the north face store A Medieval Hebrew Manuscript

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The North French Miscellany One of the Most Important Hebrew Manuscripts of the Medieval EraThe North French Miscellany is a magnificent work of medieval art and probably the most important Hebrew manuscript at the British Library. It has 84 different groups of text as well as hundreds of poems reflecting the tastes of its medieval patron, all written in the most beautiful calligraphy. The manuscript attracts calligraphers and historians from around the world.

The Miscellany contains the most important Jewish texts: the Pentateuch and Haftarot (readings from the Prophets) and the Song of Songs, together with many biblical texts and prayers such as those for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It also gives guidance on rituals regarding marriage, divorce and even business partnerships! The volume contains the Hebrew version of the Book of Tobit, an extremely rare text in medieval manuscripts.

Every page is a work of art showing great skill and a fine sense of humour. The manuscript has travelled Europe and has a long and fascinating history, and thanks to a collaboration between the British Library and London publishers Facsimile Editions a limited edition facsimile has been produced.

The North French Miscellany

Credit: British Library Courtesy of Fascimile Editions

The History of the ManuscriptResearchers have established that the manuscript originated in northeast France, in the region of Picardy Artois. Contextual and pictorial evidence puts it between 1278 and 1280.

At this time Philip III was king of France, having succeeded his father, Louis IX (Saint Louis), in 1270. Louis IX enjoyed an exceedingly long reign, (1226 70) during which time he imposed increasingly severe restrictions on the Jewish community.

A decree of 1219 forced Jews to wear the Jewish badge, the rouelle. Philip imposed additional restrictions on the Jewish community when he enacted a further decree in 1277 forcing all Jews to wear the horned, or “Jew’s” Hat, in addition to the rouelle. So the highly visual hats and badges, the product of a decree of the previous year, have set the manuscript’s date between 1278 and 1280. In Folio 114r Aaron is portrayed wearing the ‘Jew’s’ Hat. The manuscript’s date of origin is further confirmed by the inclusion of the earliest known copy of Isaac de Corbeil’s Sefer Mitsvot Katan, a legal code composed in or around 1277.

Folio 114r Aaron Wearing the ‘Jew’s’ Hat

Folio 114r of the North French Miscellany

The Manuscript Comes to LondonFollowing its creation, the manuscript probably left France during a period of increasing Jewish persecution in 1306. It had reached Mestre in Italy by 1479 and eventually found its way to Venice. No one knows for sure what happened to the manuscript between 1479 and 1784. Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu and Henry IV were all avid collectors of Hebrew manuscripts and perhaps the manuscript was owned by one of these. We may never know. It was eventually purchased by the British Museum where it became Additional Manuscript 11639 and is now the most important manuscript in the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection.

After several years of negotiation the British Library has permitted a facsimile edition to be produced to the highest possible standards by world leaders in this field,
the north face store A Medieval Hebrew Manuscript
Michael and Linda Falter of Facsimile Editions, London.

Who Wrote the Manuscript?The manuscript’s history is long and fascinating and there is considerable debate over who performed the original copying the calligraphy is extremely good. Some researchers believe Benjamin the Scribe, a Jewish artist working in northeast France in about 1280, was the sole copyist and that he created the manuscript for his own personal use. The photograph Folio 306v shows his signature.

Benjamin must have been extremely wealthy since the finest artists were employed and no expense spared. It seems inconceivable that a sole scribe could afford to create so sumptuous a volume. Many Jews of the time manufactured silk, sold cloth or made wine from their own vines, so perhaps Benjamin was a wealthy merchant. It is interesting that Benjamin, having indicated in his colophon that he was the sole scribe, allows us no insight as to who the patron, if there was one, could have been.

The Signature of Benjamin the Scribe

Credit: The British Library Courtesy of Facsimile Editions

The Magnificent Artwork of the North French MiscellanyA sense of humour is reflected throughout the manuscript, with almost all of its 1,494 pages illuminated (that is decorated with gold or silver) and illustrated with grotesques (peculiar characters), flowers, animals, fishes and birds in the style of the High Gothic period. The Miscellany shows the extremely high standards achieved by the creators of Ashkenazi Hebrew manuscripts at this time.

Winged Animals and Grotesques Typical in Gothic Art of the PeriodFolio 354v is magnificent. The page is divided into three columns, one of which is enclosed within a highly decorated border, populated by angels, winged animals and grotesques, popular in gothic art of the period.

Important words are enlarged to double line height and heavily underlined with gold embossments. In the third column a gilded heading emerges from the mouth of a fictitious animal. Folio 354v E provides close up details of enlarged letters within the box.

Folio 354v Winged Animals and Grotesques

Credit: British Library Courtsey of Fascimile Editions

Folio 521v The Binding of IsaacFolio 521v depicts the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:9 12). Isaac sits on a raised altar of gold with his left leg and hand bound together. Abraham holds the knife aloft ready to strike but the angel restrains him, and points to the ram concealed in the bushes. The entire story is enclosed within a gilded medallion.

Folio 521v The Binding of Isaac

Folio 521v depicts Isaac with left hand and leg bound together. Abraham holds up a knife but is restrained by the angel.

Folio 522r Tabernacle ImplementsFolio 522r, the Tabernacle Implements,
the north face store A Medieval Hebrew Manuscript
is also presented within a gold medallion. The Ark of Covenant is flanked by two cherubim. At the bottom of the picture is the Table of Shewbread. To the right is the jar of manna. This is a very rare depiction of the Tabernacle implements and so far as is known does not appear anywhere else in Ashkenazi manuscripts. It comes from the tradition of Spanish bibles.