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

On Hebrew Book Codicology and Paleography

Category: Uncategorized

Whose Middle Ages?

Quick note: I’ve been thinking about this in response to things I’ve heard at the IONA conference at SFU in April, but I write slowly so it’s taken some time to articulate even this short piece.

One thing I’ve heard from a lot of medievalists of colour was that at some point in the career (even for some of them when they are tenured professors) is that someone has asked them so version of the question: “Why would you be a medievalist?”- with the assumption that as people of colour they shouldn’t be interested in the Middle Ages which is European and White (or so the questioner assumes). And while there are so many problematic aspects to this question, and I’m certainly not in a position to speak to many of them, I wanted to address one of them from my position as a Jewish scholar working in medieval studies. While no one has questioned me about why I work on the middle ages there are certain issues that intersect with what a Jew working on them experiences and this question aimed at medievalists of colour.

As a scholar who primarily works on medieval Jewish literature I have had to become familiar with the literary traditions of the cultures in which the authors I work on lived. This is because Jews were influenced by the cultures surrounding them. Obviously, this changed from place to place and time to time- but one cannot truly understand medieval Jews with out knowing about the wider. So even if we begin with a problematic distinction between literary traditions that are ”mine” to study and those that are not, this distinction cannot be maintained because of the influence these traditions exert on mine. (I would argue that this influence goes both ways, but that’s not really my point here so I won’t spend time on it). This pertains not just to literature, but to all aspects of culture, art and history. For example, one cannot study Jewish medieval book making without knowing about the dominant forms of book making happening at the same time (even if there are important differences).

With this in mind it is important to realize that while there is a complex relationship between the present and the past, a lot of our understanding of the present is framed by our understanding of its relationship to the past. So, to return to literature again, our understanding of the current English literary canon is tied to our understanding of the history of English literature: does it begin with Beowulf? What contribution does Chaucer make? Etc. Thus interventions about the relationship of medieval Jews to the literary tradition are as much about the present as they are about the past.

Now because of the long histories of colonialism and imperialism British and North American culture have had a strong (and disastrous) impact on the world. To put it bluntly: the cultural heritage of Europe has been “thrust upon” Asia, Africa, and America. Understanding how this works, and working to dismantle it, come to better terms with it, engage with it as equals, is not just about studying the present, or even the “recent” histories of colonialism and its legacies, but it is also about studying the past. The “European Medieval” belongs no less to any person of colour than it does to any one of European heritage.

I want to end by reiterating that this is a complex issue with multiple levels, many of which I’m not qualified to speak on, but I wanted to present one (perhaps small) facet of this issue in solidarity with my colleagues of colour.


Hell’s Kitchen Heimish

There is a word in Yiddish, היימיש heimish, which is used to describe something that is comfortable, not pretentious, homey. Alex De Campi’s Hanukkah Special edition of her webseries Hell’s Kitchen Movie Club radiates heimishness. In this series, De Campi presents short vignettes featuring Marvel’s characters Frank Castle (AKA the Punisher) and Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier). While the two characters are not necessarily the most famous in Marvel’s pantheon, even casual followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are likely familiar with them as Bucky Barnes plays a major role in some of the franchise’s biggest movies, and the Punisher has had a dedicated series on Netflix. Frank Castle is a former marine who became a vigilante  after his family was murdered in front of him, and  he was first introduced as villain fighting heroes such as Daredevil and Spider-Man. Bucky Barnes was a friend of Steve Rogers and served with him in World War Two. While Bucky has various incarnations in his long history, the one most readers would be familiar with has him disappear presumed dead during World War II, only to reappear brainwashed and with powers as a result of nefarious experiments by the fictional organization known as Hydra (which began as a scientific arm of the Nazi war effort and went rogue).  Fans’ familiarity with this backstory is part of what makes this Hanukkah Special’s special twist work, since, like Frank Castle in the strip visiting Bucky’s family for the holidays, out of costume, I did not expect to step into a Jewish Hanukkah celebration when I followed the link in De Campi’s tweet on December 2. https://twitter.com/alexdecampi/status/1069253436787617793

