“Infidels”, “traitors” and “that ugly bearded crew”: fear and loathing in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 5/6)

A devil takes a Jew to hell in an illustration
from Cantiga de Santa Maria 34.

King Alfonso X, chief author of the 13th century songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary), is presented in modern literature as a wise, tolerant king who took steps to create a multicultural court of Christians, Jews and Moors, and a liberal kingdom of learning. Do these claims stand up to scrutiny? This article examines the evidence within the Cantigas and the king’s law codes, seen within the wider context of contemporaneous European culture.

This is the fifth of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, composed between 1257 and 1283. Most medieval music enthusiasts will be familiar with the manuscripts’ many depictions of medieval musicians and their instruments, and with some of its 420 songs. These articles focus on the influences behind the compositions and the contents of the songs.

We begin with an instrumental version of CSM 344: The miraculous night of peace, played on medieval harp. This Cantiga which tells the story of the Virgin preventing violence between two groups of soldiers, one Christian and the other Moorish.

Click picture to play video.
An instrumental version of CSM 344. The words, which are not sung here, tell the story of the
Virgin Mary miraculously preventing a group of Christian soldiers and Moorish soldiers,
camped next to a church and next to each other, from seeing or hearing each other through
the night, in order to prevent conflict. This is one of the rare Cantigas in which Mary
promotes interfaith peace. This harp arrangement uses medieval accompaniment techniques
explored in the article, Performing medieval music. Part 2: turning monophony into polyphony.

Alfonso X: the wise? 

When considering a work of medieval literature such as the Cantigas de Santa Maria, it is worth remembering two things: the vast majority of people were illiterate and therefore had no way of accessing a book; and the long process of making each individual page, then writing it out by hand and producing bespoke, detailed illustration panels was a long and very expensive process. Book production and book reading were, therefore, elite activities: the Christian producers of books, the writers and the readers, were either religious devotees in monasteries and nunneries or the aristocracy.

It therefore follows that, in European Christendom, being an author did not exist as a profession in the modern sense: authors needed an independent income, such as being a monk, nun, chaplain, teacher, civil servant, or else the author acquired a powerful and wealthy patron such as King Alfonso X. In its historical context, Alfonso being a royal patron of book-learning was unexceptional, and holding the purse strings meant inevitably that the patron’s interests and views took precedence. In the 12th century, for example, the court of King Henry II of England produced historical and legal studies, reflecting Henry’s interests, and King William II of Sicily’s court produced works of natural science, reflecting William’s interests. Being a patron of learning was advantageous for a monarch, a way of propagating his personal concerns and being associated with specialist knowledge in the common European language of learning, Latin.

Three features make the works from Alfonso’s scriptorium unusual. Firstly, the works under his patronage were not written in Latin, but in Castilian. His concern was not for written works of his court to travel well: there is barely any evidence of Alfonso providing institutional support for learning. Alfonso’s concern was to bring historical and international works to the home readers of the Castilian court, translating standard reference works, largely from Arabic, and also from Greek, Hebrew and Latin, into the local vernacular, to promote his royal prestige among the Castilian elite. Secondly, the books of other courts tended to be the works of single named individuals. This happened under Alfonso, but the scientific, historical, legal and literary books produced under his patronage were more often communal productions, the result of several scholars working together. The third unusual feature is the extent to which Alfonso was personally involved, having a hand in producing and editing the works himself. In the case of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, he was largely or wholly the author himself, assisted by his court writers and musicians (as described in the second article of this series).

Alfonso’s views and interests are integral to every song and, as this article will show, the modern spin so often given Alfonso doesn’t fit the facts. His royal epithet was el sabio, the wise, and the key feature of many modern writers about this ‘wise king’ is that they take his title at face value, going to great lengths to ignore or gloss over the glaring facts that contradict his wisdom for the modern reader. In English, el sabio can also be translated as learned, which has a different connotation: but one can be learned, in the sense of well-read, without necessarily being wise or magnanimous in one’s decisions or actions.

Using the evidence of the Cantigas, Alfonso’s laws, his scriptorium, and his political activities, this article will show that he was not what modern authors so often portray him as: a tolerant, multicultural, liberal man, a royal role model for the modern day, transported back in time to the Iberia of the 13th century. It is not that Alfonso’s morality was any worse to a modern audience than any other medieval monarch, just that he was a man of his own milieu, and not an exception in this respect. As we will see, Alfonso’s Virgin Mary is his spiritual alter ego, demanding absolute allegiance and meting out summary justice, the Heavenly Queen of his political ambitions.

An Iberian scriptorium, as shown in Madrid, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 14th century.
(As with all pictures, click to open larger in new window.)

Conquest and reconquest: Moors in the Cantigas

Readers of a certain age may remember the great struggle that rose and fell during the 20th century between the forces of communism and capitalism, diametrically opposed ideologies, each with the governments of countries, their armies and their propaganda machines behind them, each perpetuating fear and hatred of the other. It was not simply a war of words: several governments were toppled and propped up by both sides, dictatorships set up to keep the other side out, the citizens of these countries caught in the crossfire, countries ravaged, countless lives devastated and lost.

There are no ideal parallels between historical events, and any comparison is flawed, but something broadly similar was happening in 13th century Iberia: a long-standing war between religious ideologies, with territories being conquered and reconquered. I will use the geographical term, Iberia, since the modern nation-state of Spain was yet to emerge, being at this point several independent kingdoms. Moorish rulers or, as we’d now say, Muslim rulers, reigned over most of the Iberian Peninsula or Hispania by the early 8th century. The response of Christian kings was to militarily recapture territory during the period from 711 to 1492, the reconquista.

This was the religious and political context in which Prince Alfonso X grew up. His grandfather was Alfonso IX, King of León, succeeded in 1230 by Ferdinand III, King of Castile, who thus united these two kingdoms. Ferdinand III, Alfonso X’s father, led a series of military campaigns to take Moorish Andalusia, capturing Córdoba in 1236. In 1238, when Alfonso was 17, he began to take an active part in his father’s military campaigns. At the age of 20, with his father ill, Alfonso planned and led the campaign which took the Moorish kingdom of Murcia. Ferdinand and Alfonso, father and son, together conquered Seville in 1248. In a bid for absolute rule, Ferdinand expelled all the Moors of Andalusian cities but, as a result, the economy collapsed and he had to rethink. Ferdinand himself established the new Moorish kingdom of Granada as a vassal state, the Moors of Granada paying Castile a significant annual tribute to keep the royal Christian purse amply supplied.

So when Alfonso was crowned King in 1252, the reconquista was integral to his thinking. He continued the reconquest of the Algarve (Algarbe) and lower Andalusia and, as outlined in the second article, he aspired unsuccessfully to greater power 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 X the military leader,
from codex Tumbo ‘A’ de Santiago,
written between 1129 and 1255.

This history is the backdrop to the appearance of Moors in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, and this background appears as a comment in the first piece in the collection, Prologue A: “the Algarve, which [Alfonso] won from the Moors and established our faith there”. Moors appear regularly, in 42 of the 420 Cantigas, 10% of the total collection, and in 15 of the illustrations accompanying the songs. Since Alfonso was the author and chief collaborator of the collection, it is his view which is expressed. Descriptions of Moors are overwhelmingly negative: “pilgrims, all good folk with no Moors or Jews among them” (CSM 5); “bearded Moor, false and incredulous” (CSM 192); “treacherous Moor” and “Moors, blacker than Satan” (CSM 185). This last description appears to conform to the use of the word ‘Moors’ used from the late 14th century, meaning north African Muslims. However, all Muslims in the Cantigas are called Moors, regardless of whether they are Slavs, Franks, Germans, Norsemen, Africans, and so on. CSM 406, for example, prays that Mary will “quickly confound the Moors, including those who are fair complexioned.” Alfonso’s ultimate political aim is made clear in his prayer in CSM 401, that God will “grant that in this world I may be able to destroy the infidel Moors”.

The reasons for the negative depictions are clear. Firstly, Moors and Christians were continuing their fight for geographical territory so, as with any conflict, it was in the leaders’ interest on both sides to depict their political enemies in a wholly negative light. This was not simply a matter of semantics: opposing armies were killing each other, land was being captured, civilians on both sides were being slaughtered, so the visual and verbal construction of a negative enemy identity underpinned the motivation to fight on. Secondly, Alfonso’s ideological starting point was that Moors would never give Christians their allegiance since their faith was founded on Muhammad, not the Virgin, the handmaid of the only true faith, as Christians saw it.

Portrayals of Moors

The four typical contexts for the appearance of Moors are (i) desecration, (ii) persecution, (iii) military combat and (iv) conversion. As we will see, the relationship between each written Cantiga and its illustrations is symbiotic: sometimes the artist who created the miniatures reveals visual details that are missing from the text, illuminating further the cultural understandings of the time; and the way in which people and events are drawn is always instructive for understanding another layer of meaning that words alone cannot provide.

(i) In the desecration stories, the Virgin plays a key role in miraculously defending her image or her church. In CSM 183, the “wicked Moorish folk” throw her stone statue “into the sea with great scorn”. As a result, Mary causes the Moors not to be able to catch any fish as long as her image is beneath the waves. Once the Moors have retrieved her statue, they catch more fish than ever before. In CSM 229, Moors enter a church to “destroy and burn it”. The Virgin’s power means that not only are they unable to remove anything or do the slightest damage, she causes them to go blind and lose all the strength of their limbs, such that they have to be carried out. The most dramatic example is CSM 215, in which “many bearded Moors” raid a village and take a statue of Mary to their camp. They decide to destroy it. One man strikes it with a sword but instead drops his sword and loses his arm. The others stone the statue at close range but can do no damage, so they put it in a fire for two days. When God protects it from harm, they throw it in a river with a stone round its neck, but Mary does not allow it to sink. Realising the statue has power, so the story goes, they take it to the Moorish King of Grenada, who commands Christians to take it to Alfonso and give an account of it. Alfonso has a conspiracy cover story to defend the legend against factual investigation: that the King of Grenada wanted to prevent the discovery of having sent the statue. Alfonso has this image of Mary put on display in his chapel wearing rich cloth, so viewers “might be moved by it and try with all their might to … avenge the statue.”

(ii) The Cantigas of persecution by Moors have them variously capturing a male Christian pilgrim and putting him in irons (CSM 176); capturing a male Christian pilgrim, putting him in irons, beating him mercilessly and putting him in a dungeon (CSM 227); “a Mooress who had thrown in her lot with the devil” gives a Christian woman and man the choice of marrying each other and converting to Islam or being tortured and beheaded (CSM 325); and a Christian man is captured, put in irons and held for ransom (CSM 359). Certainly, horrors were perpetuated on both Moorish and Christian sides, but the cumulative religious and political message Alfonso wishes to convey about the behaviour of Moors is clear, and driven by the same motivation that inspires all conflict narratives: their killings are atrocities; ours are God’s will.

