< Back

Literary Connections between Abravanel and England

Rabbi L. Rabinowitz

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Literary Connections between Abravanel and England By Rabbi L. Rabinowitz, M.A., Ph.D. Paper read before the Jewish Historical Society of England, May 25, 1937.1 Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, in 1437, and from the early age of 20 until his precipitate flight from Lisbon in 1484 in fear of his life?that is, for an unbroken period of over a quarter of a century?he acted as Finance Minister to Alfonso V (1443?1481) and to his successor, John II (1481-1495). Portugal is England's oldest ally, the first commercial treaty having been signed between the Portuguese envoy Alfonso Martins Alho and the merchants of London in 1353, guaranteeing mutual good faith in all their commercial dealings, while in the previous year Edward III issued a proclamation in favour of Portuguese traders. In the hundred and thirty years between this treaty and the depar? ture of Abravanel from Portugal, the ties thus formed were cemented in various ways. John I, founder of the Portuguese royal family and grandfather of Alfonso, married Phillipa, daughter of John of Gaunt. Alfonso's grandmother was thus English and his father half-English. Nor was this the only marriage which took place between the reigning houses of England and Portugal. In addition to this, English troops were constantly despatched to Portugal during the fifteenth century, 1 The fifth centenary of the birth of Abravanel was celebrated by the Society by the delivery of two other papers on this evening: Dr. C. Roth spoke upon Abravanel as Statesman, and the Rev. D. Bueno de Mesquita upon The Abravanel Family in England. I3I</page><page sequence="2">I32 ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND and the commercial treaty was by no means allowed to lapse. It was confirmed and extended on various occasions, and, during the whole of this century, England was a constant market for Portuguese goods. It is by no means improbable, by the way, that the negotiation of com? mercial treaties formed part of the duty of a Finance Minister, and, in fact, in the last years of his life, Don Isaac negotiated such a treaty between the country of his adoption, the Republic of Venice, and that of his birth, Portugal. It is probably due to this close triple connection?royal, military, and economic?that Abravanel shows in his works not only a know? ledge of England but what may, without exaggeration, be termed a definite preoccupation with it. It may fairly be said that he appears to take every opportunity of making allusions to " Angleterre ", even where the text he is illustrating, or the example he is adducing, does not justify it. A typical example of this tendency can be seen in connection with one of these idees fixes which are so characteristic of him. He very often appeared to act on the assumption that a weak argument gains strength by virtue of constant reiteration. One of these assump? tions was that the Jews settled not only in Spain, but also in France and England, after the destruction of the First Temple. Thus, at the end of his commentary on the Book of Kings, he says : " And there is no doubt but that the Jewish exiles of the First Temple came also to France and to England and to other Christian countries, and it is to them that the prophet refers when he says, 4 And the cap? tivity of this host of the children of Israel that are among the Canaan ites even unto Zarephath, and the captivity of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad ' (Obad. i, 20), for there were already Jews there from the time of the First Temple." Now, on the assumption, which in the Middle Ages was regarded as a fact, that Zarephath refers to France and Sepharad to Spain, the inference is quite a reasonable one. But where does England come in? And it is significant that in his comment on this verse in Obadiah he pertinently asks, 44 Why then is England not referred to in this verse? " and he replies that at that time England was regarded as part of France, 44 and indeed</page><page sequence="3">ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND !33 the old writers referred to it as Jis^itf ''K 'the island of France V Abravanel is probably confusing the name He de France given to the country round Paris with England, but it is of interest to note that, in his work Mashmiah Yeshuah,2 he repeats the statement for a third time and reinforces his argument by saying that it is so called in " their books ", suggesting that he had read English history books. But the most interesting proof both of his knowledge of English legendary history and his predilection for mentioning England is afforded by one of his passing references. He had an extensive and profound knowledge both of Christian theology and of the history of Christianity, and he gives a detailed account of the conversion of Constantine the Great (288-337) to Christianity through the influ? ence of his mother, St. Helena.3 Flavia Helena was almost certainly born of humble stock in Drepanum, on the Gulf of Nicomedia, since her son renamed it Helenopolis in her honour. According to St. Ambrose, she was an innkeeper. Despite this fact, and the fact that when Constantius, the father of Constantine, first visited Eng? land, where he died at York in 305, he had already long before re? nounced Helena in order to marry the step-daughter of the Emperor Maximian, there arose in England a peculiar legend representing her as the daughter of a prince of Britain, and, following these rumours, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes her the daughter of Coel, the British king, who is reputed to have given his name to Colchester. As far as I am aware, the legend was confined to Britain, and it is, therefore, astonishing that Abravanel, in his Mayene Yeshuah commenting on the verse " and he shall give him the daughter of women, to destroy it" (Daniel xi, 17), states, " It appears to me to explain it as referring to Helena daughter of the \ing of England, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who, some three hundred years after the death of Jesus, was enticed by the Christian bishops to believe in the faith of Jesus and his Apostles, and persuaded her son also to believe in him." I will give just a few more examples of this tendency on the part of Abravanel. In the army which destroyed the Second Temple 2 ix. i. 3 Mayene Yes/maJi, xi. 5.