We are pleased to announce that applications for classes beginning in Michaelmas Term 2023 through our Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages are now open! For more information and to apply, please consult this page.
The deadline to apply is 5 September 2023 at 12 noon UK time.
The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies is currently inviting applications for 2 OSRJL Visiting Fellowships in Rare Jewish Languages! For more information and to apply, please consult this page.
The deadline to apply is 12 noon UK time on Friday 19 May 2023.
Applications for classes beginning in Trinity Term 2023—Judeo-Greek and Judeo-Provençal—are now open! To apply, please use this form. The deadline to submit applications is 23 March 2023 at 12:00 noon UK time.
Note: Applications for classes taking place during the 2023-24 academic year will be posted prior to each term.
The OSRJL is pleased to share information about the online Judeo-Persian Literature in Translation class taught by Drs Ofir Haim (one of the OSRJL Judeo-Persian teachers) and Julia Rubanovich at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For details, please consult the class syllabus.
We are excited to announce that applications for our Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages classes beginning in Hilary Term 2023 are now open! The deadline to apply is Monday 12 December 2022 at 12 noon UK time. For more information and to apply, please see this page of the OCHJS’s website.
We are delighted to begin the second year of the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL). Applications for OSRJL language classes beginning in Michaelmas Term 2022 are now open. To apply, fill out this form before 12 September 2022 at 12 noon UK Time.
For more information about the OSRJL and its language classes, please see this page. Additionally, please note that the programme is also accepting applications for Visiting Fellowships at this time.
This post, based on the research Alla Markova undertook during her time as the first Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages Visiting Fellow in Hilary Term 2022, is a kind of continuation of the post written by Dr César Merchán-Hamann regarding MS. Canonici 6. To read his post, click here.
The Orlando Furiozo manuscript in question has 200 paper folios with a semi-limp, unornamented parchment binding; simple endbands; ornamented upper and lower endsheets; and flyleaves. There are two bifolia quires at the beginning and end of the codex as well as 24 quires of four bifolia—it is on these 24 quires that the text of Orlando is written.
The paper of this manuscript is of various stocks. At the time (latter half of the sixteenth century), paper was an expensive commodity; therefore, scribes and even printing presses often did not have enough paper of the same stock, so mixed different varieties within one codex. In most such cases, the differing materials used were of the same density and quality. However, in this case, the paper differs not only in its watermarks but also in its quality. While most of the manuscript is written on thick, difficult-to-bend paper with hardly visible chain lines and watermarks, some quires are made of much softer and easily bendable paper with clearly seen watermarks as well as chain and laid lines.
In the first 19 quires of 8-folios each, there are two matching watermarks—an anchor with double arms and big flukes in a circle and surmounted by a six-pointed star. These watermarks and countermarks are similar to Mošin #1421 (V. Mošin, Anchor Watermarks, Amsterdam: Paper Publications Society [Labarre Foundation], 1973). The two subsequent quires (ff.157-164 and 165-172) are made of much softer and thinner, quite translucent paper and boast a similar watermark; however, in this instance, the anchor in a circle has singular and not double arms (similar to Mošin #1655).
The next quire (ff. 173-180) has a watermark with a double anchor similar to Mošin #736, while the following two quires (ff. 181-196) are made of different paper with completely different watermarks which resemble a lion, similar to Bofarull #207 (F. de Bofarull y Sans, Animals in Watermarks, Hilversum: The Paper Publications Society, 1959).
Mošin identifies the watermarks in question as Italian and dating to roughly 1560-80. In this particular manuscript, the watermarks on all quires of hard as well as most quires of soft paper are very similar; this resemblance may indicate that the paper was produced on the same mill. If all this were to be the case, then why is the paper so variegated to the touch? And why are the watermarks, chain, and laid lines barely visible on the thick, opaque paper of the first 19 quires yet easily traceable on the paper of the last quires?
Another strange phenomenon I observed in this manuscript is the near total absence of errors—or, rather, of their corrections. Indeed, a sofer is not permitted to make errors in sacred texts. However, Orlando Furiozo is not a sacred text, but rather a prohibited if not sacrilegious work: a transliteration into Hebrew letters of a frivolous text originally printed in Latin letters. Given the length of the work, the scribe must have made errors and must have noticed and corrected at least some of them. Still, upon my examination of the text, I could not see any indications of corrections as I have observed in other Judeo-Spanish manuscripts (e.g., signs above the letters or on the margins).
That being said, and while I was endeavouring to identify watermarks, I noticed strange translucent spots on some leaves of the manuscript. Using a magnifying glass, I discovered that a layer of paper had been scratched out—apparently to correct a letter or letters. I began checking other pages and found further examples of this technique, which reminded me of my childhood in the USSR when we used razor blades to scratch out a letter or digit in our notebooks (or even a grade on our report cards). From my own experience, I remembered that the ink spread—bled—around the letter or digit we wrote in place of the erased one. So, with a magnifying glass, I examined the letters written over the translucent spots; in most cases, the ink had spread as well, whereas letters on the opaque parts of the page never bled.
To prevent ink from bleeding, early paper was sized by gelatin with the addition of alum. There were two types of sizing: an internal sizing of the pulp and surface sizing of the ready paper leaves. There were cases when scribes, while preparing the material for an important work, did additional surface sizing themselves. It seems that the scribe of our manuscript, accustomed to writing sacred texts on parchment and correcting his/her mistakes by scratching out a layer of parchment, used the same technique with paper. But, to do so, s/he did additional surface sizing on most of the stock, making the paper thicker and less translucent.
