“I wish from this day forth to be her troubadour”: the composition of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 2/6)

King Alfonso instructs his musicians and dancers to praise the Virgin and Child, an illustration for Cantiga de Santa Maria 120.

This is the second of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and his assistants between 1257 and 1283. In the first article, we traced the development of troubadour love song from the late 11th century to the end of the 13th century. The Roman Catholic Church’s response to the influence of what they perceived as troubadour immorality was to promote the Virgin Mary as the central figure of Christian chaste devotion. This was the faith that Alfonso X of Castile inherited.

Alfonso’s love of music meant that he was keen to have troubadours in his court, while also criticising them and describing himself as one. This second article explains why. First, an outline of Alfonso’s literary life before the Cantigas, illustrating that he was already steeped in troubadour literary forms prior to declaring himself Mary’s troubadour; then an exploration of Alfonso’s absorbing and adapting of their love themes for his religious and political ends in his songs of the Virgin.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 363, the song-story of a troubadour in trouble and in prison, who only escapes by dedicating himself to the Virgin.

Click picture to play – opens in new window.
Cantiga de Santa Maria 363, the story of a troubadour in chains rescued by the Virgin,
versified and sung in English with medieval harp by Ian Pittaway.

The influence of the troubadours on Alfonso

King Alfonso X was no stranger to the troubadours. He may have known the German Minnesäng tradition through his mother, Beatrix of Swabia. He certainly knew the Iberian troubadour tradition of cantiga de amigo, song of a friend. These cantigas, 500 of which survive, dated from the 1220s to 1300, were written from a woman’s viewpoint, pining for an absent or indifferent lover, but all written by men. Some were written down by Alfonso himself: we don’t know if he was the composer or the scribe of songs he had collected. A typical example of one in a manuscript of Alfonso is:

A 13th century manuscript (Pierpont Morgan
Library, New York, Vindel MS M979)
featuring the cantigas de amigo of Martin
(or Martim) Codax, a joglar (jongleur),
an all-round entertainer whose repertoire of
skills included musicianship and singing.
(As with all pictures, click to enlarge
in a new window, click in the new
window to further enlarge.)

Oh! wretched me, how I live
In great sorrow for my lover
who has gone away!
Long does my lover delay me in the waiting.

Oh! wretched me, how I live
In great desire for my lover
who delays and whom I don’t see!
Long does my lover delay me in the waiting!

There were many more cantigas from Alfonso’s youthful pen, his own compositions in the troubadour style. Most of them are cantigas de escarnio, songs of mockery, verbal assaults on whole categories of people. In verse, the young Alfonso attacked loose women, immoral clergy, cowardly knights, unskilled poets and, in this song, peacock men who care too much about what they wear (taken from Vatican codex, number 75):

Now I would gladly like to know
about those who wear skirts with sashes,
into which they squeeze themselves very often,
whether they do it to show their loins
so that their ladies whom they have not pleased
may be pleased with them …

Likewise, I also see them wear
very short and puffed sleeves,
just as if they were manuring fields
or as if they wished to knead tarts,
or perhaps they do it to fodder
their horses …

The king also composed songs in the troubadour tradition of cantigas de maldizir, songs of malediction, like the songs of mockery except that now the attack is directly upon a named person or named institution. They are direct and brutal. For example, Alfonso’s attack on the Dean of Calez, who had a reputation for enjoying a sensuous life, includes these verses (Vatican codex, 76):

I found books that were being
carried to the Dean of Calez to read,
and I asked the one who was taking them
about them, and he replied to me: Sir
with these books that you see as gifts,
and with the others which he has of his own,
he is able to f**k as much as he desires …

For there is nothing more in the art of f***ing
than is found in the books that he owns,
and he has such great joy in reading them
that never, by night or day, does he do anything else,
and he knows so well about the art of f***ing
that with his books that he has about this art
he f***s Moorish women whenever he pleases.

Alfonso composes for Holy Mary

When he succeeded the throne, Alfonso became a patron of the arts in several languages, had Occitan troubadours at court, and he initiated the study of music at Salamanca University. In Alfonso’s seat in Castile, court poetry was in Galician, and it is in this language that, between 1257 and 1283, he wrote his 420 Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary.

