Today, we have a guest post from Jesús R. Velasco, Professor of Spanish at Yale University and author of Dead Voice: Law, Philosophy, and Fiction in the Iberian Middle Ages. Dead Voice offers an exploration of the thirteenth-century law code known as the Siete Partidas—a set of books conceived and promulgated by Alfonso X, King of Castile and León (r. 1252-1282), and created by a workshop of lawyers, legal scholars, and others. In today's post, Velasco brings together the key insights of his book as he analyzes the meaning of the Siete Partidas as a work of legal theory, a legislative document designed to offer practical guidelines for the rendering of legal decisions and the management of good governance, and an unusual text that embraces intellectual disciplines and fictional techniques that normally lie outside legal science.
It was an important day at the library. In the middle of this pandemic, every day spent at the library in the past now acquires a legendary character—but this was really an important day. I was in the process of completing my book, and was about to peruse, with all sorts of oaths and pledges, but no gloves, one beautiful manuscript conveying my main source of study, Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas, a 13th Century vernacular legal codification in seven (siete) parts (partidas). This large piece of legislation was indeed born in the 13th century, but it is still very much alive and active in both the Iberian Peninsula, and in territories that were once part of the Iberian empire—including several states of the USA.
Look at this rectangular piece of parchment now stuck to the inner part of the manuscript’s binding (Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitrina 4-6). It was, in the past, an independent bookmark. It was used in the late fourteenth century, or perhaps the early fifteenth century, by an avid reader of the magnificent manuscript. Such manuscript was prepared in the fourteenth century for an unknown owner but repurposed in the second half of the fifteenth century (likely after 1457) for the use of Alvaro de Zúñiga, Justicia Mayor (let’s say the Attorney General) of the kingdom. He may have paid for the book one gold maravedí and five silver ounces. At the time, these values refer not to specific, coined currency, but to exchange rates—and mean that the book was an expensive production. After Zúñiga’s death in 1488, the codex became the property of the Catholic Monarchs, who preserved it in a black case made out of velour and embroidered with precious stones.
The now inactive bookmark contains the following reference:
tº. 13. Ley 2 ij
sta grda dl rey
According to the system we use in this book, the bookmark refers to Partidas 2.13.2 (Second Partida, title number 13, law number 2), and was inserted to locate the law between fol. 130v and fol. 131r. The reader identified the passage as falling into the category of the “sacred task of protecting the king” (la santa guarda del rey). The same reader left many marks throughout the Second Partida. The Second Partida is entirely devoted to legislating the administration of the kingdom and its main political figures and institutions; titles 1-11 of this Partida are devoted in particular to regulating everything related to the king, his family, and his officers. Title 12 begins with the legislation regarding the people, which encompasses several titles afterwards. Judging by the reading marks, this reader seemed to be especially interested in monarchical politics and the meaning of a jurisdiction centralized on the person of the king from different perspectives.
The bookmark points directly to a part of the legislation where the lawgiver extensively used Aristotle’s treatises on the soul and on aesthetics. The use of the Aristotelian science of the soul serves the purpose of establishing a close link between the king and the people. Some of the questions under consideration in those Aristotelian references regarding the science of the soul reveal the use of texts from the commentators of the Aristotelian corpus known as “Aristoteles Latinus,” that includes Persian, Andalusi and otherwise Muslim and Jewish thinkers from the Mediterranean basin, from the tenth to the early thirteenth century. Those were the translations and commentaries that were read, taught, debated, and frequently forbidden and their theses condemned as heretic ones, in the middle of the university and intellectual debates in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe.
The Partidas grants us the possibility to access those debates from an interesting perspective: a non-philosophical one, a non-academic one, and one that, instead, allow us to understand the process whereby the law begins to invade and appropriate the processes of subjectivation. Indeed, the Partidas are a secular code of legislation. They do codify, rather than compile or collect, a systematic body of laws and the very legal science that explains the existence of the code. This codification is the result of a secular impulse, in which the king sets in motion a workshop of lawyers to work on every single branch of law under the power of the king.
