Asian and African studies blog

70 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
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Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

17 May 2021

"Oyez, Oyez, Oyez": Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition Re-opens

After sporadic closures throughout 2020 and the recent national lock-down, we are pleased to announce the eagerly anticipated re-opening on 18th May of the stimulating and beautifully designed British Library exhibition, Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word.

Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals
Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals. Sefer ha-Terumah (Book of the Heave Offering). Germany, 1307 (Add MS 18424, f. 31r detail)
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The 44 artifacts brought together for this exhibition convey powerful messages:

  • the magnitude of written culture as the bond connecting Jewish communities from all corners of the world
  • the centrality of Hebrew language and script linking Diaspora Jews, and documenting their experiences
  • the living proof of the centuries-long culture, history, and traditions of the Jewish people
  • high points and signs of conflict, as well as the exchanges of ideas and knowledge in the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the communities they lived in

Spanning a millennium, most of the showcased objects come from the British Library’s outstanding, multi-faceted Hebrew manuscript collection. In the glass cases arranged in the centre of the gallery well-known iconic specimens rest alongside unknown pieces on display for the very first time.
Viewers are taken on a voyage of discovery through four sections clearly demarcated by thematic text panels. The Bible and beyond section presents core Jewish religious texts from around the world.

Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance  Germany  1300-1324
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 1300-1324 (Add MS 15282, f.28r)
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The beautifully wrought, 700-years old Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch is open at the story of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac, captured here in a stunning micrographic design. Micrography is the weaving of minute lettering into abstract, geometric, and figurative patterns. It is a scribal practice unique to Jewish art that began in the 9th century CE in Egypt and the Holy Land and has continued to this day.

Also on view in this section is a 13th century incomplete copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud (literally ‘learning’) is the ultimate guide to religious law in Judaism. It is the largest corpus of Jewish knowledge, teachings and traditions accumulated over many centuries. The Babylonian Talmud, as its name implies, was compiled by scholars in Babylonia (present day Iraq). Although committed to writing around the year 500 CE, it continued to be edited for close to two centuries afterwards. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, the Talmud was the target of unrelenting condemnation and censorship by Christian authorities. Its allegedly offensive and blasphemous contents, led to frequent public burnings and the destruction of numerous copies. The copy on display has fortunately survived intact.
Babylonian Talmud  fragments. 13th century
Babylonian Talmud, fragments. Germany (?), 13th century copy (Add MS 25717, f.72v)
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The Living together part of the exhibition offers glimpses of the interaction between Jews and non-Jews through historical accounts, legal documents, and literature. Among the splendid artifacts on display are Perek Shirah and Sefer ha-zikuk. Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song) is an ancient hymn of praise in which every created thing – from the animate to the celestial – thanks God for its existence. The praises are mostly biblical verses, often taken from the Book of Psalms. The right page illustration which shows 13 different animals, opens the chapter on the four-legged beasts.

Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r
Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Vienna, Austria (?). Copy, ca.1740 (Or 12983, ff. 12v-13r)
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The pictorial style in this charming 18th century manuscript copy of Perek Shirah was evidently influenced by contemporary European art. The 5 miniatures and the Hebrew and Yiddish text in the manuscript are the work of Aaron Wolf Schreiber Herlingen of Gewitsch, a prominent Moravian scribe-illustrator who was active from 1719 to 1752, primarily in Vienna. Some 50 manuscripts created by him are known to have survived.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation) is a manual of censorial principles and index of some 450 Hebrew works that allegedly contained morally detrimental, anti-Christian words and passages. Expurgators or revisers of Hebrew books, as they were sometimes called, deleted content they suspected referred to Christians in a negative way. On show is a 17th century manuscript copy of the original Sefer ha-zikuk Dominico Irosolimitano compiled in 1596 in Mantua.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r
Sefer ha-zikuk
(Book of Expurgation). Modena, Italy, 17th century copy (Or 6639, ff. 41v-42r)
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An established expurgator of Hebrew books in the service of the Catholic Church in Italy, Dominico Irosolimitano was a converted rabbi formerly known as Samuel Vivas (b. Holy Land 1550; d. Italy 1620). He was active in many Italian cities including Mantua, Milan and Rome, and was responsible for censoring some 20,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts during a career that extended over 40 years.

