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Italian Judeo-Italian

A Rare Judeo-Italian Ledger of a Jewish Pawnshop in Medieval Bologna (Ms. Oxford, Corpus Christi College Library 469)

Despite the rich holdings of medieval Hebrew manuscripts of Italian origin preserved in many libraries around the world,[1] Jewish moneylending registers are rare—and, even more so, are those written in Judeo-Italian, an ancient language in danger of extinction and mostly known from early writings. It is in this context that we find an early-15th-century Jewish pawnshop’s account book that has survived the hurly-burly of life and speaks to us today, offering an original perspective on bookkeeping practices, Jewish-Christian financial networks as well as credit systems in a fascinating combination of history, economics and linguistics.

The manuscript ledger, now held at the Corpus Christi College Library in Oxford, is the earliest known volume of its kind, and was kept by two moneylenders, who practiced pawnbroking business in the Bologna area during the years 1407-1411.[2] The book is limited to debtors’ accounts, combining the functions of a borrowers’ ledger and loans register. The account for each loan is headed with details of the borrower’s name, the amount advanced and witnesses. Sometimes, guarantors are recorded, followed by particulars of the items left in pledge, as well as of repayment of the borrower or someone on his behalf. Most of this information is reported in Judeo-Italian (basically Italian of the time or vernacular inserted into the Hebrew text and written in Hebrew characters), using a specific vocabulary to describe each pledge. As is often the case with daily-life documents of a personal nature, the writing is idiosyncratic and the linguistic mixture between Hebrew and the local dialect does not make for easy reading.

Figure 1 – Courtesy Corpus Christi College Library, Oxford, Ms. 469, f. 1r.

Among the various clauses of the condotte—the bilateral agreements that regulated the relations between local authorities and Jewish moneylenders—there was one specifying that Jewish lenders had to keep regular records of transactions undertaken. Although at first Jewish pawnbrokers used to draw up ledgers in Judeo-Italian, following the notorious bull Cum nimis absurdum (“Since it is completely senseless …”) issued in 1555 by Paul IV Carafa, they were forced to abandon Hebrew characters and adopt Latin or Italian as the official language for their registers in order to be checked by Christian authorities.[3]

Today considered an example of immaterial Jewish heritage, Judeo-Italian was employed as a literary vehicle in the medieval period and survived to the end of the 16th century in local dialects spoken in the ghettos. It should be noted that the evolution of Judeo-Italian and its sub-dialects surely must have been influenced by the development of the Italian language itself, which became standardised in later times. As is known, Italian emerged in the 14th century from the Florentine vernacular thanks to the work of the “Supreme Poet” Dante Alighieri, rightly considered the father of the Italian language, and coexisted with a myriad of dialects for centuries up to the present day. Similarly, in Judeo-Italian we also can find a vast array of sub-categories of local dialects, such as Judeo-Roman, Judeo-Venetian, Judeo-Florentine or Judeo-Emilian (the language adopted in the manuscript under consideration herein).

The dialectal varieties, both within the Italian language itself and in its Jewish variants, reflected the social, cultural and political differences of the Peninsula, which could be divided into a number of oligarchic regimes and boundaries, where lineages, princes, governors and factions colluded and collided over the centuries. Despite the causes of disunity, these Italian states ended up sharing linguistic and cultural factors, which led to the Italian national movement, achieved by the Risorgimento and the eventual political unification in 1861.

The register contains a large number of words in Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Emilian, mainly used to indicate the items left in pledge as a security for the repayment of loans, such as household utensils, silver sets, private belongings, books, farm tools, weapons, jewels, precious metals, gemstones and even some sets of knightly armour. In particular, a huge quantity of clothing was left as a pledge: tunics (יופיטי – giuppetti), overgowns (יורניי giornee), cloaks (גבאני – gabani), hose (קלצי calzi), shirts (קמישי camise) and dresses (קוטי cotte) formed a fraction of the inventory.

