An Aging Warrior – King James I of Aragon

Christian Neumann, DHI Rom

Zusammenfassung: Obwohl zu König Jakob I. von Aragon und seiner Zeit eine umfangreiche Forschungsliteratur vorliegt, findet sich allerdings bisher kein Beitrag, der sich speziell seinem Alter(n) widmet. Abgesehen von Jakob I. kann man feststellen, dass das Thema Alter(n) und Herrschaft im Allgemeinen bislang nur wenig Aufmerksamkeit erfahren hat. Von den zahlreichen Fragen, die diesbezüglich gestellt werden könnten, möchte ich mich auf vier relevante Aspekte konzentrieren und sie innerhalb des zur Verfügung stehenden Rahmens darstellen: Beginn und Konzept des Alters, Kriegsführung, Krankheit und Gesundheit sowie Regierungsdauer.

Abstract: Although King James I of Aragon is a well-studied monarch, no articles specifically dedicated to his aging and old age are available. Apart from James’s case, it is evident the subject of old age and rulership, in general, has received fairly little attention to date. From the many questions that could be posed concerning this topic, I would like to focus on four relevant aspects and comment on them within the space available here, namely the onset and concept of old age, warfare, illness and health, and the length of reign.

In 1274, King James I of Aragon arrived at the Second Council of Lyon. At that time, he was already 66 years old, and hence the question arises whether he himself accepted his old age. From all accounts, it does not seem to be the case because he had his horse perform tricks with him as the rider to impress everyone present from which it is evident that James intended not to let his age show. According to his version of the event in his “Llibre dels Fets,” he was successful in this endeavor because the noblemen, most of whom were certainly much younger, then said: “Lo, the king is not so old as people said! He could still give a Turk a good lance thrust.”

Even though some monographs and a considerable number of collective volumes on old age have been published so far, the aging process of rulers has received little attention. This also applies to James I as – despite him being a well-studied king – there are currently no articles specifically dedicated to his aging and old age. The minor and seemingly marginal episode mentioned above poses several questions regarding a rulerʼs old age:

1. From which age was a ruler considered to be old? 

2. How did aging rulers deal with the expectation of their subjects to lead wars?

3. How are the illnesses of aging rulers depicted and how were they dealt with?

4. How was a long reign perceived?

Although it is impossible to provide comprehensive answers to these questions within the limited scope of this post, I nevertheless intend to offer some brief explanations concerning these aspects. A much fuller analysis of both King Jamesʼs old age and the topic of aging rulers, in general, can be found in the upcoming book edited by the author “Old Age before Modernity. Case Studies and Methodological Perspectives, 500 BC‒1700 AD” (forthcoming in early 2023 as part of the series “Online-Schriften des DHI Rom. Neue Reihe”). This collection of essays, written by experts from several humanistic disciplines and gerontology, analyzes old age and aging in the premodern period, especially in the Middle Ages. In this blog, I would like to mention two articles that concern Iberian topics: José Miguel Andrade Cernadas (Santiago de Compostela) studies old age with reference to Galician monasteries, thereby addressing questions of intergenerational relationships, demography, and gender. Daniela Santoro (Palermo) deals with medicine and physicians at the royal court of Sicily over the course of several centuries, including the Aragonese period.

Now, returning to the questions raised above, it is apparent that King Jamesʼs case shows that a rulerʼs old age did not start from a specific chronological threshold. In the medieval period, the number 50 was symbolically laden because, in the context of many conceptions of the ages of man, it marked the onset of old age, “senectus,” or the onset of a period of transition into it that was called “gravitas.” However, there was no universally accepted definition for the start of old age and, in any case, one was not extremely old at 50. For medieval people, it seems to have been more relevant how long a person could perform their duties: the so-called “functional age” mattered more than the exact number of years of the life of the individual.

