"Of the Making of Books there is no end…" (Ecc 12:12)

On Hebrew Book Codicology and Paleography

Month: May, 2018

“Books without readers, for readers without books”: Nation Building and the Study of Medieval Hebrew Poetry from Spain

A strange note by the publisher of the 1952 edition of Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni caught my eye years ago, in graduate school. After the introduction by Yisrael Zemorah, and before the title page, on a separate page, there are two paragraphs entitled “A Few Things from the Publisher.” I translate part of the first paragraph here:

“[The Tahkemoni] deserves, as do all early works with a similar fate, to be studied by scholars who are experienced in [codicology, paleography, and philology] in order to bring back the glory of the first full version, as much as possible. However, a tragic professional rivalry, about which H. N. Bialik has already lamented in his letters, and which has not changed since, may cause detrimental delays in renewing the state of Hebrew literature and postponing the revival of works of great value, which this historical moment requires and forcefully, if not loudly, demands” (8).

I first naively assumed that the editor was referring particularly to the Tahkemoni–imagining that there was some scholarly battle over the right to study and edit its various manuscripts (ala the struggle over the Dead Sea Scrolls), and that this had already started during the time of Bialik. Further I imagined that when he was talking about the need to publish a lesser edition of the Tahkemonias soon possible, he could have been referring to a specific lesson that could be learned in the present by reading al-Harizi’s medieval work. I went looking through Bialik’s letters to try to find any answers to these questions, and of course I found none–or rather what I found made me realize that I had misunderstood the publisher’s comments.

First let me start with the easy part: “the historical moment” to which the publisher referred was the foundation of the State of Israel; it demanded a national literature, and a national literature need to have roots. This need required immediate publication of even flawed editions of ‘works of high value” from the past.

Now to the “professional rivalry” that, according to the publisher, H. N. Bialik already lamented in his letters. I believe he is referring to the following idea, expressed in Bialik’s introduction to the first volume of the collected poetry of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, which he edited with Ravnitski 1914/15: “It is now two decades since the research and study of the [Hebrew] poetry of Spain has begun, and we have not received in this area even one complete thing. Not one single begging has been brought to its end” (Bialik 219). He goes on to list several different projects, all of which are not yet complete, and whose literature remains “outside,” that is, outside of the canon of Hebrew literature. Other projects are “incomplete, flawed, and otherwise literarily blemished” or found only in limited expensive editions. This reason he gives for this situation is revealing: there is, according to Bialik, an “iron barrier” between scholarship which takes place in the “West” (that is, in Europe) and the “creation of Hebrew, which is living and continuous in the East.” In her book, Poetic Tresspass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine, Lital Levi devotes a whole chapter to Bialik’s role in founding modern Hebrew literature. There she discusses this piece by Bialik and deftly shows the complicated way that he nods to this continuous literary tradition even as he works to cut off contemporary authors working within its tradition from modern Hebrew literature—and the response from those authors working within that tradition.

What I want to focus on is a specific aspect of his argument. Bialik argues that what is needed is to “uproot the poetry of Spain from the private sphere of scholarship and place it in the public sphere of literature of the current generation,” for it is needed to fill the “blank space between the poetry of the Bible and the poetry of our times.” This seems to me to be the “scholarly rivalry” to which the publisher refers, a philosophical rift between those who view studying and editing medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain as a tool in creating the national literary canon and those who see it as part of the broader project of Jewish Studies and notas part of the project of nation building. As Lital points out, of course, just as the “land without a people” in the early Zionist maxim erases the people who were living there, Bialik’s dichotomy erases Eastern Jews who maintained a living relationship with the literary heritage of Muslim Spain. And Bialik’s impact was such that for a long time the editing, publishing, and studying of medieval literature was viewed in the terms he dictated. For example, it wasn’t until 2010 that a modern scholarly edition of the Tahkemoniwas published, so scholars studying it had to work with an edition made in service of the nation-building agenda.

I will end by looking at an excerpt from another introduction, this time to the collected works of Judah HaLevipublished in 1946, edited with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah. After sections contextualizing HaLevi’s place among the Hebrew poets of Spain, a summary of his biography, a list of the themes of his poems, and a short discussion of his poetics, Zemorah concludes by talking about his trip to the Holy Land: “Judah HaLevi’s journey  to Israel should not be viewed as merely an episode”; he argues that “one can almost not imagine his poetry without this  journey, which is his final great poem” (10). Zemorah says that generations of Jews in various diasporas recognized this aspect of his work, even those who foolishly denied any connection to idea behind it, that is, even Jews who did not believe in the need to return to the Holy Land. “Therefore it should be easy for us,” says Zemorah, “to picture for ourselves, that now, especially now, the star of Judah HaLevi arises anew among us, and that we are the first generation to discover its full brilliance, to reach his souring spirit, to learn from how to do great things in poetry, to attain for ourselves his spiritual perfection, the lofty harmony of his soul” (10). According to Zemorah, not only is HaLevi’s poetry an important component of nation building, it (and his entire corpus) can only truly be appreciated by the nation’s citizens.

Obviously it is not possible to cover in this forum the full range of ways people have conceived of the study medieval Hebrew literature in the modern era, and certainly there are many who do not come to its study from the ideological space expressed by the people I have quoted. It is important to know that this strand exists, however, and to critique its influence on the field—just as we so (and should) when thinking about the nationalist roots of medieval studies in Europe and, mutatis mutandis, North America.