The Power of letters and words section reveals how Jewish kabbalah seeks to better understand the world and the Divine, and shows the centrality of the Hebrew alphabet in kabbalistic theory and practice.
One of the most prominent Jewish kabbalists in medieval Spain was Abraham Abulafia (b.1240- d. after 1290). He founded Prophetic Kabbalah, a unique mystical method to reach a state of union with God. Among his many works Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba (Life in the World to come), known also as Sefer ha-‘igulim (Book of circles) is particularly significant.
The circles in this 15th century manuscript copy of the work, contain Abulafia’s instructions for mystical meditation, reminiscent of practices in Buddhism and Hinduism. The techniques include: combining letters, reciting and visualising the Divine names, breathing exercises and poses. The reader is meant to enter each circle through an ‘entrance’ clearly indicated by a decorative pin-like marker at the top. Latin translations of Abulafia’s writings influenced many Renaissance Christian kabbalists, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola being one of them.

Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r) Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r)
Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy, 15th century copy (Or 4596, ff. 88v-89r)
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The exhibited small parchment amulet was created sometime in the 18th or 19th century. Its creases clearly prove that such amulets were folded and kept in the owner’s clothing, purse or in an amulet holder, and were carried around.

Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
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Amulets are believed to have magical powers, bring good luck and ward off evil, sickness, and other misfortunes. They have been used for centuries and are mentioned in the Talmud (the Talmudic term is kame’a). The most common types were for childbirth. In earlier times, high levels of childbirth and infant mortality led people to seek protection from the mysterious forces that seemingly had power over these events.

Hebrew amulets include symbolic designs, kabbalistic inscriptions, angels’ names, and permutations on the Names of God, as this specimen written for Esther bat Miriam shows. It was intended to guard her from all possible misfortunes at all times of day.

The final part of the exhibition – Science and scholarship - explores how Jewish thinkers have spread knowledge and have contributed new ideas to scholarship.

Living in communities scattered across the globe, many Jewish scholars were multilingual. At the crossroads of different cultures, they translated works between Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Their most important contribution was transmitting Arabic and Greek ideas from these works to Christian Europe and their own co-religionists.

Avicenna  The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy  1479
Avicenna, The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy, 1479 (Harley MS 5680, f. 209r)
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In 1279, the Italian Jew, Nathan ha-Me’ati, translated the 11th-century Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna) from the original Arabic into Hebrew. The Canon was the most influential work of medieval medicine and the translation created new Hebrew medical vocabulary. This page from a 15th-century copy shows the end of Book V, which lists 650 recipes for medicines.

Another medieval Jewish scholar whose translations helped disseminate scientific ideas and knowledge was Jacob Anatoli (c. 1194-1256) who hailed from Provence, southern France.
In 13th century Naples, under the patronage of the enlightened Emperor Frederick II, Jacob Anatoli translated al-Farghani’s Compendium into Hebrew using both the original Arabic text and a Latin translation. The Compendium was an Arabic summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest, and it played a key role in spreading Greek astronomical knowledge in medieval Europe. Titled Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements), the manuscript on view is a 16th-17th century copy of Anatoli’s Hebrew translation.

Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v

Al-Farghani, Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements). North Africa (?), 16th-17th century (Add MS 27107, ff. 147v-148r)
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Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open until Sunday 6 June 2021.

Follow this link for a 3D virtual tour of the exhibition.

Other platforms with Hebrew manuscript content:

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.


Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
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18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition reopened at the British Library in May 2021 and the exhibition run has been extended to 7 October 2021. Advance booking is no longer necessary.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, until 23 August.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until 7 October 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
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The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

16 September 2020

Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

The Japanese Collection of the British Library includes around 50 Japanese pattern and design books.  Thanks to a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Library is digitising many of these and making them available online.  This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.  In this post Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator at the fine art publisher Unsōdō, explains the company’s origins and its significance in the development of Japanese design.

Unsōdō is a Japanese publishing company, specialising in art books, which was founded in Kyoto in 1891 and is still in operation today.  Established in the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was rapidly modernising, Unsōdō sought through its publication of art books to educate Japanese society on design in the new age, and to highlight the direction of art publishing and the modernisation of the textile industry.

