< Back

The Medieval Christian Hebraists of England - Herbert of Bosham and Earlier Scholars

Raphael Loewe

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Mediaeval Christian Hebraists of England HERBERT OF BOSHAM AND EARLIER SCHOLARS1 By Raphael Loewe, M.A. IHE consideration of the beginnings of Hebrew studies in mediaeval England is a subject that has received desultory attention since it was first treated, within the -* sphere of the knowledge of Hebrew in mediaeval Christian Europe, by Steinschneider and others?notably by S. Berger in an important study published in 1893.2 Of domestic interest is the fact that it formed the subject of Dr. S. A. Hirsch's Presidential Address to the Jewish Historical Society in 1909.3 Since then a certain amount of manuscript material has been noticed; in particular the newly discovered Latin Psalter with Herbert of Bosham's commentary, which dates from the late twelfth century and is thus prior to much of the work of the English Hebraists hitherto known, as well as exceeding it in the extent to which it draws upon rabbinic sources. Herbert of Bosham's Hebrew scholarship forms a subject in itself and is being treated elsewhere,4 but the occasion of the discovery of his commentary may form a convenient point at which to summarise what is known of the work of the non-Jewish Hebraists of mediaeval England, in order to see Herbert in his true perspective. As so often in investigations where Jewish elements are involved, one is faced at the outset with the difficulty of defining one's terms; and the main title of this article, as it stands, begs several questions. I have made it clear that I am concerned with non-Jewish scholars, and there is no reason to think that any of them were themselves Jewish converts. They were frequently dependent on oral information rather than on written sources. Their informants are anonymous; in some instances it is clear (from the title Rabi) that they were professing members of the Jewish community, and in others reference is made to a convert. The status of most of the informants quoted is not clear, so that in default of evidence to the contrary we may presume that they were Jews who had not left their religious community. But if the individuals concerned cause little difficulty as regards methodology, questions of subject matter, geography, and period call for closer definition. First of all, what is a Hebraist ? Some of the names which we shall have to list are brought to our notice by reason only of their appearance as marks of ownership in Hebrew books. Does such possession argue a knowledge of, or even an interest in Hebrew, or may a Hebrew book have been kept by its non-Jewish owner merely as a curio ? If we were to assume the latter we might risk excluding Robert Grosseteste, whose stimulus to Hebrew studies was significant, even though he had no knowledge of Hebrew himself. Consequently, it will be safer to include all such names for the time being. At the other extreme, there are a few scholars who possessed a knowledge of Arabic or Hebrew, but who were concerned with 1 Based on a paper delivered before the Jewish Historical Society of England on April 11th, 1951 ; and repeated before the Oxford Medieval Society on May 10th, 1951, and the Society for Old Testament Study on January 2nd, 1952. 2 For these and all other works fundamental to this study, see the bibliography on pages 248-9. 8 See Trans. Jew. Hist. Soc. of England, VII. 4 A preliminary article by Miss Beryl Smalley appeared in Recherches de Theologie ancienne et midiivale, XVIII, pp. 29ff., and a further article, specifically on Herbert of Bosham's Hebrew sources, has appeared over my name in Biblica xxxiv. 225</page><page sequence="2">226 THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN HEBRAISTS OF ENGLAND Hebrew merely as a tool for the study of philosophical works composed in Arabic or translated into Arabic from Greek. The Jewish factor in mediaeval thought, and the English scholars who were concerned in its mediation, have been dealt with by Charles and Dorothea Singer i1 we may consequently omit Adelard of Bath, Michael Scot, Alfred, and Bartholomew, all active as translators or transmitters, and concern ourselves with those scholars who studied Hebrew for its own sake?either because they conceived it, as did Bacon, to be the original source of all philosophical as well as of theological truth, or because they wished to study not only the Hebrew Bible in its original language, but also the traditional Jewish exegesis of it which they thought of, as did the Jews themselves, as ascending to biblical times. With regard to geography, it is as true of Hebraists in our own sense as it is of Adelard and Michael Scot, that their work was often done beyond the Channel; Roger Bacon belonged as much to Paris as to Oxford. We shall therefore be dealing with