Medieval Spanish Manuscripts MOOC

Course: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (Spain)
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid/edX
Instructors: Roger L. Martínez-Dávila
Quote:

• Garner knowledge and assess the history of medieval Spanish intercultural coexistence in the city of Burgos and the Kingdom of Castile and Leon
• Explore the world of medieval manuscripts and texts held in the archives of the Cathedral of Burgos and the city of Burgos
• Learn the craft of medieval paleography, or reading authentic handwritten manuscripts
• Transcribe medieval manuscripts and contribute to new scholar knowledge

By now, everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, I just had to say it).

This was a natural extension of the earlier codicology course, focusing on paleography. But at heart it’s a history course – and at that, a real history course, since it’s one of the few history moocs I’ve taken that paid proper respect to original documents and historical research.

We led off with typical exposition of major events on the Iberian peninsula during the late middle ages, particularly as they elapsed in the town of Burgos. Included were museum tours of beautiful artifacts complete with stories: an 11th century ivory chest originally crafted by Andalusian Muslims, then adapted to serve as a repository for Christian relics after the Reconquista; a case for holding balls associated with some sort of Muslim game, carved from an elephant’s trunk so large, the curve isn’t apparent, likewise appropriated during conquest; silver dishes and gold pendants found buried by the Jews of Briviesca when their homes were burned in the (dashed) hopes they could return to claim their family treasures. I kept remembering Ta-Nehisi Coates’ theory that racism is fundamentally about plunder, and hate is just a means to that end. It was a bit creepy to be taking this course while, in the US, Jewish community centers were receiving bomb threats in escalating numbers, several Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, and at least two people were murdered because they looked Muslim (turns out, they weren’t, but that’s beside the point). Even in Canada, slaughter broke out at a mosque. This is why we must know history, because we are living it, repeating it right now, and we can change that if we are willing.

The second half of the course dealt with transcribing documents, which is where paleography came in. It’s something I’d very much like to learn; alas, I didn’t get very far, in spite of the recommended SILReST technique (Scan, Identify easy letters, Locate common words, Recognize abbreviations, etc). I have a feeling manuscript transcription is one of those things I just have to keep doing until I get the hang of it and can “see” words instead of squiggles. I’d spent several hours working on a French poem during the previous class, but didn’t get very far so I finally found someone who could help. Google Translate is useless, since abbreviations are used frequently, the spellings are often archaic, and just figuring out which letters are written is a major challenge in the first place.

The course material assures us that no Spanish is necessary for the course, but there’s no denying some familiarity is of great help. I can’t praise the other students in the course highly enough for their willingness to help and share ideas on the forums. We worked through several issues together such as: is this word vinoor como? Parrador, partador, pairador? I was quite excited to discover that the word I’d thought was “abdat” turned out to be cidbat (the “c” and “i” overly compressed), which is the medieval version of ciudad, city, emphasized by its proximity to the abbreviated form of Burgos. Yes, this is what I consider fun, you got a problem with that?

A focus of the course seemed to be on training and recruiting volunteer “citizen scholars” to help with the transcription of the documents so they can be used in historical research. History is, after all, based on documents, and the stories of the people of Burgos are to a large extent untold as town records gather dust in the archives.

That might be another reason I had such a hard time with the paleography section: in terms of content, these were some of the most boring manuscripts around. Instead of scientific or philosophical texts or literary material, these were more or less property transfer deeds: who sold what to whom under what conditions. In fact, the semantic content was never addressed at all, merely the transcription. I understand the importance of these documents: this is the gritty work of the historian, examining documentary evidence of the relationships of civic and ecclesiastical power in the town as well as the dealings between Jews and Christians. It was just very hard to get excited about it, in spite of the stirring prelude video about the forgotten lives to be uncovered:

Welcome to the Cathedral of Burgos. The Cathedral is the guardian of almost 1000 years of history. The memory of long ago lives still reside here, their hopes and worries, their friendships and enmities, their commitments and broken promises. Patiently they wait, wait to commune with us. Perhaps they walk alongside of us, here in the cloister, escorting us past guarded areas, whisking us past heavy doors, carefully guiding us past the realm of natural light, step by step, an to the home of memories: to the cathedral’s archive.
Thousands upon thousands of individuals like you, like me, carefully cocooned in leather and vellum, their lives now on paper and parchment. Their lives are the true treasure of the archive. It’s time to meet them.

I’m sorry, gentle friends; you’ll have to wait for someone else, since I’m simply not up to the task of hearing you at this time.

By coincidence, at the same time the Citizen Scholar program was unfolding, I got an email from my local library about a similar project: a set of 18th and 19th century state records are waiting for volunteers to digitize them so the information will be more readily available to historians interested in New England. Lives of the past from all over wait for us, as we will wait for historians of the future.

Future installments of this series include similar courses focusing on Toledo and Grenada.

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