'A painful, unresolved question torments Spain's identity'

Old tensions come to life as medieval Spanish synagogue goes online

Via his ‘massive open online course,’ professor teaches pupils the world over about Spain’s early version of globalization

Santiago Palomero Plaza, director of the Museo Sefardi, giving a massive online class in the Deciphering Secrets series. (Screenshot/Courtesy)
Santiago Palomero Plaza, director of the Museo Sefardi, giving a massive online class in the Deciphering Secrets series. (Screenshot/Courtesy)

Prof. Roger Louis Martinez Davila addresses his class under the soaring ceiling of the Museo del Transito, or Museo Sefardi — a 14th-century synagogue, now museum, in the historic Spanish city of Toledo.

But his students are not inside with him: They are watching via a video that’s part of his “massive open online course,” or MOOC, entitled Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Toledo, which was available on the edX online learning platform until November 27.

Once, he tells his students, Sephardim worshiped in this gorgeous space, but after the completion of the Reconquista in 1492, they were either expelled or converted.

“It’s one of the oldest synagogues in the city,” Martinez says, “as well as one of the most important structures, religious structures, that survive until today.”

In medieval Spain, and notably in Toledo, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side before the Reconquista and the Inquisition. It’s a subject that Martinez, a University of Colorado history professor currently in Madrid as a Marie Curie fellow with the Universidad Carlos III, has been exploring online since 2014 with his Deciphering Secrets series of MOOCs.

An emerging platform

Today, millions of students worldwide take courses through the relatively recent phenomenon of online learning. As in a traditional classroom, they attend lectures, take quizzes and complete projects. But professors like Martinez are raising the bar.

Martinez not only shared the fascinating story of coexistence, or convivencia, in Toledo — he helped his students experience it through video and sound.

In addition to the Museo Sefardi, students virtually toured the Museo de Santa Cruz, a Renaissance-era structure with connections to Toledo’s Islamic and Christian rulers, as well as archival institutions of documents from the medieval era and afterward. Students also learned paleography by transcribing actual medieval documents about Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents.

“The intensity of the course is thoroughly overwhelming and I tend to work seven days a week in the weeks preceding a course and once the course is live,” Martinez told The Times of Israel in an email.

In December, using a different online platform, Coursera, he will tackle an even more ambitious goal in a new course, Deciphering Secrets: Coexistence in Medieval Spain: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

It is “the course I have always wanted to teach,” he wrote, “because it drives at larger questions that remain perennial concerns. How do we coexist when we are all so different? Or, are we that different?”

Coexistence has reentered headlines in Spain in a different context — the Catalonia crisis. Martinez wrote that Catalonia will definitely be addressed in December’s course.

“The parallels between medieval and modern Spain are uncanny especially in terms of the Catalonian issue,” he wrote. “There is a painful and unresolved question that torments Spain’s identity. Is there ‘one, eternal’ Spain or are there many Spains? There is simply no way to avoid this living argument that is now 1,300 years old.”

Is there ‘one, eternal’ Spain or are there many Spains?

Martinez has been an early enthusiast of using MOOCs to discuss such topics.

In his case, he had a dual goal: transmitting a message that coexistence in medieval Spain was “a lot more complex” than previously thought; and marshaling help for a citizen-scholar project transcribing manuscripts that were “not too hard to read.” He wanted to “put together one course that would entice people from all environments.”

A global demographic

The term “massive open online course” dates to the beginning of the millennium, but it was 2012 that The New York Times called “The Year of the MOOC.” Platforms launched that year included edX and Coursera, which each involve partnerships with prestigious universities to offer open-source content and unlimited enrollment.

EdX was founded by Harvard and MIT and the nonprofit now has over 12 million online learners, representing 52 countries and 32 languages. Students can choose from over 1,600 courses.

Martinez’s initial course, Manuscripts of Medieval Spain, attracted 14,000 students who helped him transcribe “important documents” from the Spanish city of Plasencia. Research from his time in Plasencia helped with his upcoming book “Creating Conversos: The Carvajal–Santa María Family in Early Modern Spain” about a famous converso family.

