The Middle Ages Illuminated

The medieval Hebrew manuscripts and books in the Bodleian collection provide insight not only into Jewish culture in the Middle Ages, but also into the ways Judaism, Christianity, and Islam interacted during this period. Encounters among the religions were often hostile, yet these works reveal another story—one of mutual influence and exchange.

The Early History of the Book

Although the ebook has dramatically changed our world, probably the most revolutionary invention in the history of the written text was the codex, introduced in the late first century. Like a modern printed book, this format featured separate pages written on both sides and bound together in a portable volume. The codex was sturdier, presented content in a more organized way, and could accommodate more text than the roll commonly used in the Greco-Roman world. Written only on one side, the roll either opened from top to bottom, with a single column of text (called a rotulus), or unfurled from side to side, with the text in parallel columns, as in the Torah scroll still in use today.

The new codex form proved highly effective for spreading Christianity. In Latin texts it replaced the roll by the fourth century. We have no evidence of early codex use by Jews; ancient texts in Hebrew, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were found only in rolls. Indeed, few Hebrew texts in any form survive from between the second century and the late ninth or early tenth century. Of these, most were preserved in the Cairo Genizah, a synagogue storeroom where thousands of ancient, worn-out texts were deposited. The scarcity of Hebrew manuscripts during this extended period has puzzled scholars, and various explanations have been proposed: it has been attributed to a greater reliance in Judaism on oral transmission, to the difficulties endured by Jewish communities, or to the wear and tear of heavy use.

The Hebrew Book between Christianity and Islam

The advent of Islam in the seventh century gave rise to a new artistic language that emphasized beautiful calligraphy and nonfigurative illuminations. As much of the Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic rule between the eighth and eleventh centuries, this aesthetic strongly influenced artistic production there: while Christians often resisted this new visual idiom, Jews embraced it. Italian and Northern European Hebrew manuscripts frequently borrowed decorative elements from Christian sources, which at times conveyed a symbolism at odds with the Jewish content. Within these visual traditions, Hebrew texts developed distinctive features: the use of micrography (designs formed by minute script) and of decorated initial word panels. The lavish initials of Latin manuscripts could not be imitated, since Hebrew has no upper case.

Beginning in the twelfth century Hebrew book production started to flourish in the three main regions of Europe where Jews had long been settled: Italy, Ashkenaz (Germany, parts of France, and England), and Sepharad (Spain and Portugal). The study and copying of these books brought Jews and Christians together. Christian Hebraists sought the help of Jewish scholars as they made systematic comparisons of the Vulgate (Latin Bible) with the Hebrew Bible. In turn, Jewish scribes often commissioned Christian artists to illuminate sumptuous Hebrew manuscripts.

But Hebrew and Christian manuscripts were made and read in differing social circumstances. Although there was a high level of literacy among medieval Jews, they lacked political power and had little centralized organization. In the Christian society of medieval Europe, courts, cathedrals, and monasteries were able to support scriptoria (writing workshops) and libraries. In the Islamic world, too, books were often produced under the patronage of rulers. Most Jewish books, by contrast, were made and read privately, although some were intended for communal use.

Secular Books

Among the most prized books of the Middle Ages were scientific and literary works. Ancient Greek science and philosophy reached Europe mainly through the Islamic world, where they had been translated and preserved. Classical works of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine spurred the development of European scholarship. Spanish Jews translated these works from Arabic into western tongues, and contributed scientific writings of their own. Arabic adaptations of Indian fables were translated into Hebrew and Castilian, and these versions helped advance the Latin tradition of such stories. Fertile exchanges among Christians, Muslims, and Jews helped to shape the rich literary culture of the late Middle Ages.

The Establishment of the Bodleian Library

The University of Oxford was established in the twelfth century, during a period of flourishing intellectual inquiry and rising literacy. Oxford’s first university-wide library was founded in about 1320. Over the next two hundred years it amassed a priceless collection of books and manuscripts. In 1550, as the emerging English Protestant church was being purged of the vestiges of Catholicism, the library was ransacked and its holdings destroyed or dispersed.

In 1598 its fortunes were restored by Thomas Bodley (1545–1613), a former Oxford student and lecturer. Recently retired from diplomatic service under Queen Elizabeth I, he devoted money and time to reestablishing the library that was to bear his name. After the Bodleian opened its doors in 1602, Sir Thomas continued to nurture it by funding acquisitions and soliciting gifts.

The Hebraica Collections

Both a humanist and a Hebraist, Bodley viewed the collection of Hebrew books as integral to his vision for his budding institution. His interest was also an important manifestation of the resurgence of Christian Hebraism brought about by the rise of Protestantism. The Reformation advocated the return to the original texts propelling fresh translations and interpretations of them. Henry VIII had endowed the position of Regius Professor of Hebrew both at Oxford and Cambridge to ensure that the study of the language would endure. Bodley himself, a staunch Protestant, had begun learning Hebrew as a boy, and promoted its study during his teaching years at the university.

In 1605 he published the library’s first printed collection catalogue, which included fifty-eight Hebrew titles. The Hebrew had many errors, which Bodley personally corrected. Since his death in 1613, the Hebrew holdings have been greatly enriched. The early additions, gathered by noted Christian Hebraists and Orientalists, were later supplemented by collections assembled by Jewish bibliophiles. The manuscripts in this exhibition illuminate the Bodleian’s commitment to the collecting of Hebrew books for over four centuries.

 

Claudia J. Nahson, Curator

August 2012