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Simon Doubleday

Alfonso X

In this image from the Códice de los músicos [Musicians’ codex] of the Cantigas de Santa María, the Wise King—who is dictating the text to a scribe—radiates a spirit of happiness that pervades the court. The idea that medieval people were universally addicted to a cult of pain, suffering, and martyrdom—denizens of a dark and miserable era—is quite wrong. This was rarely a pleasure-hating world.

For Alfonso, the pursuit of happiness—on earth as in heaven—was a constant ideal. His philosophy of joy drew partly on ancient Greek ideas, finding a golden mean between excessive laughter and excessive work and seriousness. Alfonso’s commitment to happiness in this world, as well as the next, would become one of the hallmarks of modernity.

The cantigas were, for Alfonso, an especially personal project. Author of more than 40 profane songs, he also wrote some two dozen of the songs to Holy Mary. Like a new King David, his confessor tells us, “he composed many beautiful songs in praise of the glorious Virgin, set to suitable sounds and appropriate music”.