On Tuesday I travelled to Toledo, that city which lies at the heart of La Mancha, Spain. Home to Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and Judah Halevi, the medieval scholar. Both accompanied me and my friend George on our way through the city on this week’s virtual pilgrimage. Through these characters, George illuminated the current pandemic in that fresh light that the past paradoxically offers.
Cervantes’ tale is of a man whose overwhelming nostalgia for a lost age of chivalry leads him to present himself as something he is not, sending him into one disaster after another, until finally he awakes to the realisation that romanticising the past is a dangerous folly.
Judah Halevi was a physician and philosopher, teacher and poet and wrote in Arabic, with the exception of his poetry, which was written in Hebrew. Toledo, with its populations of Christians, Muslims and Jews, was once a great centre of learning and out of it grew the Toledo School of Translation. This allowed ideas in science, philosophy, poetry and religion from across the world to be widely shared, and in in turn attracted many scholars who came to the city hungry for knowledge. Great works in Greek and Latin were translated into Arabic, and Persian and in turn the ideas from these cultures as well as from China and India were translated into Spanish and Hebrew. Humankind at its best, most tolerant, most creative and curious. Naturally it could not last.
In 1391 there was a violent protest against the Jews of Toledo in which the ghetto was sacked and many died. The usual reasons for all such pogroms were cited. The Jews were too rich, or too poor. Or perhaps just too Jewish. In any event, while notably anti-Semitic, the summer riots in Toledo were not unique. Indeed there were many uprisings across Europe at that time. The Jacquerie in France in 1358 saw serfs rise up against nobles and in England in 1381 simmering discontent boiled over when an official, John Bampton, attempted to collect unpaid poll taxes in Essex. The people said ‘no’ and so began the Peasants’ Revolt.
Structural inequality and extreme poverty across the continent had been exacerbated by poor harvests caused by very low temperatures (now thought to have been brought about by a volcanic eruption). Added to this the plague had led to the deaths of somewhere between 75-200 million people. Unsurprisingly, it became known as the Black Death.
After much discussion on these and other topics, George and I floated from the great gothic cathedral of Toledo and across the Tagus River. There we alighted on the Mirador del Valle and looked across at one of the most beautiful views of what was once among the most civilised cities on earth. And as we contemplated what social inequality, a climate emergency and the worst pandemic in history can do to a place, silence fell between us.
We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves by Victoria Preston is available from all on-line retailers and via e-readers.