Editing medieval royal laws from Spain

The start screen of 7 Partidas Digital

Last month I wanted to refresh my blogroll. Among the additions one blog stands out because its name does not start with a letter, but with a number, and it appears now as the very first item of the blogroll, reason enough for further exploration. It is a project for a new edition of laws created by a king with perhaps the best reputation of all medieval kings, at least in modern perception. Alfonso el Sabio, or Alfonso X of Castile, king Alphonso the Wise, wrote the songs of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, and he created a famous law collection, the Siete Partidas (Seven Parts). For a new critical edition of this collection the Spanish team of editors have created the blog 7 Partidas Digital: Edición critica de las Siete Partidas, hosted by the Hypotheses network. In this post I will look at this project and I will try to provide some context for it.

Studying medieval laws

Royal legislation in the Middle Ages is not easy to bring under one common denominator. Scholars such as Sten Gagnér (1921-2000) have helped us much to see legislation in new light, in particular in his Studien zur Ideengeschichte der Gesetzgebung (Stockholm, etc., 1960). Armin Wolf focuses in his research on medieval legislation, in particular in Gesetzgebung in Europa 1100–1500: Zur Entstehung der Territorialstaaten (2nd edition, Munich 1996), and like Gagnér he has written about a great variety of laws and lawgivers, including Alfonso el Sabio (1221-1284). In 2002 the Max-Planck-Institut for European Legal History in Frankfurt am Main could acquire the vast library of Gagnér. Michael Stolleis, for man years the director of this institute and a scholar trained by Gagnér, wrote a moving and most instructive tribute to Gagnér [‘Sten Gagnér (1921-2000), ein großer Lehrer der europäischen Rechtsgeschichte’, Quaderni Fiorentini 29 (2000) 560-569; PDF]. For many years Wolf, too, worked for and at this institute. His fundamental book about medieval legislation first appeared in a volume of Helmut Coing’s Handbuch der europäischen Privatrechtsgeschichte. It is by all means wise to benefit here, too, from the rich resources of this Max-Planck-Institut, starting perhaps with the online catalogue of its library.

Let’s start a tour of the blog 7Partidas Digital, a project at the Universidad de Valladolid. There have been two major adaptations of this legal collection, in the incunabula edition of 1491 (Alonso Díaz de Montalvo) and the edition published in 1555 (Gregorio López), and a semi-official edition in 1807 by the Real Academia de la Historia, but not yet a critical edition. The aim of the project is to bring together all textual sources and present them online, to create an online critical edition and to provide a up-to-date bibliography of relevant scholarship in a Zotero group. The bibliography takes as its starting point the study of Jerry Craddock, The legislative work of Alfonso X. A critical bibliography (London 1986; 2nd edition, 2011). You can consult the 1986-1990 update of Craddock’s bibliography online (eScholarship, University of California). Already the fact that Craddock could adduce manuscripts not earlier included and comment on them should make you aware of the complicated textual tradition of the Siete Partidas and other Alphonsine laws. By the way, Robert Burns added an introduction to the reprint of the English translation of the Siete Partidas by S.P. Scott (first edition 1931; reprint 5 vol., Philadelphia, 2001, 2012).

Logo 7PartidasDigital

The core of the project is the online edition hosted at GitHub which is being created using XML / TEI. TEI stands for Text Encoding Initiative, one of the major metadata standards in creating digital text editions. As for now the project has resulted in editions of some textual witnesses kept at Valladolid. The Siete Partidas is a rather large legal code. The section Léxico explains the incunabula edition in 1491 contains 772,000 words. The first part (Primera partida a.k.a. Libro de los leyes) in one particular manuscript (London, British Library, Add. 20787, sigle LBL) good for more than 165,000 words. The image of a kind of Spanish armada, a fleet with an outsize flagship and many minor vessels around it, is probably a fair description. The project will create a special dictionary for the Siete Partidas, of which the letter Z, the only one already publishedgives you an idea.

The section Testimonios gives you a general overview of relevant manuscripts and their contents, mainly as noted in the Philobiblon project for Iberian medieval manuscripts (Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley), and for a number of them – including LBL mentioned above – extensive descriptions. One of the scholars helping to track down manuscripts with laws issued by Alfonso el Sabio was the late Antonio García y García. A further asset on this web page is an interactive map showing where institutions have relevant manuscripts within their collections. An essential element in this project are the Normas de codificación, the rules for the encoding of the text and the critical apparatus in the XML / TEI pages, and additional guidelines for the transcription of the legal texts.

