In a Money Lender’s Shop in Late Medieval Poland

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger is the founder of the OSRJL.


The Bodleian Library manuscript MS. Opp. 600 (Neubauer 1378) is a late 15th-century copy of a learned work: a Hebrew translation of Averroes’s adaptation of the Physica Auscultatio of Aristotle. Translated into Hebrew under the title שמע הטבעי, this translation was a popular work preserved in several extant manuscripts—some medieval, others early modern—copied from the printed version of 1559 (Reva di Trento).[1] MS Opp. 600 predates this printing by more than half a century. Its 93 paper folios are written in careful and elegant, non-square Ashkenazi script consistent with contemporary Eastern European styles. The transmission of this scientific work among Eastern European Jews in the late medieval period is in and of itself a fascinating subject, but what attracts our attention today is a series of informal notes scribbled in Hebrew characters on the blank final leaf (fol. 93) of the volume by one of its readers. The language of these notes—tentatively defined as Polish by Malachi Beit-Arié[2]—and the contents, which I have deciphered (with some difficulty), reveal a moment in the life of the book’s reader, who was probably its owner. Through the notes, we discover this reader’s daily occupation, his time and place of activity and his efforts to communicate efficiently and elegantly with non-Jews.

Fig. 1. MS Opp. 600, f. 93v.
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Once the difficulty of recognising the forms of the Slavic words behind the Hebrew script is overcome, the notes reveal a series of short phrases in Old Polish. They are common expressions a Jewish businessman might have needed to communicate with his Christian clients and reveal that the object of the exchange is money lending. The notes do not reflect an actual transaction, but rather constitute a ‘phrasebook’ providing the money lender with model expressions, all in Polish, for different stages of the transaction. 

The conscientious money lender wrote the expressions in the order in which his meetings and negotiations with his Polish customers would have unfolded. Unfortunately, the beginning of the page is missing—traces of the vowels on its upper edge show that the extant part captures the unfolding of potential negotiations in medias res, but not too far into the discussion. The preserved part begins by a no-nonsense overture: שֵיהו טְרְשֶיבו  (szeho trzebo, Modern Polish [henceforth mPol.] czego trzeba?), ‘What do you need?’, and מְנָא הוֹלִי טרשיבו (mnoho-li trzebo? mPol. czy dużo trzeba?), ‘Do you need a lot?’. The agreement to open the negotiation is expressed by a polite verbal form רַאד בִיך (rad bych, mPol. byłbym rad), ‘I would be glad/I would like’. The phrasebook provides ready language assistance in the event that the client is a woman, to whom an offer is introduced by פַאני מֵיל פַעניד (Pani, miła Pani da), ‘Lady, dear lady, you will give . . .’. Readiness to negotiate is expressed by readiness to talk: ֹ מְלובֿיטְיִ (mołwić, mPol. mówić, ‘to say, to talk’). Then follow model proposals for exchange: פַאנִי מִטוֹד יֵידְנָא (Pani mi to da jedno), ‘Dear lady, you will give me that one’, or בֵֿילמי טוֹהוֹא טְרְשֵיבוֹ (wiele mi toho trzebo, mPol. wiele mi tego trzeba), ‘I need a lot of this’.

If up until now the blank phrases were quite general in their semantic purport, the next expressions leave no doubt that the planned discussions concern credit. נַאצְאש כציש (na cóż chcesz), ‘On what do you want (it)?’, is a question about the type of warranty for the loan, as clarified by the possible options offered to the borrower listed immediately after: צֵֵישלִי נַא רוּקוֹיְמֵי  (chcesz-li na rukojmie, mPol. czy chsesz na rękojmie?), ‘Do you want (to secure the loan) with a guarantor?’ (i.e., a person who will stand surety for the loan), or rather is the loan to be secured by a pawn: דיימי זאקלט (daj mi zakład, mPol. Zastaw), ‘Give me a surety [pawn]’.[3]