Roman Catholic Church music was sung in Latin – neither ecclesiastical musical forms nor ecclesiastical language was vernacular – but Alfonso wrote Marian devotional songs in a secular form and in everyday language. The idea of writing devotional songs in a secular form was not novel, but the evidence is patchy. Two examples will suffice. English hermit, Godric or Goderic of Finchale (known as a saint but not formally canonised), was probably born in the immediate aftermath of the Norman invasion and lived until 1170. His three short songs in praise of Christ, Mary and Saint Nicholas were notated by his biographer, the monk Reginald of Durham. They are the earliest surviving songs with music in the English language and, being macaronic, mixing Latin and Middle English, they are written in a form one would not expect of formal church music, exclusively in Latin. Having no surviving antecedents, stating more would be pure speculation. Alfonso may have modelled himself on the example of Benedictine monk, Gautier de Coincy, who in the early 13th century wrote Miracles de la Sainte Vierge or Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame (Miracles of the Blessed Virgin or The Miracles of Notre Dame), a collection of poems to the Virgin in vernacular Middle French, set to the popular melodies of the day and modelled on the love poetry of the troubadours. Gautier oversaw the process of collecting, ordering and making books of his compositions, as did Alfonso.

An illustration from the Prologue of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, showing the process of composition.

There is still academic debate over whether Alfonso was really the author of the words of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. John Esten Keller (1967) is one of the few modern writers who argues without doubt that he was. The testimony of the manuscripts is unequivocal. Alfonso is described explicitly as the author in Prologue A: “Don Alfonso of Castile … composed this book … for the honour and praise of the Holy Virgin Mary … from her miracles he composed songs and melodies which are delightful to sing, each with its own narration, as you can find herein”, and various illustrations for the songs show Alfonso in the act of composition or instructing his people to praise the Virgin. Most of the Cantigas are written in the first person from Alfonso’s viewpoint. Others are written about Alfonso in the third person, which may indicate an additional author or authors for some compositions. But it may not: Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, wrote an idealised autobiography with the assistance of his secretary between 1505 and 1516, Der Weisskunig (The White King), written entirely in the third person. If we are to suppose that Alfonso’s chief role was as lyricist, rather than performer, then the use of the third person as an artistic device need not throw doubt on the king having written the songs. Another detail argues in favour of his general authorship (though there may be exceptions): Prologue B is written in the first person and states, “composing songs is an art that requires great understanding, therefore he who undertakes it must have this quality, and good judgement … for thus are good songs made. Although I do not possess these qualities to the degree that I might wish, I shall nonetheless try to show the little that I know of the art, trusting in God”. The Cantigas that follow affirm the author’s statement that he does “not possess these qualities”. The metre of medieval verse is exacting and, in order to meet the syllable count of each line exactly, the meaning and syntax of Cantiga verses is sometimes mangled and confused, with sentence clauses interrupting each other in order to conform to the metre, thus making a mess of meaning. I don’t think it’s credible that Alfonso would have paid poets to write like this: it has the hallmarks of an amateur, which is precisely what Alfonso says he is in Prologue B. In these articles, therefore, I will take royal authorship of the verses at face value. We don’t know if Guiraut Riquier or any other troubadours at his court had a hand in helping Alfonso compose, but it is clear that the collection is a collaborative effort since, in CSM 65, Alfonso describes an exception: “Concerning this, I shall tell you a great miracle which Holy Mary performed. She commands that I tell it myself, without asking anyone else for assistance.”

