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OSRJL Applications Open for Michaelmas Term 2023

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.

Judeo-Arabic Judeo-Italian

The ‘Maḳre dardeḳe’ Manuscript with Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic Glosses

On 8 August 1488, Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser printed in Naples an abridgement of David Kimḥi’s Sefer ha-shorashim entitled Maḳre dardeḳe (מקרי דרדקי). This work is attributed to Menaḥem ben Peretz Trabot and includes a number of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses. It seems that it was intended for a readership of Italian Jews, as well as Arabophone Jews in Sicily and Sephardic Jews who had come to Italy from the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the late thirteenth century. What is remarkable about Gunzenhauser’s edition is that it is not only the earliest printing of Maḳre dardeḳe, but also the earliest dated witness of this text with Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses.

Maḳre dardeḳe, printed by Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser (Naples, 1488), München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res/2 A.hebr. 183.

Maḳre dardeḳe exists in manuscript form in six different manuscripts, dating from the end of the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, and presenting notorious variants. These variants include the replacement of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses by Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish glosses, or even the omission of glosses altogether. Three manuscripts contain Yiddish or Judeo-German glosses (Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, F 212, the oldest Maḳre dardeḳe witness; München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.r. 63; and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Opp. 634); one contains Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic glosses (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hunt. 218); another one has no glosses at all (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ebr. 429); and the last one contains Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS G-IV-9). In other words, this last manuscript is the only one containing Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses, like the Naples edition, and therefore deserves special attention.

Maḳre dardeḳe, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS G-IV-9, fol. 22v. © Patrimonio Nacional, Ministerio de la Presidencia.

The manuscript in El Escorial does not contain the entire text of Maḳre dardeḳe, but only an excerpt of it. In fact, the manuscript, with 224 folios, is a composite or non-homogeneous miscellany containing several exegetical works, some materials relating to Jacob ibn Ḥaviv’s ‘En Ya‘aḳov, the printed work Sha’are teshuvah by Yonah ben Abraham Girondi (probably a copy of the Venice edition, 1544) and other miscellaneous materials. The excerpt from Maḳre dardeḳe is copied on folios 22v to 24v and includes the beginning of the work (roots אב to אפז from the letter א). Previous mentions of this manuscript described it as containing Judeo-Italian glosses only, but folio 24v includes several Judeo-Arabic glosses as well.

Being a non-homogeneous miscellany, this manuscript is the result of previous existing materials having been gathered into a single binding. Yet this process was not a random selection of material done at the library at El Escorial. Rather, it had already been completed in sixteenth-century Italy by one of the manuscript’s owners, who selected the different constituent parts according to their own interests. We know this because when the manuscript arrived at El Escorial at the end of the sixteenth century, it was already in its present form. The book contains two different colophons, which describe the copying of parts of it in 1516 and 1518, and we therefore can surmise that the gathering of all materials was probably done later in the sixteenth century, sometime prior to the arrival of the manuscript at El Escorial in 1599. The different watermarks in the paper used for its many constituent parts also confirm this dating.

David Curbelo, a student under my supervision at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, edited the brief text of Maḳre dardeḳe in this manuscript in his Master’s thesis and discovered that the text of the El Escorial manuscript is an abridgment of the text printed by Gunzenhauser. The El Escorial text retains the biblical roots, the Judeo-Italian glosses (and on folio 24v, the Judeo-Arabic glosses, too) and the biblical verses, although most of the exegetical texts and references from the Naples edition are absent. For instance, the first root in both texts (אב) is followed by the first Judeo-Italian gloss (מיור/מיורי, ‘maggiore’, translated as ‘elder’) and the biblical verse including the word אב with this meaning, וישימני לאב לפרעה (Gen 45:8). Then, the text in the El Escorial manuscript skips Rashi’s explanations that appear in the Naples edition, and provides the reading for the following gloss for אב, which is פטרי (‘patre’, translated as ‘father’), and so on. 

Many questions arise from this manuscript witness of Maḳre dardeḳe. Was the scribe in possession of a copy of the Naples edition that served as a model? Was the scribe interested in the glosses only, given the fact that most of the exegetical passages were omitted? Or was the scribe copying from other manuscript witnesses not known to us but that were circulating along with the Naples edition? And why were the Judeo-Arabic glosses copied only on the last page, and not from the beginning of the text? This being the only manuscript version of Maḳre dardeḳe with both Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses that was produced shortly after Gunzenhauser’s printing, the El Escorial manuscript definitely merits a thorough study. This study should include the glosses, their comparison with the ones included in the Naples edition and the nature of the relationship between both witnesses.

Professor Javier del Barco
Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature,
Research Fellow at Institute of Religious Sciences (,
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Announcements Judeo-Arabic Judeo-Italian Judeo-Moroccan Judeo-Neo-Aramaic Judeo-Persian Judeo-Tat Judeo-Turkish Ladino Old Yiddish Yiddish

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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, Oxford
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