Just like Castle, I needed to be told how Bucky was Jewish. The explanation and discussion that ensues is in keeping with a well-known Jewish practice of discussing whether a given celebrity is Jewish. Staying in the context of Hanukkah, we can point to Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, which also performs this cultural phenomenon.  Sandler’s lyrics are aimed at Jews who feel left out at Christmas time, so to make them (and himself) feel better, he is going to provide a list of celebrities:

“David Lee Roth lights the menorah,

So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas,

and the late Dinah Shore-ah”

(Sandler has revised the list and changed the names several times since he first performed it on Saturday Night Live). Similarly, one can find numerous lists and discussions on the internet about which superheroes are Jewish – as Henry says to Bucky towards the end of the strip: “We don’t get many superheroes. We’re keeping you and to hell with the fine print.”

The fact that this genealogy is not canon makes De Campi’s storytelling that much more special to me. She chose to make him Jewish so she could write a Hanukkah party into her web-series; this was her response to the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that took the lives of 11 Jews on October 27th. As she says at the bottom of the strip: “I wasn’t going to write any more of these [Hell’s Kitchen Movie Club strips] but then the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting happened, and I got real, real mad.” De Campi made Bucky Barnes Jewish as a response to anti-Semitism.

Jews played a prominent role in the origins of the superhero genre as prompted by their marginalized position in American society, creating the fantasy that the nerdy boy with glasses can transform into the muscular all-American hero. And it might be tempting to read De Campi’s response in the same vein, responding to a violent attack with a fantasy of a Jew who could fight back. But the story goes in a different direction. It’s not a tale of Bucky Barnes facing off against masses of Hydra goons, a revenge fantasy that might be expected given their Hydra’s origins as a rogue science unit of the Nazis. Bucky Barnes fought the Nazis during WWII, and then became a prisoner of Hydra who experimented on him and gave him his abilities, so it would not be a stretch to use his backstory as part of a response to anti-Semitic violence. But instead we have the Winter Soldier and the Punisher celebrating a heimishe Hanukkah. Although a story of Barnes and Castle on a blood-soaked mission of vengeance, a la Inglorious Basterds, might have offered a certain kind of catharsis, this response is also effective, and more complex. It is in keeping with the series created by De Campi strips focusing not on glorifying the violent side of these gritty characters, but rather on themes like “loss and PTSD,” as De Campi says below the strip from October, 2017 titled Silent Runnings. Further in that strip, Frank Castle reacts to the way his character has become a symbol for “bent cops” and racists committing violent murders. As she makes clear in the comments below, De Campi is thinking about current events, and what it means to tell stories centring extremely violent characters whose status as “heroes” is questionable. It is in keeping with this direction that in the Hanukkah special, a response to anti-Semitic violence does not take the route of telling a story about superheroes saving the day via violence. Henry saying to Bucky “You survived” is also the Jewish response the strip provides to anti-Semitism: we are still here.

The humour in the episode is an important aspect of this response; it’s not just portraying survival, it’s depicting its characters as genuinely happy. I don’t think I’ve seen the Punisher ever seem so amused as when people offer to tell him embarrassing stories about Bucky as a kid. And there is nothing funnier, or more fitting to the context, then a girl asking if she can go to “evil-science Nazis” to learn Hebrew like Bucky Barnes did, rather than learning it through Hebrew school.

This Hannukkah special engages with a growing trend to encourage Jewish visibility in media around Christmas time, as a way to be more inclusive. But De Campi does so in way that is thoughtful and touching. Further she touches on and subverts violent narratives in this specific strip and in the series as a whole, in a way that is a really powerful counter to violence and bigotry.

This Is What It Sounds Like When the Rabbis Cry: On Piyyutim and Aesthetics

In the documentary about Norwegian Black Metal Until the Light Takes Us, one of the main characters, Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, expresses his dislike for art made by artists whose art reflects the bad circumstances of their surroundings: artists living under oppressive political regimes, or poverty (he gives the example of Frida Kahlo’s art). His art, by contrast, is derived, he says, from the banality of his easy life in an upper middle-class Norwegian family. This scene reminds me, mutatis mutandis, of a comment I read in an introduction to an edition of medieval Hebrew poetry published in Palestine in 1946: A Selection of Hebrew Poetry from the Moment the Holy Scriptures Were Sealed Until the Exile of Israel from the Land of Spain in the Year 5252.