Englishmen abroad, and conversely with the occasional visitor or immigrant from across the sea. Finally, a major difficulty besetting any mediaeval subject that ranges over an extended period is to know where to stop. One cannot end with the expulsion of the Jews from England, for Hebrew studies were being prosecuted by Christians here after 1290. It is perhaps not entirely arbitrary to choose as a terminus ad quern the establishment of the Regius Professorships of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge in 1540, since by the sixteenth century the Hebraist was no longer a rarity in England. The disadvantage in taking so late a date is that the record is almost certain to be incomplete, at any rate in the later part of the period. It is hoped, however, that the present survey may be a useful starting point, and that other students of mediaeval and Jewish history may be able to assist in filling in the gaps. Of necessity this study has to be divided into sections ; in this essay I shall not endeavour to go beyond the close of the twelfth century. It is pertinent to begin by glancing at the conventional sources of information in the Middle Ages to which the cleric, curious on the subject of Jews and Judaism, might turn. Unless he happened to have a personal Jewish contact, these were indeed some? what meagre. Even before the close of pagan classical antiquity and the age of the sub-apostolic and early patristic writers which followed, Latin authors with an interest in things oriental and a competence in Hebrew could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. In fact, had it not been for the popularity continually enjoyed by the writings of St. Jerome, one might well wonder whether any knowledge of Hebraica and Judaica would have survived in Western Christendom at all. Jerome himself, who died in 420, was in touch with Jews at Bethlehem, and consulted with them for literary purposes. Besides his revision of the Latin Bible from the Hebrew, which was in due course to win acceptance in the Western Church as the Vulgate edition of the Scriptures, he treated many passages of the Bible incidentally in the course of correspondence and polemical or other theological writings, as well as composing formal commentaries to many of the books of the Bible and writing prefaces to his own translations of them. His writings betray not only considerable familiarity with Hebrew, but also a knowledge of traditional Jewish exegesis. Since many Bibles contained the prefaces, even the less erudite had the opportunity to pick up some scraps of information; while his treatise de nominibus Hebraicis and the pseudo-hieronymean de formis Hebraicarum litterarum2 exercised a fascination over the mediaeval mind. A mystic spirit surrounded the weird shapes and names of the Hebrew letters, occasionally prefixed in uncouth contortions 1 Legacy of Israel, pp. 173ff. 2 P.L. 23, 77 and 30,307. cf 23, 918a and elsewhere in Jerome's authentic works and translations.</page><page sequence="3">THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN HEBRAISTS OF ENGLAND 227 to the alphabetic Psalm 119. The mysterious, almost numinous quality of these letters rested upon the assurance that as the vehicle of God's first revelation of Himself to the Jews they possessed some occult symbolism?a spell under which the Jews themselves also fell. Midrashic works like the 'Othioth deRabbi 'Akiba1 belong to a similar literary genre to that of Jerome's treatise, and are among the putative ancestors of Taffimai Metallumi's tale in Kipling's Just So Stories.2, This aspect of our subject serves as a reminder that we must not, as yet, expect a distinction between scholarship and lore : it is only towards the end of the Middle Ages that a more scholarly approach emerges, reflecting itself in Hebrew grammatical works within Jewry from the tenth century, and Hebrew grammatical interest among Christians from the twelfth. And even then, alongside of this, folk etymologies survive, based upon misunderstanding, wordsplitting, and assonance?felicitous and otherwise. Jerome's Jewish knowledge was either derived direct from Jews or was taken over from Philo and from Origen of Caesarea (died ca. 254), the immediately preceeding great Christian Hebraist; but it was scattered and unindexed, and one must needs be a talmudist, so to speak, to know under which exegetical heading Jerome had recorded the point on which one was seeking information. On the other hand there was a standard if not perfectly systematic work of reference available from the seventh century onwards in the twenty books of Origins or Etymologies by Isidore of Seville.3 Isidore was not an original thinker, but he was widely read in Latin literature, pagan and Christian, and he uncritically condensed the fruits of his reading in loose encyclopaedic form. He also wrote controversially against