Unsodo store front

Unsōdō’s premises in Teramachi, Kyoto c. 1929. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Unsōdō was able to develop against a backdrop of change in Japanese society.  Key contributory factors were the rise of the textile industry, modernisation of crafts, establishment of department stores, systematisation of the art world.  The emergence of a middle class with an interest in culture and a willingness to buy created a growing market for Unsōdō’s publications. In this article I would like to give a brief outline of the history of Unsōdō, the changes in Japanese society, arts and crafts in Kyoto, and the expansion of Unsōdō’s achievements.

First, let us look at the history of Unsōdō. The firm was founded in 1891 in the Teramachi Nijō district of Kyoto by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎 (1866-1932). He gained his knowledge of the workings of the book trade from Tanaka Jihei 田中治兵衛, proprietor of the Kyoto bookshop Bunkyūdō 文求堂, before setting up his own independent store specialising in art books. He asked the literati painter Tomioka Tessai 富岡鐡斎 to create a name for the new enterprise. The name he chose, Unsōdō 芸艸堂, was inspired by ‘unsō’ 芸艸, a Japanese name for the herb rue (Latin: Ruta graveolens). This strong-smelling plant, traditionally believed to be an effective insect repellant, was used to make bookmarks and was thus a fitting name for a bookshop.


Usondo founder
Yamada Naosaburō (1866-1932), founder of Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

 

Woodblock store_576pxls
Unsōdō’s store of over 10,000 original woodblocks, still used to produce reprints. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD.

Yamada Naosaburō was born into the Honda family, proprietors of a book-binding business. Alongside book-binding, the eldest son Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎 (1863-1944) and third son Honda Kinnosuke 本田金之助 (1868-1930), began to publish kimono pattern books which were very much in vogue at the time. From around 1889 the company was known as Honda Unkindō本田雲錦堂. Large numbers of kimono-related books were being published in Kyoto at that time and there was intense competition between Unsōdō and Unkindō, a rivalry which stimulated the creation of a great many design books. However, as they were brothers first and foremost, Naosaburŏ, Ichijirō and Kinnosuke eventually merged the two companies in 1906 under the name Unsōdō. From then on, all three brothers worked together in the publishing business. They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates. These luxurious books were expensive but proved profitable and were published in rapid succession. This momentum continued and in 1918 Unsōdō opened a branch in Yushima in Tokyo. 

woodblock for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902  Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902
Two woodblocks for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902. Left: Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD. Right: equivalent page from the British Library copy of Kairo ORB.40/838

Unsōdō also managed to acquire woodblocks for art books from other publishers in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and to republish the works as Unsōdō imprints.

Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō.
Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Despite the occasional periods of economic depression, Japanese society continued to develop, thanks to official campaigns to encourage new industries and also to the special demands of times of war. The textile industry was one of the first to attract the attention of business entrepreneurs. Modern textile factories were set up across Japan, long-established kimono dealers became department stores, textile wholesalers and brokerage businesses were established and a skilled workforce developed. Traditional local textiles came to be distributed through kimono dealers and department stores. The successful, affluent classes became art collectors and ordinary people were able to see works of art in museums or the art galleries of department stores. 


Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks
Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Kyoto’s replacement by Tokyo as the national capital in 1869 and the resultant departure of the Emperor, Imperial Family and upper aristocracy, led to a period of uncertainty for the city. Yet this sense of crisis acted as a catalyst to the modernisation of the arts and crafts industry, taking advantage of a local population with a deep connection to traditional culture and the existence of large numbers of artisans skilled in various crafts. Descendants of court painters set up painting academies, and art schools were founded to promote the modernisation of art education. Cooperative associations were established for many industries including lacquer manufacturing, ceramics, dyeing and weaving. These organisations worked to improve standards and modernise designs in their respective industries, to stabilise distribution networks throughout Japan and to use the high levels of expertise developed over centuries to produce art objects for export. This was an important means of acquiring foreign currency for Japan at that time and was actively supported by the government.