Once the legal technicalities regarding the form of the loan’s guarantee are sorted out, the phrasebook provides expressions useful in the discussion of monetary details. One appreciates that the phrasebook offers examples of two-sided dialogue between the creditor and the client: אצש מי דאש טוֹהא ([z]a cóż [?] mi to dasz toho? mPol. Za co mi to dasz?), ‘for how much you will give it to me?’, and the reply: דַאם טֵיבֵי זא גרוש  (dam tiebie za grosz, mPol. dam ci [tobie]za grosz), ‘I will give you for one grosz’ (grosz being a silver coin, 1/48 of grzywna, introduced in Czech and Polish lands at the beginning of the 14th century).[4] There are ready expressions for agreement to the conditions, but also for the absence of it: דַאם טֵיבֵי פִיט פיניז  (dam tiebie piat pieniedz, mPol. dam ci pięć [monet] pieniędzy), ‘I will give you five coins’, faces ני דאם טֵיבי  (nie dam tiebie, mPol. nie dam ci), ‘I will not give to you . . .’. Negotiation allows for the increase of the sum advanced for a pawn—up to six coins—and foresees the possibility that this will not be accepted: כַאק ניד זַא שֵישְט פיניז (kak nie da za sześć pieniedz, mPol. jak nie da za sześć pieniędzy [monet], ‘if he/she will not give for six coins . . .’).

The phrasebook advises firmness and formulates an ultimatum clause, which, by the way, can be used by both the creditor and the borrower: פְרוֹטוֹ  בֵֿיזמִי לֵיבו נֵיבַֿיי (pro to weźmi leybo [for lubo] nie wej[ź], mPol. weź za to, albo nie bierz), ‘either you take it for this or don’t take (it)’. Additionally, the notes provide ready formulae for when the parties have not reached an agreement. The formula expressing disappointment is crossed out, and a more daring formulation offered: נמי טו יֵשט ווילקא שקודא זֵי יַא (nie mi to jest wielka szkoda że ja . . .), ‘it is not a great damage (pity) for me, that I . . .’. A difficult sentence to interpret is: צשלוֹבִיק נֵי מוהַל סֵיבֵי סְטֵיסְקְנוֹצֵי זֵיבֵי מול מוהל זופֿאצי (człowiek nie mohl siebie steisknoć [ścisknąć[5] (?) żeby mohl zobaczy(ć)], mPol. człowiek nie mógł się zmusić [?], [?] żeby mógł zobaczy[ć]), ‘a man could not force (?) himself to see’. This hypothetical exchange ends without using up all the space on the page and with what seems to be a rebuke for a certain person’s possible statements: […]אוֹ,  מי מוֹרַפֿשקי מלוביטיי([c]o mi Morawski mołwitie, mPol. mówicie!), ‘what are you telling me, Morawski!’. 

This last sentence provides the only strictly historical information present in the phrasebook—the name of a Polish individual. In the late medieval period, the aristocratic Morawski family was prominent in the political life of the regions of Mazovia and Podlesie, in today’s Central-Eastern Poland.[6] This nobleman’s name, together with the expressions addressing a female client by the honorific ‘pani’ (‘lady’), may indicate that this Jewish creditor had financial dealings with high Polish society, a hypothesis supported by historical information on credit in medieval Poland. Unfortunately, there is no explicit mention of the creditor’s name, date or place of activity. As stated, his writing can be classified as belonging to the Eastern Ashkenazi non-square type of the 15th-16th centuries, containing some cursive features, such as large shin whose shape is reminiscent of a Latin ‘e’.

Let us now turn briefly to the language of the notes. Their linguistic features belong to the Old Polish (staropolski) layer of the language (Old Polish lasted from the earliest attestation of Polish words in Latin texts in the 12th century until the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries). Before discussing grammatical characteristics of this short text, though, we need to point out the enormous difficulties of reconstructing the words’ pronunciation and morphology. Hebrew characters render imperfectly the rich gamut of Slavic sounds. The writer recorded his aural impressions, noting what he heard, sometimes even dividing words wrongly or amalgamating several short Polish words into one graphic compound, as in line 3 מִטוֹד, mitod(a) for mi to da, ‘(she) will give it to me’. The Hebrew vowels were added only to part of the phrases and, when present, they only partially elucidate the pronunciation. In most cases, the presence of the vowels necessitates another level of analysis, aimed at not only ascertaining how the Hebrew vocalization was used to reflect the vernacular Old Polish vocalic system, but also at understanding how the Hebrew vowels were pronounced by Jews living and writing in Polish-speaking lands. 