The illustations for Cantiga de Santa Maria 28. (As with all pictures, click to open larger in new window.)
Above, left: A “pagan” (Moorish) king besieged Constantinople when it was ruled by Christians. The Patriarch Germanos prayed to the Virgin to save the people.
Above, right: Germanos asked the women of Constantinople to burn candles before a statue of Mary.

Above, left: The sultan ordered stones to be catapulted and archers to shoot. The city wall was breached.
Above, right:
The Virgin descended from heaven with a company of saints. She spread out her mantle to deflect the blows. God caused the Christian defenders to kill their opponents. The sultan believed his men were deserting and called on Muhammad for help. He looked up and saw the Virgin defending the city.

Above, left: The sultan ceased the attack and entered the city incognito. He told Germanos that he wished to become a Christian and be baptised secretly.
Above, right: The sultan is baptised. In these last two illustrations there are swastikas on the pedestal of Mary’s statue. As will be explained in the commentary for the CSM 25 illustrations, this has positive connotations unassociated with fascist use from the 19th century on.

(iii) CSM 28 and CSM 264 are examples of military stories, different accounts of the same event, the second siege of Constantinople. Neither song gives a date, but the role of Saint Germanos, patriarch of Constantinople, in CSM 28, combined with the subject of these songs, gives a setting of 717–718. In CSM 264, the besieged Christians put their faith in a portrait of Mary reputedly painted by Saint Luke in her lifetime, “in order to destroy the sect of the Jews and of the devil [Moors].” When a knight places this image on the shore, the Christians pray fervently. The knight makes the image touch the waves, whereon “the ships of the pagans sank into the sea”. (As we’ll see, this is not the only Cantiga in which Mary kills Moors or Jews.) CSM 28 tells a different version. The Moorish leader – Prince Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, who commanded the attack, not named in verse – is “savage and bloodthirsty”, a “thick-lipped sultan”, a “pagan”, “an insolent Moor” who planned to slaughter all the inhabitants of the city. The besieged Christian women burn candles before a statue of Mary, who descends from heaven accompanied by a host of saints, her cloak outstretched to deflect catapulted stones and archers’ arrows. When the sultan looks up and sees the Mother of God defending Christians, he stops the attack, walks into the city incognito, and asks Saint Germanos to baptise him so he can leave behind “the false coward Muhammad.”

As with any folk story, passed down through the oral tradition, moulded, remoulded and accreted according to the agenda of the tellers, the reality was rather different to the tales told in these Cantigas. The reason for the defeat of the Arab Moors was the desertion of Egyptian Christians, who made up the majority of the crews of their fleets, and the success of the Christian Byzantine army’s ambushes on land, leading to the failure of the siege and orders to retreat. Prince Maslama did not convert to Christianity, and any 13th century historian hearing this Cantiga would know this, so either the story Alfonso received had an explanation or Alfonso added one, with the Prince saying, “I wish to receive baptism, but let it not be known among my people.” It was a happy ideological coincidence for Byzantine Christians that after 13 months the siege ended on 15th August 718, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, so the end of the conflict could be ascribed to her power. The message of this and many other Cantigas in relation to Moors is clear: Islam is false, Christianity is true; Muhammad has no power to save, the Virgin Mary defends Christians and brings victory; Mary’s heavenly power is such that, through miracles, she persuades and converts wicked Moors to the good Christian truth.

(iv) Some stories are more sympathetic to an individual Moor, but only because she or he converts to Christianity. The most dramatic example is CSM 205. Christians besiege a castle of Moors. All but two of the inhabitants are killed, either consumed by fire inside the castle or by jumping to their deaths. In the propaganda of war, if Moors had burned down the castle, killing its inhabitants, it would only prove their infidel savagery but, since Christians had done it, it is described as “diligently wag[ing] war on the Moors in God’s service”, carried out by “a large company of excellent knights, brave and strong and, moreover, good warriors”. When they see the figure of the surviving Moor and her child, “she looked to them like the statue of the Holy Virgin Mary depicted with her son in her arms.” Because of this visual association, after killing everyone else – men, women and children – they feel pity for her. They pray to the Virgin, who makes the tower collapse gently, harming neither mother nor child. The last sentence declares, “The Mooress became a Christian, and her son was baptised.” The message is that the converted Christian lives of this mother and child are worth something, and all the other Moors’ lives are not. If this is in any way based on a true event, this woman had lost the rest of her family, killed by the same men who had saved her. If her understanding of her choice was to convert to Christianity or remain a Moor, the latter choice implying death for her and her child like the hundreds of deaths she had just witnessed, then her new-found faith was not freely chosen.

An illustration from CSM 46, showing the breasts of an image of Mary in the ownership
of a Moor becoming real, flowing with milk, and, behind him, the spiritual presence
of Virgin and Child enacting the miracle which leads to his conversion.
(As with all pictures, click to open larger in new window.)

Other Moorish conversion stories are less bloodthirsty. In CSM 46, a Moorish man returns from a crusade in the Holy Land with an image of Mary which he “kept respectfully in his house”. He looks at it, unable to understand how anyone could believe that God could be born of a woman. It would, he says, take a manifestation of God’s power to make him believe. Immediately, the breasts of Mary’s icon “turn into living flesh and begin to flow with milk in gushing streams.” He calls a priest, is baptised, and has many others become Christians, too. In CSM 167, the child of a Moorish woman dies. In desperation, she sees how Christians go to Holy Mary of Salas to have miracles performed and, despite the objections of other Moorish women, she goes on pilgrimage. Her son has been dead for three days by the time she arrives in Salas, but still Mary revives her child and she converts.

Is it ever possible to convince someone of the truth by insulting and terrifying them? According to CSM 192, this is a good thing for a Christian to do. A Christian man owns a Moorish slave, to whom he would give some of his wealth if only the Moor would convert, but he “persisted in denying the Glorious One and to reason erroneously and stubbornly and refuse to believe that his faith was deceptive and false and dubious and of no value whatever.” The Christian is described as clever, sensible and prudent, because for three days and nights he has the Moor lie down flat in a secluded cave. The clear implication is that the Moor would have been there for as long as it took to convert: no conversion, no escape. Provision of food and drink during this time is not mentioned in the verses nor shown in the illustrations. The devil enters the Moor’s body for two nights – in other words, he is terrified. On the third night, Mary appears “to show him the way so that he might not burn in hell’s stinking fire.” The Virgin chastises him with the words, “Pagan, if you wish to be saved, you must depart from the devil at once and also from the false, vain, mad, villainous dog Muhammad, who cannot help you”. This, so the Cantiga says, was enough to convince him of his error, and at daybreak his master releases him from the cave for his baptism. Being a slave and held captive until he agrees to the ‘right answer’, this conversion was no more genuine and freely given than would have been the conversion forced upon the two captive Christians by the Mooress in CSM 325, but the respective language and meanings given by Alfonso are opposites: force and coercion used by a Christian is good, but the same used by a Moor is bad.

The illustrations for CSM 192 (above and below) show a Christian man (and his wife, not mentioned in the text) with his Moorish slave, disputing about faith. The Moor is forced by his master to lie in a secluded cave, where the devil appears to torment him.

Mary appears “to show him the way so that he might not burn in hell’s stinking fire”, scaring the devil away and chastising the captive for being a Moor. The Moor confesses his error to his master …

… is baptised; and thereafter leads a good life, worshipping the Virgin. (As with all pictures, click to open larger in new window.)

There is occasional relief from such one-dimensional and ideologically-driven portrayals. Though the overall picture of the reconquista was the Christian recapture of land and rule from Moors, the political reality on the ground between Christians and Moors was sometimes more complicated, with regional financial settlements and mutually beneficial alliances. Thus CSM 181 is positive towards the Moors in the siege of Marrakech, 1262, telling the legend of King Hafs Umar al-Murtada being advised to carry a banner of the Virgin Mary out of the city with his army, accompanied by a Christian congregation carrying crosses. He does so, and the Moors on the opposing side, the song says, “were so alarmed by it that although it was a powerful army, all were soon defeated.” The historical reality was quite different and did not involve the Virgin; but what is more important for our purpose is that this Cantiga is in complete contradiction to most of those involving Moors. Whereas others describe them with such terms as “the sect … of the devil” (CSM 264), “pagans” (CSM 28, CSM 192, etc.), and their originator as “the false, vain, mad, villainous dog Muhammad” (CSM 192), here only the opposing besieging Moors are described by Alfonso negatively, as “that ugly bearded crew”, and the final verse is a surprise: no conversions, no vengeance of the Virgin on Moors, but “Holy Mary helped her friends although they were of another faith, to defeat their enemies”. Why were the Moors of Marrakech Holy Mary’s friends?: because at this point they were useful to Alfonso, who had struck a deal.

Left: The illustration panel for CSM 181 as laid out on the original page. The illustrations show the
Christian congregation in armour, which is not mentioned in the song. The pictures also differ from the
song, in that the lyric has the army of the King of Marrakech with “the banner of the Holy Virgin Mary”.
Right: The fourth panel has the Christians holding this banner and the Moors’ banner is blank,
as if the illustrator could not bring himself to show Moors carrying the image of the Virgin.
(As with all pictures, click to enlarge in new window.)

In some (but not all) of the later Cantigas there is a marked change in attitude towards Moors. In CSM 344, Mary miraculously prevents a group of Christian soldiers and Moorish soldiers, camped next to a church and next to each other, from seeing or hearing each other, in order to prevent conflict. (The music for this Cantiga is performed in the video which begins this article and is available by clicking here.) In CSM 329, Moors enter a church to pray, leaving their offerings on the altar. When one of their number steals it all he is, unusually, not characterised as a typical wicked Moor, but as the odd one out, as all the others are keen to find the thief, search him, and return the offering. In CSM 358, the master builder of a church under construction is “Ali … a Moor”. After all the invective that has gone before it, this positive approach to Moors needs an explanation, and CSM 379 provides the key.

CSM 379 is about “the great Port which belongs to Holy Mary which the king [Alfonso] ordered to be settled and on which he expended great effort to found there a goodly town.” The city was named Alcante or Alcanatif – Port of Salt – by the conquering Moors in 711, and Santa María del Puerto – Holy Mary of the Port – by the reconquering Alfonso in 1260. So keen was the king to attract trade to the newly-won city that he “gladly gave rich merchants all they asked, providing they would come there to settle”, and that included Moors, members of the very group he had just deposed. CSM 379 tells the story of Moors travelling by sea to settle in Santa María del Puerto, attacked by Catalan pirates, robbed, taken prisoner and killed. Mary then miraculously causes bad weather at sea so that the pirates have to return to Seville and the Moors are safe to travel to Santa María del Puerto. The softened attitude to Moors in the final two verses is clearly inspired by the king’s political interests: Mary “will not on any account allow harm to come to her colonists … although the Moors at times cause her distress, she never closes to them the door of salvation”. In other words, Moors are still theologically wrong and beyond salvation, but Mary will protect them if they are politically useful – not because they are Moors per se, but because these particular Moors serve Alfonso’s plans for Santa María del Puerto.