Key reasons for the expansion of Unsōdō’s business were the appearance of “art books born from social change” and the increase in the number of “people who need art books”. An example of the former would be catalogues for displays of new works that were held in kimono dealers and department stores, or for exhibitions in the painting academies. “People who need art books” included those involved in the creation of art and craft objects as well as those selling them – artists, designers, craftspeople and teachers, and also merchants. Painting manuals, pattern books and picture albums had existed in the Edo Period (1600-1868), but in the later 19th century new publications were needed that took into account new tastes and Western influences. Art schools and industrial technology institutes across Japan needed textbooks and reference works. Then, as now, art books tended to be large format and require elaborate binding and printing techniques, resulting in higher prices. The reason these books ‘flew off the shelves’ was that they were not only bought for personal interest and pleasure but were used for work and were provided in the work place.

Orb_40!1080_hollyhock_576pxls  Orb_40!1080_wistaria_576pxls
‘Yellow hollyhock’ and ‘Wisteria’ from Jakuchu gafu, a collection of designs by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), published by Unsōdō in 1908. British Library ORB.40/1080

In other words, art books were an inseparable part of industrial development. As a Kyoto publisher, Unsōdō, played its part in disseminating the essence of Japanese history – the aristocratic culture with the emperor at its summit, the millennium of craftsmanship that produced ‘guides to traditional customs’ (yūsoku kojitsu), patterns and designs, cultural properties, handicrafts, collectables, and even the foreign art works and designs that were incorporated over the centuries.

In recent years, woodblock-printed design books of the late Meiji Period have been attracting growing attention. It was a time when Kyoto, the centre of Japan’s publishing culture since the Middle Ages, was full of skilled craftspeople. Although in terms of cost, print run and finish, woodblock printing was the only practical method of colour printing available, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries woodblock printing technology developed markedly. It is characterised by what can be called ‘high quality art printing’ and its ‘human touch’. Moreover, we still marvel at the creativity of the designers of the time. As well as the professional designers, artists who specialised in Japanese and Western-style painting also created designs as a side-line to their main careers. Today we cannot easily tell how many people were involved in the world of design at the time. This is because the modernisation of Japanese art has brought a division into ‘artists’, who created fine art, and ‘craftspeople’, who created practical wares. Designers themselves have not yet been appraised, and often artists’ design work has not been considered in an assessment of their careers.

Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator, UNSODO CO., LTD

(translation: Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collection, British Library)

 

Further reading

Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.

Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.

Johnson, Scott, “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years”. Andon 100, 2015.

Yokoya, Ken’ichiro, Fischbach, Becky (ed.), Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

28 August 2020

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word

I am thrilled and delighted to inform our readers and followers, that the long awaited exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will be opening to the public on Tuesday 1st September in PACCAR2, the newest gallery of the British Library.

The exhibition has been put together by Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda, who have worked diligently and tirelessly with colleagues from across the Library, to bring about its realization.

Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible, Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible  Catalonia  Spain  14th century (Harley MS 1528  f.7v)
Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible. Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)
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Showcasing 44 outstanding objects, including 39 manuscripts from the British Library’s remarkable Hebrew collection, the exhibition transports the visitor on an exciting journey of discovery, via four distinct sections:

  • The Bible and beyond
  • Living together
  • The Power of letters and words
  • Science and scholarship

What do all these treasured manuscripts have in common? They all share the same script, Hebrew; one of the oldest writing systems that has been in continuous use, from around the 10th century BCE to this day. This significant exhibition thus embraces the assiduous, unrelenting journeys of both the written word and the Hebrew script.
Micrographic masorah.  Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch.   Lake Constance, Germany, 14thcentury. Add MS 15282, f.28r
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 14th century (Add MS 15282, f.28r, detail)
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Viewers will come face to face with the centuries-long culture, history and traditions of Jewish people from various parts of the world. Rare handwritten texts, spanning from the 10th to the 19th century, some handsomely illuminated or decorated, will take audiences from Europe and North Africa, through to the Middle East and China, to explore the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours in the communities they lived in.

Calendrical calculations in the shape of a hand
Visual aid for calendrical calculations in Joseph ben Shem Tov ben Yeshu’a Hai’s She’erit Yosef (Joseph’s Legacy). Tlemcen, Algeria, 1804 (Or 9782, f.14r)
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The interplay, high points, as well as signs of conflict and discord in the relationships between these groups, are conveyed through a captivating display of writings on legal issues, calendrics, kabbalah , literature, music, philosophy, and science.

Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, Land of Israel, 17th-18th century
Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, 17th-18th century (Or 4114, f.2v, detail)
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Some of these works were created by prominent Jewish scholars, such as Moses ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d. 1204, Cairo, Egypt), and Abraham bar Hiyya (ca. 1065- ca.1136). The former, known in the Christian world as Maimonides , was not only a legal authority, compelling philosopher and accomplished physician, but also the most influential spiritual leader of his time. His Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed), completed ca. 1190, was probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era. Two important manuscript copies of this work are on view in the exhibition.

Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)
Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia, Spain, 14th century copy (Or 14061, f. 156v-157r)
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Abraham bar Hiyya , known by his Latin name as Savasorda, was an eminent Spanish Jewish philosopher and scientist, who is credited with writing the first works on astronomy and mathematics in Hebrew. Among these was his vastly popular astronomical treatise Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the earth), a 15 th century copy of which is included in the exhibition.

Diagram of phases of the moon
Diagram of the four main lunar phases in Abraham bar Hiyya’s Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the Earth). Byzantium, (now parts of Turkey and Greece), 15th century copy (Or 10721, f. 27v)
CC Public Domain Image

Visitors will be in for a treat, particularly as many of the exhibits have never been on public view. Moreover, as part of the recently completed Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project, digital access to all 39 Hebrew manuscripts on display is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website .

Other British Library platforms, with wide-ranging Hebrew manuscript content are:

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open from 1st September 2020 until 11th April 2021. Follow the link for details about opening times, booking timeslots, etc.

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.

Further reading

The following posts feature manuscripts on display in the exhibition.


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
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19 August 2020

The Tree of Knowledge: magic spells from a Jewish potion book

One of the items in our postponed exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is a tiny little codex from sixteenth-century Italy. It is entitled The Tree of Knowledge (Ets ha-Da’at) and contains a collection of some 125 magic spells for all sorts of purposes: curses, healing potions, love charms, amulets. There are a good number of such magical-medical manuscripts in the Hebrew collection, but this volume is special for at least two reasons. First, because of its neat layout and accuracy in its execution. Secondly, because it has an introduction in which Elisha the author tells the story of how he collected these spells.

Title page in Hebrew with architectural design
Title page of The Tree of Knowledge by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona. (Safed, 1535-1536 (Or 12362, f. 2r)).
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According to his introduction, Elisha is overcome with a great thirst for knowledge, and he starts on a journey to satisfy it. He is wandering from town to town until he arrives in Venice, the great city full of wise and knowledgeable sages. There, thanks to God’s mercy, he wins the trust of Rabbi Judah Alkabets, and gains access to the rabbi’s library. He soon discovers that the Rabbi’s collection contains precious kabbalistic volumes “that emerged for fame and praise, and all written with the finger [of God – Ex. 31:18].” So he swears in his heart that he will not leave the library until he has collected all its secrets. As he is looking through the books, he notices “a book hidden and sealed, in a chest within another chest covered with a cloth and sealed.” When he opens this hidden book, he finds in it all sorts of magic spells, and decides to copy them. After the death of Judah Alkabetz, Elisha leaves Venice and continues his journey, and eventually arrives in Safed, in the Land of Israel. He spends there a long time before he gains the trust of the sages of Safed, but at the end they share with him their secret wisdom. His book, which he calls the Tree of Knowledge, is based on the secrets he acquired in Venice and in Safed.

After relating his painstaking efforts to obtain such precious hidden knowledge, Elisha explains the way he organized the collected material and structured his book. He provides a table of contents for the users to facilitate their access to the spells they are looking for. The table of contents is divided into four sections:

1. Spells that use divine names;

2. Spells that use names of the “Spirit of Impurity” and those of the “Other Side” (that is, references to evil powers);

3. Medicines based on nature and experiment;

4. All the rest.

So what kind of secret knowledge did Elisha ben Gad acquire in Venice and Safed? Let’s see a couple of spells from each section. Oh, it is so difficult to choose!

Page with writing in Hebrew and title in ribbon
The First Section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 5r))
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Among the 52 spells using divine names contained in the first section, there are many amulets providing protection against illnesses like nose bleed, fever, and ear ache; spells for the enhancing intellectual capabilities such as facilitating learning, understanding, or improving memory; and various other spells.