A folio from one of the newly released manuscripts from the Archivo y Biblioteca de la Catedral de Toledo. Prof. Roger Louis Martinez Davila and his students are transcribing these tomes manually. (Courtesy)

Since offering that first course, the numbers have decreased — he hopes the Toledo course will have reached 1,500 students by November 27 — but he says this is a good thing.

“It’s a more international group, self-selected,” Martinez said.

The median student age in the course is 37 years. Of them, 38 percent hold an undergraduate college degree and 41.2% hold a master’s or doctorate. Twenty-nine percent are in the US, 9% percent in Spain, 7% percent in the UK, and 5% percent in Canada; the rest are from 94 other countries.

These students include William Bateman, a former civil servant, shire councilman and emergency services operator from New South Wales, Australia, who has been one of Martinez’s earliest students.

“A big incentive to do the course was that it was original research,” Bateman wrote of Martinez’s first MOOC. “We would be looking at documents from the years 1400-1500 and trying to read the marks and not translate, but transcribe. This really drew me in. Original research, me? A 73-year-old retiree. Unbelievable. What a chance.”

A cultural renaissance

In addition to taking Martinez’s courses, Bateman served as an online teaching assistant. He marvels over what he’s learned.

“Who would believe that a Christian convert from Judaism could wind up a Cardinal in Rome, or that leading Moorish families owned large vineyards and made wine,” Bateman wrote.

Cathedral of Toledo. (Roger Martinez/CC-SA)

Or, he added, that a Spanish Christian nobleman was “armed by a Jewish armorer and clothed in finery made by a Muslim tailor, both who were his immediate neighbors.”

Laura Gutierrez, who has a bachelor’s in international relations and is a stay-at-home mother of two daughters in Monterrey, Mexico, was interested in learning about connections between her home country and Spain.

Also, she wrote in an email, “the concept of coexistence and cooperation between religious groups is very appealing to me, and to discover that so-called ‘globalization’ is not as new as we think it is, that people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living and working together, struggling and fighting for many centuries.

“I wanted to see old manuscripts and be able to read them, see the primary sources and understand the content. For me, it’s like traveling back in time,” she wrote.

The time travel continued with Toledo, the “City of Three Cultures” impacted by Christian Spain, Muslim al-Andalus and Jewish Sepharad during the medieval period of 700-1492.

Martinez called it “such a kind of cosmopolitan city for the time period,” and a “center of Sephardim.”

Under Islamic dynasties that ruled after capturing the city in the early eighth century, Toledo had “lots of study centers, learning centers, and a vibrant Jewish community,” Martinez said.

Tolerance initially continued after the Christian reconquest in 1085, particularly under King Alfonso X the Wise in the 13th century, when “Jews, Muslims and Christians worked side by side translating manuscripts in a school of translators,” Martinez said.

He added that in the latter part of the Middle Ages, “the Jewish community of Toledo was probably one of the most affluent,” with two synagogues that remain to this day — the 12th-century Santa Maria la Blanca and the 14th-century El Transito.

A Mudejar Door Knocker from Spain, circa 1475. (The Hispanic Society of America/ New Mexico History Museum)

Records from the Cathedral of Toledo showed that Christian, Muslim and Jewish community members interacted in unexpected ways.

“If you wanted a good carpenter for the very best chapel, a mudejar ceiling for a synagogue or a home, you hired a Muslim, a crypto-Muslim or Morisco,” Martinez said.

“It’s what you see in the records, all the accounts. People hired Mohammed the carpenter to build a new chapel. Not a Christian — a Muslim. They hired the best,” he said.

A document from 1395 indicated that a Jewish couple, Mose (Moses) and Jamylla, rented one of the city’s mills.

“[Authorities were] certainly aware of religion and different distinctions, but trusted Mose and Jamylla to do a good job managing the mill,” Martinez said. “They did not give it to a knight or a churchman, they gave authority to a Jewish family. It’s a huge difference with other places, between Spain and other Jewish communities across Europe.”