As will by now be obvious, Alfonso’s Virgin Mary is completely aligned with the king’s interests: she is a thoroughly political figure who hates those Alfonso hates; punishes and kills those Alfonso thinks are in the way of his ambitions; is effectively Alfonso’s military commander; a woman who, like Alfonso, demands absolute allegiance and rewards those who do Alfonso’s will, identical to her will; and she changes her mind and attitude in line with Alfonso’s current policies.

It is clearly significant that the few positive portrayals of Moors are in the later Cantigas, when Alfonso was politically and militarily in need of their support. Even so, such depictions are grossly outnumbered by entirely negative descriptions, including in the later songs. For example, in CSM 366 Alfonso has just returned “from making war in Grenada on the Moors of that land”. In CSM 374 Christian soldiers treat Moors, not as comrades or colleagues, but as the source of booty. They “went with all good intentions to harass the Moors” but “were always discovered and badly beaten … because of their sins”. When the raiders confess their sins, Mary causes raiding parties on Moors to be successful, nakedly linking political ambition, military might and fundamentalist dogma. In CSM 401, Alfonso asks God to “grant me power and strength against the Moors … so that I may drive them out”, and in CSM 406, “let us pray … that [God] give us sufficient strength to drive the Moors from Hispānia.”

The overwhelming picture, then, is that summed up by the meaning of the story in CSM 186. A Christian woman’s mother-in-law frames her daughter-in-law and their Moorish servant, having her son believe that his wife has been unfaithful with the Moor. Both are innocent, but when they are publicly executed by fire, the innocent Moor is described as “false” and “treacherous” and is “burned until not a single sign of him remained”. The only possible explanation is that the Moor does not have to act in any particular way to be guilty: the Moor’s very existence makes him intrinsically guilty. The innocent Christian wife, on the other hand, is miraculously saved from the flames by Mary and is described as a “faithful lady”. The Holy Virgin stands by to watch the innocent Moor die a horrible death, but does nothing to punish the guilty mother-in-law who framed the innocent Moor and the wife. This is described as “a beautiful miracle”.

“wicked disbelievers”: Jews in the Cantigas

The Garden of Delights, c. 1180, Alsace, showing Jews in pointed white hats being tortured by devils in hell.

Between Christians and Jews there was no battle for land, for territory, for the power to rule, as there was between Christians and Moors. Still, in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Jews fare no better. Alfonso expressed that, for the Virgin Mary, Jews were “her enemies, whom she hates worse than the Moors” (CSM 348). Even more than Moors, Jews are the pantomime villains of the Cantigas.

Of the 420 Cantigas, 30 (7%) mention Jews or have Jews as their subject. Of these, 8 stories appear in other Iberian miracle collections, and some were circulating internationally. Few show a Jew in a positive light, and the reason for the positive exception is the same in each case: the Jew converts to Christianity. Otherwise, they are considered evil simply for being Jews, and the cause given is theological: “the Messiah, whom the Jews await and we already have” (CSM 71); “wicked disbelievers in him whom the Jews killed” (CSM 135); “him whom the Jews killed on the cross” (CSM 22); “those wicked infidels” (CSM 187); “treacherous Jew” (CSM 108). Jewish identity is one-dimensional, the collective and the individual Jew are the same, and history is collapsed, so that all present Jews are synonymous with the homogenous identity of Christ killers. When Mary exclaims “those evil Jews, who killed my son like false infidels” (CSM 419), she is describing a universal Jewish character, monolithic across space and time.

Such anti-Jewish sentiments were integral to the cultural air Alfonso breathed, and several Cantigas follow in the New Testament tradition which links Jews with the devil. CSM 3 says that Theophilus, on “the advice of a Jew … had signed a letter with the devil in order to gain power and had given the letter into the devil’s keeping.” In CSM 109, a Jew, seeing a man tormented by five devils, “begged the devils to tell him in God’s name why they did not seize Jews. One devil said, ‘Because you belong to me and serve me. Therefore, we do not harm you for all of you are already ours. However, we seek to destroy those who bear the mark of baptism.’” In other words, Jews are in league with the devil to destroy Christians.

Desecration and murder: Alfonso and the blood libel

Two anti-Jew story types on the theme of devil worship circulated widely in Europe: (i) the desecration of Christian icons and (ii) the murder of Christian children. Variations of both themes appear in the Cantigas. Examples follow, described in the wider context of European anti-Jewish stories.

(i) Wax appears regularly in the Cantigas, both as a means of worshipping Mary and as an offering to her. For example, in CSM 382, a nobleman promises Mary “ten libras of good wax” (a libra is around 450 grams) if his prayer is answered. In CSM 12, during mass on the day of the Feast of the Assumption, a disembodied woman’s voice is heard weeping: “Oh God, oh God, how great and manifest is the perfidy of the Jews, who killed my son, though they were his own people, and even now they wish no peace on him.” After mass, the archbishop tells the congregation, “The evil Jewish people did this deed”, and they rush to the Jewish quarter to find Jews re-enacting the crucifixion, striking and spitting on a waxen image of Christ. Before the Jews are able to crucify the image, as they intend, the Christians kill them all. The message of this song-story is repeated many times in Alfonso’s collection: God’s mother and God himself both hate Jews. This is not merely giving permission for Christians to hate Jews: it has the authority of a divine command to do so, and killing Jews is celebrated. This is seen in the artwork that accompanies CSM 12, which graphically depicts the fate of Jews in a way that the words only hint at. While the lyric states only, “For this deed they were all to die, and their pleasure was turned to grief”, the illustration shows Christian knights and others with swords slicing through Jews’ heads.

Five images accompanying CSM 12. Above: Mass on the Feast of the Assumption. The archbishop, outside the church, tells the congregation that the “evil Jewish people” killed Mary’s son and still wish him no peace. Armed, they rush en masse to the Jewish quarter. Below: There they find Jews, most drawn as grotesques, ready to crucify a waxen image of Christ. For this, the Christians kill the Jews, slicing through their heads with swords.

(As with all pictures, click to open larger in new window.)

For the first 1,100 years of Christianity, neither Jews nor any other person or group were portrayed visually in a sufficiently distinctive way to dispense with written signifiers, as we see in the Egbert Codex, c. 980, below, which needs labels to differentiate between Jewish priests and Roman soldiers. We see Christ with Pontius Pilate (Pilatus), priests (pontifices) who are Jewish, but not visually identified as such, and soldiers (milites), who are Roman. The next image shows the expulsion of Jews from France, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, 1182. The large hook-nose of the man the king is pointing to indicates his low social status as a royal sergeant, not his Jewishness, as is evident by scanning the crowd of Jews he is part of.

Jews only became visually distinct in Christian art in c. 1100, but it was hats, not noses, that marked them out. We see this in the image below of Jesus crucified from an enamel reliquary casket, c. 1170, with hat-wearing Jews on the left of the image. Only one of them has a large nose, one of many nose shapes given Jews at this point. Jewish hats soon became consistently pointed, a feature related only to signifiers in visual art: Jews in real life did not wear pointed hats. By the time of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1257–83, pointed hats, large noses and beards were becoming visual signs of Jewishness, as we see in the illustration below for CSM 34.

An exaggeratedly large Jew is shown stealing an icon of Mary and Jesus in CSM 34.

In CSM 34, a painted wooden icon of Mary, “so beautiful that … not another to equal it could be found”, located in a street of Constantinople, is stolen by a Jew, hidden under his cape. The Jew throws the icon into a privy, “then he sat down there and desecrated it shamefully”. The illustrations accompanying the song show a gross caricature. Scale in medieval illustrations is not always meant to replicate visual reality, but the scale of importance: the highest ranking person or most important feature drawn larger for significance. Here the Jew is seen towering over the buildings, a monster in size and character, with the pointed hat and hooked nose that was just coming to signify Jewishness in Christian art.

In the next part of CSM 34, the devil “killed him [the Jew] and he went to perdition”. This is not named as an act of Mary, but we can be fairly sure from similar stories that she had a hand in it. The illustration in the manuscript (seen at the top of this article) shows two black, beastly, hybrid devils carrying the Jew off to hell. This imagery conforms to descriptions in various Cantigas – such as CSM 74, “the devil, blacker than pitch”, and CSM 185, “Moors, blacker than Satan” – which in turn conforms to cultural European norms for depicting and thinking of the devil in terms of colour. German Christian mystic Heinrich Suso, for example, described a vision of hell in his Clock of Wisdom (Horologium Sapientiae), c. 1334: “O my God, what a wretched sight! See how I am surrounded with savage beasts, with spectral demons’ faces, with countless black Ethiopians, lurking and lying in wait for my unhappy soul as it hovers on the point of its departure to the next world”.

Anonymous artist (formerly attributed to Hieronymus Bosch), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1515.

Though it was painted more than two centuries later, the anonymous painting, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1515, formerly thought to have been by Hieronymus Bosch, is an excellent example of such belief in physiognomy, the pseudoscientific belief that biology reflects moral character and behaviour. This painting is also testament to the fact that such ideas continued into the renaissance. Evidence for physiognomic ideas goes back nearly four millennia (the First Babylonian Dynasty, 1830–1531 BC) and continued into the middle ages and well beyond, supported by copies of a Latin translation of Pseudo-Aristotle’s Physiognomics, originally written c. 300 BC. Physiognomic ‘rules’ indicate that a long, hooked nose shows malice, lust and deceit; a sharp jaw indicates aggression and cruelty; a swollen face is a sign of gluttony; a wide nose shows lechery; and full lips indicate defective reasoning and harshness.

Christ Carrying the Cross is like an exercise from a physiognomy manual. Almost everyone is a grotesque, eyes exaggeratedly wide and bulging or squeezed to a slant, with many faces gurning. One figure on the right wears a pointed ‘Jewish hat’. Since everyone but the Roman soldier in the painting is Jewish, almost all have big noses, by now well-established in art as a stereotyped feature of Jewishness. The exceptions are instructive. In the centre, Jesus has his eyes closed, not huge, not narrowed, with well-proportioned features. In the bottom left corner we have Jesus’ face again, imprinted on Saint Veronica’s veil by the act of her wiping his face, according to non-biblical Christian legend. In concert with Jesus, Veronica has her eyes closed, well-proportioned features and a calm demeanour. Partially hidden underneath the cross is the face of Simon of Cyrene, the north African forced by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross partway to his crucifixion. Only these three saintly figures are depicted with any physical grace, reflecting exactly the typical standards of representation that were developing by the time of the Cantigas. A pure soul correlates with physical beauty and wholeness, sin with physical ugliness and disability or poor health, thus Moors, Jews and devils are described and illustrated as ugly. This is illustrated by contrasting descriptions in Cantigas: “Holy Mary caused the son of the Jew to be born with his head on backward” because he was sinful, disbelieving Christian doctrine (CSM 108); whereas Mary “who became the Mother of God” is “most beautiful and fair” (CSM 149).