the Jews in connection with the fourth Council of Toledo convened by the Visigoth King Sisenand in 633, and Graetz was of the opinion that apologetic rejoiners were probably composed in Latin by Spanish Jews.4 In an age of intellectual stagnation, it is not surprising that Jerome and Isidore were mercilessly plagiarised by numerous lesser writers, many of whose tracts are anonymous. One may mention in passing the Irish St. Caimin (d. 653), who is stated to have commented on the Psalms and to have produced a critical text, collated according to Ussher5 with the hebraica veritas; whether this means more than a comparison of the Roman or Gallican Psalter (i.e. that in the Vulgate) with Jerome's other literal version iuxta hebraicam veritatem requires further investigation. Yet a few names stand out and constitute a sort of chain of tradition, since the works of their possessors achieved a wide popularity; but in each case they rest fundamentally on Jerome and Isidore. Bede, who lived and worked at Jarrow from 672 or 3 to 735, knew no Hebrew himself, despite Roger Bacon's statement,6 but he was at pains to gather what knowledge he could about it from Jerome's writings. Alcuin, born at York in the year of Bede's 1 The first rescension, printed by A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, Pt. 3, pp. 12ff. 2 On the whole subject see F. Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie (Leipsig, Berlin 1922). p. 26-7, 133ff., 141. 8 P.L. 82, 73ff. 4 History of the Jews (Philadelphia, 1891ff.) Ill 50. 6 R. L. Poole in Illustrations of the History of Medieval Thought, p. 12, citing J. Ussher, Britannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates (2nd ed.) (1687) p. 503; Steinschneider in Zeitschrift fur Hebraeische Bibliographie I (1896), p. 53 (Christliche Hebr?isteri). Poole mentions in D.N.B. s.z&gt;.(VTII 213) that a facsimile of part of the MS (later however than the seventh century) now in Dublin, is given by J. T. Gilbert, Facsimiles of the National MSS of Ireland (1884), Appendix, Plate xxii and vol. IV 2, Introduction p. 112. This work is at the time of writing, not available to me. 6 See E. F. Sutcliffe, The Venerable Bede's Knowledge of Hebrew, Biblica XVI (1935), pp. 300ff. \ more briefly, B. Smalley, Bible Study2, p. 36.</page><page sequence="4">228 THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN HEBRAISTS OF ENGLAND death, has been said to have known a little Hebrew ;* but the fact that he connects the name Malchus with the Hebrew word for King,2 which was noted by S. A. Hirsch in support of the claim, proves nothing, since Alcuin could have learnt as much from Jerome.3 Of greater significance, however, is the important part Alcuin played in the Carolingian revival, in transmitting back to the Continent the knowledge of earlier writers that had been compiled by Bede. To the age of Charlemagne must also be referred a pseudonymous tract on the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles (de Questionibus Hebraicis in libris Regum et Paralipomenori) included amongst the works of Jerome,4 the author of which was a baptised Jew, or a Christian of recent Jewish ex? traction.5 This tract was utilised by Hrabanus Maurus (c. 776-856), himself a pupil of Alcuin, who became Abbot of Fulda and later Archbishop of Mainz.6 Hrabanus was a voluminous exegete and an erudite encyclopaedist, and he is said to have known Greek and Hebrew. His pupils included Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849). abbot of Reich? enau, who abridged the commentaries of his teacher Hrabanus on the Pentateuch. Some quotations from this abridged commentary were incorporated into the Glossa Ordinaria, the beginnings of which are traced to the eleventh and early twelfth centuries ?this became the standard commentary on the Bible until the Renaissance and the Reformation7?but the conventional ascription of the authorship of the Gloss itself to Walafrid is now known to be untenable.8 By now, however, ecclesiastical writers (blithely ignorant of the rabbinic adage, perhaps Rabbi Me'ir's,9 that whosoever conscientiously acknowledges his sources of information, as Queen Esther did,10 is instrumental in effecting the work of divine deliverance and redemption), were quoting even their patristic sources at second or third hand;11 and moreover their quotations are sometimes transformed, thanks to inaccurate memory of oral instruction, and are given anonymously or with inaccurate ascription. Thus it is that by the time of the First Crusade the literary sources for information about Hebrew and Jews, available to the West, resemble a river whose fountainhead is, paradoxically, itself a delta?i.e. Jewish Palestinian exegesis of the Bible, Philo in Alexandria, and Origen in Caesarea. Origen, who died in 253, is perhaps more accurately pictured as the first tributary; the next and greatest is St. Jerome, who died in 420. Thereafter the volume of water barely increases, except for an occasional contribution from an occasional Jewish convert, but the stream meanders on into the mediaeval world through a marsh that it creates as it proceeds?a significant but amorphous intellectual factor?being very occasionally canalised, as by Isidore, and applied to the hydraulics of ecclesiastical scholarship. But the effect upon the swamp caused by the increased impetus of the millraces so 1 S. A. Hirsch, Essays, p. 8 ; explicitly denied by Steinschneider, Zeitschrift fur Hebr?ische Biblio? graphie I (1896), p. 52. Cf. ibid V (1901), p. 86. 