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University of Colorado System

Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain

University of Colorado System via Coursera

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Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain 

Challenging Assumptions

Our modern, global world is often presented as an unprecedented era of exceptional religious, political, and cultural enlightenment. Certainly we continue to experience tumultuous events and problematic relations, but many of us believe our world exists along a trajectory of human progress.  This course is about doubt, questioning, and complications. It opens with the proposition that our present-day world is neither exceptional nor special, but rather is the beneficiary and the slave of history.

About this Course: The Challenges of Co-Existence

Serving as citizen-scholars, students will learn about the positive and negative elements of inter-religious co-existence in Plasencia, Spain, and more importantly, contribute to an international scholarly effort known as the Revealing Cooperation and Conflict Project.

Together, we turn to a historical era that stumbled through the challenges of cultural and religious intermixing and co-existence. From the saved memories of Catholic churchmen, Jewish noble and merchant families, as well as medieval lords and knight clans, students will study and contribute to an effort to revive long lost interactive and cooperative networks of people in Plasencia, Spain. And among the most textured, fascinating elements of our investigation is the history of Spain's Jewish community, or the Sepharad.

For example, students will evaluate the Spanish anti-Jewish pogroms of 1391 that led to the large scale conversion of Jews to Christianity (forced and voluntary). By documenting such incidents and the interaction of noteworthy families, religious organizations, political networks, and economic partnerships, we will reconstruct the quintessential cultural dynamics that underlay the foundation of the Castilian world and impacted the broader European continent.

Within the documents that students transcribe, we will encounter historical persons such as Zanfines Capa, the Jewish chainmail maker, who was a close associate of the Carvajal family of knights. In this specific case, the Catholic Carvajal clan and their compatriots in the cathedral, the Santa Maria clan (formerly the Jewish Ha-Levis), leased church-owned properties to Jewish families (like the chainmail makers) at the expense of their political competitors, the Catholic Estuñiga family (the Counts of Plasencia and Bejar). In this event, competing and overlapping political and religious jurisdictions are revealed as well as vibrant Catholic-Jewish alliances that sought to expel interloping secular lords.

In sum, we will evaluate the lives of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in a vibrant fifteenth century Spanish community on the edge of incredible events – the consolidation of Spain under Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, the encounter with the New World, and the defeat of the Islamic Kingdom of Granada Spain and the expulsion of the Jews from Iberia.

The Course Work 

In this specific course, students will: (1) study the history of medieval Spain and the community of Plasencia, (2) explore the world of medieval manuscripts and texts, (3) learn to read historical documents, and (4) transcribe and evaluate these documents. 

The primary source that students will be transcribing in this course is Book Five (1499-1513) of the Capitulary Acts of the Cathedral of Plasencia, which is a census-like accounting document that details the activities and business transactions of the cathedral. Most students will work with the 19th century transcription of the original 15th century text. Students who wish to challenge themselves will be granted the opportunity to work with the original late fourteenth/fifteenth century text.

View the high resolution promotional video -- with English and Spanish subtitles.


PART ONE: Finding Our Way into the Provocative History of Spain

  • Class 1: An Overview of the European, Byzantine, and Islamic Middle Ages (21 January 2016)
  • Class 2: Reflections on Christian Spain and Islamic al-Andalus (Part 1) and an Introduction to the Revealing Cooperation and Conflict Project (RCCP). (28 January 2016)
  • Class 3: Reflections on Christian Spain and Islamic al-Andalus (Part 2) and Video Tour of the Reales Alcazar (Sevilla) and the Alhambra (Granada). (4 February 2016)
  • Class 4: Reflections on Christian Spain and Islamic al-Andalus (Part 3) and Learning About Spain’s Jewish Past and Future. (11 February 2016)
  • Class 5: Reflections on Christian Spain and Islamic al-Andalus (Part 4) and the Cantigas de Santa Maria Trebuchet. (18 February 2016)

PART TWO: Preparing For Discovery in Plasencia, Spain

  • Class 6: Medieval Spanish Sources: Royal Municipal and Church Records. (25 January 2016)
  • Class 7: The Medieval World of Plasencia, Spain, and Exploring the Cathedral of Plasencia’s Capitulary Acts, Book 1. (3 March 2016)
  • Class 8: Introduction to Reading Spanish Handwriting/Paleography (Part 1). (10 March 2016)
  • Class 9: Introduction to Spanish Handwriting (Part 2). (17 March 2016)

PART THREE: Citizen Scholars at Work – Interpreting Manuscripts

  • Class 10: Transcription & Interpretation Project 1 from the Capitulary Acts. (24 March 2016)
  • Class 11: Transcription & Interpretation Project 2 from the Capitulary Acts. (31 March 2016)
  • Class 12: Transcription & Interpretation Project 3 from the Capitulary Acts, Course Conclusion, and Future Opportunities. (7 April 2016)

Taught by

and Roger Martínez-Dávila


2.6 rating, based on 7 Class Central reviews

Start your review of Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain

  • Anonymous
    People whose main purpose is to be exposed to the "mystical secrets" of a medieval age would do better to pick up a fantasy novel. It's clearly not the intention of the course, and is an immature interpretation of the title. The course may have some editing errors, but the scholarship and content is unparalleled. To say that they have no knowledge of the history of Spain is ridiculous. Dr. Davilla has a Phd from UT, with a focus in the history of medieval Spain. His studies have been consistent, committed, and exceptional. The creators of this MOOC are passionate about their field, and I am very grateful that they have chosen to share their expertise with us. I have learned much, and have been inspired to study further.
  • Anonymous
    Very, very unprofessional. Errors every single week. Could have been interesting but because of so many errors its confusing. Waste of time.
  • Francisco Javier Jiménez
  • Anonymous
    Its the most sloppy course i,ve ever taken, they do not know what there doing, it,s very unorganised. Deciphering secrets, i,ve not seen any secrets up to now, just old documents which you can find in any country in the world, nothing special or secret at all.
  • Anonymous
    Very unprofessional, full of errors. Waste of time. Mybe next time around they will get it right, as it could be interesting if instructor knew the history of spain.
  • Anonymous
    Rubbish, no secrets at all, just mundane documents found in any archives. Prof: knows nothink about Spainish history.

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