Alcázares, setas y fueros

As most readers of this blog know, I am spending a month in Madrid, lecturing on growth in groups and otherwise enjoying myself.

Yesterday, a group of us went to Segovia:

View from the alcázar

The city is notable for (a) its aqueduct, which the Romans must have built at least in part to show off; (b) its fortress, or alcázar. Before the Arab conquest of Spain, there must have been no impressive fortresses, pillows or pins.

All of their names, tellingly, start with al.

Other than that, there is also a cathedral that looks very bare from the outside. We didn’t go in, as at that point my colleagues and I had as our sole goal to find a place that served fresh wild mushrooms for lunch. Find it we did:

The same place had what it advertised as Polish apple cake on the menu – delicious. It also had the virtue (or pleasurable lack of virtue?) of calling itself a vegetarian restaurant while also offering meat dishes for carnivores like some of my friends.

Ah – on the way there, I got what looks like a very nice eraser (“miga de pan” type) from a bookshop that, as we then realized, specialized in books with titles such as Como curar y reprimir la (homo)sexualidad and Cazando jabalíes con el Caudillo.

Perhaps I am taking a little artistic license here, but only very little. There was indeed a book about hunting with Franco (an activity that, the blurb asserted, revealed his most intimate side) and, if memory serves me well, “homo” was in a different, lighter color that I had trouble perceiving at first.

On the way to the Alcázar, there was a plaque stating that Isabella and Fernando had sworn to guardar los fueros de Segovia. Early modern legal language can be a great deal like mathematical language, in that everyday words are used to refer to something both precise and unfamiliar in a way that is very disconcerting to novices. (What does a peasant think of when first hearing of a normal subgroup?)

As for the Alcázar itself: it has a big hole next to the bridge (as you might expect; my understanding is that moats don’t usually go all the way around a castle) and a rather tall tower; I took the first picture above from the top. The spiral staircase is rather narrow – a friend pointed out that this was done so on purpose, so that ascending attackers could be pierced by horrid spears more easily. He said, furthermore, that spiral staircases up medieval towers all tend to wind around the same way, spearmen being largely right-handed. Wouldn’t a tower of the other chirality, staffed by left-handed spearmen, be in fact harder to storm? At least it would take some getting used to, assuming one were a habitual attacker.

The main body of the alcázar is now taken by a museum, full of historical artifacts, some of them of relatively recent manufacture. What needed some explanation in one of the first rooms was not so much the fascist chicken (really a reappropriated historical symbol that existed before) as the motto: “Tanto F Y Monta” is short for “Tanto monta, monta tanto/Isabel como Fernando”. This would be translated into good English as “madame porte la culotte”.

A large room is surrounded by plaster statues of the rulers of what would later become Spain. Curiously, the statues are disposed cyclically, so that the first king of Asturias, Pelayo, adjoins Isabel la Catolica, who, as first monarch of (essentially) unified Spain, is the last one in the list. Or did that honor belong to Joanna the Insane?

Some of the inscriptions were eye-catching. Many of the early kings have after their names, not I, or II, but “el unico”; apparently, kings are like movies, in that they do not get “I” after their names if they do not have sequels of the same name. Perhaps it is the same elsewhere and I hadn’t noticed for this long. Actually, it makes some sort of sense that the early names haven’t been repeated – not so much because the first kings were really local chieftains who were called kings only by themselves, and that only on odd days when singing in the shower, but rather because it is rather unlikely that more than one person would ever call his son Silo. But there was more than one Fruela and one Ordoño!

Ordoño. I hope I have not created a fashion.

Also, what is up with all those Dark-Age queens called Urraca?


About valuevar

I am a number theorist with side interests in combinatorics and group theory.
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