In Search of Paradise: Time and Eternity in Alfonso X’s Cantiga 103

In Search of Paradise: Time and Eternity in Alfonso X’s Cantiga 103

By Kevin E. Poole

eHumanista: Journal of Iberian Studies  vol.9 (2007)


Those who have studied the thirteenth-century Spanish text of the Cantigas de Santa María, attributed to King Alfonso X, recognize in that colorfully-illustrated text –which Richard Kinkade considers “one of the four most eminent, yet characteristic creations of the thirteenth century” (95)– 1 a compendium of religious thought, social norms, and legends prevalent in European Christian society of the time. Indeed, as has been noted by scholars such as Keller & Cash and Snow, the Learned King’s musical text gives modern readers insight into a wide variety of topics, concepts, and everyday customs as understood by Alfonso and his court. We are presented, for example, with songs about such mundane happenings as men playing ball in a park and a young boy falling in love (song 42), or a monk who secretly steals away to the monastery library one night to enjoy the pleasures of wine (47). We also find such pious topics as the personal reformation of a lustful knight (137), or a prisoner’s composition of Marian music (291).

As a musical form of monastic devotional literature, the collection of cantigas also presents the reader with orthodox theological teaching promulgated by the Church during the thirteenth century: such cantigas as 306 and 320, the former of which recounts the story of a heretic who is cleansed of his lack of belief in the virginity of Mary, and the latter praising Mary for restoring the goodness to earth that Eve had taken away, respond to the ecclesiastic debates and formation of doctrine that were taking place during these years of the Central Middle Ages. In response to the formation of Catholic dogma taking place at this time, Greenia very nicely states that Alfonso X designated himself a “national broker in the economy of salvation” and that “he seemingly felt that he owed it to his people to serve them in facilitating their salvation.” His Cantigas “formed an ongoing project for the religious welfare of the masses, and as an unobtrusive educational tool” (340)

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