Amulet in Hebrew with text in stylized scrolls
An amulet for fever. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 11r))
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The very first entry is an amulet against fever:

Av avr avra avrak avraka avrakal avrakala avrakal avraka avrak avra avr av – “The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:2). Cure from heavens for all sorts of fever and consumption and fire for such and such [here to put the name of the specific person]. Amen a[men] a[men] selah.

It is easy to discover the well-known magic word “abracadabra” in this spell. It appears first in a second-century Latin medical poem by the physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. The origin of this word is not clear. It may come from Aramaic avra ke-davra, meaning “I create as I speak”, but there are several other theories around.

Text of spell in Hebrew with floral illumination
A spell for shortening one’s journey (no. 39). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 27r))
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Spell no. 39 is for shortening a long road, and goes like this:

Shortening the road: write on a piece of kosher parchment made of deer and sew it into your robe. When you see the countenance of the town, mention these names and say this: “I adjure you, Kaptsiel, Malakhel, shorten for me the road and the country as you shortened them for Abraham. Cafefiel – and in the name of the Lord of the whole earth. Amen S[ela]”

Text in Hebrew of contents of section with title inside stylized ribbon
The second section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 7v))
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The second section is supposed to contain spells that use the names of evil spirits “the spirit of Impurity and the Other Side”, as Elisha puts it. To be honest, I did not always find such names in the charms of this section, though it may just be due to my limited knowledge and experience of the Other Side. Still, the section contains many useful spells – 19 altogether –, among others some that make you invisible, help you find scorpions and snakes, make you “snake-proof” or “sword-proof”, and quite a few that help you catch thieves. Here is an example of the latter (no. 80):

To find the thief write on a piece of kosher parchment these names [see words at the end of the spell], and hang them around the neck of a black rooster. Then circle around the suspects with the rooster, and it will jump on the head of the thief. And this has been tested.

Kematin kanit kukeiri ve-hikani yazaf

Text of spell in Hebrew with title inside ribbon
A spell for identifying a thief (no. 80). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 37r))
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While I was not able to identify these magical words at all – could some of them be names of evil spirits? – I had better luck with spell no. 97 for burns by fire:

A wonderful incantation, tried and tested many times. For small and big burns. With these words complete recovery without pain! Say these names [i.e. the incantation] seven times:

Agrifuk agrifar agripyri chi vol tu fer di pyro nocesti di acaro fosti generato, e elo fonti fosti portato, all'acqua fosti gettato, non fossi far più male qua (?) chi fai la!

And then blow on the burn with the breath of your mouth and repeat again the incantation seven more times, and the fire will not damage him.

As you can see, the actual incantation addressing Fire itself is in Judeo-Italian, that is, Italian written in Hebrew characters, and it reads something like this:

"Agrifuk agrifar agripyri whom did you want to hurt with fire? You were generated from an acarus [probably from Greek akarḗs, meaning “tiny”), you were brought forth from such a source, [and] you were thrown into the water. You cannot do any more harm...!"[1]

Text of spell in Hebrew with title in stylized scroll
A spell for burns (no. 97). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 41r))
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Text of section contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The third section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 8v))
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Elisha tells us that in the third section of his work we can find “remedies based on nature and experiment”. Among these 31 remedies, there are a few for fevers, suffering from worms, cancelling witchcraft, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, and so on. He also discusses the magical properties of snake skin. It seems, however, that quite a few of the remedies listed here are not based on nature but use some sort of incantation or magic words instead.

Text of spell in Hebrew under illustration of nude woman
A spell for a woman who does not have milk (no. 104). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 42v))
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Remedy no. 104 is a good example of the latter. It is a spell for a woman who does not have milk. The title of the spell is inscribed in a ribbon and it is illustrated with the bust of a naked woman.

To bring milk to the woman write the name of the woman or her brother or her son [on a piece of parchment?], and write on the woman’s right breast: AV SU SAS, and on her left breast write: AV HU SIA, and she will immediately have milk in abundance, and it will spill onto the ground as water.