2 On John 18, 10, P.L. 100, 970c; also in the letters, ibid, p. 426a. 3 On Matth. 26, 41, P.L. 26, 200b, Cf. Jerome's Vita Malchi 2, P.L. 23, 54b. 4 P.L. 23, 1329ff. 5 Berger, pp. Iff.; Hirsch, Trans. Jew. Hist, of Eng.; B. Smalley, Bible Study2, p. 43. L. Ginzberg, Die Haggada in den pseudo-hieronymischen "Quaesttones" (Amsterdam, 1899) doubts the authenticity of the author's Judaism (pp. vfT., 71, 99, 105). 6 P.L. 109, 10a. B. Smalley, Bible Study2, p. 43. But A. E. Sch?nbach (Sitzungsberichte der Philosophisch-Historischen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna (1903) cxlvi, pt. iv, pp. 138ff. Doubts Hrabarus Maurus' independent use of these Quaesttones. 7 For an account of the origins of the Gloss, see B. Smalley, Bible Study2, pp. 46ff., 60. 8 Ibid. pp. 56 ff. 9 Baraitha de Rabbi Meyir (i.e. Mishnah, 9Aboth 6,) 6. 10 Esther 2, 22. 11B. Smalley, Bible Study2, p. 38.</page><page sequence="5">THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN HEBRAISTS OF ENGLAND 229 created is discernible now only, owing to the painstaking application of the apparatus of modern scholarship, which can, so to speak, produce an aerial photograph of the ground under consideration. As opposed to this absence of precise information about Judaism and the Jews, there was a considerable popular consciousness of their existence and curiosity with regard to them. This is scarcely surprising in view of the prominence of the Jews in the Gospel story, and of the fact that Jews were to be found in nearly all the important cities of Europe, having been established in France and the Rhineland for centuries. There was, indeed, an element of awe in the inarticulate curiosity which they aroused, which may account for the occasional attribution to them of megalithic stoneworks and ancient mounds, the ruins of an earlier and forgotten stratum of local civilisation.1 There are a number of examples of this phenomenon in England, a good example being afforded by The Jewry Wall at Leicester, which is in actual fact part of the Roman Forum : unless, as has been tentatively suggested,2 it owes its name to a connection with the twenty-four Jurats of Leicester. It is scarcely surprising that such miscon? ceptions should take root with ease in view of the gullibility of the secular clergy and the laity, between whom and the Jews there would inevitably be some degree of contact wherever a Jewish community existed.3 But in the monasteries, amid the cloisters of which there was confined such learning as did survive in Western Christendom, a deeper interest in Jewry, its faith, and institutions occasionally manifested itself. This is scarcely surprising, since Judaism and its "Law" were thought of as the precursors and indeed the foundation of Christianity, save insofar as they had been superceded by the new dispensation. Thus it is that Alfred the Great prefaced his legal code with the Decalogue and selections from the following chapters of Exodus?both for edification and in order, perhaps, to contrast the "harshness" of the old dispensation, symbolised by the lex talionis, with the new : for Alfred's own code substituted monetary compen? sation for physical retaliation.4 Since, however, the Jewish Oral Law embodies an analogous interpretation of the retaliatory penalties prescribed in Scripture, S. A. Hirsch suggested6 that a comparison of Alfred's code with rabbinic law in the Talmud and early codes might prove fruitful. There was, of course, no Jewish population in England in Alfred's time, but Alfred, who was in correspondence with the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Elias III, and had himself visited Rome and France in his youth, did summon instructors from the Continent to his Court. But beyond this almost academic interest in the institutions of a Judaism that was conceived of in terms of distance receding beyond the Christian era, the continued presence of the Jews in a Christianised Europe, and particularly their spiritual self sufficiency, posed a problem to the thinking Christian. It was only in the more important cities that there was much likelihood of Jewish and Christian scholars coming into contact and occasionally an interchange of views did take place.6 Alcuin records having attended such a disputation in Rome between a Jew named Julius and Peter of Pisa.7 1 See C. Roth Jews' Houses, in Antiquity 98 (June 1951), pp. 66 ff. 2 See Kathleen Kenyon, Excavations at the Jewry Wall Site, Leicester (Society of Antiquaries of London, Research Committee Reports xv, 1948), p. 8. The Jurats met *'in the town Churchyard" ?perhaps that of St. Nicholas, in the immediate vicinity. 