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Judeo-Provençal

Uncovering Unknown Judeo-Romance Dialects in a Bodleian Miscellany (MS. Heb. g. 1)

This post is based on research undertaken during Dr Peter Nahon’s stay at the OCHJS as an Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages Visiting Fellow in Hilary Term 2023. He teaches Judeo-Provençal at the OSRJL.

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In southern France, local dialects of the Romance family which developed from Latin are heterogeneous and exhibit considerable territorial variation. As in other parts of the Diaspora where Jews have spoken and written varieties of local languages, it can be assumed that in southern France this dialectal variation was mirrored in the languages used by Jews of that region. That being said, until recently, only Judeo-Provençal—the dialect used in one single, narrow area of south-eastern France—had received extensive scholarly attention. A focus of my research in the past few years has been documenting and describing other insufficiently studied or unknown Southern French Romance varieties used by Jews—Judeo-Gascon, Judeo-Niçart and diverse secondary Jewish linguistic varieties of Southern French—thus yielding unprecedented insights into the linguistic diversity of the field.

Yet much remains to be done to expand our knowledge of Jewish languages in this linguistic region. Indeed, a wealth of material still remains in need of identification, description and linguistic analysis. It so happens that the Bodleian Library holds a manuscript miscellany that has tremendous potential for shedding light on whole swathes of Jewish linguistic variation. Oxford Bodleian Ms. Heb. g. 1 (cat. n. 2792 in Neubauer and Cowley’s Catalogue, 1906, vol. 2, p. 203-204) is miscellany of 197 folios, containing 21 different texts in several independent codicological units, of which a vast majority seem to have been written in the south and the east of France during the 15th century. The content of these texts is chiefly technical: medical and surgical topics, astronomic treatises, calendrical indications, charts of measure and weights, pharmacologic recipes and lists of therapeutic plants (materia medica). It also contains various materials attesting to deep cultural contacts between Jews and Christians: inter alia, a list of the books of the Old Testament ‘according to the count of the Christians’ (fol. 47), a list of the names used by Christians for the seven branches of learning (trivium and quadrivium) in Latin written in Hebrew letters (f. 61v) and a Christian calendar (ff. 181v-188v).

Fig. 1. Folio 187a. Part of the calendar, for the month of Tišri (תשרי) and September (שטומברא). The left column gives the name days of the Christian calendar of saints: Line 1—Saint Giles and Saint Ladre or Lazarus (ק׳ גילא וק׳ לאדרא), Line 4—Saint Martial de Limoges (ק׳ מרצייל דלימונגייש), Line 13—Saint Vernier or Werner (ק׳ וורנייר), Line 6—reads יריד בריאנשון ‘the fair of Briançon’ and Line 14—יריד רבייל ‘fair of Revel’, on the day of the Holy Cross (ק׳ קרוייץ).

The calendar, the only part of the miscellany that has been thoroughly described,[1] gives important clues about the dating and localisation of the manuscript: it is dated 1493 and refers to fairs or market days in Dauphiné (e.g., Briançon, Revel). Although the manuscript also contains some slightly later Italian material, it is very likely that the largest part of the miscellany was written and compiled in that area of south-eastern France by a single person—certainly a physician well-versed in the liberal arts—probably originating from northern France (as demonstrated by the palaeographic type of Hebrew handwriting used), who spent time in Dauphiné before immigrating to northern Italy.

Fig. 2. Folio 142b. A list of vernacular names of ‘hot’ seeds or species (זרעים חמים) used as remedies. In the first column, next to the Hebrew indication למחול קר ‘against the cold disease’, one reads קאפריש capres ‘capers’, שיקורייאיי chicorié ‘chicory’, טימי timi ‘thyme’, etc.; in the second column, שטאפיזאגרא stafizagre ‘stavesacre’, אפי api ‘celery, lovage’, אניזיי anize ‘anise’, אנייטי aneti ‘dill’, etc.

Such context of production has historically and linguistically significant ramifications. From the beginning of the Jewish presence in the kingdom of France and Burgundy, 15th-century Dauphiné was a crossroads for Jewish migrants en route to Savoy, Provence and, ultimately, Piedmont. It was there in Dauphiné that cultural and linguistic encounters occurred between its centuries-old Jewish community and exiles from neighbouring areas. However, material written by Jews in this area is extremely scarce: the few known items are all from earlier periods and comprise mostly formal codices, such as Bibles (e.g., Bodleian ms. Opp. 14, a 1340 Bible) or liturgical manuscripts (Parma ms. De Rossi 654), or very short, non-literary Hebrew documents (such as Grenoble ms. 4376, a betrothal contract from 1347). No other document of Jewish origin containing substantial matter written in the vernaculars of this dialectal zone—which extends across the linguistic border between Occitan and Franco-Provençal—has ever been described. Linguistic analysis shows that this unique manuscript furnishes a wealth of linguistic evidence in various dialects of south-eastern Gallo-Romance. While Hebrew is the main language used in the miscellany, the technical nature of its texts induces a frequent use of vernacular glosses, names or more extensive textual fragments. Reflecting the complex migration route and linguistic aptitudes of its writers, it includes words or phrases in Northern French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Latin and even Italian, all written in Hebrew characters.

Fig. 3. Folio 68a. A pharmacological recipe in Hebrew mixed with Romance: קח בצלים מדבריים דל שָוַויְיא ובשלם ‘take wild onions “del sâvaje” (Occitan “from the wilderness”) and cook them’. 

A thorough study of this material is needed. In the course of my ongoing OSRJL Visiting Fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, I am currently assessing the exact linguistic contents of the miscellany in order to then extract and describe all the vernacular linguistic data in it. This data deserves to be transcribed, edited and analysed with the methodological tools of Romance linguistics and dialectology (linguistic atlases, Gallo-Romance lexicography) in order to locate it within the complex map of dialect variation in southern France. Its critical edition and analysis will broaden considerably our knowledge of the languages used by Romance-speaking Jews in the late Middle Ages, as well as the history of cultural, scientific and linguistic contacts to which this important manuscript is a unique witness.


[1] Stern, Sacha, 2016. ‘Christian Calendars in Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts’, Medieval Encounters 22(1):236–265.

Dr Peter Nahon 
OSRJL Visiting Fellow Hilary Term 2023, OCHJS; OSRJL Judeo-Provençal Teacher; Research Fellow in Romance
Dialectology and Linguistics,
University of Neuchâtel

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