Deciphering Secrets

Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain

Citizen Science – Zooniverse Portal and MOOCs

Prof. Martinez-Davila working with Dr. Mariano García Ruipérez, Director of the Archivo Municipal de Toledo (Spain)

The Deciphering Secrets Zooniverse citizen science project and MOOCs are about scholars and the public collaborating to better understand Jewish, Christian, and Muslim coexistence during the Spanish Middle Ages (500-1500 CE).

Since summer 2014, we have delivered Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to share the interreligious history of Spain (also known as Islamic al-Andalus and Jewish Sefarad). We work alongside of museums like the Museo Sefardi (Toledo). the Museo de Santa Cruz (Toledo), the Museo de Burgos, and the New Mexico History Museum to present compelling cultural knowledge. Further, our research efforts energize current and former MOOC students to assist with transcribing and investigating medieval manuscripts pertaining to medieval/early modern Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interrelations. We teach introductory, intermediate, and advanced Spanish paleography (or, reading old handwriting) to our students so that they can “decipher secrets” from medieval manuscripts. Through our collaborations with Spanish cathedral, municipal, and national archives we are making new collections available for investigation. Presently, our research is focused on interreligious affairs in the cities of Plasencia, Burgos, Toledo, and Granada, and their broader connections to the Iberian Peninsula. 

In late 2021, we are launching a citizen science in collaboration with the Building Capable Communities for Crowdsourced Transcription Institute, which is a National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities-funded institute that seeks to build capacity in diverse cultural organizations and research institutions for using crowdsourcing to effectively transcribe large collections of handwritten documents.

Deciphering Secrets Zooniverse Portal

Join the crowdsourcing initiative at the developing project at:

Screenshot of manuscripts portal.

Coursera MOOCs

The present Deciphering Secrets MOOCs relating to our transcription efforts on distributed on Our courses include:

Coexistence in Medieval Spain: Jews, Christians, and Muslims

Gold metal piece with leaves.

This course explores Jewish, Christian, and Muslim intercultural relations in Iberia from the Visigothic era (6th century CE) until the creation of Queen Isabel I and King Ferdinand II Catholic Spain (late 15th century). We evaluate the many identities of the peninsula known as Christian Hispania, Jewish Sefarad, and Islamic al-Andalus. We trace the origins and trajectory of conflict between these communities (the Muslim conquest of Spain, Christian Reconquista, prohibitions blocking intermixing of peoples, and expulsions). We aim to understand conflicts within communities as well, such as the tensions between Christian Arian Visigoths and native Catholic Iberians or the fundamentalist North African Almohad Dynasty that rejected the Spanish Umayyad Caliphate’s preference for religious tolerance. We delve into an appreciation of collaboration and coexistence among these communities. We explore the unique role of the Jewish community who Muslims and Christians depended upon as political and cultural intermediaries as well as the intellectual collaborators. We find the history of how peoples attempted to create and manage viable diverse communities.

Toledo: Deciphering Secrets of Medieval Spain

Medieval art with king.

This course evaluates the medieval history of Toledo from the era of the Visigoth Kingdom (6th-8th centuries) through its Islamic period (8th to 11th centuries) and into its reintegration into Christian Spain (after 1085 c.e.) In particular, we take note of the cultural and religious transformations that characterized the city with a special effort to understand how many peoples and religions came to settle and live amongst one another. We will virtually-tour the Islamic and Christian structures of the Museo de Santa Cruz, Iglesia de San Román, Sinagoga del Tránsito, Mezquita de Bab al-Mardum, Archivo Municipal de Toledo, and the Archivo Historico de la Nobleza.

We examine the Visigoths transition from Christian Arianism to Catholicism and the harsh treatment of the Jewish population. We explore Islamic governance and development of the medieval city of three faiths, with a special interest in its cultural achievements. We will study King Alfonso “The Wise” (1252-1284)’s efforts to characterize himself as the “king of three religions” via his legal codices, the creation of the Cantigas de Santa María, and his intellectual endeavor known as the Toledo School of Translators. We evaluate the robust Jewish and converso noble families of the city and appreciate their intellectual, religious, and economic contributions to Castilian life. We will bear witness to the rise of anti-Jewish blood purity statutes, the creation of the Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews. We also briefly introduce and study Spanish manuscripts from the municipal and cathedral archives to make new scholarly breakthroughs relating to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interrelations. No knowledge of Spanish is needed to participate in the course or in our transcription efforts.

Burgos: Deciphering Secrets of Medieval Spain

Stainglass window looking outside.

This advanced course focuses on two primary goals: (1) appraising how Jews, Christians, and Muslims shaped the history of medieval Spain and (2) mastering the craft of Spanish paleography, the skill of identifying Spanish handwriting in the 11th- through 15th-century manuscripts. Through the lens of the medieval history of Burgos, we dedicate 75% percent of our efforts to developing pragmatic expertise in the interpretation of Carolingian/French/Gothic handwriting.

Specifically, the course explores how the royal Castilian city of Burgos influenced, and was influenced by, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We closely evaluate the Spanish Christian Reconquest, the Plague and the 14th-century Castilian civil war, anti-Jewish pogroms, the emergence of elite conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity), and the role of the king and Roman Catholic Church in the creation of Catholic Spain. Through onsite interviews in archives and museums in Burgos, we experience the medieval city, artifacts, and manuscripts. While we teach using Spanish manuscripts, very little or no knowledge of the Spanish language is necessary to complete the course.

Using an intensive array of paleography practices, exams, independent projects, and collaborative efforts, you will garner exceptional skills that you can apply to interpreting any medieval European handwriting. To demonstrate your mastery of paleography you will (1) create a 14th-15th-century alphabet, numeral, and abbreviation guide using manuscript images, and (2) transcribe one selection from a medieval manuscript.