In this worldview, so defective is the Jewish character that their desecration of Christian icons is not some bad choice, a free decision that can later be regretted, but an integral and inevitable part of their wickedness, their opposition to the truth of Christianity, their character traits visible in their biological make-up and confirmed spiritually by their being in league with the devil, though still subject to his punishment.

(ii) There are few Cantigas where this is expressed more robustly than CSM 6, on the theme of the Jewish murder of Christian children. It is set in England, where a widow offers her boy, “wonderfully gifted and handsome”, to the Virgin. He sings “sweetly and pleasantly”, Gaude Virgo Maria best of all. A Jew is so annoyed by this that he kills the Christian. The lyric goes into graphic detail: “He struck him such a blow with an axe that he split open his head down to his teeth, just as one splits wood.” The Jew buries him in a wine cellar. When the Christian boy’s mother calls to her missing son, he sings from his cellar grave: the Virgin resurrects him as though he had merely been asleep. When the boy tells the story of his death, the villagers kill all the local Jews – guilty by association, just for being Jews – and kill the murderer by burning. The message is clear: Jews hate Christian worship, have a collective identity as murderers – it is inconceivable that listeners would not already think of Jews as Christ killers – and so they collectively deserve to die.

The same story appears in two nearly contemporaneous books, one of them possibly Alfonso’s source. An earlier collection by Benedictine monk, Gautier de Coincy, Miracles de la Sainte Vierge (Miracles of the Blessed Virgin), set Marian stories to the popular melodies of the day, written in Middle French in the early 13th century; and an Iberian collection of 25 Marian miracles by Gonzalo de Berceo, Milagras de Nuestra Señora (Miracles of Our Lady), was written in the local Riojan language in c. 1260. The same story was also later used by Geoffrey Chaucer as the basis for his Prioress’ Tale of The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400. A selection of three of Chaucer’s verses will be enough to illustrate how closely his source was to the story Alfonso received in another country over a century before. (Middle English then modern English.)

The prioress as illustrated in
the Ellesmere manuscript of
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The
Canterbury Tales, made 1400–20.
It is now owned by the
Huntington Library, San Marino,
California (EL 26 C 9).

Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,
That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest,
Up swal, and seide, “O Hebrayk peple, allas!
Is this to yow a thyng that is honest,
That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest
In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,
Which is agayn youre lawes reverence?” …

O grete God, that parfournest thy laude
By mouth of innocentz, lo, heere thy myght!
This gemme of chastite, this emeraude,
And eek of martirdom the ruby bright,
Ther he with throte ykorven lay upright,
He Alma redemptoris gan to synge
So loude that al the place gan to rynge …

With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
“Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve”;
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng hem by the lawe …

An illustration for The Prioress’ Tale
in Tales from Chaucer, being
The Canterbury Tales translated into
modern English by Charles Cowden
Clarke, London: Collins’ Clear-Type
Press, undated, c. 1911. The second
edition in 1922 was identical except
for the frontispieces and title pages.
Note the stereotypical imagery: the
 upright-walking, innocent-looking
Christian boy and the stooping,
hook-nosed, secretive-looking Jews.

Our first foe, the serpent Satan,
That has in Jews’ hearts his wasp’s nest,
Swelled up, and said, “Oh Hebraic people, alas!
Is this a thing that is honourable to you,
That such a boy shall walk as he will
In scorn of you, and sing of such a subject,
Which is against reverence of your laws?” …

Oh great God, who performs your praise
By mouths of innocents, lo, here is your power!
This gem of chastity, this emerald,
And also of martyrdom the ruby bright,
Where he with throat cut lay upright,
He ‘Gracious Mother of the Redeemer’ began to sing
So loud that all the place began to ring …

With torment and with shameful death for each one,
This magistrate had these Jews put to death
Who of this murder knew, and that immediately.
He would not tolerate any such cursedness.
“Evil shall have what evil will deserve”;
Therefore with wild horses he had them torn apart,
And after that he hanged them by the law.

Anti-Jewish hate stories travel well and age well, with an audience already primed with stereotypes, eager to believe. Both CSM 12 and CSM 6 play upon a mother’s anguish for her dead child, the emotive theme of many anti-Jewish stories. Notable in this respect is a story that takes place in England, like CSM 6, and involves a mocking re-enactment of crucifixion, like CSM 12. In 1144, 12 year old apprentice tanner, William of Norwich, was found dead in Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich, by a forester, Henry de Sprowston. Different versions of the story disagree on the date of finding the corpse, but all are around Easter. They all agree that Henry saw injuries which suggested torture, and that William of Norwich had been gagged with a wooden teasel. Thomas of Monmouth, a monk in the Benedictine monastery at Norwich, was clear who was responsible: “no Christian, but only a Jew would have taken it up himself to kill the innocent in this way with such rash daring.” Many Christians of Norwich agreed and sought justice. To find the culprit, local Jews were told to attend the ecclesiastical court and submit to trial by ordeal, but the sheriff, John de Chesney, protected them in the castle, advising that a Christian court had no jurisdiction over Jews.

When a local Jew was murdered two years later, people’s minds returned to the unsolved crime against William. Three or so years after that, c. 1149, Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich, making it his life’s work to prove collective Jewish culpability and make William a saint. He started The Life and Miracles of William of Norwich in 1149/50 and had completed the seventh volume by 1173. In it, he revived the idea of the Jewish blood libel, that Jews kidnap and murder Christian children by crucifixion to use their blood in religious rituals, and popularised the myth in England by presenting ‘evidence’ from Jewish converts to Christianity, whose testimonies were driven by the need to distance themselves from their old faith in order to keep their livelihood, and possibly their lives. Keen to turn William into a Christian saint and martyr, Thomas wrote of miraculous occurrences around William’s grave, such as a rose that continued to bloom through winter and William’s appearance to believers in heavenly visions. In the days before modern medicine or widespread use of the scientific method, the lure of miraculous cures found a ready market of hopefuls at William’s shrine: “dropsy … a weak boy … sick Emma … How many were cured by drinking scrapings from the tomb.”

Thomas of Monmouth’s account of the blood libel soon replicated itself in other stories of ritual child murder by Jews, in legends about Harold of Gloucester in 1168; Robert of Bury in 1181; and Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln in 1255. The Hugh of Lincoln story illustrates many familiar tropes. He was a young boy, as all the supposed victims were, in this case 9 years old. His body was found in a well, since Jews were ‘known’ to poison wells, and bodies in such stories are typically found because either water or the ground gives up the corpse. A local man, John of Lexington, suggested Jews were responsible, on the evidence that this is the sort of thing Jews do. A story circulated that a local Jew had kidnapped, tortured and crucified Hugh, as with William of Norwich, Harold of Gloucester, Robert of Bury, and others. A culprit was found, Copin (sometimes Jopin), who was arrested and confessed under threat of torture as, in such cases, guilt has already been decided. The Jewish people as a whole are found guilty, as always; and the saintly nature of the Christian martyr is proven by miracles at his grave, as in all cases. In Hugh of Lincoln’s case, 90 Jews were charged with ritual murder and held in the Tower of London, 18 of them hanged.

Benedictine monk and English chronicler, Matthew Paris, performed much the same task as Alfonso in the Cantigas, in that he took stories that confirmed his prejudices, turned them into literary pieces, very likely with some elaborations of his own, and presented them as fact: “This year [1255] about the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul [27 July], the Jews of Lincoln stole a boy called Hugh, who was about eight years old. After shutting him up in a secret chamber, where they fed him on milk and other childish food, they sent to almost all the cities of England in which there were Jews, and summoned some of their sect from each city to be present at a sacrifice to take place at Lincoln, in insult of Jesus Christ. For, as they said, they had a boy concealed for the purpose of being crucified; so a great number of them assembled at Lincoln, and then they appointed a Jew of Lincoln judge, to take the place of Pilate, by whose sentence, and with the concurrence of all, the boy was subjected to various tortures. They scourged him till the blood flowed, they crowned him with thorns, mocked him, and spat upon him; each of them also pierced him with a knife, and they made him drink gall, and scoffed at him with blasphemous insults, and kept gnashing their teeth and calling him Jesus, the false prophet. And after tormenting him in diverse ways they crucified him, and pierced him to the heart with a spear. When the boy was dead, they took the body down from the cross, and for some reason disembowelled it, it is said for the purpose of their magic arts.”

Despite there being no possible non-Jewish witnesses to the alleged events, such stories were taken for truth, with the result that rage and prejudice against Jews was regularly whipped up. In 1218, King Henry III passed the Edict of the Badge, legally obliging Jews to wear a yellow badge (as did Alfonso); and extra and highly punitive taxes were imposed specifically on Jews. In 1275, King Edward I issued the Statute of the Jewry, placing restrictions on Jews, most notably outlawing usury, lending money with interest, which was already outlawed by canon law for Christians. As well as legal persecution, there was physical persecution, each successive accusation of ritual child murder resulting in the kinds of massacres of local Jews that are celebrated by Alfonso as divine justice in the Cantigas. After more than two centuries of increasing persecution, King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, expelling all Jews from England. (It remained in force until 1657, when Oliver Cromwell allowed their return.) Expelled Jews moved around Europe, some to Castile, where by now Alfonso X’s second son, Sancho IV, was on the throne. Two centuries later, those who settled there would be expelled again in 1492 by Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Similarly, in 1306 Philip IV of France expelled all Jews from his kingdom. Due to his waging war with Flanders and a currency revaluation, King Philip was short of money. Expelling Jews not only added to the royal coffers, since all their property was confiscated and sold, it increased royal prestige as a Christian king, acting for ‘the good of Christian society’ by expelling ‘the Christ-killers’ under the threat of death. Not only did Philip take the proceeds, all debts of Christians to Jews were transferred to the King, earning him money from his new Christian debtors.

Philip IV of France (centre), known as the Fair or the Iron King, ruled France from 1285 until his
death in 1314. He is shown with, left to right, his sons Charles and Philip, his daughter Isabella,
his eldest son and heir Louis, and his brother, Charles of Valois. To raise money for the royal
coffers and pay for his debts caused by his constant military campaigns, Philip taxed French
clergy at the rate of half their annual income, resulting in Pope Boniface VIII’s papal bull,
Clericis Laicos, 1296, which forbad the transference of ownership of church property to the
French Crown. In 1306 Philip expelled all Jews from France in order to steal their property and
become the creditor to those indebted to them; and in 1307 he accused the Knights Templar of
homosexuality and heresy in order to free himself of his debts to them, having them arrested and
tortured en masse to extract false confessions, resulting in the end of the Order.

