IN his lengthy and detailed description of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the Christian crusading victory over the Almohads fought in Andalucía in the year 1212, the French Cistercian chronicler Alberic of Trois-Fontaines consistently refers to Alfonso VIII of Castile, the principal sponsor and participant in the battle of Las Navas, as rex parvus, or the ‘little king’. After repeating this epithet several times, it apparently occurred to Alberic that some explanation might be in order:
Alfonso, king of Castile and Toledo, was called ‘little king’ of Spain, although he was greater than some in age and excellence, and father-in-law of others. About this, when it was asked by a certain monk why he was called ‘little king’, he responded because, having inherited the throne when he was very small upon the death of his father King Sancho, from his infancy he was called ‘little king’, a nickname which stuck with him all through his life; but our people say because after the time of Charlemagne, who restored the Spains, his ancestors were called ‘little kings’ to differentiate them from the ‘great’ Charles.
To a French historian writing in the first half of the thirteenth century, such an explanation certainly rang true. It was generally understood among French audiences of the period that Charlemagne had conquered all of Spain from ‘the high land down to the sea’, as the Song of Roland tells us. The historical memory of Charlemagne's actual, somewhat modest, campaigns in the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, which established Carolingian control over a marcher province centred on Barcelona, had grown into an elaborate legend which credited to the emperor the conquest of the whole of Spain. Along with this conquest, naturally from Alberic's perspective, came the practical subjection of Spain's Christian rulers to the status of sub-kings, or reges parvi.
Alberic's characterization of Alfonso VIII as a ‘little king’ stemmed from his wholesale acceptance of the legendary exploits of Charlemagne and their incorporation into his own chronicle. As the chapters in this volume demonstrate, Charlemagne and his accomplishments, both real and mythical, cast massive shadows across the Middle Ages, and could profoundly influence interpretations of history and events.