The illustration for the Prologue (above) shows Alfonso as the author and appears to indicate the process of composition. The king sits in the centre with a source book for his story. In the songs, he often mentions either the oral tradition or a book as his source. He had many collections to choose from, as there were plentiful books of Marian miracles circulating, among them Miracles de Notre-Dame de Roc-Amadour (Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour), written by an unknown Benedictine monk in the 12th century; Gautier de Coincy’s early 13th century songs mentioned above; and Gonzalo de Berceo, Milagras de Nuestra Señora (Miracles of Our Lady), written in the local Riojan language in c. 1260. Though he never mentions a source by name, Alfonso regularly mentions a source:

CSM 33: “I wish to relate to you a miracle which I found in a book and chose from among 300 accounts of miracles”
CSM 73: “as I found written”
CSM 173: “as I heard tell by many good and credible men”
CSM 176: “according to what I learned”
CSM 191: “according to what was told to me”
CSM 251: “In the land of Provence, I found the written account of a miracle”
CSM 265: “found it written in an ancient book”
CSM 266: “I wish to tell you of a written account”
CSM 275: “according to what I learned from many who happened to be there”
CSM 284: “as I found it written in a book and from among others had it copied and made a song from it”

Alfonso is illustrated dictating his versification to a team of scribes, who perhaps usually helped him with his words by making helpful suggestions (as CSM 65 suggests), with musicians on our left playing vielles and on the right playing citoles, the remaining group being possibly singers or the artists who so beautifully decorated the manuscripts.

This stylised illustration cannot tell us whether Alfonso himself chose the melodies, or had his minstrels choose them, or a combination of the two. What we do know is that, like the Occitan troubadours, Alfonso felt free to use existing melodies as the basis for new words, and that this contrafactum (singular) or contrafacta (plural), the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music, seems to be the case for the majority of the Cantigas, since in CSM 347 Alfonso appears to state an exception: “I shall tell a miracle which happened in Tudía and shall put it with the others which fill a great book. I made a new song about it with music of my own and no one else’s.”

In Prologue B, Alfonso states his purpose: “I wish from this day forth to be her [the Virgin Mary’s] troubadour”. There are two important points here: Alfonso’s use of the troubadour style of composition; and his purpose in turning the miracle stories about Mary into song.

Three quarters of the Cantigas, 306 out of 420, are in the virelai form or a variant thereof, a rhyme scheme typical of Occitan troubadour poetry where only two rhymes are used, such as refrain AA, verse bbba (most typically), or refrain AB, verse aaab, or sometimes more complex, such as refrain ABAB, verse aaabab. A key innovation of troubadour song was the placing of the songwriter and singer at the lyrical centre of the narrative, a style which, as we have seen, Alfonso had absorbed in his youth, and which we see strikingly in the Cantigas. The subject matter of most of the songs is, as CSM 293 states, “a great miracle which I set into rhyme and music”. A significant minority of the songs are Alfonso’s autobiographical Marian miracle stories, but the majority of material is from received sources, giving the king a stylistic disjuncture: how was he to employ the troubadour first person narrative while using third person narrative sources? His solution was, within the first verse or two, to introduce each story with first person information. He often indicates his general source, as we have seen, and always summarises the point of the story, for example, CSM 116, “I wish to tell you a great, true miracle which she performed for a merchant who went with a companion of his to trade at the fair of Salamanca”. In addition, there is often a message of personal conviction, for example, CSM 52, “Listen to me, if you would hear an agreeable tale”.

Alfonso’s bid to be elected Emperor

Alfonso’s political-religious claims are integral to and reflected in the content of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. In 1256, Alfonso asserted himself as “king and lord of the Romans”, a title referring to leader of what would later be called the Holy Roman Empire, the ruler of the kingdom of Germany primarily, and also the kingdoms of Italy, Bohemia and Burgundy, and other territories. Alfonso made this claim due to his mother, Beatrix of Swabia, being the granddaughter of Emperor Frederick I and paternal cousin of Emperor Frederick II. Succession to the office was not, however, automatic and straightforwardly hereditary, and Alfonso spent much of the next 20 years in a vain attempt to gain the crown.

