The 2009 Summer Colloquium of the EAJS was held at Wolfson College, Oxford from 6 to 9 July 2009. This year’s colloquium was an occasion to bring together historians and philologists who work on medieval manuscripts in Hebrew script, from both the Christian and Islamic worlds. Our starting point was the recognition that scholars who work with medieval manuscripts from the points of view of paleography, codicology, language and content make a vital contribution to the discipline of history; similarly, historians’ work in analyzing events and their complex temporalities is indispensible to the study of textual production and the survival of textual evidence. Yet philologists and historians seldom have opportunities to discuss their shared concerns and the methodological problems related to them. The program included three keynote lectures, sixteen shorter presentations, and plenary and small-group discussions. A particular highlight was an on-site working group in the Bodleian Library, in which participants presented original manuscript materials on which they have conducted research.
The keynote lectures took place over the course of three evenings. Malachi Beit-Arié (Hebrew University) argued that the initiative for writing, consuming, and storing Hebrew manuscripts came from individuals, not institutions. The majority of manuscripts were user-produced, and this affected transmission, multiplying opportunities for errors and emendations. The implications of this are far-reaching for textual editing, calling into question the very basis of Lachmannian textual criticism. In discussion, some raised the objection that prestigious texts such as Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed that were canonized at an early stage of their history show a narrow range of variant readings; research into the vertical relationship among manuscripts cannot be dismissed as useless a priori.
The second keynote was delivered by Haggai Ben-Shammai (Hebrew University), who discussed the marginalia of literary manuscripts as a historical source. Inscriptions and dedications reveal a great deal not only about manuscripts’ history, but also about the contexts in which they were produced and consumed. Many books were in fact stored in institutions such as synagogue libraries, as inscriptions on biblical manuscripts such as the Aleppo Codex attest.
The third keynote was delivered by Joseph Shatzmiller (Duke University), who discussed the various genres of medieval manuscripts that are useful for writing history, including chronicles, rabbinic letters, and responsa. The latter in particular occupy a place in writing the history of Jews in the Latin west comparable to the Geniza documents for Jews under Islamic rule. Since responsa were sent to Jewish courts rather than individuals, they too offer insight into the social and institutional structures of Jewish textual consumption.
The first day of the conference was devoted to “Manuscript Production, Transmission and Circulation,” and included seven presentations. In a paper called “The Passion for Books and Its Social Significance as Illustrated in Geniza Correspondence,” Miriam Frenkel (Ben-Zvi Institute and Hebrew University) discussed the social contexts in which books were commissioned, bought, sold, traded, and pawned. Lucia Raspe (Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität), in a paper called “The Legacy of Medieval Ashkenaz in Italian Manuscripts,” argued for the dependence of manuscript traditions on the mobility and continuity of the groups doing the transmitting, focusing in particular on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century minhag books.In “What Hebrew Bibles Tell about Themselves: the Case of MSS Héb. 15 and 21 from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France” Javier del Barco del Barco (CSIC) traced the paths that various books and their authors and owners took, as well as evidence of patronage and commissioning, by examining the colophons of various bible manuscripts. Ofer Elior (Ben Gurion University), in a paper called “Manuscripts’ Role in Studying the Later History of a Medieval Book: The Case of Ruah Hen,” presented an example of a manuscript tradition with a very wide chronological range and numerous variants; one criterion for ordering them, he suggested, would be to look for recensions or variants that attest to particular geographic or social environments. Finally, in a paper called “A Jewish Targum in a Christian World: Targum Samuel in Sepharad,” Johanna Tanja (Protestant Theological University, the Netherlands) presented the textual and codicological differences between Christian European and Islamic Levantine manuscripts of the Aramaic translation of the books of Samuel.
The panel “Jewish Books in a Christian World” opened with a paper by Ursula Ragacs (Universität Wien), “From Manuscript to Film: Hyam Maccoby and The Disputation,” in which she presented modern scholarship on Nahmanides’ account of the disputation of Barcelona of 1263 and her research on the transmission of the text. Piet van Boxel (University of Oxford), in “The Unicorn of Ferrara: Symbol of Power and Peace,” discussed the iconography of the unicorn from late antiquity to the Italian Renaissance, its christological significance, and its appearance among the extraordinarily rich miniatures in the Ferrarese Hebrew Bible Bodl. Can Or. 62. The illuminator of this Bible was Christian; his Jewish patron accepted the inclusion of a unicorn among the illustrations, perhaps reading it as a mere decorative motif.
