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Review of Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, A Graphic History

By Danielle Reid

Caputo, Nina and Liz Clarke. Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, A Graphic History. Oxford UP, 2016.

In Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, Nina Caputo and Liz Clarke have created both a worthwhile supplement for classroom instruction and an interesting read for both scholars of the Middle Ages and scholars of comics. The ‘Graphic History’ portion of the title refers to the meat of the work—a five-chapter comic based on differing historical accounts of the same event. There are many subtle ways in which Clarke and Caputo use the visual medium to contrast the two different versions. Although they could have incorporated more obvious cues to guide the reader through transitions in time, place, and conversation, the creators nevertheless faithfully adhere to the difficulties of interpreting medieval sources and provide an effective tool for teaching historical analysis. In addition, by confronting the problems posed by differing modes of representation, argumentation, and truth-values, they prove that the comics medium is in many ways ideal for introducing students to the more subjective aspects of historical study and discussion.

Much of this uncommon work is done through the graphic history portion, which dramatizes a theological debate between a Christian and a Jew staged before King James I in 13th-century Barcelona. The two sides of the debate are represented by Moses Nahmanides, a rabbi and philosopher, and Friar Paul, a Dominican convert from Judaism. As later portions of the volume make clear, the stakes of this debate were high because the legal status of religious minorities in the Crown of Aragon was in flux during this period. Treating a medieval topic posed new challenges for the series, whose other volumes deal with 19th and 20th century events.

Debating Truth is Oxford University Press’ fourth volume in the ‘Graphic History’ series, which uses the comics medium to represent historical events and scholarship. Each volume treats a different historical subject with its content anchored by a comics section scripted by a scholar and drawn by Liz Clarke. These graphic interpretations are juxtaposed with primary sources (in translation if necessary) and a short chapter of historical context. Finally, each book concludes with a section of resources and questions designed to guide students into current scholarly debates. To bolster these sections, there are maps, glossaries, and thoughtful discussions of the challenges involved in creating ‘graphic histories.’ Debating Truth follows this rough format as well.

The content for “Part I: The Graphic History,” follows “Part II: The Primary Sources,” very closely, preserving the contradictions and ambiguities of the original documents. The first three chapters of the comic portray the events of the disputation from the perspective of the Jewish participant, Moses Nahmanides. These chapters are based on a Hebrew account of the debate that claims to be an accurate transcript. The fourth chapter deals with the same events again from the perspective of Nahmanides’ opponent, Friar Paul. It is based on a much shorter Latin document connected to the court of King James I, which also claims to accurately represent the event. The final chapter deals with the aftermath of the debate and Moses Nahmanides’ travels in the Holy Land, the reasons for which are also unclear in the primary sources. Rather than try to resolve the differences or omissions of the source texts, the graphic interpretation uses the visual medium to encourage comparison and inference. The two versions of events (chapters 1-3 and issue 4) contain a similar sequence of theological points, but different outcomes—not only of the debate as a whole, but also of individual arguments.

For example, a major point of contention presented in both the Hebrew and the Latin versions concerns the meaning of Genesis 49:10 and the nature of legitimate Jewish kingship. In both versions, Friar Paul claims that this verse indicates that Jesus was the Messiah because the Jews no longer have kings, while Nahmanides insists that Jewish kingship has merely been suspended and therefore the Messiah has not come. In issue one, based on the Hebrew account, Nahmanides gets the final word on this particular argument (17; figure 1). However, in issue four, based on the Latin account, Friar Paul is made the victor when he claims to have “proved to him that … after Christ they had no leaders” (60). The writers of each account claim that their side won. Caputo and Clarke do not resolve this disparity for the reader but instead portray both versions of events with equal care and verisimilitude.

