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Poetry and Politics in Medieval Spain

Professor Connie Scarborough explores the works of Spanish monarch Alfonso X in her new book.

Date: 2/18/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Connie Scarborough,
In a new book called “A Holy Alliance: Alfonso X’s Political Use of Marian Poetry,” Romance Languages and Literatures Professor Connie Scarborough explores the poetry of medieval Spanish leader Alfonso X.

Q) Tell us about your work.

Professor Connie Scarborough.
Professor Connie Scarborough's research focuses on medieval literature in Spain.

A) “A Holy Alliance: Alfonso X's Political Use of Marian Poetry” explores how the religious poetry penned by the 13th-century Spanish monarch, Alfonso X, carried strong political messages. He composed some 420 songs that praised the Virgin Mary and recounted miracles attributed to her in a collection entitled “Cantigas de Santa Maria (The Songs of Holy Mary)”. While we can't deny the genuine faith expressed in these songs, the king also used these songs to emphasize how Mary especially aided his political and military enterprises. 

The idea for this book had been brewing for some time and, as the role of religion in politics is still a current topic of debate, I felt a need to point out that at many key political moments, faith has been used as a tool to advance one's own agenda. Alfonso X was still dealing with territories in the peninsula under Muslim rule and part of his arsenal of propaganda in support of the Christian cause was his voluminous collection of songs for the Virgin.

Q) Why did you pick 13th-century Spain to study the relationship of religion and politics? 

A) While much has been written about this topic—especially for example, the role of politics in King Henry VIII's decision to break with the Catholic Church—Spain had unique political challenges in the Middle Ages. The Reconquista (i.e., the military and economic movement to drive the Moors from Spanish soil) was not primarily a battle of religions, but rather of control of territories and tributes. There were very tangible ties and complicated relationships between the Muslim rulers in Spain, those in Northern Africa and the Christian rulers. As the Christian king of most of Spain, Alfonso was constantly faced with skirmishes with his Muslim “neighbors.” This clash with the "Muslim world" also seemed very timely given our current involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

A Holy Alliance: Alfonso X

Q) What do you hope your book will add to the current debate, not only about the role of religion in politics, but our historical understanding of the clash between Christian and Islamic cultures?
A) First, it is very difficult to separate religious belief, whether sincere or simply employed as a popular rhetorical device, from political discourse. In contemporary times, religion is intertwined with the whole question of "social values." The 13th century had no concept of the separation of church and state and powerful church leaders were often members of important political families. Alfonso was aware that the values and political agenda he wanted to advance could be cleverly embedded in text ostensibly designed to promote devotion to the Virgin Mary. This was, of course, not innovative on Alfonso's part but few critics have noted the propagandistic potential of this important medieval collection of Marian songs.

Q) What is your next project? 

A) I am working on an application of ecocriticism or "green readings" to several medieval Spanish texts. While this approach has been used to reexamine medieval English texts, such readings have not been undertaken in Spanish studies. Ecocriticism moves away from the anthropocentric readings of texts and focuses on how the natural world is represented, not just as backgrounds or settings, but as participatory agent in the structure and content of the work.

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