Jews were also persecuted in Occitania, home of the troubadours who were so influential on Alfonso’s compositions. In Béziers in May 1160, at the request of Viscount Raimon Trencavel, Jews paid 600 sous to suppress a Jew-baiting and Jew-killing custom called Easter stoning. During the 1150s, Jews were persecuted for three weeks from the Saturday before Palm Sunday until the second Saturday after Easter. Night and day, Christians battered Jews and their houses with stones, urged on by the local clergy and aristocracy on the basis that Jews condemned the Messiah and still deny that Mary is the Mother of God: Christians were rallied by the church to strike back for Christ’s injury. Such an event, if turned into song by Alfonso, would have fitted in well with his other anti-Jewish Cantigas.

And so it went on. Christian armies in the Crusades, en route to take the Holy Land from Moorish control, massacred and raped Jews along the way. From the 13th century, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity and were thereby known as marranos: pigs. In the 14th century, Jews were blamed for such events as the Black Death and crop failures, leading to anti-Jewish riots and massacres.

Las siete partidas, the Seven-Part Code of laws, was compiled under Alfonso’s supervision in c. 1265. His law was not enacted until 1348, and then spread to the rest of Iberia. Though not in force in his lifetime, we can take it as a reflection of Alfonso’s will and rule. In it, the rumour of the William of Norwich / Hugh of Lincoln trope, and the desecration story of Christ’s waxen image in CSM 12, becomes statue: “And because we have heard it said that in some places Jews celebrated, and still celebrate Good Friday, which commemorates the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by way of contempt, stealing children and fastening them to crosses, and making images of wax and crucifying them when they cannot obtain children; we order that, hereafter, if in any part of our dominions anything like this is done, and can be proved, all persons who were present when the act was committed shall be seized, arrested and brought before the king; and after the king ascertains that they are guilty, he shall cause them to be put to death in a disgraceful manner, no matter how many there may be.”

The partidas also explain why credence was given to such stories: “The reason that the Church, emperors, kings, and princes permitted the Jews to dwell among them, and with Christians, is because they always lived, as it were, in captivity, as it was constantly in the minds of men that they were descended from those who crucified our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, all Jews are collectively guilty of killing Christ and so they can only be permitted to live among Christians if their collective existence is strictly proscribed by law.

We can see now that the theology Alfonso promoted undoes itself with internal contradictions. When he writes that Mary “causes us to know God, and him to accept us as his own, since for us he suffered painful death by the Jews” (CSM 390), the king fails to see that in Christian theology Jesus’ death activated salvation, planned by God to redeem and pay for the original sin of Adam. Since Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was in God’s plan, and the Jews were therefore enactors of God’s salvific will, they could not then be guilty of being made to follow God’s plan. If, by some twist of casuistry, Jews were considered collectively guilty of following God’s irresistible will, then why were they more guilty than the Romans who actually performed the crucifixion? And, if all Jews are collectively guilty, then why does that not include the two key Jews in the story, Jesus himself and his mother, Mary?

A page of Papyrus 66, a codex of
John’s Gospel, dated 200 CE.

The answer is in the Bible itself. The Gospels, committed to writing in the late 1st and early 2nd century, were written at a time when Christians were increasingly no longer a subset of Jews, but a separate group which now also included Gentiles. Keen to establish a separate identity for Christians, the Gospel writers demonised Jews. Matthew’s Gospel (written c. AD 80–90) places an acceptance of collective responsibility for Jesus’ death on all Jews for all generations to come: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27: 24–25). John’s Gospel (written c. AD 90–110) clearly and consistently refers to Jews as a separate group with such phrases as “the Passover of the Jews” (John 2:13), and has Jesus condemn them collectively in the strongest terms: “You [Jews] belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies … Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8: 44-47)

Supposed Jewish acts of desecration and murder of Christians, then, are seen as integral to Jewish identity, a continuance of their diabolical act of rejecting Christ and having him crucified. This was a European-wide story, likewise reflected by Alfonso in his Cantigas, repeating widely-circulating anti-Jewish legends as facts as they confirm the long-established narrative which underpinned anti-Jewish legislation and persecution around Europe.

“usury to commit base deeds”  

Another accusation against Jews-in-general is expressed in CSM 312: “the Virgin … loves cleanliness more than a miser loves wealth, and compassion and mercy more than a Jew loves usury to commit base deeds.” Today usury means charging interest over the allowed rate, but in medieval canon law it meant charging any interest at all on a loan of money. Since the Catholic Church forbade it and Jews did it, the practice only served to enforce the idea of Jewish moral degeneracy in Christian minds.

Christians were prohibited from usury and were mostly illiterate. Only clergy were allowed to read the Bible, and it was largely clergy and the aristocracy who were literate. The Roman Catholic Council of Toulouse in 1229 expressly forbade Bible reading among the general populace: “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.” The Council of Tarragona, 1234, underlined the previous ruling: “No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments in the Romance language, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over to the local bishop within eight days after promulgation of this decree, so that they may be burned”. Jews, on the other hand, valued the personal reading of the Torah and thus valued literacy. During the 13th century, Bar Mitzvah – the coming of age of a Jewish boy aged 13 – gained a ceremony which involved the public reading of the Torah by the Bar Mitzvah boy. Combined with Jews’ exclusion from trade guilds, the legal restriction of the trades they could work in, their confinement to ghettos and being prevented from owning land, their emphasis on literacy in order to personally read the Torah fitted them well for a career involving record-keeping and numeracy, whereas the majority of Christians, illiterate except for the clergy and the aristocracy, were ill-equipped.

Christians, who viewed usury as sinful, nevertheless borrowed money from Jews. When increasingly punitive taxes were placed specifically on Jews in England and Iberia to help Christian kings finance wars, Jewish rates of interest for money-lending increased to keep pace and maintain livelihood, and thus the Christian cycle of suspicion and hatred also increased. Not only did the absolute prohibition on Christians being involved with money-lending not apply when a Christian was a borrower, the harsh penalties for being a lender were ignored in practice by churches, monasteries, bishops and even popes, who charged rates of interest well above those levied by Jews. In his Chronica majora, Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259) records that the pope in the 13th century claimed the assets of deceased usurers in England. Despite the pope having declared that charging for money-lending was evil, he took the profits of ususers for himself, since the death of a wealthy merchant provided the church with significant extra revenue. In order to hide their hypocrisy, in circa 1220 the church created some casuistic language: when Jews lend money and receive more in return than was lent, it is immoral usury; when the church lends money and receives more than was lent, it is morally neutral interest.

Matthew Paris’ self-portrait, from the original manuscript of his Historia Anglorum
(London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, folio 6r).

Since tax collection was an abhorred profession, Alfonso used widely-abhorred Jews to collect his taxes. His chief collector, Don Culema ibn Zadok, died in 1273. Just as the pope confiscated deceased Jews’ property, so Alfonso confiscated Don Culema’s property on his death and gave it to Seville Cathedral. Don Culema’s son, Don Isaac ibn Zadok, succeeded his father’s employment, along with resentment for his father’s treatment and being robbed of his family inheritance. In 1276 he financially supported a revolt against Alfonso by the monarch’s son, Sancho, who instead used the money to pay the debts of his mother, Queen Violante. The king defeated the rebellion in 1279, discovered Don Isaac’s role, and imprisoned him along with other Jews, hanging Don Isaac as a traitor. In order to raise more money from stigmatised and socially separated Jews, in January 1281 Alfonso had all the Jews of Castile arrested in their synagogues on a Sabbath day, not allowing their release until they had paid a ransom of 4,380,000 gold maravedis.

This wider picture gives the background to the stereotype of Jews as evil money-grabbers in Cantigas such as CSM 348, in which Alfonso has run out of money to fight his campaign against the Moors: “I have not enough left to do great harm to the Moors.” In a dream, the Virgin promises him “a very great treasure which lies hidden under the earth which people worse than Moors put there.” The Virgin shows Alfonso “great treasures of silver, gold, rich and precious stones, much cloth of silk, beautifully worked tapestries, and other very noble objects of gilded silver which belonged to the Jews, her enemies, whom she hates more than the Moors.” Alfonso takes it all as his own, just as Philip IV of France confiscated Jewish property when he expelled them, just as the pope in the 13th century stole the inheritance of Jews, just as Alfonso held Jews to ransom in their synagogues. We are intended to understand that the fault lies not with Alfonso who spent too much money on his campaign, but on hated Jews who hide wealth from the king who can arbitrarily confiscate at will.

Alfonso’s siete partidas are often selectively cited in support of the king’s positive tolerance of Jews. We have seen from partidas passages cited above that Alfonso’s laws perpetuated anti-Jewish hate stories. Alfonso – or his law-makers under his guidance – included what does appear to be protective legislation: “And for the reason that a synagogue is a place where the name of God is praised, we forbid any Christian to deface it, or remove anything from it, or take anything out of it by force … Saturday is the day on which Jews perform their devotions, and remain quiet in their lodgings and do not make contracts or transact any business; and for the reason that they are obliged by their religion to keep it … Wherefore we order that no judge shall employ force or any constraint upon Jews on Saturday, in order to bring them into court on account of their debts; or arrest them; or cause them any other annoyance”. Such passages do sound progressive, protective and tolerant in isolation, but we have seen that this is meaningless in practice, as such passages appear alongside perpetuated hate stories and Alfonso transgressed his own ‘protective’ law when it suited him.

Jewish conversions

The only stories in which Jews are portrayed positively, and in which a Jew is not deserving of punishment, are those in which the Jew becomes a Christian.

In CSM 25, a Christian merchant, who spent all his life doing good, runs out of money. Finding no other source of finance, he goes to a Jewish money-lender but has no security. When the Jew insists, the Christian offers “my warrantors Jesus Christ and Holy Mary”, to which the Jew agrees “because I know that she was a saintly woman and he a saintly man and a prophet”. The Christian hands over statues of Jesus and Mary. He earns enough to pay the debt but forgets the deadline until the day before. Being overseas, he has a chest constructed, places inside what he owes, prays for God to guide it and then sets it on the sea. Sure enough, it washes up in the right place, the Jew and his servant take it home and he discovers inside the money he was owed – and hides it. When the merchant visits in person, the Jew insists that he has not received the money, and the Christian calls upon the Virgin to witness. The Jew says he won’t believe unless he hears from the statue. They go to church and the statue talks: “The falsity of the Jews is great.” In other words, this nameless money-lender is taken as a representative of all Jews and their collective identity as deceivers. “You, cursed Jew, know that you received your money in full”. The early part of this Cantiga has an unusual feature in that the Jew speaks words of respect about Jesus and Mary, setting us up for the final act: “When the Jew heard this, he at once believed wholeheartedly in Holy Mary and in her son and became a Christian.”

(As with all pictures, click for larger view in new window.)

