I was trained as an intellectual historian of the Jewish Middle Ages, so my scholarly world has been one of texts. More precisely, it has been one of unadorned, often printed texts. Consequently, sound, images, and other forms of nontextual media have rarely played a significant role in my teaching. In my experience, images of medieval texts, illuminations, windows, and buildings have limited application when teaching medieval Jewish history. And attempts to integrate diverse sources and media into classroom presentations have been only marginally successful. When I played music in a class on medieval and early modern Jewish Iberia, for example, the students found the rhythms, melodies, and lyrics to be alienating at best and humorous at worst. And I was at a loss for how to mediate effectively. I’ve had better luck with film, but to say that there are few medieval Jewish historical films available is an understatement.
Yet I’ve long believed that many episodes in medieval Jewish history lend themselves to translation into visual or dramatic form that could thereby provide a fruitful pedagogical tool. With this in mind, I embarked on a collaborative project with a graphic artist, Liz Clarke, to produce a graphic history of the Barcelona disputation. This forced me to carefully consider how visual (though not entirely nontextual) media could provide a foundation for a textured introduction to Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to use this yet in a medieval Jewish history class, experimental presentation of portions of the graphic history to undergraduates in a class on a different subject was encouraging. Students who knew nothing about the topic engaged with the theological debate and constructively interrogated artistic and scholarly choices Liz and I made in organizing and presenting the story. I’m hopeful that the graphic history will provide a useful and interesting bridge between the documentary past and contemporary modes of representation.