Judeo-Spanish Spanish

‘Orlando Furiozo’: Examining a Judeo-Spanish Manuscript in Oxford

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.

Watermark on thick paper; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

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).

Watermark on thin paper; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

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.

Translucent spots on a page; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova
Translucent spots on a page; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

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. 

Scratched-out letters; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova
Ink bleeding on scratched out place; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

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.
Alla Markova
OSRJL Visiting Fellow Hilary Term 2022, OCHJS; Senior Librarian, Brooklyn Public Library
Italian Judeo-Spanish

MS. Canonici Oriental 6: A Judeo-Spanish Copy of an Italian Bestseller

Sometime before 1580, somebody transliterated a Spanish translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso into Hebrew letters (aljamiado). This took place somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, probably in Anatolia. At some point later on, four folios were added to the transliteration containing an epitaph for a woman composed in Patras (present day Greece) in 1580.

MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries

The question is ‒ why would somebody go to the trouble of doing this? The Orlando Furioso was one of the undisputed bestsellers in Renaissance Europe. An Italian epic romance in verse, it was first published in 1516, and then again in a revised edition in 1521 as well as in a revised and enlarged edition in 1532. Soon it had been translated into several European languages ‒ French, Spanish (1549), English (1591) and German. The first Spanish translation, by Jerónimo de Urrea, was reprinted ten times in the first 34 years. Two complete translations more would be published before the end of the sixteenth century.

The volume took as its main characters Orlando (Roland) and the other paladins of Charlemagne’s court at war with the Saracen army that had invaded France. The work in its final version comprised forty-six cantos (forty-five in the Spanish translation) with 4,842 stanzas (4,902 in the Spanish translation), which makes for an astonishing 38,736 (39,216) lines in total. The appetite for chivalric romance in the sixteenth century was clearly limitless.

The work itself originally had been published well after the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and the Spanish translation even more so. Still, several generations after the 1492 Expulsion, Jews of Sephardi origin continued reading the same works as their Christian contemporaries; this phenomenon took place not only in the West, but also, as our work shows, in the Eastern Mediterranean. For, indeed, it was in the Ottoman Empire that the manuscript under discussion herein was produced, according to Malachi Beit-Arié. Adolph Neubauer, the Hebraica Curator who produced the Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, thought the work was written in transliterated Italian and had been written somewhere in the Italian peninsula. This is a plausible guess, but does not stand up to a closer examination of the manuscript. Laura Minervini, an Italian scholar, studied it more recently and wrote about it.

It is very unlikely that an Italian Jew would want to read the Orlando Furioso in Spanish. Furthermore, a Sephardi descendant of those expelled from Iberia residing in the Italian lands would not need to read the work in Hebrew letters, in the unlikely case that they could not read the Latin alphabet.

The work offers a fascinating view into a world where Jews in the Ottoman Empire kept up with the reading preferences of their contemporaries in the Hispanic world, yet found it more congenial to read them in the Hebrew alphabet. Curiously, the work was transliterated following the source word for word, with no attempt to “judaise” the original’s Christian phrasing, as is often the case for similar works. The very world described in the Orlando Furioso, a world of valiant Christian and Muslim knights (some of them women), ladies, sorcerers, flying steeds, enchanted castles and exotic lands would seem totally alien to traditional Jewish culture, and yet somebody clearly saw it as worth the effort to produce this transliteration. Thirty-six of the Spanish translation’s forty-five cantos were transliterated, with the only apparent difference between the two being the suppression of thirty-eight of the seventy-two stanzas added by Urrea to Canto 34 (35 in the Italian original), eulogising the great figures of Spanish history.

The Spanish Orlando Furioso in Hebrew letters (aljamiado) gives us a glimpse of a world of which very little has remained, where the descendants of Jewish exiles from the Iberian Peninsula read a widely successful Italian chivalric romance in a Spanish translation written in Hebrew letters, comprising thousands of stanzas relating the wildly improbable adventures of knights and ladies. For all these reasons and specificities, it throws light on a fascinating corner of Jewish life.

Dr César Merchán-Hamann
Fellow Librarian & Director of the Leopold Muller Memorial Library, Bodleian Libraries; Victor Blank Curator of Hebraica & Judaica, Bodleian Library
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search