Dr. Nina Caputo, UF history department associate chair and scholar of medieval Jewish history, talks to the blog about her new book, Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, and the emerging genre of graphic historical scholarship. Integrated with the interview are sample images from the book.
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(copyright of Oxford University Press 2016)
You recently published an illustrated, or graphic, history book, Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, A Graphic History, with Oxford University PressCan you tell us about the conceptual origins of this book?
 
I wish that the concept of a graphic history had been my idea! But there are now several in circulation. I first encountered a graphic history during my sabbatical at Oxford in 2013-14. A colleague there, Professor Ron Schechter from William and Mary, showed me an advance copy of his graphic history, Mendoza the JewI was completely blown away – by Liz Clarke’s illustrations, by the potential it offered for  methodological and historiographic experimentation, by the pedagogical opportunities it presented. The editor at Oxford University Press was excited by the possibility of a medieval graphic history, so he put in touch with Liz and we quickly began collaborating on the book. We know about the Barcelona Disputation, the event at the heart of our book, from two medieval texts: the first written in Hebrew and written by the Nahmanides, the rabbi who represented Judaism, and the second in Latin, likely written by the Dominican friar (a convert from Judaism to Christianity) who challenged Nahmanides to the debate. These two texts agree about the issues covered in the debate, but disagree about the tone, duration, and outcome of the event. 
 
The graphic medium allows for varied narrative forms. Since a controversy arose around Nahmanides’ account of the disputation, it occurred to me to highlight that by opening the narrative with a flashback within a flashback. In addition, the graphic makes it possible to represent perspective by literally showing words flow from the mouths of the different historical actors. 
caputo-2 (copyright Oxford University Press 2016)
Are graphic histories an upcoming genre? What is the intent that lies behind them? With such a book, do you see advantages in communicating to a particular type of reader? 
 
They seem to be. Oxford University Press has now published five, and two more are on the way – one by UF’s Professor Jennifer Rea in Classics – and another graphic history of the American Civil War (not published by Oxford) has also gotten a good deal of attention. Graphic histories tap into several cultural phenomena – in particular, the rise of graphic novels (comics for adults) as a widely popular genre for millennials. This form also provides an appealing means of introducing difficult subject matter – slavery, Jewish-Christian conflicts, early Christian martyrdom, nuclear testing its environmental consequences in the US – in a disarmingly personal and direct fashion. The fact that each of Oxford’s graphic histories contains the graphic along with the primary sources on which the graphic is based, as well as interpretive essays means that they offer students an opportunity to take control of the material after having invested in the graphic. Also, I really hope that the whole package enables students to witness and participate in the messy process of historical research up close.
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(copyright Oxford University Press 2016)
What was your experience like in writing this book? How did it compare with writing a conventional monograph? 
 
The process of collaboration with Liz was perhaps the most interesting and distinctive part of this project. Though I have spent a lot of time writing about and thinking about Nahmanides, I have to admit that he never took physical shape for me. Because there are no extant images of him, my mental image of him has always been (and, truth be told, still is) textual. So assigning facial features to him was difficult and intimidating. Also, I felt responsible for trying to achieve an authentic feel when representing interiors, clothing, street scenes, and so on. But the comic genre is by no means a realistic – or realist – style, so that took some getting used to. But Liz was terrific about suggesting transitions or compositions of specific images to highlight the similarities and disjunctures between the graphic style of comics and medieval aesthetics. We also had to contend with a variety of practical questions that we simply couldn’t answer definitively because we don’t have the necessary information. Like: would Jewish men have worn head coverings? Beards? What did the royal palace of Barcelona look like in 1263? We made educated guesses in these cases. I have occasion to make educated guesses or augments rooted in supposition in my other research, but since those never take graphic form and generally reach only specialists in the field, who are bound by the same lack of evidence I am, it somehow seems less daunting.
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(copyright Oxford University Press 2016)
Would you do another? Do you recommend the experience of this undertaking to a colleague or graduate student?
I would do another. In fact, I have a couple of interesting ideas that I’ve been kicking around. But there are some other projects that I’d like to finish first. And I have recommended this to colleagues; however, I don’t think I’d recommend doing a graphic history to a grad student or to someone at the start of her career. The whole process of bringing this book to fruition was quite compact in general academic terms – the book came out just two and half years after my initial conversation with my editor at Oxford. Until history departments start recognizing mixed media projects as equal to dissertations or research monographs, the time spent on such projects is something of a liability for career advancement. I would also argue that one would have to spend a good deal of time with a subject – more than a year or two – to have the confidence and agility to translate it into the graphic vernacular. 
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(copyright Oxford University Press 2016)
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