As a secular code, the Partidas constitute a double challenge. On the one hand, they indicate a certain way of appropriation of philosophical corpora, methods, and ideas with the purpose of building the system of legislation. They do it in the vernacular and by exploring a secular jurisdictional system, even in clerical and ecclesiastic matters—the Partidas, we shall remember, also include canon and ecclesiastical law in key parts 1 and 4, always under the jurisdictional power of the king. On the other hand, the Partidas define a secular legal program and a profoundly secular definition of people, that is, the legal subjects. The codification including philosophical knowledge at different levels has this body of secular and vernacular legal subjects as its proper audience, or better yet, as its proper body of clients.
The Partidas constitute an implicit response, by way of legal codification, to the crises, debates, and discussions that were taking place in universities, in intellectual milieus (to which Alfonso X’s adds the workshop, as an intellectual space of inquiry and production that is different to the court or to the palace, but in relation to both, and definitely different from any academic institution), and in the margins of the codices transmitting the legal texts of the ius commune—marginal interventions that amount to hundreds of thousands. Now, the implicitness of the response cannot be neglected: the legislator does not intend for his audience (clients, really) to become involved in this debate—he intends them to stay on the surface of the code as an autonomous and self-referential object.
The bookmark we referred to above delves into the self-referentiality of the book: the reader simply locates the passage without producing any sort of cross-reference. At the same time the bookmark stands for the commitment of Alfonso X, as a legislator, to transform the current legal codification techniques by including philosophical research, philosophical corpora, and different kinds of storytelling and fictional devices. He did it by creating a code that claimed that one did not need to memorize the law literally but, rather, know its profound meaning and know how to interpret it (Partidas 1.1.13).
In order to delve into the particular issues raised by the Partidas, I argue that the theoretical mainframe of this legal codification is its perplexing character. I understand perplexing character—following the conceptualization suggested by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed—as the necessity to study the law by articulating both philosophical thought and tropological interpretation (i.e. an exegesis of the tropes, with a moral and political, but also a transcendent or anagogical interest). In my argument, Alfonso X’s codification, the Siete Partidas, goes a step further by articulating those two forms of thinking not just as a necessary means to study or to interpret the law but as a central procedure to codify it, to produce a legislation. This is why I characterize the Siete Partidas as a “perplexing codification.”
I am not implying that Alfonso used Maimonides’s text in order to codify the Siete Partidas, or that the Guide for the Perplexed was in any way one of the textual sources for the Siete Partidas. Furthermore, I am trying to get away from regular concepts of literary, textual, or cultural influence, which frequently work as a unidirectional and teleological device. What I want to convey is that the Partidas represent an intervention in a long debate on the constitution of the legal code and the legal discipline. The debate itself is vast, although some Muslim philosophers and thinkers focused it in a certain way that I find especially productive: namely, whether legal sources could be understood, proved, or otherwise read and interpreted in the light of philosophical corpora and scientific theories including logic and coming from Greek philosophical sources, and with the participation of tropological hermeneutics. But the question is also longer than those interventions and was alive in other intellectual and legal centers across Europe, beginning, perhaps, with authors like Augustin of Hippo or Basil of Cesarea, and later, intellectual and scholarly centers in Bologna, Paris, or Orléans.
The Siete Partidas are not a philosophical treatise. They remain a legal code. The interest of the book lies not in how the law becomes philosophy (which is not what happens), but rather in how the law crosses disciplines to expand itself; how the legal discipline turns into legal discipline—and ultimately into law—all other external disciplines. This is, I would say, the main contribution of Alfonso X to the crisis on law and philosophy: the legislator is allowed to use philosophy, storytelling, fictional devices, and whatever other sources (even nonverbal sources) for legal purposes, at both the heuristic and the hermeneutical level, but only by buttressing the autonomy of the legal discipline and not by challenging it.