The volume as I have it appears is an abridged edition of an earlier, longer edition that I have not seen, but the original edition was edited by Hayim Brody and Meir Viner, the newer abridged edition by Abraham Moses Haberman, who added the introduction. In this, Haberman briefly summarizes some key points about the poetry included in the volume. Towards this end, after a very brief discussion of the prosody of the Hebrew poetry of al-Andalus, he comments:

The masters of the slihot [a genre of poems used for penitential liturgy] of Ashkenaz, who suffered seven levels of grief, did not surrender in the face of the harsh laws of rhyme and meter and freed themselves somewhat from the burden of perfect form. The crying and groaning over communal suffering broke from the heart without any restraint ­— and the time was not right for the niceties of form, and therefore it is somewhat lacking in the piyyutim of the Ashkenazim, especially in their slihot and kinot [a genre of lamentation written in response to attacks on Jewish communities]. But, for this very reason, a true warm feeling is preserved in them, the heartbeat of the nation, wondering, hurt, and complaining before its creator, almost to the point of protest. These expressions of sorrow and moaning are beloved by us more than the calm beauty of the piyyutim of Sepharad.

–A.M Haberman, Introduction, in A Selection of Hebrew Poetry (Jerusalem: Reuben Mas, 1946), p. 7. My translation.

In the 70 years and more since this was written, there has been much historical work that challenges the simple dichotomy between Jewish life in Ashkenaz and Sepharad, but that is not my main topic here. I want to focus on the (perhaps obvious) aesthetic assumptions behind this comment: Haberman’s argument is that the Ashkenazi poets were not able to focus as much on issues of form, rhyme, and meter, because their lives were hard. Their poems, though less polished, are more direct, however: they express “true” emotion, because they are spontaneous expressions of the suffering community (and the nation as a whole, though that is another issue of course). I read behind this the influence of one (post-Romantic?) idea about art: real art is an expression of true emotion, while art that shows the artist’s skill, training, and learning is artificial, somehow stale.

Of course, the whole dichotomy can be easily turned on its head, and in fact I would say that, by and large, the case in contemporary studies of medieval Hebrew poetry is the inverse: the poetry of al-Andalus, particularly the “secular” branch of it, is viewed as art because it is seen as freed from the formal, liturgical constraints of communal needs and is the expression of individual trained artists, masters of their craft, who are writing poetry for poetry’s sake—this reflecting an attitude about what constitutes art that is rather like that of the Norwegian metalhead “Fenriz.” The Ashkenazi poets, by contrast, did not have the ability to create true art, because their existence was defined by suffering.

The goal of this post is not necessarily to paint one position as wholly right and the other as wholly wrong, but to meditate on the way our preconceptions of what and how “art” exists enters into the way we treat our materials, and on how such preconceptions change over time. Both approaches I’ve mentioned here have something to stand on, and both are, at the same time, problematic. More musings soon.


A Farewell letter to Medieval Studies

I no longer think of myself as a medievalist. It’s not because I no longer feel like I belong in this field/discipline/concentration, but because I have come to believe that it’s not a useful label under which to place my knowledge nor the right paradigm through which to filter the world.

I’ve not come to this position lightly or without a certain amount of agony. For scholarly and social reasons it has been very important for me over the past two decades to see myself as a “medievalist” working within “medieval studies.” My hope, with this post, is to move towards a better scholarly place, hopefully while maintaining my social ties to my network of colleagues and friends who see themselves as medievalists. This is not an attack on anyone, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with my arguments here.


