The Bookmark

The Bookmark*

Jesús R. Velasco
Columbia University

To Jerry Craddock

A rectangular piece of parchment, now stuck to the inner part of a Partidas manuscript’s binding (Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitrina 4-6; see) 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, which 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 of the kingdom. He may have paid for the book one gold maravedí and five silver ounces1. It is, indeed, an expensive book. 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:

The Bookmark at BNE VITR/4/6 front inside cover

2 pã
tº. 13. Ley 2 ij
sta grda dl rey

According to the system we use in this project, the bookmark refers to Partidas 2.13.2. 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, interested, as he was, in monarchical politics and the meaning of a jurisdiction centralized on the person of the king2. This reference points directly to a part of the legislation where the lawgiver used extensively Aristotle’s treatises on the soul and on aesthetics. Some of the questions under consideration in those Aristotelian references reveal the use of texts from the commentators of those Aristotelian books. The commentators were those normally published under the label of “Aristoteles Latinus,” that is, Persian, Andalusi and otherwise Muslim and Jewish thinkers from the Mediterranean basin, from the tenth to the early thirteenth century, the very same commentators that were read, taught, debated, and sometimes forbidden and their theses condemned as heretic ones, in the middle of the university and intellectual debates in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe.

Maybe the Partidas provides to us the possibility to gain a different sort of access to those debates. The Partidas are a secular code of legislation—note that I am not saying that they are a body or a corpus of legislation like other legal productions: unlike those, the Partidas are a code. In their book, Ruedi Imbach and Catherine König-Pralong decided to undertake an inquest into the relationship between clerical and secular philosophers in the Middle Ages (especially during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), and determine whether the appropriation of philosophy by secular writers and intellectuals constitutes a specific challenge. Their book, Le défi laïque, not only defends the necessity to understand this specific challenge but also demonstrates how the displacement toward a secular philosophy and secular philosophers also transforms both the contents and the importance of philosophy considered as critical thought3.

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 law at different levels of their composition. 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 use of Aristotelian aesthetics is not the only philosophical body inscribed in the Partidas as law. There are others. We will devote a full chapter to another one, the ethics of friendship, and how this ethics and its politics become a legislative program in the Fourth Partida. The Partidas, indeed, abound in Aristotelian references, including sections of the Politics and its commentators, the arts and philosophy of Rhetoric (in which the legislator also refers to Ciceronian rhetoric) and, of course, the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum4. The latter plays a double role in the legislation, on the one hand, as practical philosophy and practical politics, and on the other hand, as a resource for storytelling (a resource that the codification of the Partidas also enjoys as one of its main building materials).

There are other important levels that still need to be studied. While this books will deal in particular with the questions of the ethics and politics of friendship and the politics of the soul that derive from the use of the corpus of Aristotelian aesthetics, there are other philosophical lines of inquiry that I won’t explore here: questions that have not been favored by traditional research in medieval philosophy, like the theories of contracts, the uses of oaths, the theories of matter, the philosophical consequences of property, problems of optic, and so on, that are also embedded in the Siete Partidas. Other scholars have delved into some of those issues in a more general way, with no specific interest in the Partidas, but with a clear interest in the legal discipline—authors like Alain Boureau, Irène Roser-Catach, Sylvain Piron, Damien Boquet & Piroska Nagy, Elsa Marmusztejn, Marta Madero, among others.

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 something entirely different to the court or to the palace, but in relation to both), 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.

In order to delve into the particular issues raised by the Partidas, I argue that the theoretical mainframe of the legal codification we intend to explore 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 (i.e. an exegesis of the tropes, with a moral and political, but also a transcendent or anagogical interest) interpretation. 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. This intervention is multifaceted and does not have one point of reference alone, but it does one have one specific source. 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.

Likewise, I do not imply that the Siete Partidas are a philosophical book of any sort, or that they constitute a contribution to the disciplines of philosophy. On the contrary, the Siete Partidas remain a legal code, and this is precisely its interest (not how the law becomes philosophy, which is not what happens). Rather, the interest lies in how the law becomes transdisciplinary, only on the condition that 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: philosophy, storytelling, fictional devices, and whatever other sources (even nonverbal sources) can be used for legal purposes, both heuristic and hermeneutics, but only by buttressing the autonomy of the legal discipline and not by challenging it.


* This is part of my future book Dead Voice: Law, Philosophy, and Fiction in the Iberian Middle Ages.

1 The possible indication of the price, probably kept as a memento by the buyer, in the event of a future post mortem inventory and evaluation of the library (indeed, the book seems to have been sold after the owner’s death in 1488), can be found on the “página de guarda.”
2 Unfortunately, there are virtually no studies devoted to this important manuscript. Most reading marks come from the Segunda Partida, the one mostly devoted to politics, administration, and society. The reader left other marks on the other Partidas as well, but not as frequently. Many of the marks of the Segunda Partida are very explicit, and often give us a written marginal note of why such or such passage is notable.
3 Ruedi Imbach & Catherine König-Pralong, Le Défi laïque. Existe-t-il une philosophie de laïcs au Moyen Âge? (Paris: Vrin, 2013).
4 Cf. Jaime Ferreiro Alemparte, “Recepción de las éticas y de la política de Aristóteles en las Siete Partidas del Rey Sabio,” Glossae: Revista de Historia del Derecho Europeo 1 (1988): 97–133. Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui thinks that Alfonso’s knowledge of Aristotle’s Politics does not involve a close familiarity with the actual work but only with the general ideas that had been transmitted by previous thinkers, including Dominicus Gundissalvus (or Gunsissalinus). Cf. Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, “La recepción de la Política de Aristóteles en la España del Renacimiento,” in De re publica Hispaniae: Una vindicación de la cultura política en los reinos ibéricos en la primera modernidad, eds., Francisco José Aranda Pérez and José Damião Rodrigues (Madrid: Sílex, 2008), 211–26. Lidia Lanza, Ei autem qui de politia considerat… Aristotele nel pensiero politico medievale (Madrid: Fédération Internationale des Instituts d’Études Médiévales, 2013).


Velasco, Jesús R. (2017.07.31), «The Bookmark», en 7PartidasDigital. Edición crítica digital de las «Siete Partidas», [fecha de acceso]

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