It must be mentioned that the inconsistency in spellings is not only a matter of an always-imperfect transposition of the phonetics of one language to a graphic system of another, which does not contain signs expressing sounds which are foreign to Hebrew and Semitic languages. Early Polish texts written in Latin characters are also notorious for their highly inconsistent and idiosyncratic spellings, despite the normalizing ambitions of the Rector of the University of Krakow, Jakub Partoszowic of Żórawica.[7] His tractate on Polish orthography, written in the mid-15th century in Latin, was not able to reform the chaotic spelling of the growing number of vernacular texts. It was only in the blossoming Renaissance culture of the 16th century that lasting normalisation was introduced into Polish spellings. Indeed, Old Polish adopted the Latin alphabet and had to find creative solutions to express nasal vowels ę and ą; the mid-lingual consonants ć, ś, ź, dź; dentals sz, cz, ż, dż; plausives c and dz; and j and ł. No wonder the author of our phrasebook had similar problems, made even more acute by his use of the Hebrew alphabet. 

Thus lamed is used for l and ł (מֵיל, mPol. miła, ‘dear’) (similarly, in Old Polish texts in Latin characters, both sounds are rendered by l[8]); ṣade expresses both c and cz (in Old Polish, too, the grapheme c could be used for both sounds); and resh renders r (רַאד, mPol. rad, rady, ‘glad, happy, satisfied’) but also combines with a shin to render a ż sound when it is spelled rz (etymological ř) (טְרְשֶיבוֹ, mPol. trzeba, ‘it is needed’). Shin/sin (no diacritic point to differentiate these two Hebrew consonants is ever marked in the notes) can render sz (שֵישְט, mPol. sześć, ‘six’), ś (שֵישְט, sześć, ‘six’) or simply s (יֵשט, jest, ‘he/she is’), or be a component with resh to render rz (טְרְשֶיבוֹ, mPol. trzeba, ‘it is needed’). Alternatively, s is rendered by a samekh (סֵיבֵי, siebie, ‘oneself’). Zayn expresses both z (זַא, za, ‘for, in exchange’), dz (פיניז, pieniedz (mPol. pieniądz), ‘money, coin’) and ż (זֵי, że, relative pronoun ‘that’). Kaph and khaphexpress ch (כציש, chcesz, ‘you want’, בִיך, bych, mPol. bym, ‘[I] would . . .’) but also k, interchangeably with qoph (כאק,kak [mPol. jak], ‘how, thus’). Beth is equivalent to b but also expresses w and is, in these cases, provided with a raphe-like sign above (בֵֿיל, wiele, ‘a lot, many’). In turn, the Polish b can be rendered by a pe with a raphe sign as in זופֿאצי(zobaczy[ć], ‘to see’). Pe raphe is also used for an orthographic w, which is indeed pronounced close to f in the proper name מוֹרַפֿשקי, Morawski. The Old Polish g is expressed either by a gimel (גרוש, mPol. grosz, type of coin) or by a he(טוֹהוֹא toho, for the expected togo/tego[9] [mPol. Tego], ‘of this’, or מְנָא הוֹ mno ho [for the expected mnogo], ‘a lot’). The forms of these words with an h are not attested in Old Polish dictionaries. It is uncertain whether the Hebrew transliteration with a he reflects the way the guttural Polish g was perceived in these words by listeners or whether it reflects a Czech influence in which h appears (whereas in Polish there is a g). 

The vowels are written inconsistently, and their pronunciation reflects the specific pronunciations of Polish Jews. For example, a qamaṣ, especially when followed by a mater lectionis aleph, reflects an o sound, as in יֵידְנָא, jedno, ‘one, certain’. The neuter form ending in o rather than feminine (jedna) is suggested by the context. The use of the aleph mater lectionis can, in addition, indicate a long pronunciation of the vowel. 