Access to Alfonso’s laws

Banner BDH

By now you might think all this information does not yet bring you directly to the texts associated with king Alfonso el Sabio, but you could as well admit that some preparation is needed indeed to approach them. I had expected to find here both images of manuscripts and an edition on your computer screen, and therefore I would like to provide you at least with some information about the most important printed editions. A text of the Sieta Partidas was printed twice in 1491 [Las siete partidas de Alfonso X el Sabio, con las adiciones de Alfonso Díaz de Montalvo (Seville: Meinardus Ungut and Stanislaus Polonus, 25 October 1491; GW M42026, online for example in the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica)], and two months later again with the same title [(Seville: Compañeros alemanes, 24 December 1491) GW M42028, online in the Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliográfico (BVPB)]. The Gesamtkatolog der Wiegendrucke (GW) (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) and the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (British Library and CERL) show you concise bibliographical information and lists with extant copies worldwide for both editions rather short lists. The edition by Gregorio de López de Tovar appeared in 1555 and can be viewed online in the BVPB [Las Siete Partidas del Sabio Rey don Alonso el nono (…) (Salamanca: Andrea de Portonariis, 1555)].

The Biblioteca Digital Hispánica brings you not only a number of old reprints, some of them enhanced with useful registers, but also a number of digitized manuscripts. It contains also a digital version of the edition published by the Real Academia de la Historia (Las Siete Partidas del Rey Don Alfonso el Sabio cotejada con varios códices antiguos (…) (Madrid 1807)]. The Hispanic Seminary provides you in its Digital Library of Old Spanish texts in the section for Spanish legal texts with a transcription of the Primera Partida in the 1491 edition. You can find more editions and books about the Siete Partidas in the Catálogo Colectivo del Patrimonio Bibliográfico Español, and for example in the Bibliografía Española en Línea, a service of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, and more specifically in the Repertorio del Medievalismo Hispánico (Institución Milà y Fontanals, Barcelona).

In the midst of all these elements I would almost forget to mention the blog posts of Siete Partidas Digital, to be found under Entradas. The most recent contribution in this second is a full-scale article by José Domingues (Porto) about the Portuguese version of the Siete Partidas and its manuscript tradition (A Tradição Medieval das Sete Partidas em Portugal). The first blog post alerts to the 2015 revised online version of Dwayne E. Carpenter, Alfonso X and the Jews: An Edition of and Commentary on Siete Partidas 7.24 «De los judios» (thesis, University of California, 1986), and to new textual witnesses found in the Archivo de la Real Chancillería de Valladolid, referred to in the edition with the sigle VA4, but alas the links to the finding aid with these archival records and to the article describing them are broken. However, here the project in Valladolid scores with its section on text bearers: The page on VA4 gives you full information, but here, too, you have to reckon with links to Spanish archival records which stem from expired web sessions. You will have to repeat yourself each consecutive step of the search at the rich but cumbersome navigable PARES portal, the digital home to both online inventories and many digitized archival records in Spanish state archives. You will find a quick introduction to Alfonso el Sabio and the texts concerning the legal status of religious minorities in the Siete Partidas in the database of the RELMIN project around the position of these minorities in the medieval Mediterranean, with also some references to basic modern literature, and for each of the relevant texts a translation, an analysis and references to further studies. RELMIN provides you with sometimes both English and French translations.

Normally I would feel rather exhausted, or to be honest definitely feel irritated, to say the least, about such a sorry state of affairs, the combination of a broken link and arduous recovering information using the PARES portal, but this time I can appreciate very much one of the things Sten Gagnér taught his students, not only in his lectures and seminars, but foremost by his own example. At the end of this post I really want to mention something Michael Stolleis made crystal clear in his tribute to Gagnér. He wanted his students to see things for himself in sources, to trace back and check the steps others had set, be they the pioneers and leaders in the various fields of legal history or more average scholars, to see the very words in the sources they found, to assess the meaning and context of words anew. Studying legislation in past and present in all its forms should be an exercise in good thinking, not a slipshod affair, as if you only have to dip your spoon in an ocean of sources. No school, department or faculty can provide you completely with his kind of training, because here your own intellectual honesty and drive to become and be a true historian should work for all you are worth, for all things and people you value most.

A postscript

After the things I siad about the PARES portal I must do justice to the riches of this portal by referring to the wonderful online guide by Scott Cave and Ashleigh Dean, aptly called Taming PARES. Their guide really unlocks this treasure trove!


2 thoughts on “Editing medieval royal laws from Spain

  1. Travis Baker

    Great post. For readers whose Old Castilian is not very good but whose modern English is, the University of Pennsylvania Press republished Samuel Parsons Scott’s 1931 translation of Siete Partidas in 2001. According to Robert I. Burns, ‘It is a sound translation, with the occasional flaws inevitable in the genre’.

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Travis, thanks for your comment! I put in a reference to Scott’s translation, because I was genuinely surprised that any translation of the Siete Partidas is available. Scott deserves respect for his courage to translate difficult legal texts. I used the Online Medieval Sources bibliography, http://medievalsourcesbibliography.org, to trace his translation.


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