Conrad (2018 Congress)

Michael A. Conrad
(Institute of Art History, University of Zürich)

“Prudence in Play:
Alfonso X’s Libro de acedrex e tablas as a Theory of Decision-Making”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2018)

Session on
“Alfonso X’s Libro de los juegos: Big Results from Small Data”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Linde M. Brocato
2018 Congress Program

[Published on 20 February 2018, with an Update on 3 May 2018 listing selected Publications and Presented Papers]



In its introduction, Alfonso X’s Libro de acedrex dados e tablas makes a crucial tripartite division of
essential game genres: games of strategy, games of pure chance, and combinations of both.  At first
glance, they seem to represent ludic archetypes only; yet on a higher, allegoric level, they stand for
basic types of human experience, raising the question as to what power of judgment is suited best for
dealing with an uncertain future only known to God.  The predominating pragmatic undertone of the
work thus reveals an underlying ethical concern that exceeds the epistemic area of games by far.

Instead, the proposed paper will discuss how games here serve as models of decision-making.  In this
regard, prudence (cordura), the power of judgement identified with the third game genre, takes a key
position, as in the book it is described as a faculty capable of intermediating the two extremes of
rational control and passive reaction to uncontrollable events.

Prudence was a quality and form of knowledge that fascinated Alfonso, who notoriously liked to
fashion himself a sage king.  He considered it a tool for estimating how to deal with the contingencies
of life.  This is not only to be seen in his life-long obsession with astrology, but also in the Siete Partidas,
where prudence is defined as the faculty to “see the things as they are or can be,”1 which intimately
links it to essential properties of contingency.  As recent research has shown, Alfonso’s understanding
of prudence was strongly influenced by Aristotelian and Stoic concepts,2 for whose transmission
especially Mendicants, above all Juan Gil de Zamora, were responsible.3  The proposed ethical reading
of the Libro, which will also allow for a glimpse into contemporary modes of risk perception, would
therefore be incomplete without taking into account some of Juan Gil’s writings.


1 Partida II, t. V, l. 8: “Cordura es la primera de las quatro virtudes que diximos en la tercera ley ante desta que
ha el Rey mucho menester para bivir en este mundo bien derechamente. Ca esta faze ver las cosas e judgar las
ciertamente segund son e pueden ser, e obrar en ellas como deve e non rebatosamente”.

2 The most recent relevant work is:  Mélanie Jecker: “La notion de prudence dans la pensée castillane médiévale
et moderne (1252-1598): du roi Sage au roi Prudent?”, Diss., Paris, 2016. In addition, see J. Ferreiro Alemparte:
“Recepción de las Eticas y de la Política de Aristóteles en las Siete Partidas del Rey Sabio”, Glossae, revista de
historia del derecho europeo 1 (1988), pp. 97–133.

3 Especially important is De praeconiis Hispaniae (1272–1282). Regarding the history — of course, much longer — of
the reception of Aristotle’s Ethics on the Iberian Peninsula see P. Molnár: “Une étape négligée de la réception
d’Aristote en Occident: Averroès, le Liber Nicomachie et la science politique”, in Bazzana, André; Bériou, Nicole;
Guichard, Pierre (eds.): Averroès et l’averro·isme: (XIIe – XVe siècle). Un itinéraire historique du Haut Atlas à Paris
et à Padoue. Lyon, 2005, pp. 265–273.


Dr. Conrad’s Publications (Selected)

“Papierlose Notizen: Zum Gebrauch von Handyfotografie als Mnemotechnik des Alltags», in Henning Lobin, Regine Leitenstern, Katrin Lehnen, Jana Klawitter (eds.), Lesen, Schreiben, Erzählen. Kommunikative Erzähltechniken im digitalen Zeitalter, Frankfurt a. M./New York, 2013, pp. 83–106.

“Entscheidungsspuren: Ludische Interaktion als Quelle interrelationaler Ungewissheit im Spielebuch Alfons’ X. (1283)”, in Friedemann Kreuder and Stefanie Husel (eds.), Spiele spielen. Praktiken, Metaphern, Modelle, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2018, pp. 311-320 (in print).

“Gegner Zeit: Das Zeiterleben im Spiel im Spielebuch Alfons’ X.” for the Swiss Society for the Research of Symbols (in preparation).
“Ist das Spiel schuld? Vorüberlegungen zur Verantwortung ludischen Handelns im Mittelalter” for the proceedings of the workshop “Histories III: Dimensionen der Moral im Spiel”, University of Rostock 2016 (in preparation).

“The Playing Eye: The epistemological function of game miniatures in the late 13th century” for the series “Ludic Cultures, 1100-1700”, edited by Bret Rothstein, Alessandro Arcangeli and Christina Normore (in preparation).

Papers Presented (Selection)

5/9/2014: “Wer ist der wahre Spielverderber? Das Buch der Spiele Alfons‘ X. im Kontext kirchlicher Spielverbote”, Conference “Spielverderber der Geistesgeschichte” (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich).

8/24/2015: “In den Fallstricken des Spielteufels. Zu einer mittelalterlichen Figuration ludischer Diabolisierung”, IFK Academy “Die Regeln des Spiels”, Maria Taferl, Austria, session chairs: Prof. Dr. Thomas Macho (HU Berlin), Prof. Mathias Fuchs (Leuphana University Lüneburg, Gamification Lab) and Prof. Ernst Strouhal (University for Applied Arts, Vienna).

11/19/2015: “Der König und der Teufel: Zur Ambivalenz spielbezogener Kontingenz im Werk Alfons’ X. von Kastilien und León”, University of Fribourg/Freiburg (Switzerland), Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Schmidt and Dr. Ulrich Schädler.

5/15/2016: “Who’s afraid of the gambling devil? Ludic dangers between rationalization and demonization”, 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, chair: Dr. Vanina Kopp, German Historic Institute Paris.

7/13/2016: “A jump into the open:  John Peter Olivi’s theory of free will and risk”, Conference “Risking the Future. Vunerability, Resistance, Hope”, St John’s College, Durham University (UK), Matariki Risk Humanities Network.

8/25/2016: “A Matter of Surprise: Toying as material-discursive art of the possible“, Joint European Philosophy Conference of the Society for European Philosophy and the Forum for European Philosophy, Regent’s University London.

4/6/2017: “Das spielende Auge. Über visuelle Strategien im Spielebuch Alfons’ X.”, Podiumsdiskussion”, Jitter’s Wunderblock No. 26 (public talk), Instituto Cervantes Berlin.

5/13/2017: “The Playing Eye: Game Miniatures as Mimetic Instructions”, 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo (Michigan)

5/19/2017: “Mechanisms of Trust. Board games as agents of social reliability in the Middle Ages”, Board Games Studies Colloquium XX: Models, Metaphors, Meanings, University of Copenhagen.

7/20/2017: “Zufall aus Papier: Zum Kartenspiel als materielle Praxis im Spätmittelalter”, Conference “Spiele in der Vormoderne”, Humboldt University Berlin.

11/3/2017, “Hearing coexistence: On the spatiality of sound and acoustic desires in objective encounters“, Performance Lecture, Sounding Out the Space: An International Conference on the Spatiality of Sound, Dublin School of Creative Arts, Dublin Institute of Technology.

5/11/2018: “Prudence in Play: Alfonso X’s Libro de acedrex e tablas as a Theory of Decision-Making,“ 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA (sponsor: Research Group on Manuscript Evidence; organizer:  Linde M. Brocato).  Abstract above.

7/3/2018, “Playing Memory: Thomas Murner’s Didactical Games as Material-Discursive Practices,” 25th International Medieval Congress, Leeds.