The “Middle Ages” as a concept was already problematic, even in the context of its “ideal” or “original” boundaries (Western Europe, except for Muslim Spain?); it was coined by people in the Renaissance to describe a “middle” period between the classical and the humanist revival of the classics. Scholars of the period have been fighting to reclaim the period so that it is not seen as “dark,” “barbaric,” “a decline of civilization,” etc. This battle continues, even in academic circles. In North America, it seems the term is often synonymous with English history and literature: to be a “medievalist” means to have read Chaucer or be well acquainted with the Hundred Years War. Medievalists working on English subjects get to have specialities: they are “Chaucerians,” “Anglo-Saxonists,” “Langlandians”—there is no terms like “Hispanist” or “Hebraist” to refer to them as a collective. The reasons for this are understandable, and to some extent have nothing to do with the field itself, but the fact does create a definite sense of “centre” and “margin” that is not at all reflective of England’s place in medieval history or culture. But this impacts the numbers of students we have, and the numbers of kinds of courses offered or possible to teach. It impacts how medievalists’ conferences are run, how sessions are created, and how well sessions are attended.


It has become very clear to many of us working in the field, especially over the past few years, that there is a strong and continuing strain of people who value the “Middle Ages” as a golden age of White European Christianity, and who turn to knowledge created by Medieval Studies to support their views. Moreover it has become apparent that there are scholars who have a stake in promoting this view as well. Even medievalists who do not explicitly support this position have been tacitly complicit, creating the possibility of their own scholarship being misused in supporting such views. So now there is another battle over this field/discipline/concentration: its goal is to disprove any historical basis for viewing the Middle Ages as a White Supremacist Wet Dream, and it is also engaged in transforming the field so that it no longer supports the kind of scholarship that can be used, wittingly or unwittingly, as fodder for White Supremacist notions of the past. This is an important battle that matters now more than ever. Even if we entered the field not expecting to fight them, even if we do not think of ourselves or our work as “political” or “engaged”—we must now. I have been inspired by some of the great writing that some are putting out there, in an effort to make a change and a difference. So why then am I saying that I’m leaving “medieval studies”?


Ultimately, in order to win this war of ideas, I think we need to abandon the idea of the “Middle Ages” altogether. It was coined as a matter of rhetoric, to create an illusion, so why fight to maintain a category that was already artificial? While it might seem that part of the solution is easy—just stop centering medieval studies on white Christian Europe—in practice I don’t think it is that easy.  The centrality of England and English in North America, of Christianity and of “Europeanness,” means that the resources will remain stacked towards those topics, such that, even if there is a will to change, the system will buck against it. I also do not think that merely pointing out (over and over again) that medieval England wasn’t white or working to build a “global middle ages” will create real change.


What is currently happening with these attempts is that a few individuals, many from already marginalized groups, bear the burden of the work, and the responses to it too. For their efforts they are personally attacked, their careers slowed, and they are further marginalized.  At big conferences, people attend panel or two explicitly about race and the Middle Ages, but then go back to attending more normative panels. At the same big conferences, the existence of programmed sessions covering medieval topics that expand the scope of “medieval studies” are pointed out as progress, but these are frequently not well attended, or attended mostly by those who are already working in the sub-field; their impact on the larger field is not great, even as they are used as excuses not to make bigger changes. This is one reason I’m no longer calling myself a medievalist: I don’t want my presence in the field—as a Jew, as someone who works in Jewish Studies, on Hebrew and Arabic—to be used as an excuse not to make further changes. Why do fellow medievalists resist checking out panels that are outside their areas of specialization? is it not because the category “medievalist,” which supposedly describes a collective interest and defines what we hold in common, is too broad to actually mean we have shared interests? When all is said and done, what I work on is not really relevant to someone working on the experiences of, say, anchoresses.


Further still, given the problematic roots of “medieval studies,” given its flawed artificial origins and inapplicability to much of the world, given the uphill battle it would take to really change it, wouldn’t it be better just to scrap the whole thing and build something new? It would be hard, take a lot of work and collaboration—but I’m not sure that it would be harder than reforming what exists now. Isn’t this hard? Exhausting? We need to develop something that more organically allows for people working horizontally across geographic regions, or vertically across temporal units (or both horizontally and vertically), to come together based on a shared something, that does not resort to the “Middle Ages” as its device.