Bialik, Hayim Nahman. Complete Writings(Tel Aviv, 1938), pp. 219-220.

Levi, Lital, Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (New Jersey, 2014),Chapter 2: “Bialik and the Sephardim: The Ethnic Encoding of Modern Hebrew Literature.”

Al-Harizi, Judah. Tahkemoni, ed. Toporofsky, with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1952).

HaLevi, Judah.Complete Poetry, ed. and with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1946).

“Patching the poet’s garment”: Antar the Black Knight and Medieval Studies.

There are, in my opinion, many great reasons to be excited about Nnedi Okorafor’s new comic book series, Antar the Black Knight (Antar the Black Knight #1 Preview). You don’t need me to tell you that she is a master storyteller- she has the awards and reviews to prove it. Further, while I believe that the subject of her book is extremely timely it is not my place to write about that- I will leave it to others who are more qualified. What I do feel qualified to write about is not divorced completely from these aspects of the work, but stems from an issue that I have been thinking about a lot for some time.

For almost a year now scholars in medieval studies have been engaged in a long overdue self-evaluation of the field’s role in supporting various forms of European nationalism and White Supremacy. A number of factors have brought this about at this time: including vocal and explicit support of Milo by a prominent medievalist, the use of medieval and pseudo-medieval symbols at the White Supremacist rally at Charlottesville, and racially problematic comments made at a panel at last year’s International Medievalist Congress at Leeds. It became urgent to many of us to address the role medieval studies is playing (and had always played) in supporting White Supremacist thinking. Further many of us became certain that unless we were willing to do something to change the field we were part of the problem. There have been a number of good pieces written on this topic- see for example the statement on Race and Medieval Studies made by the Medievalists of Color: http://medievalistsofcolor.com/statements/on-race-and-medieval-studies/

or this one on White Nationalism and the Ethic of Medieval Studies by Sierra Lomuto: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/12/white-nationalism-and-ethics-of.html.

One aspect that I and others touched on is the role of fantasy people read growing up in inspiring them (us) to become medievalists, and how this in turn shapes our expectations of what the middle ages looks like. To put it bluntly if our fantasy middle ages looks like a white Christian or Pagan Europe, and that’s what prompts people to come study the middle ages, then that’s what they will expect to find in the “real” middle ages. Further we noted that many first (and even higher level) courses work on this expectation- knowing that students are interested in Templars, Castles, Dragons etc- choosing the texts and topics that will feed this interest hoping to draw students in to the field. Obviously this is just one strand of the problem- but it is not an unimportant one.

And this is why Okorafor’s Antar excites me- imagine students drawn to our field because they have read about a knight who is black, who is biracial, a story that does not come from a Eurocentric context (just look at the cover of issue #1 and you will get a sense of what I mean). Students who have seen characters from an African language in comic books, as well as quotations from pre-Islamic poetry? And that’s just for starters, because, and I won’t get into this at length here, Antar was both an important poet  in his own right (the first part of the title of my post is a play on a line of his poetry), as well as a character in a lengthy epic transmitted orally for many years. He connects and crosses so many different important cultural and literary categories that students who come to the field inspired by his story are really primed to engage with a very complicated middle ages. Imagine generations of medievalists who saw themselves represented in a comic book and said: “I want to study that middle ages”!

Now obviously I can’t predict that one comic book series will have such a profound impact- I think, or rather hope it can, but also I believe that we who are currently scholars and teachers of the medieval ages need to be proactive in changing the field or else this changes won’t happen. Imagine the student coming to study the middle ages inspired by a black Muslim knight who gets the message (explicitly or implicitly) that “oh no, that’s not really part of the medieval world), or is asked (again maybe it’s never stated explicitly) “why would someone who is not of European ancestry be interested in studying the middle ages.” This is why the Medievalists of Color collective is so important to our field- we must do more to support it. This is also why the work of @medieavlpoc, much of it public facing, which is aimed at showing people that even the European middle ages was not so white needs support. And of course there is other work being done to change the field- my point here not to list all the work being done- just to note how that work can be reinforced by pop culture phenomenon like this new comic book.

So, I would urge my fellow medievalists to support Antar the Black Knight (again if you happen to like comic books I also recommend it on that level). Here are some ways that I can think of:

  1. Perhaps the most easiest: we’ve all had that student who is super eager to talk about places where “medieval stuff” is found in pop culture- when/if you are having this conversation you can say something like “Also I heard about this new comic, that focuses on a medieval knight from the Arabian peninsula called Antar- you might want to check it out”. Some students might go out and read the comic, some might be blown away by it. But even if not, that sends a message- “this also is a moment of connection between the middle ages and pop culture, not just the Viking thing.”
  2.  If/When it comes out as a “trade”- collecting all five of the monthly issues of this limited series- ask your institution’s library to buy it. University library’s prefer this format because its more durable. They will occasionally buy the monthly format- but I’m told that then its stored in Special Collections- making it harder to access. (on the other hand for medievalists who might already teach classes in Special Collections this might open up interesting possibilities.)
  3.  If you teach courses that explore medievalism- consider adding this comic book to your syllabus.

Please note that I have a disability that impacts my writing- I try to make things as polished as possible- but sometimes in the interest of just getting something out there both in a timely manner- and in away that reflects my thinking- it’s not always possible to have it fully copy edited. Please don’t let any typos, grammar errors etc influence how you evaluate the post.