The use of Hebrew script and the necessity for the writer to adapt it to Slavic sounds makes the precise identification of forms difficult. A good example is the ending of the infinitives: מְלובֿיטְיִ (most probably mołvić[10], mPol. mówić, ‘to say, talk’), דַאצשֵי (dać, ‘to give’), סְטֵיסְקְנוֹצֵי (ścisknąć [?], ‘to coerce’) and זופֿאצי (zobaczy[ć], ‘to see, have a look’). The Hebrew transliteration seems to suggest that the infinitives end in i. In Old Polish, the Old Slavic infinitives ending in i (-ti, -ci) disappeared progressively and were replaced by –c or –ć endings; by 1400, they appeared only in poetic texts for the sake of rhyme..[11] Since our phrasebook dates from the very end of the medieval period when the transformation into –c or –ć, with the disappearance of the final i, had already occurred, the Hebrew transliteration with a yod may be a creative attempt to reflect the soft consonant ć in Hebrew script, unless it reflects Czech influence.[12]

A characteristic verbal form is דְבַאם, most probably dawam (mPol. daję, ‘I give’), an Old Polish formation with an infix –awa- which indicates a repeated action.[13] The verbs ‘to give’, dać, and ‘to give repeatedly’, dawać, are attested in Old Polish. However, in contemporary language, the form dawać is attested in the infinitive only and the first-person singular present tense is the same for both verbs: daję. Another peculiarity is the infinitive of the second-person singular ending in –I attested in weźmi, mPol. weź, ‘take’. The infinitive in –i disappeared early in the Middle Ages with a few exceptions, whose transformation was complete only in the early 16th century. Weźmi is one of the last archaic forms attested until the end of the medieval period.[14]

A further feature demonstrated in the document and which disappeared in the 16th century is the use of the ancient aorist form of the verb ‘to be’ to express the conditional or optative mode. This phenomenon is attested in רַאד בִיך (rad bych, mPol. byłbym rad, ‘I would be glad’), where בִיך bych is an Old Polish form of first-person singular, aorist of być, ‘to be’.[15] Some declined forms seem to keep archaic features. The demonstrative pronoun טוֹהוֹא, toho (for togo)—Genitive case of tentato—consistently displays the vowel o in the penultimate syllable, as opposed to the more modern form tego

From the point of view of the periodization of Polish, the phonetic and grammatical features of these notes allow one to categorise them as belonging to the Old Polish stratum and, more precisely, to its later phase in the 15th or early 16th centuries. Some features attested here, such as the aorist form bych used as a conditional mode, went out of use in the 16th century and were replaced by other forms of the verb ‘to be’, still used in modern Polish. This state of language development, which can be dated to around 1500, corresponds to the palaeographic assessment of the Hebrew script.

Who was the Jewish author of these notes and why did he need to write this short vademecum to be guided through negotiations on credit with his Polish borrowers? That he was active in Central Poland can be deduced from the language as well as the name of the Polish customer, Morawski. However, some elements may suggest that he was not completely fluent in Polish. Thus he had some difficulties with the (admittedly complicated) case declension, such as the use of the Nominative singular instead of the Genitive plural of a noun after numerals 5 and 6 (piat pieniedzsześć pieniedz). More importantly, our money lender translated most of the Polish words into Hebrew. Unlike in most cases of Judeo languages which represent the spoken vernaculars, familiar to their speakers/writers from the cradle and even used to explain the ancestral and sacred but basically foreign Hebrew, here we find that it is Hebrew which helps the writer understand Polish. No less than twelve expressions receive a Hebrew gloss above the line, among them a current expression שֵיהו טְרְשֶיבוֹ מה תצטרך, ‘what is needed/what do you need?’, or a more technical צֵֵישלִי נַא רוּקוֹיְמֵי תרצה על ערבות , ‘do you want it with a guarantor?’. Was the author of the notes a Yiddish speaker who had little opportunity to practice the language of his neighbours? Was he an émigré from a nearby but different country? Some elements of his notes bear resemblance to Czech. We have already seen some cases of h instead of g or the use of the preposition pro, ‘for’, in פְרוֹטוֹ, pro to (mPol. za to), ‘for it’. Borrowed from Latin, pro is a common preposition in Czech. The Dative form of the full personal pronoun, טֵיבֵי, tiebie, ‘to/for you’ (a declined form of ty, ‘you’), is vocalised with a double e, whereas the Polish form is tobie or ci as a short enclitic form. Either the scribe confuses Accusative with Dative or, again, טֵיבֵי represents a Czech influence. Similar uncertainty concerns the form רוּקוֹימֵי, rukojmie (mPol. rękojmia), ‘guarantor’, whose first vowel’s transcription as a shuruq suggests a pronunciation u of the first component of the word, similar to Czech ruka, Polish ręka, ‘hand’. However, the term itself is Polish, and the vowel shuruq may be a way of rendering the nasal Polish ę vowel, which has no Hebrew equivalent. If indeed these are Czech influences, then they could also belong to the Polish of the document rather than to the individual writer. Indeed, the 15th century in Poland was a time of strong cultural and linguistic inspiration from the south.[16]