</page><page sequence="4">*34 ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND he includes soldiers from England.4 In his otherwise accurate account of the first Crusade, proclaimed, as he says, by Pope Urban II in the time of Rashi, he states that the Crusaders were recruited mainly from France and England with some from Italy,0 whereas, in fact, England hardly participated in this Crusade. As a last example may be quoted his comment on Isaiah v, i, where he says 44 If vines are planted in other countries they will not produce such excellent wine as do France, England and parts of Germany ". In almost every case quoted above he weakens his argument or goes completely astray by what one may interpret as his desire to include England. Of the origin of the English people he has much to say, mostly quoting Josephus that the English and the Russians are descendants of Tiras the son of Japheth,6 but his most expansive and interesting note on this is to be found in his commentary on Ezekiel xxxii. After quoting his usual reference to Josephus, he states that the descendants of another son of Japheth, Tubal, settled in Spain and France, and some of them crossed the sea to England; and then later on in the same passage he makes the English kinsmen of the Germans. It is here that we find his sole reference both to Scotland and to the char? acter of the English. He has the following comment on Ezekiel xxxii, 30: 44 There are the Princes of the North all of them, and all the Zidonians who are gone down with the slain, ashamed for all the terror which they caused by their might." 44 The commentators have explained," he says, 44 that the designation, the Princes of the North, refers to the Kings of Babylon, and the Zidonians to the inhabitants of Zidon. In my opinion, however, the words 44 the Princes of the North and the Zidonians " refer to the families of the Germans, and to the men of Hungary, Poland, Bohemia and Russia, who all dwell towards the North, and also to the men of England and Scotia, who are the most northerly of all. It is these latter nations who are called D^1T? " Zidonian " because of their depredations 4 Deut, xxviii. 49. r&gt; Mayene Yeshuah, ii. 3. G Cf. on Gen. x. 2; Mashmiah Yeshuah, iii. 7; cj. on p. xxxiv.</page><page sequence="5">ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND *35 (^1"!^ is from the root to hunt); and because they are a mighty and warlike people, he applies to them the verse " who are gone down with the slain, ashamed for all the terror which they caused by their might". Although he does not state so explicitly, he certainly appears in this passage to show an accurate knowledge of the mixed origin of the English people and to detect three distinct strata, the ancient inhabitants, the Normans who came over from France, and the Saxons from Germany. Of the actual history of the Jews in pre-Expulsion England he makes only one mention, and that an inaccurate one. Commenting on the fact7 that the dispersion of the Jews in all countries was a blessing in disguise, since their extermination in one country did not entail their complete annihilation, and contrasting it with the fate of the Trojans who, living in one place, were completely exterminated, he gives as an example that although the Jews had been destroyed in England, they still flourished elsewhere. The context shows that he is referring not to the Expulsion, but to a massacre, and he probably has in mind the massacre of York in 1190, which he wrongly con? siders to have entailed the complete destruction of the Jewry in England. His references to the actual Expulsion in 1290 are, however, numerous. In one passage (on Deut. xxviii, 15) he refers to the three major expulsions of the Jews from European countries, " the expul? sion of the Jews from England . . . their expulsion from France, of whom more than double the number that went forth from Egypt died [sic], and now also, the expulsion from Spain of the exiles from Jerusalem, which is the greatest of all the expulsions, at the very mention of which our soul is sad ". (He himself was one of these exiles.) In the above-quoted comment on Obadiah, he explicitly mentions that no professing Jew is to be found in England or France, and in the same context it is interesting to note that, although he makes pointed reference to the large communities of Marranos and baptised Jews in Spain and France, of whom, from time to time, individuals 7 Deut. xxii. 26.</page><page sequence="6">ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND escape and revert to their ancestral faith, he deliberately excludes England. He was either unaware of the existence of the Domus Conversorum,8 or regarded it as too insignificant to be mentioned in this connection. In an interesting passage in which he sees in the repeated expulsion of Jews a latent sign of God's providence0 he gives the date of the Expulsion as 1260/? and he says " These expulsions began with the expulsion of the Jews from the island at the extreme of the earth called Angleterre, whence the King expelled them completely in the year 5020. And there were there great and powerful com? munities, and they came to dwell in France where also there were large communities from days of antiquity "; and in another passage,11 he includes the Expulsion from England in the list of tragedies which occurred on the saddest day of the Jewish year, the Ninth of Ab. The one reference which I have been able to find of social and economic conditions in England is of absorbing interest. He ex? plains the verse, " Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk "l? in the following words: " It used to be the custom for shepherds, when they assembled to draw up their laws and regulations, to have a meal consisting of a kid seethed in milk. . . . Even to this day such is their custom in the kingdom of Spain, when twice a year all the shepherds assemble to take counsel with one another and to make enactments on matters affecting shepherds, and they call that assembly the Mesta . . . and I have already asked and made enquiries and I know it for a fact that also in the isle at the extreme of the earth called Angleterre, where there is a great quantity of prime quality sheep, more than in any other countries, this is also their normal custom ". Now one of the most important details in the commercial treaties between Portugal and England was the regulation of the wool trade. Spanish wool had a great reputation in the Middle Ages, second only to the fine Cots wold wool of 8 See Michael Adler, Jews of Medieval England, pp. 279 sq. 9 Isa. xliii. 