THE WISE KING by Simon R. Doubleday


A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance
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The life and times of a Spanish monarch who invigorated cultural life.

For more than 30 years, Alfonso X (1221-1284) reigned over a country beset by divisiveness, strife, and uncertainty. As Doubleday (History/Hofstra Univ.; co-editor: Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice, 2011, etc.) portrays him in this deeply researched history, Alfonso aspired to be a “teacher to his people,” ensuring “not only their political unity but also their happiness and well-being.” Kings, Alfonso believed, “resemble a mirror in which men view their own images.” He hoped to reflect “a Solomon…bequeathing his wisdom to his subjects and to future generations.” Literate in history, science, and the arts, Alfonso wrote texts that long survived him: songs, works on astronomy and astrology, and a legal and philosophical tract that influenced United States law into the 19th century. He aimed to institute reforms that would mark “a first step away from an older feudal order” to a rational, centralized government in which “the king and people had mutual obligations.” Central to Alfonso’s beliefs was the importance of happiness. He promoted games and sport, incorporated comedy in his religious songs, and delighted in dirty jokes. Laughter, he believed, was “good medicine.” Doubleday helpfully contextualizes Alfonso’s convictions and actions. He explores, for example, the place of humor in medieval culture; the meaning of friendship; attitudes about fatherhood; and assumptions about planetary and astral influence on human life. He asserts that Alfonso created a Castilian Renaissance centuries before the more famous Italian artistic flourishing, but he is also clear about the king’s shortcomings. Challenged by Muslim rebellion, roiling European politics, betrayal by family and friends, and repeated thwarting of his campaign to become Holy Roman emperor, Alfonso could be rash, vindictive, and manipulative. Drawing on Alfonso’s writings, contemporary—often contradictory—sources, and much scholarship, Doubleday has created a measured, persuasive history of a king and his precarious times.

An illuminating biography of “an intelligent and thoughtful man.”

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-465-06699-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2015


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