Figure 1

This small example demonstrates a general trend. Just as the disagreement over who won is preserved in the text of the graphic history, so too the interests and biases of the sources are translated into the visual medium. In the lengthier Hebrew account, Friar Paul is often at a loss for words; in the first three chapters of the graphic history, he is easily flustered and often foolish. Mirroring the Latin account, the stammering Nahmanides is translated into a shamefaced and silent opponent in chapter four of the graphic history (figure 2). Focus and framing also contribute to the difference in emphasis. In the first three chapters, Nahmanides is usually the focal point of both small panels and splash pages, while Friar Paul and the Dominicans become the primary focus in chapter four. Likewise, in all chapters, Clarke effectively makes use of an aerial point of view to frame Nahmanides as less powerful than his opponents. She echoes the subjective nature of the sources by using the postures and facial expressions of the characters to highlight this power differential as portrayed in each source. For example, in the fourth issue, Nahmanides loses the confident set of his shoulders and calm expression that characterized him as courageous in the first three issues (compare figures 3 and 4, with 2).

Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4

These and other strategies, like the use of different fonts and tiny lead seals attached to caption boxes (compare figure 2 with the others), all exploit the potential of the visual medium for the sake of differentiating the accounts, but they are all quite subtle. Although their cumulative effect is obvious when the graphic history is compared directly with the primary sources in Part II, on an initial read through, they are insufficient to clarify the comics’ underlying narrative structure. If the creators had been more explicit in indicating basic transitions—such as when a day begins or ends, where events are taking place, when the debate shifts to a new topic, or whose perspective is being represented—then the subtler work done by the visual elements described above would have been more effective.

Such explicitly labeled moments of transitions would have made the readers’ job easier. The Jewish account of the disputation is divided into days that correspond to the three chapters devoted to that source. The original source provides little contextualization, but transitions between topics are signaled by paragraph breaks and brief editorial comments. In the corresponding chapters of the graphic history, transitions, whether between topics or between temporal and spatial contexts, can be harder to pin down. The editorial comments are missing, replaced by subtler cues, such as page turns and expressions. This can sometimes make the conversation, already weighty and complex, rather difficult to follow. Figures 1 and 5 provide an example of this problem. At the bottom of figure 1, Nahmanides makes his final comments on one topic, while in figure 5 (the following page) Friar Paul takes up a new topic. However, this is not immediately clear on the basis of the page turn and the dialogue alone. Narration by a character in the story or perhaps by an omniscient narrator would have departed from the primary sources but also would have made the narrative flow clearer. Similarly, when we turn to chapter four of the comic, it isn’t immediately obvious that we are seeing the same events again from the perspective of the opposition. Editorial interference here would have been greatly appreciated. Since the conversation revolves entirely around thorny theological topics, perhaps some aspects of accuracy should have been sacrificed for the sake of clarity.

Figure 5

On the other hand, ensuring that the graphic history directly reflects the difficulties of the primary sources bears fruit in Part II and serves the larger pedagogic aims of the textbook. Student readers who hope that the primary sources will help them decide which version was ‘right’ will inevitably find more questions than answers, leading them deeper into the processes of historical analysis. Not only is the dialogue in the comics drawn directly from primary sources featured in Part II, but these sources are further enriched by the inclusion of legal documents pertaining to the status of Jews and other religious minorities in medieval Spain. These latter documents contextualize the events of the narrative and help to frame the stakes of the debate. Together, the graphic history and the primary sources effectively situate the reader in 13th-century Spain. More importantly, through this layout, which delays the drier narrative history of a traditional textbook as long as possible, readers are experientially invited to formulate their own questions and to recognize the limitations of the source material. The book doesn’t contain everything one might like to know about medieval Spain. Instead, by the time students encounter the research tools provided in the latter parts of the textbook, they are already primed to use them to answer questions generated by their own reading of challenging texts. In this respect, Parts I and II are singularly successful.

The forty-two pages that compose “Part III: Context” are packed with invaluable information aimed at further orienting the reader in time and space. Students are introduced to the Reconquista, medieval policy toward religious Others, medieval Jewish law and learning, and scholastic disputation. All of this is presented in clear and imminently understandable prose. Students who read the book straight through will not only be ready for the information in Part III but interested in using it to answer questions raised by Parts I and II. When students then encounter Caputo’s summary of the wider body of scholarship on the Barcelona Disputation in “Part IV: Historiography,” they are well armed to engage with scholarly arguments. They have just learned the essentials of the historical context and they know the primary sources. More importantly, they are already familiar with the limitations and lacunae of those sources. This enables critical analysis of scholarly arguments and the ability to formulate one’s own answers. Using “Part V: Resources for Additional Research,” students should be prepared not only to engage in lively classroom discussion but also to frame their own research questions. This is what makes Debating Truth a true success. It is an excellent history textbook in which the graphic history is integral. The five chapters introduce students to the material and its problems more clearly, impactfully, and compactly than a traditional textbook ever could.

