Renaissance Travel Manuscript MOOC: Geographic Discoveries and New Worlds through the Eyes of a Renaissance Jewish Scholar

Course: Changing Minds: Geographic Discoveries and New Worlds through the Eyes of a Renaissance Jewish Scholar
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk (a 90 minute lecture divided into six modules)
School/platform: Penn/edX
Instructor: Fabrizio Lelli, Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature. University of Salento (Lecce, Italy).
This course will explore the world of the Jewish renaissance scholar Abraham ben Mordecai Fairissol and his manuscript A Letter on the Paths of the World ( Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam ). Farissol, a product of the northern Italian Renaissance, wrote this geographical treatise about a world seen anew through advances in science, exploration, and trade. The manuscript gives us insight into the place of Jews in the northern Italian Renaissance and demonstrates the ways they were at once deeply embedded in the changing intellectual landscape of the day, but also striving to assert distinctive Jewish belonging in this vibrant intellectual world. Among other things, this text is the first mention in Hebrew of the discovery of the Americas.

For the third time, Penn offers a wonderful mini-mooc on a particular Jewish manuscript from the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (my experience with the prior two can be found here).  I heard about it, as I’ve heard of so many courses, via Class Central’s Twitter feed: if you like moocs, they’re very worth following.

This manuscript, Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam (A Letter on the Paths of the World) is considered particularly significant in that it includes the first reference to the New World found in a Hebrew book:

“It is now an established fact that the Spanish Ships which were sent on an expedition by the King of Spain almost gave up hope of ever returning. But divine providence had decreed for them a kinder fate than death amid sea. Those at the topmost mast discerned a strip of land. When they had sailed along its shores, and saw its exceedingly large size, they called it because of its great length and breadth, ‘The New World’. The land is rich in natural resources. They have an abundance of fish, large forests teeming with large and small beasts of prey, and serpents as large as beams. The sand along the shores of the rivers contain pure gold, precious stones, and mother of pearl.”
Abraham Fairissol: Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam, Ch. 29 (translation)

The material covers a broad array of topics, showing how the manuscript fits into the time and culture in which it was written, as well as its content. First we find out some basic information about the author, Abraham ben Mordecai Farissol, and Northern Italy of the 16th century, particularly the role of Jews, who had arrived in large numbers following the Spanish expulsion: they were welcomed and could be found in many industries, professions, the arts, and scholarship. Lelli shows how Jewish life was represented positively in visual and written arts.

Lelli discusses the fascination with nature at the time, which was seen in religious terms, as evidence of God’s power. There’s a reference to cameleopards in Fairissol’s manuscript, and there’s evidence he had been to visit the Medici Giraffe, which I first learned about last year when I read the wonderful historico-theologico-fantasy, Lent by Jo Walton, one of those books I read in front of my computer so I could look up things like the Medici Giraffe. Travel and far-off lands were also viewed through a religious lens during this initial age of exploration and trade. One of the themes of Fairissol’s work was to indicate that these lands were mentioned in the Bible. Lelli tells us:

Farissol’s first aim was that of drawing inspiration from the Bible, as it appears from the choice of the title. Indeed, Orhot ‘Olam, “the paths of the world”, is a quotation from the Book of Job, where the Hebrew phrase is endowed with a profoundly different meaning than what we would expect from Farissol’s introductory words. In the standardized English version of the Bible, the verse reads “Will you keep to the old path that the wicked have trod?” Farissol changes this plain meaning of the biblical text, giving it a new interpretation. The orhot ‘olam of Job are certainly not the ways of the New World, the itineraries a modern traveler should follow, nor are they the paths of wickedness as in Job, but are rather those of the valued tradition that should not be abandoned even in new worlds. Farissol walks between the old paths of Jewish tradition and the new paths of the recently discovered lands and new knowledge.

The manuscript refers to a number of interesting individuals in connection with travel, from the legendary Prester John (another recent discovery of mine via Eco’s Serendipities), to “messianic activist” David ha-Reubeni. The last two segments include technical information about the sources of Fairissol’s manuscript, and the various copies that exist today and how they differ from the one in the Penn collection in content and script.

These aren’t moocs so much as they are individual lectures about specific manuscripts reformated into mooc form. In this case, the module review questions were paywalled ($29) but while it would have been nice to have seen what points were considered most important, the lecture stands on its own just fine. A list of interesting discussion questions in the wrap-up material serves the same purpose.

It’s listed as an Advanced course. While the lecture isn’t difficult to follow, it does assume some passing familiarity with the northern Italian renaissance and general European history of the time. But don’t be intimidated: A willingness to look up unfamiliar terms (or to tolerate some uncertainty) will do just fine. A generous glossary and list of additional sources found at the end of the lecture provides additional support.

While the description lists it as a five week course of one hour per week, it’s probably best enjoyed in a more condensed format. Each module’s lecture is about 15 minutes, and while they are information-dense (particularly for those of us who need to do a little extra work to understand the references), I found that viewing several in one longer session provided better momentum.

It isn’t likely to become a super-popular course – it’s not one of the “fun” moocs like the Science of Beer, or something that’s likely to boost your resume like business or computer courses –  but courses like this offer a unique perspective on history, and a chance to see ways in which manuscripts can be valuable outside of their artistic beauty. I’m a big fan of the “oooh, pretty” class of manuscripts, but it’s nice to have a chance to see how scholars view specific content as well. Niche courses are wonderful for those who appreciate the niche, and they cover topics not likely to be found elsewhere.   

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