Home » History » Imperator Totius Hispaniae? Military Leadership, the “Reconquista” and Imperial Authority during the Reign of Alfonso VII (r. 1126-1157)

Imperator Totius Hispaniae? Military Leadership, the “Reconquista” and Imperial Authority during the Reign of Alfonso VII (r. 1126-1157)

This is the third and final installment of my short series on the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris (for part I: and part II: which has sought to explore some of the implications of Alfonso VII’s imperial coronation in 1135 in both contemporary chronicles as well as modern scholarship. In this piece, I want to look a bit more concretely at how the Chronica seeks to represent the authority of Alfonso VII by looking particularly at two elements: the role of military leadership and the role of Alfonso VII as a “holy warrior” against Islam in the Iberian peninsula.

Royal Authority and Rebellious Nobles: Alfonso VII as Virtuous Christian Prince and Pacifier of the Realm

From the outset, it is important to note that the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris is not the only source in which Alfonso VII is designated as imperator, since this title appears to have been utilized quite regularly from 1126 onwards in royal charters issued in the kingdom of León. [1] However, the Chronica is perhaps the most important twelfth-century text which clarifies in concrete terms what this title was intended to convey with regard to royal sovereignty. The chronicler declares that God worked His will through Alfonso VII “so that the salvation of the people of Christ in the midst of the earth might be achieved” in order to underscore the relationship between his sovereign’s reign and the divinely-ordained destiny of the Christian peoples in the Iberian peninsula.[2] Alfonso is also depicted as succeeding his mother, Queen Urraca (r. 1109–1126), and acceding to the throne of León with divine endorsement.[3] He is represented throughout the text as a just sovereign who is concerned with peace and security throughout the realm since it was conducive to Christian unity in the face of an increasingly-powerful Muslim threat.[4]

According to the Chronica, Alfonso VII “bestowed customs and laws upon all his kingdom, just as they had been in the time of his grandfather Alfonso [VI],” and he “commanded all the judges to eradicate severely vice in those men who were discovered to be acting contrary to justice and to the decrees of kings, nobles, authorities, and judges.”[5] The Chronica constantly contrasts the virtuousness and justice of Alfonso VII with the figure of Alfonso I of Aragón, who is represented as a perjurer, opportunistic, and deceitful in all ways.[6] The author even has one of Alfonso I of Aragón’s bishops praise Alfonso VII—in the presence of the Aragonese monarch no less—as a just king who was aided by God.[7] This portrayal is reminiscent of the representation of Alfonso VI as an “orthodox emperor” and a pious ruler who humbled himself completely before God that can be found in the Historia Silense.[8] The Chronicon Regum Legionensium, which emphasizes Alfonso VI as the defender of Spanish churches, “Catholic in all respects,” and the imposition of his authority throughout his realm in such a way so as to keep his nobility in line while simultaneously deterring foreign threats can also be compared with the Chronica’s representation of Alfonso VII.[9] Unlike these other chronicles however, the Chronica barely mentions the Visigothic past, save for one, brief reference in connection with the Reconquista.[10]

In Book One of the Chronica, much of the narrative is concerned with the internal politics in Castile and León with particular attention devoted to the relationship between Alfonso VII and the nobility. The author dwells at length upon the rebellion by the powerful counts Pedro and Rodrigo González de Lara and the establishment of royal authority in Castile following the suppression of these nobles.[11] The manner in which Alfonso VII restores/imposes royal authority upon rebellious nobles is remarkably similar to the way in which other, contemporary chronicles in Latin Christendom, notably Abbot Suger’s Deeds of Louis the Fat, describe the same phenomenon. As such, Alfonso VII is represented as “captur[ing] their fortified castles, burn[ing] their estates, and cutting down their vineyards and trees” as punishment for rebellion against his royal authority.[12] As in England and France during the same period the presence of the king and his use of violence in suppressing rebellions was the primary means by which he could assert his authority. The Chronica contains many other additional examples of such punitive measures taken by Alfonso VII against rebellious members of his aristocracy. However, given the recurrence of this rebellions and Alfonso’s constant efforts to quell them, the chronicler struggles to reconcile Alfonso’s imperial claims with his inability to assert his absolute authority within his own kingdom. One particular example in the text, pertaining to the rebellion of Count Gonzalo of Asturias de Ovideo in 1133, illustrates this quite well. Rather than surrendering his fortresses and castles to Alfonso VII as requested, the Chronica explains that Gonzalo continued in his rebellion for a period of over two years until he finally succumbed to the king’s will.[13] The longevity of the rebellion and the inability of Alfonso VII to impose his authority within the very confines of his kingdom therefore raise serious questions about the degree of political control which the king exercised over his own nobles.[14]