Above is the second of two pages of illustrations for CSM 25, showing the story from the point that the Jew and his servant take the chest of repaid money from the waves. The Jew is shown with three visual signifiers: pointed hat, large aquiline nose (hook or beak nose) and beard. Though this is often the portrayal of a Jew in the Cantigas, it is not universal: this is the transitional period when this depiction was becoming established. In the background of the second panel, set in the Jew’s home, are symbols which meant something very different to the 13th century Iberian illustrator than to the modern western viewer. The hexagram we would now see as the Magen David, the Shield of David or Star of David, is now the universal symbol of Judaism, but it has only acquired this meaning in the last 200 years. In the 13th century, viewers would have called this the Seal of Solomon, symbolising the magic signet ring used by King Solomon to control demons and spirits, indicating that the Jew in the story practices Kabbalah, Jewish magic. The swastika below the two Seals of Solomon is now well-known in Europe for being the symbol of German nationalism from the mid 19th century, adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920 as the symbol of Aryan supremacy, and therefore also a symbol of anti-Semitism. Historically, this political use by fascists is a very recent development. The symbol, from the Sanskrit svastika, means good fortune, well-being, or auspicious. It has been used positively across faiths – Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism – and geography – Ukraine, the Roman Empire, Bulgaria and China – for at least 15,000 years. Here we see its depiction in 13th century Iberian Judaism. In the illustration for CSM 28 (seen above and shown again below), swastikas decorate a podium on which a statue of the Virgin is placed, and in the illustrations for CSM 63 four swastikas decorate a Christian altar cloth.

Cerro de los Hoyos, Hill of the Holes.
The illustrations for CSM 107 as
set out on the original page.
(Click for larger view in new window.)

CSM 107 has another relatively positive portrayal of a Jew in the Cantigas. This tale is specifically dated to 1237 and is commemorated to this day. In Segovia, a Jew nicknamed Marisaltos – leaping Mary – was thought to be guilty of an unnamed crime and was thrown from Cerro de los Hoyos – Hill of the Holes – as punishment. She survived without harm and was declared innocent. She is now in a tomb in Segovia Cathedral, and on the wall is a painting of a scene from the incident. Alfonso turned this story into verse, with the Jew praying to Mary, who she had heard about from Christians, to save her. Mary miraculously saves her, making her fall clear from the rocks and spring up nimbly. She goes to a church, tells them of the miracle, asks to be baptised, “and she was henceforth always a devoted believer”.

CSM 4 includes the themes of conversion and death for an evil Jew. The young son of a glass-making Jew in Bourges (le Cher, France) wanders into a church at Easter and sees the sacrament being taken. Seeing a statue of Mary, he has a vision that the Virgin, cradling Jesus in her arms, is giving the sacrament personally, and he receives it, “sweeter than honey.” When he goes home and tells his father, the father is so enraged that, “when the furnace was burning brightly, he shut him in it, committing a cruel and treacherous deed.” The boy’s mother runs into the street, crying. Discovering the cause, her neighbours open the furnace to find that the Virgin has protected her son, as we see in the illustrations for CSM 4 below.

The mother and son are converted, while the father is killed by the crowd. One of the manuscript illustrations, below, depicts the crowd killing the Jew by putting him in the furnace, with the added detail of them making sure he stays in.

This tale had appeared in Gautier de Coincy’s Miracles de la Sainte Vierge or Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame (Miracles of the Blessed Virgin or The Miracles of Notre Dame), early 13th century, and in Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagras de Nuestra Señora (Miracles of Our Lady), c. 1260. Either could have been Alfonso’s source. Demonstrating its longevity and geographical spread, an illustration for the same story appears in the slightly later Queen Mary Psalter, c. 1310–1320, so-called because it was in the possession of Mary I (1516–1558), Queen of England and Ireland. It may originally have been made for Queen Isabella of France (1295–1358), Queen of England, or for her husband, King Edward II (1284–1327). The picture appears without explanation on folio 208 (below), as is the case for all of the 464 bas-de-page scenes in folios 85v–318, since these images provoked the recognition of stories that were too familiar to need explanation.

The Virgin Mary prevents a Jewish father (note the pointed hat) from throwing
his child into a burning furnace, from the Queen Mary Psalter, folio 208r.

Likewise, the story also appears as two illustrations at the foot of folios 212–212v of the Decretals (decrees) of Pope Gregory IX, known as the Smithfield Decretals (BL Royal 10 E IV), produced in southern France in the last quarter of the 13th century or the first quarter of the 14th century.

Above, the foot of folio 212r, and below, the foot of folio 212v, of the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX,
illustrating the same story as in the Cantigas and elsewhere of the Jewish father trying to burn his
child in the furnace. No pointed hat this time, but again the Virgin comes to the rescue.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Like many of the Cantigas, the events reflect Alfonso’s law code, Las siete partidas, which itself reflected the attitudes of the time: “if any Jew or Jewess should voluntarily desire to become a Christian, the other Jews shall not interfere with this in any way, and if they stone, wound, or kill any such person … and this can be proved, we order that all the murderers … shall be burned. But where the party was not killed, but wounded or dishonoured, we order that the judges of the neighbourhood where this took place shall compel those guilty of the attack … to make amends for the same, and also that they be punished for the offence which they committed, as they think they deserve.”

The partidas are clear that Jewish-Christian conversion only goes one way, and this is enforced by law: “a Jew should be careful to avoid preaching to or converting any Christian. Whoever violates this law shall be put to death and lose all his property … Where a Christian is so unfortunate as to become a Jew, we order that he shall be put to death just as if he had become a heretic, and we decree that his property shall be disposed of in the same way that we stated should be done with that of heretics.”

This one-way relationship persists through all the laws. Christians should have no contact with Jews socially, or in work, or bathing, and a Christian cannot receive medicine from a Jew except by approval of a Christian physician. A Jew who lives with a Christian woman receives a death sentence. Jews and Jewesses should wear a distinguishing visual sign, a yellow badge, to mark them out from the rest of the population (in line with the ‘Jew-Badge law’ of the Fourth Council of the Lateran, headed by Pope Innocent III in 1215). Failure to do so results in a fine of 10 maravedis of gold or, if s/he cannot pay, 10 lashes.

Alfonso’s laws separating Christians and Jews are familiar to us now, the kind of separation enforced between black and white by segregation laws in the USA until 1969 and by apartheid laws in South Africa until 1991. Some of Alfonso’s laws mirror the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish legislation, enacted in Germany from 1933 onwards. Aryans could have no contact with Jews socially, or in work, nor could they bathe together in health spas, and a Jew could not practice medicine. Jews could not marry non-Jews. Jews and Jewesses had to wear a distinguishing visual sign, a yellow Star of David or a white armband with a blue Star of David, to mark them out from the rest of the population. Failure to do so resulted in severe punishments, up to and including death.

I am not suggesting anything so simplistic as ‘Alfonso was a Nazi’, or any other such anachronistic statement. Nevertheless, Alfonso’s laws do circumscribe Jews’ lives and segregate them from Christians, akin to apartheid and segregation; his Cantigas do show Jews as one-dimensionally evil and in league with the devil, the only exception being converts to Christianity; and, in some Cantigas, Alfonso shows the Virgin promoting and encouraging the death of Jews or directly killing them herself. The parallels are undeniable.

Mary as assassin

Alfonso’s general attitude to the value of Jewish life is expressed clearly even when mentioning Jews in passing, such as CSM 51 (my italics), “I wish to tell you a great miracle which Mary performed in the land of Orleans in France for the count of Poitiers, who had surrounded a castle and attempted to capture the people inside as though they were Jews”.

In many Cantigas, described above, the all-powerful heavenly Mother of God stands aside while Jews are killed, and organises that this is so: in CSM 12, her weeping voice encourages Christians to split Jewish heads; in CSM 34, two devils, who in other Cantigas do the Virgin’s bidding, kill a Jew and carry him to perdition; and in CSM 6 Mary resurrects a singing boy then watches while Christians, in revenge, kill all the local Jews.

In CSM 286 her killing is more direct. “Holy Mary, who only does good” is being prayed to by a Christian. While he does so, a dog “offended him in such a way that he had to leave off his prayers.” This oblique phrase is made more clear by the illustration of a large dog pouncing on him and biting him. As he picks up a stone to throw at the dog, he notices two Jews under a portico, laughing at him and mocking him. He asks “My Lady” to “please take vengeance for me on these Jews, for they are enemies of yours who killed your son, who was man and God, and they ridicule me on your account”. The Virgin immediately makes the portico collapse on the Jews, crushing and killing them. “All who saw this at once gave great praise to the Glorious Virgin … for so great is her goodness”.

Five illustrations accompanying CSM 286.
Above: A dog offends a praying Christian; he sees two Jews laughing at him;
he prays to Mary to be avenged.
Below: Mary kills the Jews; everyone who saw them die thanks Mary for killing Jews.

The missing Moors and Jews

I have shown that the modern myth of Alfonso as a wise, tolerant, multicultural, liberal man, a royal role model for modern times, transported back to the Iberia of the 13th century, is comprehensively contradicted by an examination of his Cantigas and his law codes. That Moors are portrayed most often as intrinsically evil is perhaps not surprising, given the long-term ongoing political struggle for power between Moorish and Christian rulers in Iberia. That a one-dimensional portrayal of Jews persists throughout the Cantigas, described as enemies of God and of the Virgin, hated by her more than she hates the Moors, can only be ascribed to Alfonso’s persistence in an ideological hatred that, as we have seen, was virulent and widespread internationally at the time but certainly not believed by every Catholic or every Catholic leader, as it was by him.

There were Catholic edicts protecting Jews, notably the papal bull, Sicut Judaeis, issued in c. 1120 by Pope Calixtus II after the shock of the First Crusade in 1095–1099. The purpose of the campaign was twofold: primarily, to aid Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in repelling a Turkish invasion; and secondarily to take Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Moorish rule. The second purpose became primary, but a side-effect was that, before the crusade had even officially started, Christians tried to forcibly convert Jews, extort money from them, and slaughter them, on the basis that they were as much Christ’s enemies as Moors, so better to kill Jews closer to home than travel to Jerusalem to kill Moors there. The murder of around 5,000 European Jews led Calixtus II to declare, and other Catholic leaders later to affirm, that Jews should not suffer prejudice, should be protected from forced conversion, violence and extortion, and that any Catholic who goes against this ruling should be excommunicated.

The role of the scriptorium in Alfonso’s court is often cited in favour of his liberal cosmopolitanism and acceptance of difference, but all is not as it at first seems. The tradition of translation of historical and multilingual learning had begun during the Abbasid caliphate, beginning in the second half of the 8th century in what is now Iraq, and was taken immediately to al-Andalus, Islamic-era Iberia, in the 8th century. The classical Greek and Hellenistic Greek works of philosophers, physicians, mathematicians and astronomers such as Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen and Ptolemy, as well as similar works from China, India, and Persia, were translated into Arabic. This movement to translate and integrate Greek philosophy and science into Islamic culture was well-funded, including by the caliph and his family. To aid them in this widespread cultural mission, the Muslim aristocracy employed Christians since, in Syria in particular, Greek had continued to be a language of learning for Christians. The translation may not have been direct: sometimes a work in Greek would be translated first into Syriac and then into Arabic. In al-Andalus, the centre of this activity was Toledo. From the 10th century onwards, Christian scholars from around Europe gravitated there, leading to the emergence of Mozarabs, Arabic-speaking Christians, who could translate from Arabic into Latin.