A panel on the “Transmission of Non-Literary Texts” included two papers on Jewish amulets. The first, “The Secret Life of Spells: From Late Antique Palestine to Modern Kurdistan” by Gideon Bohak (Tel Aviv University), traced the development of an erotic spell over the course of fourteen centuries—a remarkable example of the continuity of a non-canonical text produced and transmitted entirely by individuals free from institutional intervention or support. Emma Abate (Università di Roma La Sapienza), in her paper “Studies on Hebrew Amulets from the Alliance Israelite Universelle’s Geniza Collection,” presented a range of texts from this Geniza collection and also discussed when kabbalistic terminology began to influence the tradition of Jewish amulets.
A panel on “The Social Contexts of Textual Production and Consumption” opened with a paper by Israel Sandman (University College London), “The Quality of Italian Transmission of Sephardic Learning: Associations of Copyists?” Sandman noted the extraordinarily high level of textual fidelity and understanding in some Italian copies of Sephardi manuscripts from the 13th-16th centuries. He asked whether there may have been scribal associations, formal or informal, made up either of scribes in close association or masters and disciples. Elodie Attia (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris), in a paper called “How Were Hebrew Texts Read by Jews during the Renaissance? Some Observations about Hebrew Manuscripts of the 16th Century,” discussed twenty-three manuscript copied by Raphaël Salomon ha-Kohen da Prato, paying particular attention to their annotations in terms of their form, mise-en-page, and mise-en-texte.
A panel on “Transmission of Scientific and Technical Knowledge” included a presentation by Sacha Stern (University College London) tracing Jewish calendars in medieval manuscripts that do not otherwise focus on the calendar. Stern interpreted these difficult texts as evidence of relatively independent calendars that veered from the official rabbinic calendar; they represented either errors or non-normative halakhic assumptions that copyists made either consciously or unconsciously, and they may have led to practical divergences in the Jewish calendar as late as the fifteenth century. Ilana Wartenberg (University College London), in a paper called “The Medieval Hebrew Mathematical Bookshelf,” focused on the work of Yishaq ben Shelomo ibn al-Ahdab, a Jewish mathematician of fourteenth-century Syracuse, originally from Castile. The final panel, on “The Interaction of Textual and Lived Traditions,” began with Ronny Vollandt (Cambridge University) and a paper entitled “What Happens to a Jewish Text When Leaving the Community Boundaries?” Vollandt discussed the remarkably long shelf-life and wide geographic range of Seadya Gaon’s Judaeo-Arabic translation of the Bible, which migrated into Qaraite, Coptic, and Syrian Orthodox biblical traditions, and even into the Paris Polyglot. Mark Cohen (Princeton University) closed the panels with a paper called “Commercial Law in Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law: The View from the Cairo Geniza,” in which he argued that Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, ostensibly a summary of Jewish law rather than an innovative work, in fact diverges considerably from previous precedents. In passages on commercial law, those divergences can be explained as perfectly logical in the context of the commercial practices evidenced in the documents of the Cairo Geniza.
The colloquium closed with a final plenary discussion in which the participants debated whether the traditional Lachmannian method of genealogical reconstruction should be maintained as a working hypothesis in the study of Hebrew-script manuscripts. Should philologists study texts or manuscripts—that is, reconstruct texts that are “more true than what is attested” (Gianfranco Contini) or focus on the phenomenology of the text, explaining each divergence as the product of particular historical context? The central problem is how to define the object of philological study: the first approach is author-oriented, while the second is scribe-oriented. Each assumes modern definitions of “text,” “author,” “copy,” and “copyist” that one cannot presume hold valid for the practices of the Jewish Middle Ages. We closed the conference with the decision to continue the discussion in other forums, both in person and on-line, and we immediately established a new listserv devoted to discussing medieval Jewish manuscripts (http://groups.google.com/group/mss-and-history-in-the-jewish-middle-ages).