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties in the early reign of Alfonso VII the Chronica does emphasize that by 1135 most of the rebellions within Castile had been subdued and “peace and salvation” had been inaugurated within the entire kingdom.[15] It is only following the imperial coronation of 1135 that the Chronica again mentions rebellions against Alfonso’s authority, but “rebellion” of a very different nature, not of nobles against their king but of monarchs against their emperor. In the immediate aftermath of the imperial coronation, both King Afonso of Portugal and King García Ramírez of Navarre openly rejected the assertion of Leonese sovereignty over their territory.[16] The representation of the actions of these kings as “rebellion” against the imperial authority of Alfonso VII is quite telling about the way in which Arnaldo of Astorga sought to portray the authority of the imperator totius hispaniae. While before 1135, the chronicler focuses on the subjugation by Alfonso VII of rebellious nobles, following the coronation the text seeks to underscore Alfonso’s newly-acquired imperial title by casting the sovereigns of Portugal and Navarre in the role of these nobles and the emperor as merely carrying out his kingly function of restoring order and imposing his authority throughout “his” realm (despite the fact that Portugal and Navarre were sovereign kingdoms). Generally, the conflicts between kings in the Chronica are depicted as wars or violations of treaty obligations, but in the case of Navarre and Portugal, the author is insistent on representing the sovereigns of these polities as rebels against the authority of the imperator.

To be sure, the operative assumption on the part of the Chronica in connection with this discussion is that the imperial authority of Alfonso VII was an indisputable fact and, as such, any violation of the obligations of the kings of Navarre and Portugal (who, as vassals, were legally bound to serve the king of León) was undoubtedly an act of rebellion. Moreover, the text explicitly asserts that the authority of the emperor outweighed that of any of his vassals, whether nobles or kings, by declaring that “the power of King García [of Navarre] was small or non-existent.”[17] As such, the subsequent military campaigns waged against Navarre and Portugal are justified within the text as merely the “restoration” of imperial authority and represented in a similar fashion to the earlier descriptions of the suppression of rebellious nobles in Castile. For example, the king is described as invading Navarre and “destroying, plundering, and burning the land and cutting down the trees and vineyards.”[18] Imperial authority, therefore, bears remarkably close similarities to royal authority with regards to the manner in which it was exercised and asserted. In both cases, such an assertion to authority required the physical presence of the figure of Alfonso VII to assert his claims. Clearly, merely claiming to be king or emperor did not make it so.

Reconquista and Imperial Authority: Alfonso VII as Military Leader

As mentioned in my previous post, the broader context of the ongoing Second Crusade and Reconquista plays an instrumental role in the way that the chronicler seeks to represent Alfonso VII. Interestingly, Alfonso and his role vis-à-vis the war against Islam in the Iberian peninsula is represented quite differently in each of the three sections of the Chronica. Book One, which is overwhelmingly concerned with the establishment of Alfonso’s royal and imperial authority, portrays the king as seeking to impose his authority in al-Andalus through raids and conquests. Especially after 1135, the king is represented as devoted to the Reconquista by commanding “all the inhabitants of the whole frontier to form armies continually, to make war on the “infidel Saracens” every year and not to spare their cities or fortresses, but to claim them all for God and Christian law.”[19] Alfonso VII is depicted as personally leading major raids deep into Andalusia, “raiding to the left and to the right [and] occupying all the land and plundering it, burning it as he went, and acquiring many prisoners,” as a means of imposing his authority.[20] In a similar manner to the description of suppressing rebellious nobles, Alfonso is said to have had “burned all the fields, and had all the vines, olive groves and fig trees cut down” in order to demonstrate his power.[21] These tactics, the chronicler tells us, contributed to an increased fear and dread of Alfonso by the “Moabites [Berber Almoravids] and Hagarenes [Iberian Muslims]…who abandoned their towns and lesser castles, and shut themselves up in their strongest fortresses and well-guarded cities. They [even] hid themselves in the mountains…and in the islands of the sea.”[22] The use of punitive measures and organized violence as a means to terrorize the Muslim inhabitants of the regions raided by Alfonso was therefore an effective tactic to impose the authority of the king in al-Andalus. This point is underscored by the following description of the activities of the Leonese army in Andalusia:

“They plundered all the land of Seville, Cordoba, and Carmona, burning the whole area, together with the towns and castles, many of which were discovered to be deserted, for everyone had fled. They took captive countless men and women, just as they had plundered horses and mares, camels and donkeys, as well as sheep and goats beyond reckoning…They destroyed all the mosques they came upon and when they encountered any priests and doctors of their religion they put them to the sword. They also burned all the books of their religion in the mosques.”[23]

This passage, which conveys the massive destruction and extreme violence associated with the raids of Alfonso VII into Andalusia, shows that, like his punitive campaigns against rebellious nobles, violence was a means of imposing royal authority (albeit temporarily), but, unlike the description of his campaigns in northern Spain, the raids against Muslims were far more destructive and had an added element of religious fervor. These raids into al-Andalus also greatly contributed to the prestige and authority of Alfonso VII due to the massive amount of booty and wealth which was accumulated.[24] The raids into Andalusia, therefore, had a two-fold benefit for the king of León: on one hand, they demonstrated his power and prestige to the Muslims of those territories, undermining the authority of the Almoravids, while on the other hand the acquisition of massive amounts of wealth increased his own prestige in northern Spain and ensured the continued loyalty of his nobles. It is also important to mention that the distance traversed by Alfonso and his army was quite massive, even by modern standards, and highlights the emphasis on these raids by the Chronica, which sought to portray the king as regularly campaigning into Andalusia with his troops.

Unlike Book One, which strongly emphasizes the direct leadership of Alfonso VII in the raids into al-Andalus, Book Two focuses more specifically on the role of nobles on the frontier to defend their own territory against the Almoravid threat.[25] The main protagonist of this section of the Chronica is not Alfonso VII as much as it is Muño Alfonso, a Galician nobleman who took charge of the defenses of the frontier and even went on the offensive against the Almoravids.[26] The Chronica justifies Alfonso’s absence from the frontier during this critical period of raiding and counter-raiding by explaining that internal difficulties in Castile and León—which are blamed on the rebellious nobles and the invasions of Alfonso I of Aragón—prevented Alfonso VII from personally attending to the Muslim threat.[27] Nevertheless, Alfonso VII still plays a central role within the text as “the terror of the Ishmaelites,” who raids deep into Muslim territory, acquires a large amount of booty, and conquers Muslim territory.[28] By virtue of his conquest of the Muslim fortress of Oreja, Alfonso VII is even likened to Judaeus Maccabaeus by the author.[29] The 1144 raid led by the king into Andalusia is described in vivid detail in order to reinforce his authority and role as a capable military ruler:

“They destroyed all the land of Baeza and Ubeda and all the countryside of Cordoba and Seville. They reached the border with Almeria and destroyed all the vines, olive groves and fig trees. They cut down and set alight all the orchards, set fire to their towns, villages and hamlets, and sent up in flames many of their castles. They took their men, women, and children captive, and seized a great booty of horses, mares, camels, mules, assess, oxen, cows and every kind of beast, gold and silver, all the valuables which were in their homes and all their possessions: whatever they could lay their hands on…All the kingdom of the Hagarenes from Almeria to Calatrava was destroyed, and there remained but a few very strong cities and castles. After this, the emperor and all his army returned to Toledo carrying with them abundant riches, together with a great victory and peace.”[30]

As can be seen from this account, the scale of the destruction and the scope of the raids into Andalusia were portrayed as a manifestation of Alfonso’s authority and determination to pursue the war against the Muslims. The function of Alfonso VII as a military leader, especially in connection with the war against Islam, is taken up further in the Poem of Almeria, which constitutes the final section of the Chronica. In this poem, Alfonso VII is represented as the true heir of Charlemagne “with whom he is rightly compared” leading the “Hispanic and Frankish peoples” towards victory against the “evil pestilence of the Muslims.”[31] The triumphalist tone of the poem, which announces the imminent end of Islam in the Iberian peninsula and the total victory of Alfonso VII, is matched only by the praise of the poet for the kingdom of León, which he claims “occupies the whole summit of the Hispanic kingdom.”[32] Much of the poem is dedicated to enumerating the valor and virtue of the various nobles who took part in the Almeria campaign of 1147. The focus on the greatness of these nobles is intended to magnify the figure of Alfonso VII all the more, since he is represented as the true leader of the crusade against the Muslims to whom the vassalage of all the aforementioned nobles was due. The depiction of Alfonso VII as military leader within the text is therefore directly related to the broader claims to imperial authority put forth by the author on behalf of the king of León.