Greek works translated into Arabic.
Above: Socrates and his students, an illustration from Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam
wa-Mahasin al-KilamThe Book of Selections of Wisdom and Wonderful Sayings
by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, 13th century.
Below left: Secretum SecretorumSecret of Secrets, also known as The Education of Princes
attributed to Aristotle during the 12th century, in an Arabic Ottoman manuscript translation,
MS Reis el-Kuttap (Asir I). This translation is attributed to Ikhwan al-Safa of Basra, Iraq,
in the 10th century, who reputedly took the majority of this work from the translation of
Syrian Christian, Yahia ibn al-Batriq.
Below right: Aristotle teaching astronomy to other Greek scholars,
from MS Ahmed III 3206, Baghdad, 1237.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

When the reconquista reconquered Toledo in 1085, the new Christian rulers found themselves in possession of extensive Islamic libraries of learning, from the classical Greeks to contemporary science, written mostly in Arabic. As a result, in the 12th century, in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo, Archbishop Raymond (in office 1126–1151) gathered together madrasah (Islamic teachers), Mozarabic Christians from Toledo, Jewish scholars, and Benedictine monks from Cluny (France), translating these ‘inherited’ works. Thus the Toledo School of Translators (Escuela de Traductores de Toledo) was created to collectively and methodically translate works from Arabic to Castilian to Latin, or directly from Arabic to Latin. Upon succession in 1252, Alfonso X of Castile became the beneficiary of the Toledo School of Translators, changing their practice from translating into universal Latin to translating only into local Castilian, and from a single person translating to team work. As with all monarchs, he could instruct them to follow his personal interests, to increase his prestige through the value of the works produced, and pay for the best translators to join the work.

The names of many Jews and Moors in the Toledo School under Alfonso’s leadership are known, including such scholars as Isaac ibn Sid, who specialised in astronomy/astrology (the two were interconnected in the 13th century), architecture and mathematics; Rabbi Zag Sujurmenza, who translated astronomical works; and Maestre Bernardo, a convert to Islam, who also translated astronomy. Two Jewish names are of special note: Yehuda ben Moshe ha-Kohen was not only an astronomer and translator, but Rabbi of Toledo’s synagogue and Alfonso’s personal physician from before his reign began; and Abraham of Toledo, another astronomer and translator, was also personal physician to both Alfonso and his son, Sancho, in royal service for more than 30 years.

Obvious questions arise. Where in the Cantigas is the acknowledgement of the great swell of Moorish and Jewish learning of which Alfonso and his kingdom were the beneficiaries? Where, in those Cantigas which are Alfonso’s versified autobiographies, are the names of the many highly educated, notable Jews and Moors, paid by the royal purse to progress Alfonso’s translation projects? Without them, Alfonso’s scriptorium, his project to bring international learning to his kingdom, simply could not exist. Nowhere are they even mentioned in his songs, let alone in a positive light. Almost without exception, Moors and Jews are shown as one-dimensional, degenerate, heretical disbelievers, in league with the devil, hated by God and Holy Mary and deserving of death.

The illustrations that accompany Alfonso’s songs include many musicians, some with visual signifiers to show that they are Moors and Jews, a great paradox to see them depicted considering what the songs say about them. But then, at the same time as Alfonso’s laws were encoding Jews’ inferiority to Christians in their everyday lives, stating, for example, that a Christian cannot receive medicine from a Jew except by approval of a Christian physician, Alfonso employed two successive personal physicians who were Jewish. There were other Jewish employees, too: Queen Violante, Alfonso’s wife, had Hebrew poet, Todros ben Judah Halevi Abulafia, in her entourage.

Illustrations from the Cantigas with visual signifiers for religious allegiance.
Above left, CSM 120: a dark, bearded Moorish player and a Christian player of the
same unidentified instrument. Jews and Muslims are shown with beards most the time,
Christians largely clean-shaven except for knights.
Above right, CSM 70: Two bearded Jews in pointed hats playing psalteries.
Below left, CSM 380: Two bearded Jews in pointed hats playing harps.
Below right, CSM 50: A Christian with a Jew in a pointed hat, both playing psalteries.
That Jews are shown playing harps and psalteries is a significant visual communication:
in iconography these instruments were associated with King David.

These illustrations of Alfonso’s court musicians raise fundamental questions of politics and identity. Do these depictions show the real make-up of Alfonso’s court musicians, or are such representations as symbolic as the Jews’ pointed hats, which did not exist in reality? If symbolic, the musicians may represent Alfonso’s command over Moors and Jews as well as Christians. The Jewish harp and psaltery players may be intended to remind viewers of King David, identified in medieval iconography as a harp or psaltery player, perhaps as a visual trope to associate King Alfonso’s song-writing with King David’s supposed composition of the Psalms. If these pictures are a reflection of actual musicians in Alfonso’s pay, then what was the experience of a Moor or a Jew accompanying a song in which they are depicted as enemies of God, of the Virgin and of the King? Could only converted Moors and Jews be musicians for Alfonso? If converted, would the Moor or Jew converted to Christianity still be given the visual signifiers of otherness?

This needs an explanation, and Alfonso himself goes some way to providing one: “All the law of the Jews, and even the Talmud and other sciences, which the Jews have hidden, which they call Kabbalah, I have transcribed, and this I did because it seems manifestly that all of it is a fragment of this law that we Christians have, and that they too, like the Moors, are in great error and in a state of losing souls.”

Useful individual Jews and Moors do nothing to negate Alfonso’s own hatred of their collectivised group identities, expressed repeatedly in the Cantigas. Thus there is no contradiction between hatred of Moors and Jews in the Cantigas and their presence in his court and scriptorium: they were valuable in what they could offer, furthering his enterprise. Where their treatment was good it was a means to an end: using Jewish and Moorish linguistic skills to translate works enabled Alfonso to present himself as a learned king, using their work to reflect his glory and their knowledge to ‘prove’ their religious and personal inferiority. A few Jews and Moors in high places were not representative of the lot of the average Jew or Moor, the majority.

As we have seen, the royal attitude to Jews and Moors becomes more positive – either in the songs or in life – when it is politically expedient, but the underlying loathing and ideological opposition does not change, hating the theologically damned group, collectively to be feared and punished, yet with some individuals practically useful, with skills he wants to employ. In the case of the trope of evil usurious Jews it was a beneficial two-edged sword. It meant Jews were perfect for their role as royal tax collectors, affirming their culturally-perceived wickedness while taking attention away from the church’s and the state’s financial dealings, and from Alfonso’s overspending on war and his need to exploit, rob and ransom Jews to fund his campaigns.

There is a tradition of modern writers who filter Alfonso X through a mystical, timeless prism, a typical example of which is Rios Sarmiento (translated by John Esten Keller, 1967, who shares the view): “He was, then, a man whom we can call universal in time and in space. This alone would be enough to make him incompatible with the people he governed, who did not know how to appreciate the light which Don Alfonso brought into what is known as the 13th century renaissance.” As we have seen, this flies in the face of the facts. It is not that Alfonso was any worse than any other medieval king, just that he was no different, and he was certainly not the fanciful chimera of the liberal, tolerant, multicultural, modern man transported back in time to 13th century Iberia. Such hero worship of Alfonso does nothing to expunge or explain the culturally-enforced hatred present in the Cantigas.

History repeats

I contend that it is impossible to read or hear these Cantigas and not have a view. Any reader will see there is a sliding scale from this medieval ideology of Jew-hating to the Nazi propaganda leading to and including World War II: one led directly to the other, in a tradition of intolerant antipathy lasting two millennia.

Blood libel stories, accompanied by accusations, trials, judicial deaths and local massacres, spread to (countries that are now) Spain, England, France, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Russia, Belarus, Hungary, Georgia, Austria, Syria, Greece, Poland, Ukraine, and the USA (among others). The irony, which Alfonso was presumably unaware of, is that the blood libel and other stories of Jewish debauchery are repetitions of the very stories that were told about Christians when their faith was new. Christians had refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods and, thus seen as a group separate and apart from the rest of society, they aroused Roman suspicion. Marcus Minucius Felix (fl. c. 150–270), for example, wrote of Christians kidnapping and murdering non-Christian children in order to cannibalise babies and ritually drink their blood. The rumour mill, mixed with suspicion, imagination and loathing, resulted in Felix’s account that Christians kidnap a “young baby [who] is covered over with flour, the object being to deceive the unwary. It is then served before the person to be admitted into the rites. The recruit is urged to inflict blows onto it – they appear to be harmless because of the covering of flour. Thus the baby is killed with wounds that remain unseen and concealed. It is the blood of this infant – I shudder to mention it – it is this blood that they lick with thirsty lips; these are the limbs they distribute eagerly; this is the victim by which they seal their covenant”. These rumours were based on the Christian Eucharist, re-enacting the last supper with bread and wine consumed as Christ’s body and blood, with a kidnapped baby substituted in the rumour. Similarly, the rumours Felix heard of Christian incest orgies were based on Christian ideals of being one family, brothers and sisters, all children of God. The details are the same as Christian rumours about Jews.

A woodcut in Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires
ProdigieusesProdigious Stories – published
in Paris in 1560 and hugely popular for the
rest of the 16th and 17th century. The book
is typical of the salacious horror stories of
the day, the types of tales that also populated
many broadside ballads to shock the audience
with the intent of admonition, a moral lesson
and theological affirmation. Among the stories
and illustrations of natural wonders, floods,
comets, sea monsters and monstrous births,
is the Legend of the Jew calling the Devil
from a Vessel of Blood, shown above.
One repeated motif was that the blood of a
Christian child was used as an ingredient in
the matzo (matza or matzah, plural matzot),
the unleavened bread eaten at Pesach
(Passover), or the blood was kept in a
bowl in order to summon up the devil.

