Joan Ullman

Tonight my office is the Meson del Cid Restaurant, in Burgos, Spain--overlooking the Cathedral, which in turn overlooks the vast Castilian plains. If for Proust ruminations on a madeleine could conjure up a world of associations, for me it's the lamb chop--the perfect dinner with a hearty Duero wine. The chop puts me in mind of the Mesta, the medieval sheepherders' guild...which in turn recalls Professor Joan Ullman's Spanish history lectures, which indirectly set me on the road I now follow.

Start with geography, she said--Iberia as outstretched bull's hide with its mighty rivers uniting and dividing the country, its mountain ranges walling in distinct regions. Phoenicians, Romans, Goths, Arabs--we considered all their contributions. It was the 1960s, and the knowledge that once three dissimilar cultures lived in peace and cooperation -- Jewish-Arab-Christian culture in medieval Iberia -- was seductive. Professor Ullman did not allow the romance of this convivencia to blind us to the power of institutions and their intolerance, which in time undermined that great and rich society.

Enter the lamb chop. Today, as I crisscross Spain I often think of the sheepherders' guild and their control, wealth and power, with its lasting effects on Spain, and intriguingly and indirectly on Latin America. Add the Mesta, the army and the church, and you have the institutions that have shaped so much of Iberia's human geography.

In the 1960s, Professor Ullman's lectures on the 20th century Spanish Civil War seemed particularly meaningful and poignant. Now in Spain, I regularly meet Spaniards too young to remember the post-Civil War dictatorship. In a noisy café, I sometimes conjure up a Joan Ullman lecture on the post-Socialist government, on the effects of youth unemployment on the social fabric. So much of the meat of her teaching has stayed with me--like a satisfying Castilian stew; I am much in her debt. And there is still so much to enjoy--from the rolling plains with their great pilgrimage history in the north, to the purple bougainvillea cascading down the ruins of a hill top castle somewhere in sunny Andalucia. Like Proust's madeleine, my first bite of Castilian lamb released a whole history.

Sarah Banks, '71

Photo courtesy Dept. of History.

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