This is particularly important if the primary audience is, as I have assumed throughout this review, undergraduates in an introductory or intermediate-level history course. The most natural settings for Debating Truth are courses that focus on the history of Spain or on Jewish history and aim to teach historical and research methods. Although the content of the book is very specific, it speaks to wider historiographical trends, so it would not be out of place in a broader medieval survey. Certainly, it provides enough materials and guidance that anyone teaching “Western Civilization” will be able to deftly handle it as a teaching tool, even if their own specialty lies elsewhere.

Beyond its use for teaching history, though, both historians and scholars of comics could benefit from Caputo’s thoughtful discussion of the challenges inherent in collaborating on a visual narrative. One of the most interesting and thought-provoking sections of the text is “Making this book: sources, historical narrative, and visual media.” In this section, Caputo explains her encounter with the complicated relationship between text and image. In describing the central challenge of transforming ambiguous and fragmentary sources into visual narrative, Caputo sums it up this way: “Graphics, of course, demand that artists and authors make editorial decisions about representation” (199). This is not the first time that historians collaborating with Liz Clarke have encountered this problem. Each of the previous volumes in the series contains a section discussing the creation of images from problematic or absent sources. But the version of this section in Debating Truth is particularly lengthy in keeping with the acute problems presented by the remoteness of medieval Spain. We have no pictures of Nahmanides or of Friar Paul, and any visual source from the time presents challenges that force us to confront the nature of representation and visual communication. The visual shorthand for Jewishness used in the Middle Ages would be both jarring and offensive to modern audiences, but any back projection from modern expectations would necessarily involve conjecture.

Debating Truth is at its most successful when it highlights this difficult relationship between culturally subjective representation and communication. One of Clarke’s most intriguing strategies of this type uses the style of manuscript illuminations for thought bubbles and embedded narratives. The difference in image styling clearly distinguishes between the world of events and the world of thoughts by incorporating the aesthetic sensibilities of the Middle Ages into Clarke’s mostly naturalistic art. Juxtaposing medieval and modern visual languages highlights historical distance and aesthetic difference, which denaturalizes our own communicative conventions. In this way, Clarke brings out the unique potential of the comics medium as a teaching tool, which connects with discussions of cognitive linguistics and cultural difference, obvious in the work of Scott McCloud but also in more recent analyses like that of Neil Cohn in The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. Beyond its retelling of a specific event, engagement with the problems of image-making across time makes Debating Truth worth a look for scholars of comics.

While the most natural place for this textbook is in the history classroom, its engagement with the subjectivities of image-making could also give it a place in the comics classroom. Taking some of Clarke’s strategies as a model, students might be asked to create comics of their own, either adapting historical sources to modern communicative conventions or vice versa. Coupling this interpretative and creative work with a written reflection along the same lines as Caputo’s would lead students to a deeper engagement with differing strategies of visual communication. In particular, engaging with the conventions of medieval art, which largely eschewed realism in favor of more schematic and symbolic strategies, would help students confront their own expectations about representation and reality.

At the confluence of history and comics, Debating Truth highlights the potential and the problems of challenging students through graphic media. It succeeds as a textbook by showing, rather than telling, students about the inconsistencies presented by historical sources and the sometimes unresolvable difficulties of historical analysis. The graphic history is key to this success because in it, Caputo and Clarke present information in a format that immerses students in the historical context, while following their sources as closely as possible. Although the graphic history could do more to exploit the strengths of the comics medium and ease readers into the world of 13th-century Spain, Debating Truth remains a worthy contribution to the history classroom and a worthwhile read for scholars. Through its engagement with multiple modes of representation, it also has the potential to enrich a course on comics by challenging students to confront the disparity between convention and meaning.

Posted in Volume 9, Issue 3