Before the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, books were unique works of art as well as repositories of knowledge. The Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin manuscripts in this exhibition, most on view in the United States for the first time, are a meeting-place of medieval cultures. Produced in Europe and the Mideast, these manuscripts tell a story of intellectual exchange and cooperation among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Jews were highly mobile within these regions, whether by choice, economic necessity, or political coercion, and thus were conduits of learning.
The University of Oxford owns one of the most important collections of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the world. The Bodleian Library, established by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602, is filled with treasures, from the magnificent Kennicott Bible to works in the hand of Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and rabbinic authority. This presentation showcases a selection from the Bodleian’s superb holdings within the larger context of the history of medieval Christian Hebraism—the study by Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic sources—which first received full expression in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As Protestantism took hold in the sixteenth century, interest in the collecting and study of Hebrew texts was revived, propelling the formation of the Bodleian’s outstanding Hebraica collection.
The cross-cultural focus of Crossing Borders is very much in the spirit of Thomas Bodley’s founding vision for his library. Today, as in his time, this approach transcends ideological and religious boundaries to create a broader framework within which the rich legacy of Christians, Muslims, and Jews can be understood and appreciated.