The Chronicle of Alfonso the Emperor

Glenn Edward Lipskey


[1] The method according to which medieval chronicles in Spain were conceived and written presents special problems to the historian. The series of histories which appeared on the Peninsula prior to the thirteenth century revealed a lack of total peninsular vision. From the times of the Visigoths the Spanish chroniclers directed their attention to the royal court. They wrote exclusively of the kings. We witness this in the works of Isidore, Alfonso III, Sampiro and Pelayo. Each of these limits his efforts and vision to the history of the royal house. In addition, before the hegemony of Castile, the Kings of León were considered the unique recipients of the Visigothic crown. As such, the historical works were not only restricted to the court, but solely to the royal court in León.

The Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris was written by an anonymous author toward the middle of the twelfth century. In one sense it participates in the court-oriented historical view in that it is devoted to the reign of the Emperor, Alfonso VII, who ruled from 1126 to 1157. However, this monarch and his court are not the only subjects of this history. The work is rich in historical data of twelfth-century Spain. Along with the Historia compostelana, the Crónica najerense and [2] the Crónioa silense this is one of the more important Spanish chronicles of the high Middle Ages.

In relating the considerable accomplishments of this Emperor, the chronicle addresses itself to the phenomenon of his imperial policies. Consequently, it is inherently concerned with the roles of the other kingdoms of Spain. Their feudal relations to the Emperor and their mutual politics within the Empire are given extensive consideration. Within this imperial context a more total view of twelfth-century history is presented.

Menéndez Pidal has censured modern historiography for its failure to recognize the existence of a nationwide political structure in Spain during the Middle Ages. (1) He insists that this attitude has precluded a closer scrutiny of the medieval manuscripts and documents. There is ample evidence in the pages of the first chronicles that the Islamic invasion destroyed the Visigothic political structure. There is also documentation in Spanish medieval history that the prodigious task of the reconquest produced a sense of political destiny among the Iberian peoples.

Within the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris one can clearly witness the energetic ideals of this destiny related to the imperial politics of Alfonso VII. The two major themes of the work are indeed the formation of the Empire and the reconquest of Moslem Spain. In its general form the chronicle is an account or the major episodes in the history of the crowns [3] of Castile and. León during almost three decades of the twelfth century.

The method and conception of the work are conditioned by the personality of King Alfonso VII. His imperial disposition supplies the author with a singular purpose and conviction: that is, that this ruler did indeed become an Emperor and did establish an empire. This state was recognized by other European powers, and at its political apogee, it achieved trans-Pyrenean dimensions. This fact is attested to in the characteristic imperial rhetoric of the chronicle: " facti sunt termini regni Adefonsi regis Legionis a mare magno Oceano, quod est a Patrono Sancti Jacobi, usque ad fluvium Rodani." (2)

The dimensions of the work are distinct and the quality of the narration is clear and purposeful. The chronicle is divided into three parts. The first two books in prose are in perfect equilibrium with each other. Book I functions as a lengthy prologue for Book II. The latter deals solely with the efforts of the reconquest and is manifestly the nucleus of the work. A Latin poem concerning the preparations for the reconquest of Almería, which we may call The Poem of Almería, makes up the third and final section of the chronicle.

The first book begins with Alfonso taking the throne in 1126 at the death of his mother, Queen Urraca. It deals exclusively with the early years of his reign, especially with its internal reorganization. Within this context we see the young monarch subduing rebellious nobles, engaging in political skirmishes with his stepfather, Alfonso I of Aragón, and [4] fighting important wars with Navarra and Portugal. There is significant data in this book concerning the initial Independence of Portugal from the political mainstream of the Peninsula. The declaration of the Empire and the coronation of Alfonso as Emperor are also treated in detail in Book I.

The author commences the second book utilizing a flashback technique wherein he narrates the dangerous and precarious life along the Toledo frontier following the death of the Emperor's grandfather, Alfonso VI. We are informed of the rapid gains of the Almoravides during that period and the initial years of the young Emperor's reign. The opening part of Book II is a justification of Alfonso's neglect of the frontier following his accession to the throne. This negligence was a consequence of the demanding imperial conditions prevailing among the Christian kingdoms at the commencement of his sovereignty. The Aragonese ruler, Alfonso I, is cast in an especially infamous role as the antagonist of the new King of Castile and León. The remainder of Book II treats of the fierce military campaigns carried out against the Almoravides both in the Toledo frontier and within Moslem Spain. The second book terminates with the narration of the intrigue and political maneuvers relevant to the uprising against the Almoravides in Southern Spain. The final paragraphs in the chronicle tell of the first advances of the Almohades in the Peninsula.

The closing part of the chronicle is written in verse, as the author states, in order to avoid the tedium of prose. It [5] offers a synopsis of the imperial achievements of Alfonso VII along with a presentation of the Christian leaders accompanying the Emperor on this campaign. The poem is written in irregularly rhymed leonine hexameters. The theme is limited to the preparations for the conquest of Almería. Within that framework the poet endeavors to infuse his verses with epic significance based upon the fact that nearly all of Christian Spain marches under the command of the Emperor. Only the Portuguese were absent. Even French and Italian forces aid in this crusade. The poem is unfinished. One may surmise from this that the death of the author prevented its completion, or that the final section of the chronicle was lost or destroyed.

In each book the author sets down the events in strict chronological order. He often appears to write from memory, which is not always faithful, especially when dealing with earlier events. In the prologue he affirms that he is writing what "ab illis que viderunt didici et audivi." (3) From this one may deduce that the author is contemporaneous with the facts narrated, and that he was a personal witness of some. This is supported by the detail with which he describes them.

His history deserves almost complete credence for, with few exceptions, events can be corroborated through official documents. Nevertheless, it is in the author's interpretation of events that one must question him somewhat, owing to the manifest partisan sentiment in favor of Alfonso VII. In matters referring to relations with Aragón, the chronicler's antagonism [6] toward Alfonso I may cause the reader to question the author's historical objectivity.

The personality of the Emperor is not always the focal point of the narration. The author depicts secondary figures playing critical roles in the history of twelfth-century Spain. In Book II the person of Alfonso's great captain, Munio Alfonso, dominates much of the action. Other individuals are portrayed with unprecedented detail. This is one of the characteristics of the chronicle which authenticates the advances in medieval historiography.

The Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris is conserved in seven manuscripts which are all varied in form. The original from Toledo has been lost. The seven remaining copies date from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Six of them are in the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid. and one is in the library of the Cathedral at Toledo.

Notes for Introduction

1. Ramón Menédez Pidal, El imperio hispánico y los cinco reinos (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Políticos. 1950). p.7.

2. "Hence the boundaries of the Kingdom of Alfonso, ruler of León, extended from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, near where the city of our Holy Patron Santiago is located, all the way to the Rhone River." Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris, ed. Luis Sánchez Belda (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1950), paragraph 69. All references to the text of the chronicle will be indicated by prargraph number in order to facilitate the correspondence between the Latin text and the English translation.

3. "...what I have learned or heard from those who were witnesses." Chron. Ad. Imp., Preface.