Writing the Stars: An Early 15th-Century Judeo-Portuguese Astrological Text (MS. Laud Or. 310)

Like many Judeo-Romance languages, Judeo-Portuguese can often seem like little more than Portuguese written in Hebrew characters. An extinct language today, Judeo-Portuguese is preserved in several manuscripts, three of which are housed in the Bodleian Library. Throughout the 2021-2022 academic year, I had the pleasure of undertaking both Palaeography and Jewish Book History elective courses through Oxford University’s MSt in Medieval Studies. By chance and interest, I came upon MS. Laud Or. 310, an early 15th-century Judeo-Portuguese translation of the astrological treaty Kitāb al-bāri’ fi ahkām an-nujūm, translated into Latin as De iudiciis astrorum (‘On the Judgement of the Stars’, the title I will use henceforth), by 11th-century Arab astrologer ‘Alī ibn Abī al-Rijāl (known in Latin as Aben Ragel). As a product of the 15th-century Portuguese Jewish community, MS. Laud Or. 310, provides an insight into the intellectual life of this community, and the scholastic rigor and fruitful intellectual contacts that the community had with its non-Jewish neighbours and their scientific books.

Astrology played a complex role in Jewish life in the Middle Ages, when it was both praised and criticised, and reflects the collaboration between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim intellectuals who all contributed to the field. Maimonides, for example, in his Guide for the Perplexed argued that astrology was ‘intimately connected with witchcraft . . . leading to the worship of stars’. However, despite these objections, astrology remained important to many Jewish scholars, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, and even Maimonides, who continued to teach and study the art of astrology. 

The Judeo-Portuguese text of MS. Laud Or. 310 reflects this academic and scholarly purpose of astrology in medieval Jewish culture. One of the ways this phenomenon can be seen most clearly is through the formatting and script of the text itself. In MS. Laud Or 310, Sephardic semi-cursive script is dominant. Examples of it can be seen in the first folio, where the aleph features a different structure and stroke mark when compared with an aleph in, for instance, Hebrew square scripts. There are at least two major potential ideological and practical reasons why this might be the case. The practical reason lies in Sephardic semi-cursive script’s compactness. By utilising this smaller more fluid script, the scribe and, by extension, the patron would be able to cram as many words as possible per page into the manuscript. Especially given that this is a long work at slightly less than 300 pages, and given the costs associated with producing a Hebrew manuscript, it would be cost-effective to utilise such a script. Furthermore, as a more fluid script that has more interconnected letters than traditional block script, Sephardic semi-cursive script could be written more efficiently, again saving time and money for the scribe and patron. 

Fig. 1. An Aleph from MS Laud Or. 310

Additionally, the usage of catchwords and marginalia nota bene in MS. Laud Or 310 adds to the text’s scholarly yet accessible value. On nearly every page of the manuscript, certain Judeo-Portuguese words are written in a darker stroke and in a much bigger size. On a practical level, these headings and catchwords make it easier for an ordinary reader to better prognosticate and read their star sign, as well as follow the text generally. Again given the length of the work, this decision to utilise catchwords makes the text easier to follow. Given the manuscript’s lack of a table of contents or appendix, it would be extremely difficult for anyone to read it fast and find the most relevant information without the catchwords. The book’s lack of additional sketches, drawings or other extra-textual content further situates the work as a scholarly one.

Fig. 2. From MS Laud Or. 310, fol. 20v
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Of additional interest is the colophon at the end of the manuscript, which offers some profound insights into thinking about the presentation and audience of Aben Ragel’s De iudiciis astrorum. In what has been described by Judeo-Portuguese scholar Gonzaelz Llubera as a traditional ‘Hebrew formula of conclusion’, MS. Laud Or. 310 ends with ‘an expression of praise to the Creator of the World, followed by the name of the copyist, Yosef b. R. Gedalyah, and the date of completion, the 6th day, 2 days after the 1st of Elul, of the year [51]71 (1411)’.

Fig. 3. The conclusion and colophon from MS Laud Or. 310, fol. 241v (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Further contextual evidence for this manuscript provides evidence for understanding the translation and transmission of De iudiciis astrorum. Given its dating and known copyist, it has been suggested this Judeo-Portuguese text was part of a broader, royally sanctioned Portuguese project under King Joao I (1357-1433) to translate into Portuguese the old Castilian 13th-century version of the Arabic work, El libro conplido en los iudizios de las estrellas.  Since several of the Portuguese court scientists and translators were Jewish, it is not surprising that De iudiciis astrorum in Portuguese was transmitted using Hebrew characters. MS Laud Or. 310 should be understood as part of a broader intellectual project that engulfed leading Portuguese persons of letters, and that its Hebrew characters did not pose a problem to Christian and Islamic scholars of King Joao I’s court. Moreover, beyond the colophon, there is nothing remarkably Jewish concerning the content and language of the manuscript. The context of its translation ultimately underlies and supports the understanding that MS Laud Or. 310’s purpose was scholarly.

Although I have sought to provide some context and exegesis for its creation and purpose, MS. Laud Or. 310 raises many questions about Judeo-Portuguese’s usage and significance. The mystery of the manuscript includes its provenance and interaction with the Jewish and secular communities. These questions offer opportunities for further investigation regarding the function and significance of this manuscript that I hope future scholars and I can address.

Jonah Skolnik
MSt University of Oxford
BA Wesleyan University

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