Imperator Totius Hispaniae? The Imperial Coronation of 1135 Revisited

With respect to the representation of Alfonso VII as imperator, there is no passage in the text as explicit in conveying this notion as the scene of the coronation:

“On the second day, on which the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles is celebrated, having taken divine counsel, the archbishops, bishops, abbots, all the nobles and commoners and all the people assembled again in the church of Saint Mary [in León], together with King García [of Navarre] and the king’s sister, to proclaim the king emperor, because King García, King Zafadola of the Saracens, Count Ramón of Barcelona, Count Alfonso of Toulouse and many counts and magnates from Gascony and France obeyed him in all things. Having dressed the king in a fine cloak woven with wonderful skill, they placed on his head a crown of pure gold and precious stones, and after having placed a scepter in his hands, King García held him by the right arm and Bishop Arias of León by the left, and together with the bishops and abbots they led him before the altar of Saint Mary, singing the ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ until the end and calling out ‘Long Live the Emperor Alfonso.’”[33]

As is clear from this passage, the primary rationale behind the coronation of Alfonso VII as emperor was the fact that several kings and nobles “obeyed him in all things.” Indeed, the role of vassalage in legitimating the authority and imperial claims of Alfonso is strongly emphasized throughout the Chronica. The author even asserts, rather hyperbolically, that “the border of the kingdom of Alfonso, king of León, was from the great Ocean Sea, that is from Padrón de Santiago, unto the River Rhone” as a consequence of the number of his vassals and their geographic locations.[34]

Within the text, King García Ramírez of Navarre and King “Zafadola” are particularly prominent, and their relationship to Alfonso VII described in considerable detail. For the author, the very scene of the coronation is preceded by a description of the submission of these two figures. “Zafadola” is, in fact, none other than Sayf al-Dawla Aḥmad al-Mustansir billāh (d. 1145), heir to the throne of Zaragoza and descended from the noble family of the Banū Hūd. The status and noble heritage of Sayf al-Dawla are conveyed quite clearly by the Chronica, which describes him as “a Saracen king in Rueda [who] was of the most illustrious lineage of the kings of the Hagarenes.”[35] The submission of Sayf al-Dawla is described at length, with the author emphasizing the hostility of the Muslim king to both the Almoravids and Alfonso I of Aragón as major factors in his decision to ally himself with Alfonso VII.[36] Moreover, the chronicler underscores Sayf al-Dawla’s absolute loyalty to Alfonso by asserting that “he served the king all the days of his life.”[37] Throughout the text, Sayf al-Dawla plays a prominent role as a member of Alfonso’s court, war council, and is often present on the campaigns of the king into Andalusia.[38] His role as an intermediary between Alfonso VII and the Andalusi princes living under Almoravid rule is also highlighted throughout the text, and he emerges as an essential figure in the development of Alfonso’s policies towards al-Andalus.[39] More notably, Sayf al-Dawla is identified in the text itself by Alfonso VII as his “friend,” a proclamation which simultaneously highlights the relationship between the two sovereigns and the unique dynamic of Muslim-Christian interaction in the Iberian peninsula during the twelfth century, which allowed a Leonese monarch to wage war against al-Andalus on one hand, while at the same time proclaiming a descendant of the Banū Hūd to be among his close associates.[40] The submission of Sayf al-Dawla, a noble Muslim king, to Alfonso VII and his loyal service to the latter is underscored by the Chronica in order to reinforce the image of the king of León as imperator in the truest sense, with his vassals being Muslims and Christians, as well as Iberians and Franks.

The submission of King García Ramírez of Navarre is also a particularly important theme throughout the work and, as with the vassalage of Sayf al-Dawla, it is meant to reinforce the imperial sovereignty of Alfonso VII as a monarch to whom other Iberian kings were subordinate. The text mentions how the king of Navarre “came unto [Alfonso’s] presence and promised to serve him for the rest of his life, and he was made a knight of the king of León, who gave him gifts and a lordship.”[41] Similarly, the submission of Ramón Berenguer of Barcelona to Alfonso VII is depicted in a similar light.[42] The imagery utilized in describing the oaths and submissions of these figures to Alfonso merely underscores the importance of the lord-vassal relationship which the text seeks to convey in order to highlight Alfonso’s imperial authority. The text’s emphasis on elaborate ceremonies and rituals to reinforce Alfonso’s role as imperial sovereign are a recurring theme throughout the work. In a passage depicting Alfonso’s entry into Toledo in 1139, for example, the author states that