This Roman Catholic office bestowed upon the bearer the authority of Jesus Christ’s deputy on Earth. The emperor had considerable political power, often rivalling the authority of the pope, sometimes contradicting the decisions of the papacy. In 1257, one year after his claim, Alfonso began composing his Cantigas de Santa Maria, declaring in Prologue A that the “rightful king and lord of the Romans composed this book”. However, he never took office, being opposed by Richard of Cornwall, who prevailed. When Richard of Cornwall died in 1275, Alfonso was nearly three quarters of the way through the 26 years he spent composing the Songs of Holy Mary. During that year, not only did Alfonso travel to France to appeal to Pope Gregory X, who comprehensively nullified his claim, but Alfonso’s eldest son, Ferdinand, died in battle against the invading Moroccan and Granadan armies, leading to a feud about succession, with his other son and the nobility collectively against him. It seems highly significant, then, that with Alfonso’s claim to be emperor quashed and his kingship in crisis, the Cantigas numbered 300 onwards are more blatantly concerned with Alfonso’s autobiography and the legitimacy of his military power, sometimes with notes of deep bitterness. CSM 300, for example:

Therefore, I beg her [Mary] to take no heed of what evil people say, for I am on her side and I constantly praise her and I sing for her, ever pondering and seeking ways to honour her.

May she give them the rewards that they deserve, because they so little appreciate my songs and melodies and verses and poetic dialogues that I compose for her, for they reveal base hearts to me in this.

Furthermore, may she have mercy on how I wasted my days seeking ways and means to give wealth and inheritance where I could never find truth and loyalty, strive as I might, but instead, malice and falsehood with which they try to kill me.

Above and right: illustrations accompanying CSM 300.

Among the reasons Alfonso did not fulfil his claim to be emperor, two are likely. Firstly, in 1256 he paid bribes for others to vote him into office. Secondly, his life as king may well have reflected troubadour ideas of sexual yearning rather too much for other powerful Catholics.

On the surface, all seems highly devotional and uncontroversial. In Prologue B of the Cantigas, Alfonso states (my italics): “I wish from this day forth to be her troubadour, and I pray that she will have me for her troubadour and accept my songs, for through them I seek to reveal the miracles she performed. Hence from now on I choose to sing for no other woman, and I think thereby to recover all that I have wasted on the others.”

“from now on I choose to sing for no other woman … to recover all that I have wasted on the others” – and yet Alfonso had a wife, Queen Violante, who is only mentioned once, in CSM 345, and even there his feelings toward her are not revealed. She is not even named, but is simply “the queen”. In CSM 10, Alfonso writes of the Virgin, and by silent implication about his barely visible wife: “This Dame I have as my Lady and her troubadour I would be. If I can somehow win her love, I consign to the devil all other loves.”

Jesus/God, Mary, Alfonso and
courtiers as shown in the
illustrations for CSM 130.

CSM 130 goes further, comparing other women to the Virgin, describing other women using the typical troubadour imagery of the unrequited love object, but expressed in the most negative terms, while also describing Mary using the typical troubadour imagery of the idealised woman, expressed in the most positive terms:

Other ladies cause a man to be foolish and are wont to pride themselves on that. However, this Lady gives us wisdom and befriends us and saves us from going astray.

The others bestow their favours by doing harm, but she, in bestowing it, becomes the more worthy. He who has won her favour will never lose it unless he is a hopeless sinner.

The others often lie, but she never betrays us. Therefore, he who departs from her is punished by God, whoever he may be.

The others make us wait and pine for their favours, but this Lady will not withhold her rewards but gives us the greatest blessing of all.

Therefore, her suitor I will be as long as I may live and will praise her and tell of the many blessings she bestows and miracles she performs, in which I rejoice.

Reflecting troubadour tropes, Alfonso pins all his hopes on the ideal woman, forsaking all others. This position of being suitor of the Virgin, which he must have seen as politically and religiously advantageous, showed a deep hypocrisy in Alfonso’s life which was probably a factor that cost him his claim to emperorship. Alfonso had a love affair with Mayor Guillén de Guzmán before his marriage to Queen Violante, the result of which was the birth of their daughter, Beatriz. He had at least three other ‘illegitimate’ children. Alfonso’s law codes, Espéculo and Siete Partidas, emphasise that the king’s mistress and the children she bore him should be protected and honoured. At the same time, the law condemns the possibility of adultery by the queen: it would be a betrayal of the king and of God, since God intended one woman for one man, that they become one flesh. The queen’s adultery, therefore, would be treason, and punishable as such. Since the queen’s household is an extension of her, the ladies of her household must also be chaste so as not to dishonour her. To add to this hypocrisy, there were no legal penalties imposed by Alfonso upon himself for any adultery and unfaithfulness, and this reflects the position of Siete Partidas with regard to sex crimes generally: any husband can sue his wife for adultery but she cannot bring a suit against him. Indeed, almost anyone can bring a lawsuit against a man for adultery except his wife.

