Alfonso X el Sabio and the Cantigas de Sta. María.

Alfonso X el Sabio and the Cantigas de Sta. María.
Alfonso X, king of Castile (r. 1252-1284) and poet and historian, was a passionate promoter of Castilian, making it rather than Latin the language of the court and all official matters relating to his kingdom. This was a radical step since Latin was the universal language of the time, used in diplomacy, education, business, and by the Church.

But there was an interesting paradox in Alfonso’s passion for advancing the use of Castilian: he chose to write his poetry in Galician-Portuguese, then the language of Galicia in the north west of the Iberian Peninsula. Such a choice may seem strange, but there are several reasons that explain this:

1. Galician-Portuguese was already prestigious because of its close relationship –thanks to the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela— with Provençal poetry, the principal voice in lyric poetry from the 12th to the 14th centuries;
2. it provided greater variety of metre/ versification and wealth of vocabulary and imagery;
3. Some of Alfonso’s early years were spent in Galicia;
4. Galician-Portuguese was already practiced in his father’s court;
5. it confirmed the independence of Galician-Portuguese poet troubadours from Provençal poets who had previously dominated the poetic landscape;
6. or simply the fact that there were many Galician troubadours in his court.

For Alfonso, it also happened that the peculiar relationship between the poet/ lover and his lady as developed in the Provençal tradition would be a most appropriate vehicle to convey the king’s devotion to his particular “lady”, the Virgin Mary.  He considered himself to be her troubadour, and it was the troubadour’s task to praise his lady.

Poetry had already been written in Castilian, which in fact dominated the vernacular in the 12th and first half of the 13th centuries, but primarily as epic poems (e. g. the Poema de Mío Cid) or some form of learned verse mostly written by clerics (e.g. the poetry of Gonzalo de Berceo, Libro de Alexandre, Libro de Apolonio).

What lyric poetry there was in Castilian were mainly popular songs which had not yet acquired the cultured polish of courtly love or the favour of courtly poets. However, Galician-Portuguese was an established medium that enjoyed support at the court.

Although Alfonso wrote some 40 satirical, even scurrilous poems in Galician-Portuguese, his fame rests on the 420 Cantigas de Santa María (Songs to Holy Mary), completed ca. 1280.

The Cantigas are poetic hymns that describe miracles attributed to Mary, who answers the prayers of all those devoted to her. Every 10th song is a hymn of praise to her.

Of the four existing manuscripts, the two at the Escorial monastery north of Madrid are the most remarkable. One contains over 1250 extraordinarily rich miniatures that provide a cross-section of life in the latter half of the 13th century. The other contains music for 414 of the Cantigas.

Cantiga 42. “Young men playing “baseball” in upper right hand miniature.

The miniatures are fascinating rendering of religious scenes, banquets and processions, battles between Moors and Christians, country life with animals and plants, games, domestic and classroom scenes, falcon hunting, bull-baiting etc. 

Characters include pilgrims, monks, bishops, minstrels, soldiers, princes, pirates, sultans, emirs, thieves, highwaymen, gamblers, ordinary men and women, lepers, Moors, Jews (somewhat racially stereotyped, the hooked nose, swarthy skin).

The miniatures tell us a lot about the clothes worn by Christians, Jews and Moors, their footwear, the armour used in battle, the machinery used in sieges, what the buildings looked like, their furniture, the musical instruments people played, the ships they sailed in and so on.

Cantiga 35: Clerics being saved from pirates.

In some illustrations, the king himself is seen at work, surrounded by his collaborators, at ease playing chess while dressed in Arabic clothes, receiving his subjects or even in his sick bed awaiting the Virgin’s cure.

Some scenes are set in frames, which reflect the passage from Romanesque to Gothic architecture that took place in the 13th century. They are set mainly within pointed Gothic frames, as above (there are some Romanesque frames too) supported by slender pillars and ribbed vaulting. Their arrangement echoes the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals and churches, but here embedded in pages, not walls.

Of course, it is the intercession of the Virgin Mary that is central to the tales in which these images and scenes appear, and her figure with the Christ child can normally be found at least in one (often the last) of the half a dozen or so miniatures that fill a page and represent a particular story (see Cantiga 35 illustration above). It is a pictorial narrative technique something like a comic strip, framed by an explanatory caption of the picture.