“when the people heard that the emperor was coming to Toledo, all the nobles among the Christians, Saracens, and Jews all the people of the city went far out of the city to greet him with drums, harps, psalteries, and all kinds of music, each one of them in their own language praising and glorifying God…and calling out ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, blessed are you, your wife and your children and the kingdom of your forefathers, and blessed is your mercy and patience.”[43]

This passage is quite extraordinary in the way it presents the subjects of Alfonso VII—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—as unified in their praise of the sovereign and as equally devoted to him. The focus on the site of Toledo–the imperial city par excellence–is no coincidence and is intended to further underscore the significance of this scene. The representation of the coronation is intended to convey a similar image, whereby Alfonso VII is recognized as sovereign by a diverse group of lords, counts, and kings in order to reinforce his imperial authority.

In this three blogposts, I have sought to raise a few questions about the nature of sovereignty during the reign of Alfonso VII of León-Castile, whose reign is in many ways pivotal for understanding the development of notions of kingship in medieval Christian Spain. By focusing on the way in which the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris represents this monarch as a capable military leader, a just Christian prince, a restorer of order to the realm, and a sovereign to whom not only counts and dukes, but even kings were subordinate, I have tried to demonstrate to readers that the text is a particularly important example of royal propaganda in medieval Europe and deserves further engagement. More specifically, I have attempted to highlight the importance of distinguishing between representation and reality when assessing the authority of kings in the twelfth century. As a brief historiographical overview has shown, there has been much discussion about the practical implications of Alfonso VII’s imperial coronation in 1135 with claims that it represented the culmination of centuries-long political aspirations in the Iberian peninsula to assertions that it was an over-glamorized publicity stunt by a king who was mired in internal struggles with his own nobility. Regardless of whichever side of the debate one falls on, it is quite important to recognize that texts such as the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris and the Poem of Almeria, although certainly valuable in many ways, are rather limited in their ability to convey actual realities of kingship in the twelfth century. Rather, their value lies in their presentation of contemporary attitudes and thoughts about what kingship ought to be. True as that may be, documents like the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris remain invaluable testimonies that greatly illuminate the fascinating world that was twelfth-century Iberia.

[1] Reilly, “The Chancery of Alfonso VII of León-Castilla,” p. 249; Arteta, “Navarra-Aragon y la ideal imperial de Alfonso VII de Castilla,” p. 77

[2] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 162

[3] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 162–163

[4] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 199

[5] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 194

[6] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 168

[7] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 170

[8] Anonymous, “Historia Silense,” in The World of El Cid, p. 64

[9] Anonymous, “Chronicon Regum Legionensium,” in The World of El Cid, pp. 85–86

[10] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 231

[11] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 164–165, 172–175

[12] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 174

[13] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 182

[14] For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the king and nobility in twelfth-century León-Castile, see Barton, Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century León and Castile, pp. 104–147

[15] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 175

[16] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 195

[17] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 198

[18] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 197

[19] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 194

[20] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 179

[21] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 179

[22] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 179–180

[23] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 180

[24] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 181

[25] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 214–219

[26] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 231–237

[27] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 212–213

[28] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 248

[29] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 231

[30] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 241

[31] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 250

[32] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 252

[33] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 193

[34] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 192

[35] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 175

[36] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 175–177

[37] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 177

[38] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” pp. 178–179

[39] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 181

[40] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 245. For more on Alfonso VII and Sayf al-Dawla, see Fitz, Relaciones políticas y guerra, pp. 82–98; Astray, Alfonso VII, pp. 121–124, 130–133

[41] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 190

[42] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 192

[43] Arnaldo of Astorga, “Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris,” p. 229


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_____________. The Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century León and Castile. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997

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_____________. “Yet again Alfonso VI, ‘the Emperor, Lord of [the Adherents of] the Two Faiths, the Most Excellent Ruler’: A Rejoinder to Norman Roth.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 61:2 (1984): 171–181

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_____________. El “Poema de Almería” y la épica románica. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1975

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_____________. “The Chancery of Alfonso VII of León-Castilla: The Period 1116–1135 Reconsidered.” Speculum 51 (1976): 243–261

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