- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (December 1, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465066992
- ISBN-13: 978-0465066995
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #748,862 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance Hardcover – December 1, 2015
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"A fascinating journey into an unfamiliar realm."-- Sinclair McKay, Daily Telegraph (Best Books of 2016)
"Long overdue, giving deserved prominence to a man whose imagination spanned the worlds of Christian Europe, Islam, and Classical Antiquity. Few monarchs have lived up to the challenge he threw down."--Alastair Mabbott, Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
"It is not hard to see The Wise King as a screen epic. It has drama and betrayal. There is love (and sex). It has writers and thinkers - Christians, Muslims and Jews. In the background isthe sun and passion of Spain."--Andrew Breeze, The Tablet
"An illuminating biography of an intelligent and thoughtful man."--Kirkus Reviews
"Elegant and learned, fast-paced and exciting. The Wise King provides a beautiful introduction to one of the most fascinating figures of the Middle Ages"--David Nirenberg, University of Chicago, author of Communities of Violence
"Imaginatively seeks to provide emotional depth to an account of Alfonso's reign... Readers will enjoy the broad range of sources, Christian and Muslim"--History Today
The Middle Ages have long been categorized as an infertile intermission between the classical Greek and Roman world and the Renaissance...Doubleday (The Lara Family) here debunks the myth...[He] convincingly reasons that Alfonso was the epitome of a renaissance man."--Library Journal
"In this insightful biography of Alfonso X of Castile and León (1221-1284), Doubleday... illuminates the complexity of society in 13th-century Spain and, through the figure of the king, 'exorcises the myth that medieval Europe was mired in a dark age.'"--Publishers Weekly
"This wonderful book sets to rest the fiction that the Renaissance was purely an Italian creation. Beautifully-written and lyrical, full of fascinating details and surprisingly sexy, Doubleday's book sheds new light on the remarkable life of Alfonso the Wise, and gives the Iberian peninsula the credit it deserves for serving as a hothouse of intellectual innovation."--Kirstin Downey, author of Isabella, The Warrior Queen
"A fascinating work. Promoting culture and learning, moderating temper and greed, acting virtuously by example, even judiciously endorsing games and sex--these were the tasks that Alfonso assigned himself, even while he fulfilled the more traditional roles of warrior and defender of the faith. That he did all this not despite the very real proximity of a rival Islamic kingdom but precisely because of it is one of the most intriguing arguments of Doubleday's beautifully-written book."--Lisa Abend, Madrid correspondent, TIME magazine, and author of The Sorcerer's Apprentices
"Cosmopolitan, learned, and deeply-cultured, Alfonso is proof that brightness shone in parts of Europe during what later became popularly, if unfairly,known as the Dark Ages. His 13th-century preoccupations with manners,wisdom, friendship, music, sex, sport, greed, fear, and parenting are indeed a mirror of contemporary concerns. Few of us, however, have had the time--or the talent-- to think so deeply or write so eloquently about them. Doubleday's scholarly but accessible writing makes him the ideal guide and companion."--Giles Tremlett, Madrid correspondent, The Guardian and The Economist, and author of Catherine of Aragon and Ghosts of Spain
"Sex, Greed, Wisdom, Joy: In Simon Doubleday's deft treatment, we find therenowned medieval King Alfonso the Wise pondering the same themes thatgrip the modern imagination. Doubleday is a gifted writer who introduces readers to a turbulent era while inviting thoughtful reflection on our own day."--Chris Lowney, author of Heroic Leadership and A Vanished World
"Written in a lively style and displaying a mastery of far-ranging ideas,Doubleday's engaging and erudite work casts a wide and fascinating view on the convergence of ancient Islamic, Jewish, and medieval Christian cultures at the court of the 'Wise King'.... Will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike."--Teofilo F. Ruiz, Distinguished Professor of History UCLA, and recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President Obama
"A scintillating account of how the modern gaze into the medieval mirror can foster wisdom and humanity in contemporary readers, princes and paupers alike."--Stanislao Pugliese, author of the NBCC-nominated Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
About the Author
Simon R. Doubleday is Professor of History at Hofstra University, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, and author of The Lara Family: Crown and Nobility in Medieval Spain. He received his BA from Cambridge University and his PhD in Medieval History from Harvard, and is the recipient of awards for Outstanding Scholarly Achievement from Hofstra and for teaching from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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Writing a biography of such a King and assessing his reign are however where the problems also start. In fact, they even start with the book’s ambiguous title – the “Wise King”, with the word in Latin meaning wise, but also learned, and, given Alfonso X’s record, the later qualifier seems much more apt that the rather flattering former one. The ambiguities and ambivalence persist throughout the book. This is because while Simon Doubleday is clearly much keener to show Alfonso as a reformer and a glorious patron of arts and learning, which he clearly was, he cannot entirely dismiss or minimize Alfonso’s X failings as a King and the ultimate failure of his reign, with the last fifteen years or so being increasingly disastrous.
I also could not help having doubts about his achievements as a friend, as a father and as the head of his family more generally, given that he failed to retain the support of the great noble families of Castile. One of his brothers and his own (second) son turned against him. Perhaps worst of all, the struggle against his own son led him to call in the Muslims from North Africa and to swear allegiance to them, therefore failing to maintain the hard-won supremacy that his father had achieved.
To be fair, none of these shortcomings are omitted. They are, however, mentioned rather discussed, and their causes in particular are not really investigated. A similar comment can be made with regards to Alfonso’s obsession in becoming the Emperor and successor of Frederic II, his relative. Here again, the author presents a rather sympathetic but biased analysis and seeks to defend his character. While he dismisses accusations that Alfonso’s quest for the imperial crown was delusional, he seems more than reluctant to consider the “price” that such an obsessive quest brought with it. There are two points that the author seems careful not to make in this respect. The first is that a number of successive popes were opposed to his candidacy and that, without papal support, Alfonso’s efforts were doomed to fail. The second is that his quest for the imperial crown was, at the very least, a distraction. It drew him away from ruling his own kingdom and, to some extent, from managing the various crises that arose.
While the political and military events and intrigues and the associated power games are clearly not among the best bits of this book, the descriptions and explanations of Alfonso’s legal and artistic legacies are simply excellent. Among other things, they reveal a sensitive and learned King that seems to have had quite a bit in common with his relative Frederic II. Both could qualify as “Stupor Mundi” and although Alfonso may have consciously imitated his better known relative, the author’s descriptions leave little doubt about the Spanish King’s artistic learnings. He also shows how supposedly antagonistic cultures (the Christian and Moslem ones) could blend and produced some unique pieces of art in Spain, just as they had in Norman Sicily a few decades before.
One claim – that Alfonso was a precursor of the Renaissance – seems however a bit far-fetched and perhaps somewhat anachronistic. It is also a bit controversial for the emergence of the Renaissance is traditionally linked with the arrival of Byzantine exiles in Italy about a century later.
Despite this, however, part of the reign of Alfonso X can probably be seen as a cultural flowering. There is also no doubt that the King himself, with his attraction for Moslem art and culture, played a significant role in this. It is this role that the book describes so well and it is this which makes the book worth four stars, despite its limited value as a political history.