5. 10 Dr. Roth points out to me that there was a well-established legend that the Expulsion took place in 1260. 11 Jer. ii. 24. 12 Ex. xxiii. 19.</page><page sequence="7">ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND !37 England,13 and various enactments were made to prevent Spanish wool being dumped in England, and it is but natural that Abravanel should know of the wool of England. The assembly called the Mesta mentioned by him represented a great association of sheep-owners in Spain which by the end of the Middle Ages completely dominated the whole economic structure of that country.14 Upon this interesting subject a brilliant economic work has been published by the Harvard University15 in which the author confirms every detail of these biennial meetings16 at which the behaviour and the duties of shepherds were regulated, negotia? tions were carried on with the towns over local taxes, and, above all, the interests of the members preserved. On the basis of the simil? arity of economic conditions in Spain and England, Mr. Klein raises the question of the possibility of the existence of such an institution as the Mesta in this country, but has no definite information upon the subject. He thus writes : 4' Sheep migrations were by no means unknown in the British Isles, and the marked parallel between the enclosure movement in the island kingdom and in Castile raises the question whether there might not have been some similarity in this regard as well. . . . Pastoral England under the mercantilistic early Tudors was to a striking .degree similar to pastoral Castile."17 To this question Abravanel gives a clear answer based upon his intimate personal knowledge of the conditions existing in England, and so solves a problem of considerable economic importance. In this short paper, I am confining myself to references in our author to England, as an account of the mention of his writings by English scholars, both Jewish, like Menasseh ben Israel and David Levi, and non-Jewish, like Lord Bacon,18 would unduly lengthen it, 1;{ Sec Cambridge Medieval History, vol. vii. p. 747. 11 Ibid., p. 749. 13 " The Mesta," by }. Klein, Harvard University, 1920. 16 Ibid., p. 49. 17 Ibid., pp. 315-16. 18 In Essay XLII " Of Youth and Age " Bacon writes: " A certain Rabbin upon the text, 4 Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams ' (Joel iii. 1, which in reality reads: ' Your old men shall dream dreams and your</page><page sequence="8">ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND and there therefore remains but one aspect of the literary connections of Abravanel with England to be dealt with, as revealed in the refer? ences in his works to English scholars and authors. In his Mayene Yeshuah he has two long allusions to the Venerable Bede,19 whom he calls Beda, and whom he couples with the historian Sextus Julius Africanus and other Christian writers of renown. But the most interesting reference is to the English traveller, Sir John de Mande ville. In his introduction to Ezekiel he gives a description of the traditional grave of the prophet from Benjamin of Tudela, and then he continues : " And I have seen a book which a certain knight wrote, a hero and a man of war who left the island at the extreme of the sea called Angleterre and travelled in most inhabited places of the world and wrote concerning what he saw, and he describes the grave of Ezekiel and its Synagogue, and in general his account agrees with that of Benjamin and the name of the man was Monsieur John de Mandeville." This is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the theme of this paper, but it suffices to show that the references to England in Abra vanel's works are more numerous than those of any other medieval Biblical commentator. In some instances it can be shown that his knowledge is an intimate and personal one acquired, one may safely suggest, during his period of office in the financial service of his king. Abravanel's outstanding characteristic is the catholicity of his interests. He is the eclectic par excellence, drawing upon every pos? sible source of knowledge for his voluminous commentaries. Nor does he confine himself to book knowledge. Time and again does one come across such comments as " I heard from a traveller ", "I have heard it said ", "In India, as a spice merchant told me "? and it is in the highest degree probable that in the financial transac? tions in which he engaged between Portugal and England he took young men shall see visions ') inferreth that young men are admitted nearer to God than old, because a vision is a clearer revelation than a dream." There is no doubt but that Abravanel is the " certain Rabbin." See his Commentary in loc. It would be of interest to trace Bacon's knowledge of Abravanel. 19 x. 7; x. 8.</page><page sequence="9">ABRAVANEL AND ENGLAND 139 every opportunity of acquainting himself with conditions in the latter country. Such a conclusion is irresistible after the facts which have been detailed above, and they establish a link between the great scholar and statesman in commemoration of whose quincentenary this meeting is being held and England where the celebration is taking place.</page></plain_text>