It is likely that the office of emperor was closed to Alfonso for these reasons: his womanising youth and his ‘illegitimate’ children must have appeared to the church to be the very enactment of the troubadour sensuality and immorality they opposed. It was of no avail that, by the time he was definitively refused office, Alfonso had composed around 300 Songs of Holy Mary as the Virgin’s troubadour. The songs, very likely composed to further his claim to be “king and lord of the Romans”, could not extinguish his past sexual hypocrisy nor eradicate the fact that he had tried to bribe his way into office.

In this light, CSM 336 seems highly significant. It is the story of a knight who was “tall and well-favoured and handsome, gentle and generous, without arrogance, humble and courteous in all his actions. However, he was as lustful as he could possibly be”. When he thought of the Virgin, “that passion of his grew calm”, but he still struggled with his lust, would forget the Virgin, be prone to the devil’s influence and be “like a man who loses control and is not in his right mind”. He prays to the Virgin to remain lustless, and she has Christ change the man’s nature so that “the knight who formerly burned with lust became colder than snow”, and thereafter he “lived his life according to God’s will”. There may well be something of Alfonso in the formerly lustful knight.

CSM 260 (the song used to illustrate the first article in this series – link here), and many others like it, may reveal an additional theological reason why Alfonso failed to gain the office of emperor. Alfonso’s Mary, taken from popular stories of the time, takes on roles usually assigned only to Christ the Son and God the Father. She is “more than good and through whom God grants pardon”, against Catholic theology which states that only Jesus can grant God’s pardon. In the same song and others, Mary has the power of resurrection, she “causes the one who dies to live”. In CSM 409 Mary takes on Jesus’ and God’s usual roles of granting worldly authority: “joyfully render her great praise, for because of her they are lords of all the people”. She is able to save sinners from the torments of hell, as she does the judge in CSM 119. A collection of Iberian miracle stories exactly contemporaneous with the Cantigas also gives the Holy Mother the power to resurrect and to save sinners from God’s judgement, and for this reason Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora, Miracles of Our Lady, c. 1260, was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heresy. If the Church authorities were aware of the contents of Alonso’s Cantigas, they would surely have done the same.

The Virgin saves a judge from the torments of hell in CSM 119.

Alfonso’s critique of fin’amor and troubadours  

The rejection of Alfonso from holy office was 19 years in the future when he began his huge and ambitious work of devotion. He would spend around 26 years writing 420 Cantigas (if we discount the small number of duplicates), comprising his versification of collected miracles; miracle songs about his own life; a few purely doctrinal pieces at the end of the collection for feast days, apparently intended for liturgical use; and cantigas de loor – songs of praise.

Every one of the Songs of Holy Mary is really a song of praise to the Virgin, but what makes the cantigas de loor different is their focus upon the personal qualities of the Mother of God, without the context of a story. The first Cantiga is one such, and then every tenth song: 10, 20, 30, etc. As we have seen with CSM 130 above, the relationship between troubadour poetry praising the physical and moral qualities of the human woman and the cantigas de loor praising Holy Mary are obvious and striking. The revised and adapted themes of fin’amor – refined or perfect love – are ever-present in the cantigas de loor.

One cantiga de loor, CSM 260, which begins the first article in this series, is another exploration by Alfonso of the difference between the courtly woman praised in fin’amor verse and the holy woman he thinks troubadours should be praising instead.

Two bagpipers accompany the
text of Cantiga de Santa Maria 260.

O tell me, o you troubadours
Why you the lady of ladies ignore
Why do you not praise her?