The blood libel – an anti-Christian hate story recycled as an anti-Jewish hate story – has persisted until the present day. In 1840, a Christian priest disappeared in Damascus. Local Jews were charged with kidnapping and killing him, some tortured to force confessions. A mob seeking vengeance for the imagined crime destroyed a synagogue and its Torah scrolls. Add the Virgin’s punishing intervention and it could be one of Alfonso’s Cantigas. In 1913, the body of a Christian child was found near a brick factory in Kiev. Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew, was charged with ritual killing, just as in the William of Norwich / Hugh of Lincoln family of stories. During the trial, Russian scholars testified to the existence of the Jewish blood libel, that they attack Christians and use their blood in murderous rituals. Thankfully, Beilis was acquitted. Since no Jew is ever acquitted in Alfonso’s verses except by conversion, this story would not have made it into the Cantigas. Nor would the events of 1928, when a 4 year old girl went missing in Massena, New York. The blood libel rumour re-emerged, that local Jews had kidnapped and killed her. The rabbi was summoned to Massena police station and, while crowds gathered outside, a state trooper questioned him: do you offer human sacrifices or use blood in your rituals? The lost 4 year old girl was found alive and unharmed. One doesn’t need to look very far, even now, to hear or read the blood libel story or other hate messages repeated as fact. Knowing that there are people still who hold these views, and the political paraphernalia that accompanies them, there are serious questions for a modern person in performing those of Alfonso’s songs that are virulently anti-Moor and anti-Jew.

Should such Cantigas be sung?  

The Cantigas de Santa Maria is a formidable artistic achievement, and I do not wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Scratch below the surface of many medieval cultural artefacts, and there in the details or implied in the context we will often find similar chauvinism, divisive thinking, taking rumour for fact to perpetrate an ideology. The problem with the particular Cantigas described in this article is that this is not in the background, the unspoken context we can put aside while we enjoy the music, but in the very words a singer must sing if s/he is to perform them at all. Should we be singing songs that are designed as, in modern terms, hate speech; that are propaganda to promote the inferiority, persecution and hatred of a whole group of people? Some do. For myself, I would no more sing a Cantiga promoting Jewish deaths – for no more reason than that they are Jewish – than I would include songs of the Waffen-SS and Hitler Youth in a program of historical songs.

It is all very well describing someone as ‘a man or woman of their age’, the phrase often used to describe historical figures whose attitudes and actions we would now describe as fascistic. It is notable that it is only such figures who are explained away in such terms, about whom we are invited to suspend our critical faculties. Those who opposed prejudice and exploitation – such as Sheriff of Norwich, John de Chesney, and Pope Calixtus II, both in the 12th century – never attract such epithets, but they were people of their age, too; and no historian can do history while suspending judgement and critical analysis. The argument that we should not make judgements about historical people is not cogent or congruent: where, exactly, is the supposed cut-off date for suspending our evaluation? If I am to suspend judgement with historical Alfonso in the 13th century, should I also do so with historical Hitler, Mussolini and Pol Pot in the 20th century? I am not a historical person, I am living now, and to live I must make decisions about my present behaviour and conduct towards others: that informs my views of the past and my presentation of the past to others.

This came home to me with a visceral experience I had as an audience member at a folk festival. There is a traditional English song called The Jew’s Garden, or Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln, widespread among singers of traditional songs in England, Scotland, Ireland, the USA and Canada, first documented by Bishop Thomas Percy in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765, with versions being noted from traditional singers until the 1960s. Some folk singers still perform it and record it on their albums. The broad content of the song is obvious just from the title, based as it is on the Hugh of Lincoln story. A group of boys in Lincoln accidentally throw a ball over the wall of a Jew’s house, or a castle wall in some versions. The daughter of the house tempts Hugh in with, in various versions, an apple, a cherry, sugar, a gold ring, and/or a chain. Once in, she stabs him “like a sheep”. In some versions, she collects his blood in a silver basin and/or throws his body into a well. Some variants, to emphasise the boy’s Christian faith, have him request that a prayer book be put at his feet and a Bible at his head. At the folk festival I attended, one well-known singer sang a version of this song, with no introduction. I heard the song with growing unease, waiting for the explanation at the end. None came. Next song. What was his personal connection to the song? What was his motive for singing it? Was it, for him, simply a historical curiosity? Was he ideologically with the song or against it? I needed to know. I still don’t.

This is why it matters. There is something special about songs. The combination of words and music is potent, it is more than the sum of its parts. Music has an exceptional ability to unite cognitive intent with emotional power. Implicit in every song is the heart of the singer, the understanding s/he brings to bear on that performance, the meaning and experience s/he wishes to communicate to an audience. If I sing a Cantiga promoting hatred, I am telling the audience something about me, and inviting them to share in my sentiment, whatever that may be. The most likely sentiment is: ‘Here is a song in which Jews are murdered, and in this song I will tell you that they deserved it, that the Queen of Heaven hates them’, with the potential implication, ‘as do I, and so should you.’ Of course, that is not the only possible intention behind singing The Jew’s Garden, or any of the anti-Moor or anti-Jewish Cantigas. It may just be possible to sing a vindictive Cantiga as a period piece if, in the performance, it is carefully hedged around with explanations about context and reasons to sing it in the here and now. This goes so much against the grain of the normal, implicitly understood motive of music-making, to unite in common purpose and share an experience, that it needs to be done with great care.

I have sung traditional songs in which I, the narrator, have been a jilted or successful lover, the speaker of a prayer, a gold panner, a parent singing a lullaby, a miner, a mariner, and a murderer going to the gallows. In each case there has been something that has attracted me to the song, some personal connection, some exploration of human experience I feel I can convey to an audience. This does not necessarily mean I have to share the original motivation of the song. I have sung CSM 136, in which a woman is bound and tied to a horse which drags her behind while being flogged until she is dead, her punishment for throwing a stone at a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child. The clear motivation of the original lyric is she deserved it, but I have presented it to audiences as this is an abuse of faith and power – isn’t this awful?, and have been pleased to receive appreciative comments for doing so.

An illustration for CSM 136, in which a woman is given a death sentence for throwing a
stone at a statue of Mary and Jesus. The illustration gives details not present in the song:
the horseback executioner’s flail; the devil pulling the hair or riding on the hair of the woman
in the throes of being excruciatingly killed; the crowd pointing – signifying the key figure by
drawing the eye – to the man at the front, who in turn points to the woman being killed while
raising his other hand palm out, signifying astonishment mixed with pain.

But the anti-Moor and anti-Jewish Cantigas are, like The Jew’s Garden, encouragements to hatred of whole categories of people, presented as one-dimensional caricatures of evil, in league with the devil, against which Christians must defend and avenge. I have no wish to sew hatred and division in any part of my life, or to communicate that to others. Can such a song really be sung against its original intention?

There is a movement of faux-scholarship which it would be remiss to forget: modern fascists love their own version of the medieval period. The 19th century German Romanticism that led to Nazism was founded on medievalisms: medievalisms, because they are false fairy tales, fantasies that simplify the historical evidence of shifting boundaries, competing identities and pre-scientific thinking into an easily-packaged ideology of timeless manhood, womanhood, nationhood and racial purity, leading to their wish to exterminate anything and everything that does not fit the fabrication. Their comments often populate the public comments on webpages about medieval history. Those who march with faux-medieval flags, faux-medieval torches and faux-medieval shields – some of them even call themselves knights – would easily identify with Alfonso’s partisan hatred. That is the reason why this article does not include a sung Cantiga that could be taken as affirming such ideas.

Left: Statue of Saint Maurice, patron saint of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, in the choir
of the Cathedral of Saint Maurice and Saint Catherine, c. 1240-1250, Magdeburg, Germany.
Centre: Executioner’s head of African heritage, 1247-1255, on the north door of the
west façade of Riems Cathedral, Germany.
Right: Eva von Schonau, first wife of Jacob of Reinach, from their armorial panel,
Germany, 1521, now in the Historisches Museum, Basel.

There were clear identity markers in the medieval period but, since their context and concerns were different from ours, a medieval person’s sense of identity very rarely coincides with modern sensibilities. It is a sweet irony that some in the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, USA, in August 2017, carried the Black Eagle of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, associated with Saint Maurice, its 3rd century patron saint. Saint Maurice was black. Some medieval identity markers do appear at first to coincide with today’s, but those with an over-riding political agenda always simplify them, welcome them uncritically, take them out of their historical context and make them into bogus timeless truths. Trying to transplant medieval cultural identity into the here and now is no more helpful or true than it would be to negate medical science and return to blood-letting to balance humors, or to eradicate representative democracy in favour of the divine right of kings, or put our neighbours on trial for witchcraft.

I cannot put the matter of performing the Cantigas described in this article in any better way than the commentary Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (2012) give for The Jew’s Garden, or Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln: “The subject matter, however, is disturbing, and reminds us that folklore is not always nice and cosy. Indeed, racists, xenophobes, political zealots and religious fundamentalists have always used legends, rumours, songs, jokes and other lore to support and spread their beliefs and to indoctrinate their young, and in particular to denigrate and stereotype outsiders and the victims of their bigotry.”


~ ~ ~ 0 ~ ~ ~


The last article in this series looks at the topic of sentient statues of Mary in the Cantigas, which move at will and behave as the Virgin’s physical presence. This is followed by three stand-alone articles exploring the historical evidence for methods of playing medieval music in general and the Cantigas in particular, with brief explanations, suggested pointers for performance, and illustrative videos.


Translation credit

The translations of the Cantigas de Santa Maria are by Kathleen Kulp-Hill – see bibliography. Since the syntax of different languages often makes it impossible to create a meaningful line by line literal translation, Kathleen Kulp-Hill’s translation is presented in her book in verses without retaining individual lines. This is replicated in the above article.


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Bagby, Albert I., Jr. (1970) Some Characterizations of the Moor in Alfonso X’s “Cántigas”. In: The South Central Bulletin, Volume 30, Number 4, Studies by Members of SCMLA (Winter, 1970), pp. 164-167. [Available online by clicking here.]

Bagby, Albert I., Jr. (1971) The Jew in the Cántigas of Alfonso X, El Sabio. In: Speculum, Volume 46, Number 4 (October 1971), pp. 670-688. [Available online by clicking here.]

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Jackson, Deirdre E. (1997) Shields of Faith: Apotropaic Images of the Virgin in Alfonso X’s “Cantigas de Santa Maria”. In: RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, Volume 24, Number 2, Breaking the Boundaries: Intercultural Perspectives in Medieval Art / Entamer les frontières: perspectives interculturelles dans l’art du Moyen-Age (1997), pp. 38-46. [Available online by clicking here.]

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Kulp-Hill, Kathleen (2000) Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, The Wise. A translation of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

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

4 thoughts on ““Infidels”, “traitors” and “that ugly bearded crew”: fear and loathing in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 5/6)

  • 4th January 2022 at 10:21 am

    Thank you for writing this article! Stunningly informative, interesting, detailed, and well researched; and it really is an important topic. I especially appreciated the article’s organization, citations, pictures, and especially your concluding comments near the end. Thank you! Sharing this article with friends.

    • 4th January 2022 at 10:59 am

      Thank you so much, Kevin, that’s much appreciated.

  • 22nd January 2024 at 9:00 pm

    Thank you. This is exactly what I was looking for. It doesn’t hurt that it’s so well written!

    • 23rd January 2024 at 10:14 am

      Thank you, Susan.


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