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A King’s Search for Wisdom

A King’s Search for Wisdom

 A King’s Search for Wisdom


THE 13th century was a time of bitter intolerance and extreme violence. Europe was embroiled in the infamous Inquisition and the death-dealing Crusades. Yet, in the midst of this bloody era, a Spanish king tried to bring some sanity to the world. His name was Alfonso X, also called Alfonso the Wise.

This king is credited with a cultural awakening that is sometimes called the 13th-century renaissance. He brought new knowledge to Spain from distant lands. He was particularly interested in the fields of art, history, law, and science. This had a profound influence on the cultural development of Spain as well as the rest of Europe. More significantly, however, his quest led him to promote the Word of God, the Holy Bible.

Alfonso was instrumental in the formation of an academy where learned Jews, Muslims, and “Christians” could collaborate. To facilitate their work, the king created and financed one of the world’s first State libraries.

Alfonso himself actively participated in the writing and compiling of a whole range of works dealing with jurisprudence, science, and history. He encouraged the development of literature and poetry, fields in which he himself excelled, as shown by his famous cantigas. * These were written in Gallego (Galician), the language used at that time for lyrical compositions.

A School of Translators

Alfonso sponsored the School of Translators in Toledo. “The king’s work consisted of selecting both the translators and the works to be translated,” explains the book La Escuela de Traductores de Toledo (The School of Translators in Toledo). “He revised the translations, encouraged intellectual debate, and sponsored the composition of new works.”

The Toledo scholars began by translating a large quantity of Arabic works. Muslim scholars had already translated the most important works of the Greek, Indian, Persian, and Syrian civilizations into Arabic. The resulting storehouse of knowledge had been useful in the Muslim scholars’ continuing development in the fields of mathematics, astronomy,  history, and geography. In turn, the school of Toledo sought to mine this storehouse. How? By translating important Arabic works into Latin and Spanish.

News about the accomplishments of Toledo’s scholars spread to other countries. Learned men from universities in northern Europe soon flocked to Toledo. All this played a vital role in the scientific and literary progress of the West. In fact, the effects of this vast translation enterprise had an impact on the development of the Renaissance.

The labors of Toledo’s translators allowed doctors to read the medical works of Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine became the basic medical textbook in Western universities until the 17th century. Astronomers were able to read Ptolemy’s works and benefit from Arabic trigonometry and the astronomical tables of al-Khwārizmī. *

Alfonso wanted those translations to be understood by people in general. This initiative established the Spanish language as a scientific and literary vehicle. The work that Alfonso started helped change  the general view that Latin was the language of culture.

The Alfonsine Bible

The experience the Toledo scholars gained when translating such an abundance of material must have proved very useful when Alfonso ordered the translation of portions of the Bible into Spanish. According to Spanish historian Juan de Mariana, the king sponsored this Bible translation in the hope that through it the Spanish language would be polished and enriched. Doubtless, such early translation of the Bible did indeed contribute to the development of the Spanish language.

The king regarded the Bible as valuable for the instruction of mankind. He wrote in the prologue of Crónica de España: “If we consider the benefit that flows from the Sacred Scriptures, we see that it lies in the instruction they give us regarding the creation of the world, the coming of the patriarchs, . . . the promised coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his passion, resurrection and ascension.”

He also supervised the preparation of the ambitious literary project that he called the General Estoria. It included a Spanish translation of portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. (A translation of portions of the Greek Scriptures was added later.) This impressive work, known as the Alfonsine Bible (Biblia Alfonsina), was the largest of its kind produced in the Middle Ages. It was copied many times and partly translated into Portuguese and Catalan.

The Legacy of Alfonso

The medieval manuscripts of Alfonso’s time kept Scriptural knowledge alive during an age of spiritual darkness. Thanks to these translations, an interest in the vernacular Bible was aroused. During the following two centuries, other Bible translations were produced in Spanish.

The invention of the printing press and the tireless work of 16th-century Bible translators in Spain and other European countries carried forward the work that Alfonso and his contemporaries had begun. People throughout Europe could at last possess a copy of the Bible in their own language. Although the reign of Alfonso X had its share of wars and rebellions, his quest for knowledge helped make divine wisdom widely accessible.


^ par. 6 Cantigas are medieval poetic compositions that were sung by minstrels.

^ par. 11 Al-Khwārizmī was a renowned Persian mathematician of the ninth century who developed algebra and introduced Indian mathematical concepts, such as the use of Arabic numerals including the concept of a zero and the fundamentals of arithmetic. The word “algorithm” is derived from his name.

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The works of Alfonso X were not the first to include Spanish translations of portions of the Scriptures. A few years earlier, Hermannus Alemannus, one of the translators who worked in the school of Toledo, had translated the Psalms directly from Hebrew into Spanish. Also, early in the 13th century, the Biblia medieval romanceada Prealfonsina (Pre-Alphonsine Medieval Romance Bible) was translated. (See photo at left.) This work is considered to be the oldest complete Spanish Bible. Doubtless it influenced the Bible translation sponsored by Alfonso X a few years later.

Regarding this Pre-Alphonsine Bible, scholar Thomas Montgomery says: “The translator of this Bible produced an admirable work with regard to accuracy as well as elegant language. The version scrupulously follows the sense of the Vulgate without excessive use of Latin expressions or terms. The language is simple and clear, as was needed for a Bible prepared for people unversed in Latin.”

[Credit Line]

Bible: Patrimonio Nacional. Real Biblioteca de El Escorial

[Picture on page 12, 13]

The statue of Alfonso X at the entrance to the Spanish National Library, Madrid

[Pictures on page 13]

The king with translators from Toledo (above); his calligraphers (below); the Gospel of Luke in the “Biblia Alfonsina” (bottom)

[Picture Credit Line on page 13]

All photos except statue of Alfonso X: Oronoz