Salamanca

On The Road Travel Essays

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Salamanca

Salamanca is the seat of Spain's oldest and greatest university, and attracts visitors for its exquisite buildings, tiny streets and squares, and its setting in the middle of one of Spain's bull-raising regions.

Origins  Salamanca goes very far back in history. Hannibal the Carthaginian captured the settlement in 212 B.C. (it was then called Salmantica). Later, the Romans made the town a staging area for military campaigns to the north and west. They built a bridge across the River Tormes (the Puente Romano which still stands). The Moors took the city in the 8th century; it was reconquered in 1085. During the fighting, the settlement was almost totally destroyed and the population scattered.

Medieval Glory  First, the population had to be restored. During the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile, settlers were brought in from all over Spain, and included a sizable Jewish colony. The different groups (some of whom spoke different languages) formed distinct communities which were semi-autonomous, and some historians claim that the diverse talents represented, and given freedom in this fashion, brought about the spectacular rise of the city in the 15th-16th centuries.

Trade fairs: Prosperity came to Salamanca after King Henry IV granted the city (1467) the right to hold a large annual trade fair. In medieval Europe, a trade fair wasn't just a publicity stunt on the part of merchants wanting to show off their new products. It was where the buying and selling took place — physically. Oxcarts and wagons were full of everything from headless chickens ready for the pot to spices, leather, and linen. The major trading cities of Europe (Brussels, Cologne, Marseille, etc.) all had their fairs, which brought merchants in from hundreds of miles away. Salamanca's giant fair made it a popular "stopping place" for merchants as well. (The traditional fair continues today, held every September.)

Monroys and Manzanos: Prosperous merchant families arose, often competing savagely with each other. Verona in Italy had its Montagues and Capulets. Salamanca had its leading families of Monroy and Manzano. The sons of the families formed los bandos, bands, and would attack each other, seeking revenge for some slight, real or fancied. Who knows what potential "Romeos and Juliets" were victimized by the strife, since no Shakespeare was around to dramatize them.

Building activity: With wealth from trade, the leading families sponsored huge building projects, and their palatial homes can still be seen. The city has two cathedrals, the Old and the New, standing next to each other, and both in Gothic style. All these buildings were made from a local stone which is golden in color and fine-grained, permitting sharp lines. The golden color earned the city the nickname, "little Rome."

Founding of the University  Ever since the Middle Ages, Salamanca has been a university town. Cf. old Spanish saying: "Salamanca falls asleep to the strum of mandolins, and awakes with a start to the cries of students." The university was founded by King Alfonso IX of Leon in 1223, and became a special favorite of the kings of Leon and Castile. Alfonso the Wise gave the university his personal library of 100,000 books. The university rose to become one of medieval Europe's greatest centers of learning. In 13th century, it was the second greatest university in Europe, after Paris — greater even than Oxford and Bologna. It had 12,000 students, with 70 professors. In the 16th century, with the discovery of the New World, Salamanca gave birth to the first universities in America: Lima (Peru) and Mexico City. Among those who have taught or studied at Salamanca are St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuit Order), Heman Cortes (leader of the conquistadores), and Spain's greatest 20th-century philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno. Around 1492, a young Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus came to the university to seek support for his plan to sail around the world to India. He argued his case before the faculty of astronomy, but was turned down. The professors called his plan "vain, impractical, and resting on grounds too weak to merit the support of government." However, he did find support from Queen Isabella, who financed the voyage.

Medieval Student Life  The life of the entire city revolved around that of the students. Remember that most of the students were from well-to-do families. Many rich parents actually bought palaces in Salamanca in order to be near their sons (and perhaps to keep an eye on them). You can see several of these stately homes today, with the coats-of-arms of the families who built them.

Dress: Students wore their "bachelor's robes," often with a colored stole (beca) indicating what subject they were studying. Even poorer students, studying on scholarships, wore these school uniforms, which, like school uniforms everywhere, had the effect of masking differences of class.

Examinations: "Final Exams" were a big event in the city. The evening before, the students who were to take the exams would parade through the streets on horseback, wearing velvet robes with a sword buckled to their side. The church bells would ring and the townsfolk lined the streets to cheer the students on. Shops closed their shutters, and of course the taverns were closed. Country maidens came into town for the parade, wearing their Sunday best. The next day, the exams were held in public in a large square. These exams were seldom written. They were oral: questions were posed by a panel of professors, and the students were judged not only on the content of their replies, but on the style of the little speeches they had to give. (The whole exercise was conducted in Latin.) These exams were tough, but those who made it were heaped with honors. Successful candidates were then led in procession to the Cathedral, where "Commencement" ceremonies took place. Graduating students received their "mortar board" (cap), a book (symbolizing learning), and a gold ring in token of their "marriage" to science. Students receiving higher degrees were given even greater festivities. In gratitude, successful students put commemorative plaques (called vitores) up on the walls of the university courtyard, thanking their professors, the university, and God himself for their help.

Subjects: All the sciences of the day were taught. These were the seven "liberal arts": grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Theology was taught at a separate school. Salamanca's education was fairly "liberal" for these times. The doctrines of Copernicus (that the earth revolved around the sun), considered heretical elsewhere, were studied at Salamanca. Also, the university helped in the reform of the Catholic church.

Classes: In the early days, students simply sat on the ground. Then classes were held in the Cathedral. Eventually, classrooms were built. The professor's chair was usually on a raised platform, with a sounding board behind to amplify his voice.

Amenities: Students had their own hospital (the Hospital del Estudio) when ill, and, as we've seen, often lived in their parents' mansions in the city. There were large numbers of foreign students, who often had their own buildings. The many Irish students at Salamanca even had their own department at the university, the Archbishop's College.

Decline of the University  With the coming of the reformation and Counter-Reform- ation, studies became more and more religious, with theology being the main subject. The result was that many well-to-do students, wanting the prestige of a Salamanca degree, but bored with theology, began to neglect their studies and carouse around the town. Cervantes commented that Salamanca students seemed less interested in their subjects than in finding ways to get around them. Students began to abuse their privileges: e.g. lolling in the student hospital when they were in fact well; raising cane in the town, then returning quickly to the university precincts where the local police (alguazils) couldn't chase them. The professors and the better students began to leave, seeking a more serious environment in universities elsewhere in Europe. The Inquisition came to Salamanca, creating a climate of fear. A famous professor, Fray Luis de Leon, was imprisoned for five years, then released. He resumed his lecturing at the university with these words: "As I was saying the other day..."

University Today  Reforms in the 19th century, including the addition of natural science to the curriculum, returned Salamanca to its earlier standing, and it remains one of the great centers of learning in Europe. Foreign students (many from Latin America) come in large numbers. New subjects are added, and new facilities built regularly. Today over 5,000 students study at Salamanca, in fields as diverse as archaeology and astrophysics.

Old Salamanca  We'll learn more about specific places in the city on our sightseeing excursion, but it's important for you to leave time for wandering on your own. You'll discover narrow streets that used to be named "Street Where We Were Hungry:" "Bread and Coal Street," or "Chirping Cricket Street" — or even "Street of Silence" (presumably where the professors lived). There's the city's Baroque-style main square, the Plaza Mayor, so exquisite that it has been designated a national monument. It's important too to get out of the city to the country towns nearby, where age-old customs and even pagan superstitions offer a glimpse of Spain's past: e.g. village women still wearing charms and jewelry with their fortune written on them, bull ranches where the complex ritual of Spanish bull raising is maintained almost fanatically, and little farms worked by families who have lived on them for many generations.

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