He noted that “Jamylla, later on, becomes Dona Jamylla, ‘Lady Jamylla,’ a noble,” and that in records, he found “all these references to noblemen and noblewomen who are Jewish… There’s a significant number of Jewish nobles, Muslim nobles, circulating in the Castilian community.”

Downward spiral

But this did not last. The inspiration behind El Transito, Samuel ha-Levi, who served as treasurer to the aptly nicknamed King Pedro the Cruel, died after being tortured by his former patron.

In the 1390s, “there were horrible, murderous riots,” Martinez said. “Jews were murdered or forced to convert or leave the peninsula.”

A century later, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella completed the Reconquista.

“These Catholic Monarchs exiled Jews and Muslims and trained their suspicions on their descendants, conversos and moriscos, who were considered religiously, linguistically, and culturally suspect,” wrote Martinez, a former president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies.

The Expulsion [of the Moriscos] at the Port of Denia by Vicente Mostre (1613). (Public domain)
The synagogues would become churches with new Christian names — Santa Maria la Blanca, Nuestra Senora del Transito. Spain’s past would become a subject of heated debate between 20th-century historians Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz and Americo Castro.

“Sánchez-Albornoz forcefully dismissed Jewish and Muslim cultural, intellectual, and institutional contributions,” Martinez wrote, while Castro “rejected the one, eternal Spain ‘myth’ and instead coined the term ‘convivencia,’ or coexistence, to describe Spain’s culture as one that was hybridized and a blending of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim components. This is the essence of Spain and its history — which story do you believe given the evidence that is available to us?”

Modern pedagogy

Martinez found many ways to share the story of convivencia in Toledo.
He not only narrated lectures himself, he brought in guest lecturers from local institutions.

Student Annette Brindle of the United Kingdom particularly praised the lecture from Santiago Palomero Plaza, director of the Museo Sefardi — which, she wrote, “gave an insight into the richness of the Jewish culture of this time and added depth to understanding when listening to lectures describing historic events and the tragic outcome.”

Palomero gave an inside look at the synagogue — which he said “exceeds the normal size of medieval synagogues, not only in Spain but in Europe as well.”

The video showed the synagogue’s distinctive architecture, such as Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions “mixed together with total naturality and tranquility,” Palomero said.

He likened them to only one other synagogue — in Cordoba — and to the Moorish citadel of the Alhambra, where a Kufic script covers the structure. And the synagogue was designed to allow “a special light” to illuminate the interior, symbolizing divinity, Palomero said.

Students also transcribed documents from the period. For those who do not speak Spanish, Martinez had reassurance: “Spanish and English, like other western European languages, have the same alphabet. An ‘A’ is an ‘A’ is an ‘A.’”

He teaches “a methodical process of scanning, identifying letters, looking for combinations of letters, finding common words like ‘casa’ [house] from a ‘C’ and ‘A’… [and] finding cognates with a common spelling across languages… As we slowly start to decipher, just about everyone can see 80% of the writing on a document.”

Students could choose from beginner, intermediate or advanced-level document portions for their final project.

“I am taking my time and working carefully,” Brindle wrote. “The advanced manuscripts are a real challenge.”

Gutierrez also chose the advanced manuscripts, “and it has challenged me like no other course had in the paleographic area,” she wrote. “But I love challenges so I really like it!”

Next month, it’s on to new challenges for Martinez with the upcoming Coursera course.

I want to support a more complicated and compelling story of medieval coexistence

“This course is a departure from my other courses on transcribing manuscripts because I want to support a more complicated and compelling story of medieval coexistence,” Martinez wrote. “We do a great disservice to ourselves and ancestors when we describe coexistence in medieval Spain as a magical age of interreligious peace and harmony. It wasn’t. Nor was it a fanatical age that pitted Christians, Muslims, and Jews in a grand civilizational conflict. It wasn’t.”

But it will be one more step in Martinez’ online odyssey. “I think anytime I can reach just one person — and open their eyes and hearts — to the utterly bewildering history of medieval Spain I am really pleased,” he wrote.

“Why? Because the Middle Ages — the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Middle Ages — can inspire us to find better ways to live alongside of each other and to create dynamic, challenging environments that make us more understanding and respectful of one another.”

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