So for now, I’m abandoning my commitment to “medieval studies” in favor of other frameworks that work better for me. Two that seem attractive are Mediterranean Studies and Silk Road Studies, but then again I’m also interested in England and the Rhineland, so…  From a practical standpoint (at least for now), this does not mean that I won’t consider going to a big medievalists’ conferences like Kalamazoo or Leeds, but I’ll go and present and listen to panels based on case-by-case, year-to-year, interest and not because of an allegiance to conferences that reflect my part in a collective “medievalist” identity. Similarly, if I find a topic or theme that relates to my work or interests at smaller conferences, I’ll apply. This is also a matter of where my money goes.


That’s where I am now, but this is an evolving process. I’m leaving the door open to change my stance. And as I said at the top, I’m not convinced that this is the only reasonable answer to the questions currently debated by others in our very broad field, and I fully expect that many scholars, peers, and friends will follow a different paths.


“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.

“they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years”: Time and Memory in Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11

Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11 is an autograph manuscript, compiled mostly by a man named Ela’zar HaLevi who lived in Germany in the mid 14th century. In his 2008 book about the manuscript, known variously in scholarship as “the Chronicle of Jerahme’el” or “The Book of Memory,” Eli Yassif argued that at least part of the codex is actually a well-crafted historical chronicle. This chronicle section begins on fol. 7r  with the words זהו ספר הזכרונות (see image below)–This is the Book of Memory–and runs all the way to fol. 258v.


fol. 7r (my photo)

Yassif argues that, in this section of the codex, Ela’zar carefully brought together texts to tell the story of the world from Creation to the Messianic Age. He shows that what seems like a random assortment is actually a masterful act of editing and curating of textual traditions. Yassif calls this technique, following Ela’zar’s own description, the “hook and loop” technique. As Ela’zar says:

 .(Yassif 70) ומאד עמלתי ויגעתי בו עד שהייתי [מחבר] עניין אצל חברו ולישבו כמרגלית במשצבת ובקרסים ולולאות

“I labored and toiled greatly over it until I could [connect] one issue to its companion, fitting it like a pearl in its setting, and with hooks and loops.” (my translation)

As an example of this technique, Yassif notes that the texts dealing with the creation of the fetus in the womb, for instance, are interpolated into a text dealing with traditions about the creation of man on the sixth day. There is a topical connection between the two, as both deal with ways humans are created–either the original one-time creation or the continual ongoing creation of new humans. Yassif lists more examples of this technique, and it becomes quite clear that it is in operation for much of book.

Yassif argues that only this section (fols 7r-258v) should properly be referred to as “The Book of Memory,” and his edition thus leaves out other kinds of materials found in the codex–texts before and after the section edited by him. This partition of the codex omits many items, including at least 7 texts listed by a later medieval owner as part of “The Book of Memory,” that is: The Book of Judith, the Book of Alexander, Ben Sira, The Tales of Sendebar, Mivhar HaPeninim, Brachia HaNaqdan’s Fox Fables, a text on dream interpertation, and a lapidarium. See items 20-27 in the image below:

4r (Image taken from microfiche of the manuscript)

fol. 4r, top  (image is blurry because taken from a microfiche of the manuscript)

Importantly, Yassif’s partition also leaves out much of the other material found in the manuscript that is not listed in the above image. For a more complete list, check out Neubauer’s description here:


In this series of blog posts, I will show connections between the section treated by Massif (which I will refer to as the “historical chronicle” section) and other parts of the manuscript. I can’t at present provide an argument connecting all of the materials in the manuscript together, but it is worth exploring connections beyond what Yassif outlines. Further, I will argue that a lot of what is going in the Book of Memory parallels and anticipates what Elisheva Carlebach argues occurs in the later Sifre Evronot, the subject of her excellent book Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe.

“Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven”: The Role of the Stars in Ela’zar HaLevi’s Compilation

The historical chronicle section begins by expanding on the story of creation recounted in the first two chapters of Genesis. Accordingly, on the fourth day, which includes the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars, Ela’zar includes traditions pertaining to the stars and their role in keeping time. After discussion of the sun and the moon, we find the following:

These seven servants S’ V’ M’ M’ S’ J’ M’ [ם צ ש ל כ נ ח] were created by God, and He ordered them in the heavens to serve the needs of the world, that those who come into the world will count with them signs, and set times, and calculations and summer, and the number of hours and days, months, times and days, and set times [sic], as it says: “they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years” [Gen 1:14]. These are their names: Hammah [Sun], Nogah [Venus], Kochav [Mercury], Levanah [Moon], Shabtai [Saturn], Tsdek [Jupiter], Maadim [Mars]. (my translation – see Yassif’s page 80 for the Hebrew).

Ela’zar then provides various information about how these “stars” have been set up to serve the needs of the world. For example, he copies from text found in an astronomical/astrological treatise known as the Beraita Deshmu’el that discusses the areas which fall under the purview of each star. Here, for example, are his descriptions for Saturn and Venus:

“שבתאי [Saturn] is in charge of poverty and suffering and times of illness, and of disease and injuries of the body that cause death. His form is like an ancient of days sitting with a scythe in his hand. That is what he looks like.

נוגה [Venus] is in charge of grace and beauty and love and lust and desire, and procreation– the birth of humans and on the birth of animals and the fruit of the earth and the fruit of trees. His [sic] form inside him is the shape of an adorned young women with a laurel branch in her hand.” (my translation – see Yassif’s pages 81-82 for the Hebrew)

I think that this is a key moment in the manuscript: it expresses the underlying explanation for much of the material found outside of the historical chronicle section– much of which happens to be calendric or connected to time in some way. For example, on the same folio (4r, image above) that includes the list of texts copied into the Book of Memory, the following table appears:


fol. 4r, bottom

This is a table that provides information about the 19-year cycle of intercalation (עיבור)–i.e., the years where a month is added to the Jewish calendar–and it lists the days of the year on which the Jewish New Year will fall, noting also whether the year is full or defective. It covers a 273-year period, starting in the year 5093 since creation (c. 1332 CE, and note that the final two lines are later additions — thanks to Justine Isserles and Nadia Vidro for help with this).

Tables such as these and other time-related materials can be found throughout the manuscript: they include religious material (such as information about Torah-reading cycles), medical material (such as information about the best times in the day for bloodletting), astrological material (such as good and bad days of each month for starting something new), and more.

Although there is never a moment explicitly pointing back from such tables to the narrative discussion of the creation of stars on the fourth day, there are several elements showing a connection. For example, the information about domains that fall under the previews of the stars, which I partially quoted above, is repeated later in the manuscript, albeit in a more concise manner and in a slightly different order, without reference to the moon. However, the visual presentation of the information differs in this second case. The first time this information is provided the text, it is laid out as a continuous narrative, but the second time it is set as a table. Compare the images below:

9v (on the left) 366v (on the right)

folio 9v













fol. 366v


The same information appears yet a third time in the manuscript, on the penultimate folio, in a version that’s closer to the one first appearing on 9v. See here:


Inner columns of folios 386v-387r.

Likewise the acronym of these seven stars (ם צ ש ל כ נ ח), introduced for the first time on fols. 9r-v, appears several times later in the codex, often just as an acronym but sometimes with the letters explained, almost always in this exact order but sometimes broken up in various ways.

For example, on fol. 367v there is a large table that connects the twelve signs of the zodiac, the days of the week (except the Sabbath), the times of the days, and the 7 stars. The table uses the first letters of the names of the stars in the order presented in the acronym–beginning with Mercury, represented by a כ (see the middle section of the chart in the image below), as well as the first letter of the names of the signs of the Zodiac starting with Aries, represented with a ט for טלה (the top line), and then, in the right hand column, listing the days of the week, with two entries, one for nighttime and one for daytime:


folio 367v (my photo)

As in the example of the domains under the purview of the stars, which showed the same information repeated several times, sometimes with slight variations, this kind of repetition appears frequently in the manuscript. There are at least two more tables pertaining to the 19-year intercalation calendar found in the manuscript, for example, as well as a “poem” presenting a method for calculating סוד העיבור, the secret of intercalation:


This short text is actually written sideways on folio 365r, and while it and several other pieces (such as the text already cited on the penultimate folio of the manuscript) may be later additions to the original text of Ela’zar, they are clearly building on a trend that he established and at least showing how the book used. The opening lines of this poem seem reminiscent of the trend in later Sifre Evronot (books dedicated to the ibbur and other technical elements of the Jewish calendar that appeared in the early modern period) to consider knowledge of the  ibbur “as coming from a divine realm” (Carlebach 86).