If the troubadours really know the art of song, Alfonso writes, they should be praising the only Lady through whom God dwells on Earth; the one who is not only full of grace, as courtly women are, but holy grace, and who gives life. Mary never deceives, he writes, the clear reference being to courtly women who do. Mary knows our ills and feels our pain, the unwritten reference being to aloof women in troubadour song who leave their would-be lovers in isolated distress. Mary is more good than any woman and the only woman through whom God forgives, something which, the 13th century listener would understand, is beyond any courtly woman: unlike women in fin’amor, Mary gives solace not only in life but in death, comes to our aid and raises the dead to life, the very opposite qualities of the detached troubadour love object.

The characters in the Cantigas are never developed, they never have a back-story and nuance as in a good modern drama. The protagonists are types, caricatures representing moral standpoints, much like the characters in medieval morality plays, there to teach the listeners, watchers and readers an edifying lesson or give them a stark warning about their souls. Therefore, when a troubadour appears in two of the Cantigas, it is significant for understanding Alfonso’s view of them, and the didactic purpose the author has for them.

Each Cantiga starts with an unsung description. CSM 316 has, “How Holy Mary took vengeance on the priest who ordered the hermitage burned and made him rebuild it.” There follows the repeated refrain, which always functions to drive home Alfonso’s intended lesson: “In God’s name, it is only natural that the one who dares to cause Holy Mary grief should suffer for it.” The story is set in Portugal and the character is described as “a troubadour priest who composed more songs of mockery [escarnno] than of love [amor].” In his younger days, Alfonso himself enjoyed writing troubadour-style songs of mockery, attacking loose women, immoral clergy, cowardly knights, unskilled poets and flamboyantly-dressed men. Either Alfonso considered that he had renounced his past sinful life or, as we have seen (and will see again in following articles), he lacked self-knowledge of his own cognitive dissonance. In the case of this troubadour, Martim Alvítez by name, the suggestion is that composing such songs is a moral failing, connected to his sinfulness described in the Cantiga.

The song continues that across the river an altar was built in honour of Mary. Pilgrims came great distances to visit the new altar, the Virgin performed healing miracles there and, since the troubadour priest was consequently receiving fewer visitors at his church, he lost money. He burned down the altar, the Virgin was distressed, and Jesus took revenge by blinding Alvítez in front of a crowd. He immediately confessed, said he deserved it, and rebuilt the church with lime and stone. At the first mass in the rebuilt church, his sight was restored and he wept. What Alfonso has the troubadour priest say in the final two verses is key: “He said, “My Lady, I was foolish to compose poetry for another lady, for my plaints had no solace there. However, I come to swear to you that as long as I may live, I will never from this day forth write poetry nor compose songs for another woman, for I have no need of that, but for you I will gladly say all I can in your praise and from now on I will sing for you.””

This troubadour priest serves as a lesson for all troubadours who compose cantigas de escarnio, or fin’amor, or any genre except for Cantigas de Santa Maria. Not only should they be composing for Holy Mary, but not doing so is a sign of their sinful life, prone to wicked deeds against Mary and subject to divine punishment. Their only right course of action is to become a troubadour exclusively for the mother of God, like Alfonso. The troubadour, then, is Alfonso’s foil, warning his audience against turning away from the Virgin, or whipping up their passions against the pantomime villain for them to cheer when he is punished and defeated, then cheer again when he inevitably submits to Mary’s heavenly power.

The characters in the Cantigas are never developed: the protagonists are types,
caricatures representing moral standpoints, much like the characters in
medieval morality plays or modern pantomime.

CSM 363 also concerns a sinful troubadour (and is the song performed in the video which begins this article). The unsung description is, “How Holy Mary freed a knight from captivity because he wrote a song for her. The knight was a prisoner of Count Simon.” The unnamed knight is a troubadour in Gascony. The location is significant in this representative story. The earliest troubadours were from Gascony in south-west France and Poitou in west-central France: it was not until past the middle of the 12th century that troubadour activity was centred in Provence, now in south-east France, before spreading to Italy and Iberia. Since the identity of the troubadour isn’t known then neither is the identity of Count Simon. He may be Simon IV de Montfort the Elder (c. 1175–1218), a French nobleman, soldier and Crusader, lord of Montfort-l’Amaury in France and 5th Earl of Leicester in England, or his son, French-English nobleman Simon V de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (c. 1208–1265), or both he and the troubadour knight may be entirely fictitious.

