don't want to die until God wants, if I can help it." Whenever death comes, he tells King Sancho of Navarre with characteristic practicality, "we kings take no more from this world than a single shroud, except that it is of better cloth than those of other people." In battle "I've never fled nor know how to flee"; and to escape "shame" for failure at the siege of Burriana, "twice I exposed my whole body so that those [Muslims] within would wound me." He presents himself as honorably true to his word, but slyly finds "cunning is better than force" and manages by dubious means to "get it all." He describes a loving episode or two with his wife, displays at length his courtesies toward Muslim enemies, and devotes much attention to artillery and its placement. Like contemporaries he is easily moved to sentimental tears: "and when they saw me weeping, they began to weep with me." He was an enthusiastic trencherman, stopping to give details of meals taken and meals missed. And he has a lively eye for describing the many people passing through his life, Moors and Christians alike. James's memoirs are complete: from conception to death. They are filled with anecdote and telling detail. Through their confessional pages, running to two large volumes in the English translation, we have our most complete portrait of any medieval king, and one of the most fascinating portraits of any medieval person.


Excerpted from The Worlds of Alfonso the Learned and James the Conqueror by Robert Ignatius Burns. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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