Three Medieval Jewish manuscripts
Regional Historic Center Limburg
Sint Pieterstraat 7, Maastricht, Netherlands
One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.) Pre-Gutenberg, books might as well have been worth their weight in gold, and even if peasants somehow managed to become literate (which they didn’t), they couldn’t just walk across the street and find a public library. It is within this context that one can begin to understand a palimpsest, or a manuscript that has been repurposed and retooled.
Due to the high price of vellum (animal skin used for book pages), some book owners would decide they weren’t too keen on the text they had inherited or purchased, and they would have the text scraped off the pages. A scribe would then write the new text on top of the old one, which might still appear ghostlike beneath the new text (not unlike a poorly erased Etch A Sketch). New technologies, which are far more effective and less invasive than their predecessors, have allowed scholars to decipher the old texts, although they are barely visible.
One particularly compelling example is the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, which focused on a mathematical work by Archimedes that had been erased by monks after it was acquired by a monastery. Perhaps unaware that he was defacing an otherwise lost work by Archimedes, the monk wrote a new religious text on top of the old one. The restored and carefully imaged text was part of the exhibit “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” which was open from October 16, 2011 to January 1, 2012 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
The palimpsest that Johan van de Walle, head of library at the Historisch Centrum Limburg on Sint Pieterstraat in Maastricht, showed me on my recent trip to the Netherlands had undergone something like the opposite kind of journey as the Archimedes book. Whereas the Archimedes text began as a scientific work and was then appropriated in a sacred context, the palimpsest in Maastricht was first a biblical text, and was subsequently turned into a tax register.
The Regional Historic Center Limburg, where Walle works, is itself a sort of palimpsest. Based in an early 14th century Franciscan monastery, which was turned into a state archive in the late 19th century, the archive—whose building has also served as a prison, a sauerkraut factory, and an artist’s studio, according to its website—still contains several tombs, and its documents span more than 11 miles.
Walle showed me three Hebrew documents, all of which dated back to the 14th century. The first manuscript comes from a book of Genesis. Mislabeled in the archive as representing Genesis 42:35 to 43:27 (it in fact starts midway through verse 35 of chapter 42 and only goes until midway through the verse 43:12), the manuscript contains a few interesting elements. Whether a result of decay or scribal error, some of the letters are poorly formed (like the first line, for example), but more noteworthy, the scribe struggled with fitting the text on the lines.
On several occasions (for example, the last word on the third line of the right column), the scribe tried to fit a word into the line, only to run out of room and begin the word again on the subsequent line. Other times (such as the seventh line of that column), the scribe anticipated running out of room, so he extended a letter to fill out the rest of the line.
At the end of the first column, another interesting thing happens. The scribe, per usual, had to truncate the last word of the line, but instead of beginning the next line with a new word, he instead repeated the second to last word again. The truncated word, which is sandwiched between two iterations of the same word, isn’t even the correct partial word sequentially. And perhaps most atrociously, the scribe misspelled a word (he left out the final letter) 15 lines down the second column.
It’s impossible to know the scribe’s motivations, but the typographical decisions certainly raise a lot of questions. The same is not true of the second manuscript I saw. The two pages from a Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesachim, are laid out more strategically, and even have occasional paragraph breaks (though those don’t necessarily seem to follow the flow of the Mishnaic texts). One can also see marginal notes in a different scribal hand, which are commentaries (perhaps of Rashi or Tosafot).
But by far the most compelling manuscript was the palimpsest, which dates to around 1300. A century after the Hebrew text was written, another hand (writing in brown ink) added the insignia of the tax registry, written at a 90-degree angle to the Hebrew text. And about two centuries later (this time in black ink), another hand added names and amounts of money those people owed in taxes. “Pure vandalism,” Walle explained.
One can see that the text was used to read Haftorot from (in image four, eight lines down in small text, a note directs the reader to the Haftorah for Rosh Chodesh that falls on Shabbat). But it was reinvented as a tax registry, and rather than scraping off the original text, the tax officials simply added their own notes in the margins of the text.
Walle is right about the vandalism, but in many ways the documents—insofar as their story betrays the different people who owned them and used them in a variety of ways—are more exciting for their complexity and multiple identities.
Full disclosure: This writer’s trip to Maastricht was funded, in large part, by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, which, however, had no role whatsoever in or oversight over this article.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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