The repeated sung refrain, summarising the intended lesson, is: “In a fortunate hour we saw this Lady whom we praise, who so quickly comes to our aid when we call on her.” The refrain only makes sense at the climax of the story, in the final verse. The nameless troubadour of Gascony is a specialist in cantigas de maldizir, songs of malediction, aimed at insulting a particular and identifiable person. Again, this is a genre the young Alfonso used, such as his attack on the allegedly lascivious Dean of Calez but, as in CSM 316, this genre is taken as an implicit critique of troubadours in general, expressed in overblown and hyperbolic terms: “There was a troubadour in Gascony, and he wrote songs about Count Simôn and many others, so that the people complained about him, for more people than exist in the world during our lifetime said he insulted them.”

Count Simon was so enraged by the insults that he had one of his servants seize the troubadour on a secluded road. He was put in chains, prisoner of the Count, who planned to kill him the next day. However, when the troubadour saw his imminent death he prayed to Mary, Queen of Heaven, telling her that, if she saved him, he would sing her love songs for the rest of his life. This prayer spoken, he found himself miraculously on top of a hill, near the Hermitage of the Holy Virgin Mary, the implication being that the troubadour would reside there from then on, since this is the stated outcome in other songs of this type.

The message is the same as for CSM 316: this troubadour knight from Gascony, the place of their origin, serves as a lesson for all troubadours who compose any genre except for Cantigas de Santa Maria. Not only should they be composing for Holy Mary, but not doing so is a sign of their sinful life, prone to make people angry and subject to human punishment. Their only right course of action is, like Alfonso, to compose love songs to Mary, who will protect those who praise her. Again, the troubadour is Alfonso’s foil, warning his audience against a life not lived in praise of the Virgin, whipping up their passions against the villain for them to cheer when he is caught and punished – “may those we despise suffer such a fate”, says the song – then cheer again when the Virgin intervenes at his change of heart to “save him from a death such as we all dread”.

Conclusion: Alfonso’s use of the troubadour tradition

In these first two articles, we have seen that in his youth Alfonso composed verses in the very troubadour genres he criticised as irreligious in the Cantigas de Santa Maria: the general verbal assaults of cantigas de escarnio, songs of mockery, the more direct personal attacks of cantigas de maldizir, songs of malediction, and possibly the love expressed in cantigas de amigo, songs of a friend. The circumstantial evidence points to a political motive for composing the Cantigas de Santa Maria, since this work began only a year after he claimed the office of Roman Emperor. His former life of womanising, siring children out of wedlock and writing lascivious poetry was probably a critical factor in him being denied the position, whether or not he had left that life behind, as he proclaimed in his Cantigas to the Virgin. The nature of his songs’ Mariology, veering into the heretical, cannot have helped his cause.

King Alfonso wrote the first recorded religious songs in the Galician language, 420 as the troubadour of the Virgin. Together with his team of scribes and musicians, this huge collection of praise songs and miracle stories is a treasure trove for early music or medieval music specialists, but performing them comes with a host of problems to be resolved, not least of which are the moral problems. As we will see in the third article of this series, Alfonso’s Virgin Mary is a political figure, completely aligned with Alfonso’s rule, royal aspirations and territorial ambitions, a woman who, like Alfonso, demands absolute allegiance, and gives her rewards and punishments accordingly.


Translation credits

The translation of Ay! eu coitada (Oh! wretched me), possibly by Alfonso X, and Vatican codex number 75 by Alfonso X, are by John Esten Keller – see bibliography.

The translations of the Cantigas de Santa Maria are by Kathleen Kulp-Hill – see bibliography. Since the syntax of different languages usually makes it impossible to create a meaningful and exact line by line translation, Kathleen Kulp-Hill’s verses do not usually retain individual lines. This is replicated in the above article.

My role in creating English verses in the videos that accompany these articles was to recreate, as far as possible, the original syllable count and rhyme scheme. The versification in English of CSM 363 and CSM 260 and the musical arrangements are © Ian Pittaway.