Although King James might have stayed in fairly good health until the early 1270s, he was then certainly beyond the age limit that was considered appropriate for military actions. Nevertheless, he was the head of state and military leader of his realm who was greatly honored for his conquests in his youth and middle years and his personal ambition to fulfill this role even in his old age never ceased. As an orphan, he was raised by the Knights Templar to be a “warrior king,” and consequently focused on his “deeds” which he considered to be ordained by God. Historical research has shown that James was also a proficient lawgiver and administrator. While such activities could have been more suitable roles for an elderly monarch, the “Llibre” only concedeslittle space to them which suggests that it was the role of the warrior which mattered most to the king.

In the “Llibre,” illnesses are very rarely mentioned and were considered to be punishments from God. In the late 1260s, James still traveled through his entire kingdom on horseback to organize a crusade to the Holy Land. Although it does not seem impossible that the king remained in good health, one has to ask whether his continuous battles and journeys on horseback did not take a certain toll on him. According to the “Llibre,” he became seriously ill only in his final days, but this is most probably a narrative construction because the portrayal of an aging king who is plagued by illness cannot be aligned with his self-image of a valiant knight. In studying his itinerary, one can observe that the number of journeys he undertook and the distances he traveled diminished considerably during the last two years of his reign.

As James ascended the throne as a boy in 1213, his reign extended over 63 years which is an extraordinarily long time for the Middle Ages and the king interpreted it as a sign of divine providence. In his deathbed speech to his son Peter, James compares the length of his rule to that of the biblical kings David and Solomon who reigned for 40 years – James reigned for much longer than they did. Due to his outstanding conquests, the chronicler Ramon Muntaner revered the king as an ideal ruler of a “golden age.” Accordingly, Muntaner depicts James as living a “good” old age and dying a “good” death. 

King James I’s case has shown that concepts of aging and old age are historically variable. If we compare our present situation with the Middle Ages, we can observe that the societal importance of chronological age has increased significantly. Through the “Llibre,” one can grasp fairly well the self-image of an aging king that cannot be studied for many other rulers: this image was primarily built on the role King James had in his youth and middle years. Writing about illnesses and aging processes cannot be reconciled with this image and the heroic narrative of the “Llibre”. Furthermore, we can see how much the theological and spiritual dimension of old age mattered to people in the Middle Ages. In the future, it would be desirable for historical research to further explore these aspects and manifold others related to old age and rulership, of which only very little has been expounded here.

Selected bibliography

The “Llibre dels Fets”: Les Quatre grans Cròniques, vol. 1: Llibre dels feits del rei En Jaume, ed. by Ferran Soldevila, rev. by Jordi Bruguera/Maria Teresa Ferrer i Mallol, Barcelona 2008 (Memòries de la Secció Historico-Arqueològica 73). 

On James I: Ernest Belenguer, Jaume I i el seu regnat, Lleida 2007; Stefano Maria Cingolani, Jaume I. Història i mite d’un rei, Barcelona 2007 (Biografíes i memòries 68); FerranSoldevila, Vida de Jaume I el Conqueridor, Barcelona 1958 (Biblioteca catalana 14); Maria Teresa Ferrer i Mallol (Ed.), Jaume I. Commemoració del VIII centenari del naixement de Jaume I, 2 vols., Barcelona 2011–2013 (Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 91–92). 

On old age in the Middle Ages: Thijs Porck, Old Age in Early Medieval England. A Cultural History, Woodbridge 2019 (Anglo-Saxon Studies 33); Shulamith Shahar, Growing Old in the Middle Ages. London-New York 1997; Georges Minois, Histoire de la vieillesse en Occident de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, Paris 1987 (Nouvelles études historiques). 

On the ages of man: Elizabeth Sears, The Ages of Man. Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle, Princeton 1986. 

An introduction to gerontology: Hans-Werner Wahl/Vera Heyl, Gerontologie – Einführung und Geschichte, Stuttgart 22015 (Grundriss Gerontologie 1).

Photo: Head of an Old Man by Palma il Giovane (Jacopo Negretti) ©Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano, URL: [] (07.12.2022).

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Christian Neumann (2022, 7. Dezember). An Aging Warrior – King James I of Aragon. Blog der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Iberomediaevistik. Abgerufen am 22. Juni 2024, von

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