On several of the thinner pages in the last quires, some repeated words are simply crossed out.
The layout of the pages is beautiful: there are two columns of five octavas, written in minuscule Sephardic cursive. When a new song starts, some of the lines are written across the full width of the page telling the contents of the song, resulting in four or four and a half octavas in a column. Everything is nicely measured, but there are no visible lines or dots—even using a magnifying glass, you cannot find any such marks. Each leaf has a catchword, and, on the top of each page, there is a sign ‘bh‘ (‘baruch hashem’?) written in the same ink. The first page of most quires has a special sign also done with the same ink and apparently by the same hand.
While the text is written in black ink, the bottom-left corner of the first page of most quires displays a Hebrew letter written in brown ink and indicating the number of the quire. The numeration is done alphabetically (after yod goes kaph, lamed, etc.). Perhaps this numbering was done later by another hand.
In the upper-left corner of each leaf (up to 120) there is numeration with Arabic digits. On top of the verso leaves is written ‘kanto primero‘ (up to noveno on f. 40 v.), while ‘del furiozo‘is written on recto leaves (up to 41 r.).
Additionally, there are some Judeo-Spanish marginalia and several marginalia in Latin letters. Most of them are words of the first line of the poem but seem to be transliterated from the text written with Hebrew letters: ‘Damas, armas, enprizas y amor‘. The Latin letters look as though they were written by somebody who was learning to write.
All these marks and marginalia attest to the fact that the manuscript was read, and most probably by more than one person.
Though I only recently began working on this manuscript, I already can make some tentative conclusions. The manuscript, created by a highly professional scribe, is a work commissioned by somebody with wealth. It is a Hebrew-letters transliteration of a printed edition of Orlando, which means:
Printed editions of European books were available in the Ottoman Empire quite quickly after their publication in Europe;
Romance castellano was a language still commonly used by Jews in that part of the world;
It was easier for them to read it in Hebrew letters; and
Sephardic Jews enjoyed reading chivalric novels in Spanish even in the Ottoman Empire.
One of the presentations in the 2021 lecture series on Jewish languages organized by the French Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity (ILARA) inspired me to include a rare manuscript in a temporary exhibition of the Leipzig University Library: a thirteenth-century Bible glossary in Hebrew script assumed to have been written by Rabbi Samson ben Isaac of Chinon (c. 1260-1330). It is generally agreed that this Bible glossary was compiled in Rouen in northern France. The glossary contains translations of thousands of biblical terms in Hebrew as well as explanations (glosses) originally only into Judeo-French. Some time after it was originally written, a list of translations into Judeo-German was added, also in Hebrew script. Additionally, this list of terms in Judeo-German is written in a slightly lighter tone of ink. The parchment is attractively decorated with miniatures of imaginary creatures.
The Leipzig Bible glossary manuscript is an important source for understanding how scholars communicated about biblical texts and their meanings in vernacular languages, such as French or German, of their local social environments. Medieval scholars rarely wrote in these vernacular languages, and only very few of such texts have survived. Since the Leipzig manuscript is in pristine condition, we chose to feature this seldom-shown work in the dedicated exhibition hall of the Leipzig University Library for four months until February 2022.
This academic exhibition, which I conceived and curated, is titled “Translated Religion: In a Forest of True Words” (Übersetzte Religion. Im Dickicht der wahren Worte). It outlines the history of religion as a history of translation using manuscripts and books from the Leipzig University Library and provides information about translators’ efforts to translate religious texts and images. More than seventy items from two millennia exhibited give testimony to translational work in the context of religion. The exhibition and the accompanying 112-page catalogue are the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration.
Also of interest for scholars of Jewish languages in the exhibition is a small book with the title Or lě-ēt ʿerev (Light in the Evening), an eighteenth-century work in Yiddish and Hebrew used in the Christian Judenmission (missionary work to convert Jews). Additionally, visitors may view books and manuscripts with translations of the stirring psalms from the Hebrew Bible into languages used in Christian contexts—ranging from Coptic, an everyday language descended from Ancient Egyptian and widely used in Egypt until the seventh century; to Sahidic, a Coptic dialect; to Greek. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the lyrical translation of the psalms into standard German by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), an important proponent of the Jewish haskala (Enlightenment).
The exhibition emphasizes some of the challenges met by translators of religious texts who often had to master other writing systems. Religious texts are meant to be universally meaningful. Therefore, the translator’s task of conveying sacred words from a language that is, for instance, not spoken or whose cultural contexts have vanished is especially challenging. The Leipzig exhibition points out some of the answers past translators found to this challenge, thereby disclosing some often overlooked accomplishments that remain indispensable also for contemporary scholarship: encyclopaedias and glossaries, such as our Bible glossary.
When you enter the darkened exhibition hall, the manuscript parchment and the other exhibited items “look” into the room at you, no matter where you are standing since they are placed as vertically as possible, following the concept of all temporary exhibitions in the Leipzig University Library. There is a certain tranquillity in the hall that—in the words of director Ulrich Johannes Schneider—is created by the radiance of the objects, which are conjured out of the surrounding black by focused lighting alone.
Having come into the light, our rare Judeo-French Bible glossary, which miraculously has survived to this day, tells us of the diligence of Jewish scholars in medieval Rouen so that their work might provide guidance “in a forest of true words”.
Despite the rich holdings of medieval Hebrew manuscripts of Italian origin preserved in many libraries around the world, 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. 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 «[…] 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.