Even if Yassif is right and on some level El’azar’s focus was only or mainly on the historical chronicle section, and even if some of these materials were added by later scribes to the manuscript, these are also a product of the “loop and hook” approach adopted by Ela’zar. While to some extent all of these various charts, tables, and texts would have been useful to a medieval Jew–it is good to know the best times of day to pray, etc.–presenting them in this fashion goes beyond mere use: it serves an ideological function. A central theme of Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11, I think, is the nature of time. The book presents an overarching argument that all of these various systems were set in motion on the fourth day of creation. This argument leads to the deeper connection between the historical chronicle section of the manuscript and its other materials: the historical narrative–from Creation to the Messianic Age–is deeply entwined with these other elements of time, represented by cycles of years, cycles of Torah readings, astrological cycles, and so on. The book is doing something similar to what Elisheva Carlebach describes in relation to Bede and Christian time: “it conjoins computus in one seamless work with cosmology, chronology, history and [Jewish] eschatology” (9).

My next blog post will deal with the way Jewish time (and history) are intertwined with both Roman and Christian time and history in Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11. Until then…

Books cited:

Carlebach, Elisheva. Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011.

Yassif, Eli. The Book of Memory that is The Chronicle of Jerahme’el. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv UP, 2001.

CFP: Jews and Christian Materiality 51st International Congress in Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan (May 12-15, 2016)

Add. 11639  742b

The Brazen Serpent from BL MS Add. 11639

In the conclusion to her Christian Materiality (2011), Caroline Walker Bynum opens the door to an expansion of her discussion of medieval materiality and religion to Judaism and Islam: “Understanding the full materiality of Christian belief and practice,” she says, “may help to clarify at least one of the ways [i.e., the material way] in which medieval Christianity (and, in certain aspects, its modern descendants) is similar to, yet differs from, its sister religions, Islam and Judaism” (273). This session proposes to go beyond Bynum’s brief concluding survey, focusing specifically on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The rational for the focus is the well-documented tendency in Christian thought to present Judaism as the “material other” to Christian spirituality. On the one hand, many accounts of debates between Jews and Christians turn on the kind of generative matter Bynum describes in her book. On the other hand, the idea that Jews, bound to a literal reading of scripture, are blind to the spirit even as they physically bear their scriptures to the corners of the earth, is based on the spirit/matter binary that Bynum’s work problematizes. As much recent work on materiality has radically changed how we think of medieval Christianity’s relationship to the material, it makes sense to rethink how this impacts thinking about Jews and Judaism. The revaluation cannot be one-sided, however, not just about how Christians related to Jews; it must also involve a rethinking of Jews and “holy matter” as well. Christian “holy matter” surrounded Jews—on the outside of cathedrals and churches, displayed in processions, even in Jewish illuminated books–and Jewish natural philosophers drew on the same theories of the natural world as their Christian counterparts. On the other hand Judaism (at least as in the form dominant in the middle ages) grew out of a different ontological attitudes toward the spirit/matter hierarchy than did Christianity (at least in theory); it embraced the material and did not view it as negatively as early Christians, a rabbinic stance that influenced medieval descendants. Might the new understanding of medieval Christian materiality change how we understand the medieval Jewish attitude toward the material too? How does it inform, or react to, Jewish attitudes toward holy matter?

This session invites papers that rethink medieval Judaism in light of the material turn and the new materialisms generally, either from the perspective of Christianity (how did Christians relate to Jews and materiality?), or from the Jewish perspective (how does our changing understanding of materiality in the surrounding Christian culture apply to, or contrast with, our understanding of medieval Jewish culture?). Ideally, this session will stimulate discussion between people working in diverse topics and fields. It is a chance to make use of the varied audiences and disciplinary foci of a big conference like Kalamazoo, and it seeks to make space for fruitful and unpredictable interactions.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words to sboyarin@uvic.ca by Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.