Alfonso X and collaborators.

The wealth of detail available in the miniatures is complemented, too, by the musical notation attached to the poems. The Prologue has an illustration of the king dictating to scribes, while to his far left and right four musicians are tuning their instruments. As an opening illustration, it establishes not only the primacy of Alfonso as author-collaborator of the poems but also of music as essential accompaniment. In accordance with the king’s will, some of the melodies are still sung in the Cathedral of Seville (where Alfonso is buried) on Mary’s feast days. 

The cantigas are more than just songs in praise of the Virgin or demonstrations of Alfonso’s profound devotion to her. They offer valuable insights into what interested the medieval mind, from the daily life of commoners to royal concerns. 

Themes include Alfonso’s longing to defeat the Moors of Granada and drive them out of Spain (#s 169, 181, 215, 323, 345, 360), his fear of betrayal by his nobles, and his feelings of gratitude to the Virgin for helping him over his several illnesses.

There are also traditional European legends surrounding the Virgin, including several that portray standard medieval views of the Jews: e.g. as disciples of the devil or as child murderers. However, this did not prevent Alfonso employing Jews as tax collectors, royal secretaries and doctors!

The Cantigas also touch on witchcraft and devil worship, incest, blasphemy and murder, greed and gluttony, adultery and lust. In one, Cantiga, # 7: a pregnant abbess not only has to face the gleeful reaction of her nuns who promptly inform the bishop of her misdeed, but she is obliged to undress before the bishop. However, thanks to her devotion to the Virgin, who had the child miraculously delivered and placed elsewhere, the bishop finds the abbess innocent.

In another, # 64, a nobleman obeys a call to war and commends his wife to the Virgin. During his absence a knight tries to seduce the wife, using an old servant as go-between. The servant demands gifts and uses her skill in love intrigues to convince the young wife to try on some shoes.  She tries one, is unable to take it off, and remains with it on until her husband returns.  He immediately removes it, realising that his wife’s virtue is intact, thanks to Holy Mary.

It is the power and compassion of the Virgin that form the common thread in all the Cantigas, but for modern readers the appeal is the human dimension of the predicaments that people find themselves in.

Under Alfonso’s father, Fernando III, Castile had undergone a remarkable territorial expansion. Alfonso may not have completed Fernando’s dream (nor his own) of driving the Moors out of al-Andalus and pursuing them into North Africa, but he did complete a conquest of another kind: he unified the political units and provided them with a linguistic, legal, and cultural infrastructure.

Fernando is known as “el santo” (“the saint”) but there are many “santos” in  Spanish history; there is, however, but one “sabio” (“learned”), a fitting and abiding recognition of Alfonso’s legacy to his country. [**Sancho VI of Navarra (1150-94) had also earned the title of “el sabio” although his impact on Spanish history is negligible by comparison.]  

Burns, Robert I ed. Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth-Century Renaissance Philadelphia 1990.
Carrión Gutiérrez, José M  Conociendo a Alfonso el Sabio Murcia 1997.
Keller, John E and Annette Cash  Daily Life Depicted in the Cantigas de Santa María Lexington 1998.
Kulp-Hill, Kathleen (transl)   Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, the Wise Tempe, Arizona 2000.
Márquez Villanueva, Francisco  El concepto cultural alfonsi Madrid 1994.
O’Callaghan, Joseph   The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile Philadelphia 1993.
Miniatures from Cantiga 35: Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,
For an explanation of Cantiga 35, (clerics being saved from pirates), see
Image of Alfonso X and musicians: Domínio público,
Cantiga 144: Miracle of the bull:
Cantiga 42 contains “baseball” game in upper right hand frame
By Unknown – cantigas de santa maria, Public Domain,
For those interested, there is a web page of the cantigas with introduction and more:
For viewing numerous illustrations from the Cantigas, google “cantigas de santa maria images.”
For articles on the Cantigas and images of a variety of musical instruments in the Cantigas, see

**March 21, 2021: My thanks to Carmen English who brought to my attention the fact that Sancho VI of Navarre was also known as “el Sabio.”