Names, patronymics, provenance or city of origin and profession of the borrowers are written in Judeo-Italian, being essentially a transliteration in Hebrew characters of Italian names, such as Bartolomeo of Joani, tailor (Bartolomeo di Joani, sarto); Tomaso of Jacomino, wool producer from [the parish of] Saint Michael (Tomaso di Jacomino, lanarolo di San Michele); and Luca of Franceschino from Fossolo and his son Joani (Luca di Franceschino da Fossolo e suo figlio Joani).

Jewish moneylenders were able to write fluently in the sacred language of their fathers, using specific terminology or formulas borrowed from the rabbinic-normative tradition with its Talmudic debates and conclusions, which came to them through the legal compendia of Maimonides. One could therefore wonder why the register was written mainly in Judeo-Italian instead of Hebrew. The answer may lie in the fact that the Jews who lived in medieval Italy did not speak Hebrew, having adopted the predominant dialects of the place, thus creating a mixture of Italian, vernacular, Latin and Hebrew, which represented the ideal Jewish-Italian cultural combination.

The ledger gives us a reliable insight into the reality in which Jewish creditors lived: a busy pawnshop active in Bologna at the beginning of the 15th century, in a period when the conflict between the Guelfs and Ghibellines led to the domination of the city by a series of signori. It was frequented by a diverse clientele—in most cases lowly customers, but also members of the higher echelons of Christian society, in addition to many clergymen and bishops, who sometimes even pledged sacred objects—which benefited from the services of lenders. It certainly had to be a jumbled ambiance, a place of discussion and encounter, where different people and traditions overlapped, and in which, at least, the language could express itself and evolve freely as a result of a perfect Jewish-Italian symbiosis without borders as well as religious, ethnic or political limits.


[1] About a half of all the extant complete Hebrew manuscripts bear evidence of Italian provenance either because they were copied in Italy during the Renaissance, or because they were brought to Italy by Jewish immigrants. For further information see: B. Richler, Hebrew Manuscripts: A Treasured Legacy, Cleveland-Jerusalem, 1990, pp. 66-67 and 76-77; C. Sirat, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages, trans. N. de Lange, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 8-11; B. Richler, Italy, the “Breadbasket” of Hebrew Manuscripts inS. Simonsohn-J. Shatzmiller (eds.), The Italia Judaica Jubilee Conference, Leiden-Boston, 2013, pp. 137-141; M. Perani, Italia “paniere” dei manoscritti ebraici e il loro esodo, nel contesto del collezionismo in Europa tra Otto e Novecento in Il collezionismo di libri ebraici tra XVII e XIX secolo, Supplemento al vol. 82, Nn. 2-3 (2016) de «La Rassegna Mensile di Israel», pp. 63-91.

[2] Today, kept separately from its “host volume” under the shelfmark CCC 469, the manuscript is a fine example of what has been called the “European Genizah” as its leaves were dismembered and reused to bind a different book of Italian origin. In particular, the leaves were part of a number of manuscripts compiled by Robert Proctor. Bibliographer, expert on incunabula and early typography, Robert Proctor became Junior Librarian of Corpus Christi College in 1891 and had permission to dismantle the boards of the volume which formerly hosted the account book, leaving them as separate leaves which had been bound together in a modern binding in the late 19th or early 20th century. See P.E. Pormann, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, D.S. Brewer, Oxford, 2015, p. 111.

[3] «[…] 8. Nec in libris rationum et computorum, quae cum christianis pro tempore habebunt, aliis, quam latinis literis et alio quam vulgari italico sermone, uti possint, et si utantur, libri huiusmodi contra christianos nullam fidem faciant […]». The full text of the edict may be consulted on Bullarum Diplomatum et Privilegiorum Sanctorum Romanorum Pontificum, Taurinensi editio, 1860, VI, pp. 498-500.

Dr Elena Lolli
Research Fellow, OCHJS; Rothschild Postdoctoral Fellow; Research Associate, Corpus Christi College

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