Thinking about punctuation and other marks used by Christian Hebraists

Note: if you are new to this blog please read the short disclaimer in my “about” page, thanks.

The excellent Grammar Rabble session on “Unsettled Marks” at Kalamazoo has me thinking about punctuation and other markers used by Christian Hebraists in Hebrew. Would elements used by scribes and authors trained in the Latinate manuscript tradition (such as Tironian notes, other common symbols and abbreviations) be imported into Hebrew texts? Would they use symbols found in traditional Hebrew writing in a different way? And as I think on this even usual use of Hebrew punctuation by Christian Hebraists is an interesting topic. And so I’m planning to seek out manuscripts containing Hebrew composed by Christians (medieval and early modern) and see what I can find.

One example already comes to mind, from the 16th century translation of  the Epistles to James and Jude preserved in BL MS Royal 16 A II made by John Shepreve, a Hebrew professor at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

In addition to the dot that mark the vowelling in Hebrew, one also occasionally finds the following symbol:Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 1.32.53 PM (MS Royal 16 A II f.23v)

This symbol, called an etnahta appears twenty-five times in Shepreve’s translation of the Epistle of Saint James, and six times in the shorter Epistle of Saint Jude. It is part of the set of te’amim: a series of symbols that mark the way Jewish scripture should be chanted when read as part of the liturgy. Developed by the masorites (an early medieval group of Jewish Hebrew grammarians localized in Tiberius) as part of their stabilization of the textual tradition of Jewish scripture, they are standard across the Jewish diaspora (although different Jewish communities developed different traditions about what they are called, and how they are sung). By and large they are only used for scripture, although apparently there are a few early manuscripts of the Mishna that have te’amim as well.

In addition to the musical function, the te’amim also serve to indicate syntactical units, and as such can be seen as also serving as a kind of punctuation. The etnahta, which means “pause” is one of the ways to mark the ending of the first section in a verse, and it serves a bit like a comma, which is how Shepreve is using it. However Shepreve seems to be using the etnahta only in cases where not marking a syntactic break might lead to a misunderstanding:

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 12.12.12 PM(BL MS 16 A II f.25v)

This is his translation of James 1:17- “Every best gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration.” (in the Douai-Rheims)

Or to give a sense of Shepreve’s Hebrew: “Every trace of good and every perfect gift from above it is, coming down from the Father of Lights…”

In this example, the etnahta serves to break between “it is” and “coming down”- I think because it would be possible to read the verse “…and every perfect gift from above, it is coming down from the Father of Lights”.

Or for example:

James 4:5 “Or do you think that the scripture saith in vain: To envy doth the spirit covet which dwelleth in you?”

Or more closely to Shepreve’s Hebrew: “Do you think in vain it has been said what has been written: to envy…”

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.51.03 AM(MS 16 A II f.37v)

Here the etnahta marks a break after “what was written” so that the verse is not confused as saying: “…in vain it has been said: what has been written to envy…”

Usually Shepreve places the etnahta below the last letter of the word, which is not its normal place in traditional Hebrew texts. This practice causes him difficulty in the following case, where he can not fit the mark beneath the elongated final final nun:ן, so he places it after in between the words.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 10.56.51 AM(MS 16 A II f.24v)

Compare to the placement of the etnahta in this example from a 14th century Pentateuch:

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 11.13.28 AM(BL MS Add. 15252 f.116v).

So to conclude in this example, Shepreve “borrows” a mark used in a Jewish context for Hebrew scripture to use for his translation into Hebrew of two books from the New Testament, using it in a way that kind of resembles its original purpose, but in a way that’s different from the source.

As should be clear, this is my first foray into this subject- I would love to hear from people with other examples, or thoughts about this! More examples and posts as I find them.

On Henry VIII and Hebrew

Here’s a guest blog post I wrote for the British Library about a Hebrew book belonging to Henry VIII: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/03/what-to-give-the-english-king-who-has-everything.html#