This modest page of informal notes in Bodl. MS Opp. 600 has not yet disclosed all its secrets. A more detailed study by experts of the history of Western Slavic languages is a desideratum. Nonetheless, we can safely state that this unique document gives us an unprecedented glimpse into the shop of a Jewish financier and records his exchanges with Polish customers.

[1] See, for example, MS. Can. Or. 63 (Neubauer 1377) and Neubauer 1379—the latter copied from the printed version.

[2] Beit-Arié, Malachi, 1994, n° 1378.

[3] See Urbańczyk et al. (ed.): rękojmia: vol. 7 (1973-1977), p. 464-465; zakład: vol. 11 (1996), p. 98. Both terms are attested together in the credit context in Old Polish in the 15th century, e.g., wstawil-li Schadokerski rankoymye na ten zaklad ? ‘Has Szadokerski appointed a guarantor for this surety?’, ibid., vol. 4 (1963-1965), p. 33 (s.v. li).

[4] On this currency and its etymology from Latin grossus, ‘thick, large’ (probably as opposed to thin, bracteat type of coins with the inscription on one side only), see Bańkowski, 2000, vol. 1, p. 483.

[5] The form with a k is irregular and not attested. The meaning proposed here is a hypothesis. For the verb ścisnąć, ‘to squeeze, force’, and ścisnąć (prawem), ‘coerce (by law)’, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 9 (1982-1987), pp. 8-9.

[6] The name ‘Morawski’ is attested in central Poland since the end of the 14th century, see Taszycki (ed.), 1971-1973, vol. 3, p. 553.

[7] Długosz-Kurczabowa, Dubisz, 2006, p. 63. 

[8] Długosz-Kurczabowa, Dubisz, 2006, p. 68.

[9] For the Genitive forms for the demonstrative pronoun, ten, ta, to—tego or togo, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 135.

[10] Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 111.

[11] Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 325.

[12] Z. Klemensiewicz, T. Lehr-Spławiński, S. Urbańczyk, Gramatyka Historyczna języka polskiego, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1955, p. 72.

[13] For the forms of dawać, including the present tense conjugation dawam, dawasz, etc. attested in the 15th century, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 2 (1956-1959), p. 31.

[14] Klemensiewicz, Lehr-Spławiński, Urbańczyk, 1955, p. 73.

[15] For bych/bich, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 1 (1953-1955), p. 192.

[16] On Czech influences on Old Polish by the end of the Middle Ages, see Walczak, 1995, pp. 90-91.


Bańkowski Andrzej, Etymologiczny Słownik Języka Polskiego, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa, 2000.

Beit-Arié, Malachi, Supplement of Addenda and Corrigenda to Vol. I, Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Długosz-Kurczabowa Krystyna, Dubisz Stanisław, Gramatyka Historyczna Języka Polskiego, Warsaw University Editions, Warsaw, 2006.

Klemensiewicz Zenon, Lehr-Spławiński T., Urbańczyk S., Gramatyka Historyczna Języka Polskiego, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1955.

Taszycki Witold (ed.), Słownik Staropolskich Nazw Osobowych, Zakład Naukowy Imienia Ossolińskich / Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Wrocław, Warszawa, Kraków, Gdańsk, 1971-1973.

Urbańczyk Stanisław et al. (ed.), Słownik Staropolski, Zakład Naukowy Imienia Ossolińskich / Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Wrocław, Kraków, Warszawa, 11 vols, 1953-1996.

Walczak Bogdan, Zarys Dziejów Języka Polskiego, Kantor Wydawniczy SAWW, Poznań, 1995.

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger
President, OCHJS; Director, Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies; Professor of Hebrew Manuscript Studies, EPHE, PSL; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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