8 See J. H. Parkes, The Jew in the Medieval Community (1938), p. 55. 4 See F. Liebermann, King Alfred and Mosaic Law, Jew. Hist. Soc. Trans, vi, p.21. 6 Trans. Jew. Hist. Soc, vii, p. 3ff. 6 Parkes, op. cit., p. 56. 7 Ep. ci, P.L. 100, 314c.</page><page sequence="6">230 THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN HEBRAISTS OF ENGLAND The reporting of such interchanges, real or fictitious, in dialogue form had been a literary device adopted by Christian apologists from early times; one of the earliest and best known examples being Justin Martyr's dialogue with Trypho, which dates from the middle of the second century.1 From the end of the eleventh century the popularity of this genre revived, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that Jehudah Hallevi adopted the form of a dialogue between a rabbi and the proselyte king of the Khazars in his apologetic work Alkazari or Cuzari, composed in Arabic in 1140. A number of these disputational tracts are connected with England. William of Malmesbury records2 such a debate held in London under William Rufus, the outcome of which was awaited with some anxiety by the clergy, since the King had declared (no doubt in jest, William hastens to assert) his readiness to adopt Judaism should the Jews' arguments prevail. The Jews afterwards maintained that their defeat was due to "political motives" (se non oratione, sed factione superatos). Probably before 1098 may be dated the courteous debate of Gilbert Crispin, Abbot of Westminster, with an un? named Jew educated at Mainz.3 From the next century we may note the following English tracts.4 An anonymous Dialogus inter Christianum etjudaeum de fide catholica, dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln (1123-48) : a Dialogus contra Judaeos ad corrigendum et perficiendum destinatus by Bartholomew, Bishop of Exeter, the dedication of which dates it between 1180 and 1184: and the Invectiva contra perfidiam Judaeorum by Peter of Blois, who was in the employ of Henry II and died as Archdeacon of London after March 1204. Nor must we neglect the Dialogues of Peter and Moses by the Spanish controversialist Peter Alphonsi, which was widely read and exercised considerable influence in England ;5 for Peter Alphonsi, alias Moses Sephardi, was a Jewish convert who owed his adoptive name to the fact that Alphonso I of Aragon6 stood sponsor at his baptism on St. Peter's day (June 29th) 1106. Peter emigrated to England where he became physician to Henry I. The significance of his dialogue lies in the knowledge of post-biblical Jewish writing which the author's Jewish education placed at his dis? posal ;7 because of its popularity, it materially increased the knowledge of Jewish beliefs and institutions available to the Latin-speaking world. An even greater popularity was enjoyed by Peter's collection of moralising tales entitled Disciplina clericalist composed of oriental fables derived from Arabic and other sources that are thus passed in to the stream of European folklore.9 A number of them were incorporated into the Gesta Romanorum, and early translations were made into several European languages and ultimately into Hebrew,10 some being printed by Caxton in 1484 as an appendix to his Aesop}1 From the Gesta Romanorum they were utilised by Chaucer and Shakes 1 P.G.L. 6,47Iff. On the whole subject see A. Lukyn Williams, Adversus Judaeos. A bird's-eye view of Christian apologiae until the Renaissance, Cambridge, 1935 ; Also P. Browe, SJ. Die Judenmission im Mittelalter (see bibliography,) pp. 55ff, 95ff, 99ff. 2 Gesta Regum Anglorum iv, ?317 (P.L. 179, 1279c), cited by Browe, p. 60. 3 P.L. 159, 1007. 4 I am here following Dr. R. W. Hunt's article on the Disputation of Peter of Cornwall, p. 146. 5 Hunt, ibid. p. 147 n.l and p. 151 n. 6. 6 And not, as often stated, Alphonso VI of Castile; see J. M. Millas Vallicrosa, Pedro Alfonso, p. 197 n. 1. 7 For a brief analysis of the Dialogues, see Lukyn Williams, op. cit. (note 1), pp. 234 ff. 8 P.L. 157, 671 ff. A critical text was published by A. Hilka and W. S?derhjelm in Acta Societatis Scientiarum Fennicae xxxvii, 4 (Helsingfors 1911). 9 See C. and D. Singer, Legacy, p. 209. 10 -pan "po See Steinschneider, Catalogue no. 3546, and also his Manna (1847), p. 102. 11 Reprinted by Joseph Jacobs in 1889. See vol. I, pp. 198 ff, 263 ff, and vol. II, pp. 249 ff.</page><page sequence="7">THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN HEBRAISTS OF ENGLAN