Brundage, James A. (2009) Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burns, Robert I. (ed.) & Scott, Samuel Parsons (transl.) (2012) Las Siete Partidas, Volume 5. Underworlds: The Dead, the Criminal, and the Marginalized. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Casson, Andrew (2015) Cantigas de Santa Maria for singers. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Clerk of Oxford (2012) The Songs of Godric of Finchale. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Keller, John Esten (1967) Alfonso X, El Sabio. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Kennedy, Kirstin (2016) The ‘learned’ Alfonso X. In History Today, Volume 66, Issue 6, June 2016.

Leach, Elizabeth Eva (2013) Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles de Nostre Dame. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Martínez, H. Salvador (2010) Alfonso X, the Learned: A Biography. Translated by Odile Cisneros. Leiden: BRILL.

O’Callaghan, Joseph F. (1998) Alfonso X and the Cantigas De Santa Maria: A Poetic Biography. Leiden: BRILL.

Snow, Joseph T. (1979) The central rôle of the troubadour persona of Alfonso X in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Volume 56 , Issue 4, 1979.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on ““I wish from this day forth to be her troubadour”: the composition of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 2/6)

  • 30th July 2021 at 8:52 pm

    Dear Ian,

    I am delving into the Cantigas de Santa Maria. My take is a little different from yours. Most of the popes and kings were utterly corrupt, it was taken in stride. One pope was even a woman in disguise, as I recall… I think what got King Alfonso in trouble was the heresy of the Goddess worship. The attributes, powers, names, of Santa Maria are the same as some of those attributed to the great Goddess. For example, Inanna: Queen of Heaven; Star of Morning; Star of Evening…

    He also provided sanctuary and work for some of the Albigensians or Cathars. Then there is the bardic tradition. I have a handful of articles on this topic originally published in Harptime, Colorado Centic Harp Society journal, and uploaded to Academia. Gaelic bards were of force of nature… They had to be destroyed in order for the English to break the Gaelic societies… So I think there is more to this story to be explored. The fact that King Alfonso followed something of the bardic tradition, and worshipped the great Goddess, would have been political suicide on the continent. It also may have made him beloved of the people, but perhaps not the nobles. (link to academia, sample article: https://independent.academia.edu/ValerieWedel?from_navbar=true )

    Thank you for your articles here – I am enjoying them very much! I am also playing and singing on harp, and feeling into the sacred nature of the Goddess as she is seen as Santa Maria… I believe they are one 🙂 To be continued…

    My best, Valerie

    • 31st July 2021 at 12:05 am

      Hello, Valerie, and thanks for your post.

      Certainly most popes and kings were and are corrupt – and arguably most prime ministers and presidents, too, and indeed most human beings, given half a chance. I’m not convinced there was anything peculiarly corrupt about medieval popes and kings, other than that the more power one has the greater the chance to engage in corruption. The pope who was the woman in disguise you refer to was Pope Joan – a legend, rather than history.

      It’s not credible that King Alfonso would engage in goddess worship in any sense other than the obvious one – the Catholic sense of Mary the Mother of God. There is plenty of evidence for this, and no evidence of goddess worship in any other sense, and certainly not in the modern new age type goddess sense (if that’s your meaning), literature about which rewrites history in ways not justified by the evidence (a trend started in modern times by Lady Julia Raglan in 1939). That Mary might share titles known in other contexts and religions shouldn’t be at all surprising given the syncretistic and borrowing nature of all religious forms, including mainstream medieval Catholicism.

      To have evidence for a bardic tradition in Alfonso’s context we’d first have to define what we mean by that, since bard nowadays is a loosely-defined word. Bard, broadly, is usually taken to mean an employed story-teller, which may be musical. That’s ubiquitous, of course, so if we’re going to refer to ‘the bardic tradition’ we’d need to define that closely to draw any conclusions from it. Comparing one time and place with another quite different time and place – such as Alfonso’s 13th century Iberia and 17th century Ireland – needs really substantial corroborating evidence if we are going to make meaningful links. I don’t see the evidence for such links, but I’m happy to be shown otherwise.

      All the best.



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