Text of spell in Hebrew under title inside stylized ribbon
Spells using snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 45r))
CC Public Domain Image

Entry 116 is about the magical qualities of snakeskin, and according to the title, this spell is based on “the words of Solomon the physician of Tulitul” (Tulitula is the Arabic name of Toledo). Elisha says that he read in an Arabic book that if you burn the skin of a snake during a certain period in March, you can use the ashes of the skin for all sorts of purposes. Then he lists the 12 magical qualities of snakeskin based on important Arabic magic spell books (number 12 is missing). Here are some of the best ones:

Hebrew textHebrew text
Text about the magical qualities of snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, ff. 45v-46r))
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No. 1 If you sprinkle some of the dust into your eyes, you will see but you will not be seen (invisibility!);

No. 6. If you hold some of the dust in your hand when you appear before a king or princes, and they will heed your words;

No. 10. If you put some of the dust into a plate and leave it on the table, if the elixir of death, or “poison weed and wormwood” [Deut. 29:17] gets there, the dust will scatter on the table and [then you would know to] avoid eating there.

Text of contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The fourth section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 10r))
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Section four is the shortest with its 17 items. It has several love spells and potions, spells to make a positive impression on rulers, on how to gain someone’s trust, and how to defeat your opponents. No. 58 is a spell that helps you to make a reluctant person answer your questions:

If you ask a question and they do not give you a reply, wash your hands in fresh water, and then write on your palm these words and characters. Then put your palm on the palm of the fellow, and ask your question. And this is what you have to write:

Here you can see a drawing of a palm with a same word written three times, and two characters from a cryptic alphabet. Two ribbons coming out from behind the palm. The inscription in the upper one contains further instructions:

Write this with a new pen.

The ribbon at the base of the hand contains the title of the next entry: no. 59, a spell about how to win a court case:

It is tried and tested many times. How to defeat your opponent in court even if he is a king. Take the tongue of a hoopoe and hang it on your right side close to the heart at the time when you go to speak with him.

Text of formula in Hebrew along with diagram of a human palm
Spells for extracting an answer and defeating the opponent at court (nos. 58 and 59). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536.) (Or 12362, f. 32r))
CC Public Domain Image

You can certainly see even from this small selection of spells how valuable the Tree of Knowledge is! Elisha’s long journey from Italy to Galilee through the Mediterranean, his painstaking efforts to acquire hidden and ancient knowledge, were not in vain. And you, dear reader, are only one click away from all this treasure!

Disclaimer: We do not take responsibility for the endurance of these spells. Even strong magic can lose or modify its power over the centuries! Please, do not blame us if you turn into a frog. Try these spells only at your own risk.

Zsofi Buda, former Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Cataloguer, Asian and African Collections
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Further readings:

Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, ed. Gideon Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked. Leiden: Brill, 2011. (YD.2011.a.4537)

Ortal-Paz, Saar. Jewish Love Magic: From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2017. (OIC 133.4)

Harari, Yuval. “Magical Paratexts: Ms. London, The British Library Or. 12362 (Ets ha-Da‘at) as a Test Case.” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 42 (2018): 237-268. [Hebrew] (WZOR.1998.a.24)

Harari, Yuval. “‘Practical Kabbalah’ and the Jewish Tradition of Magic.” Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 19 (2019): 38-82. (ZA.9.a.2272)



[1] Thank you to Giulia Baronti for helping me with the translation!

05 August 2020

At the crossroads of cultures: a Hebrew manuscript of Johannes Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi

The first printed books were often imitations of manuscripts in their layout: the same types of letters and the same letter combinations (ligatures) were used, and often the same illuminators added the decorations by hand in the same style they used in manuscripts. Handwritten books however did not just disappear with the introduction of printing. What is more, sometimes printed books influenced the layout and decoration of manuscripts.

One of the items in the British Library’s postponed exhibition Hebrew manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word contains the Hebrew translation of Johannes Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi (On the Sphere of the World). The Hebrew title of the work is Sefer mareh ha-Ofanim (The Appearance of the Heavenly beings). The manuscript (Or 10661) was copied sometime in the sixteenth century, and its illustration program was heavily influenced by early printed Latin editions of the same work.

Johannes Sacrobosco or John of Holywood (died 1256) was an Augustinian monk and scholar, probably from Halifax, Yorkshire. He taught mathematics at the University of Paris. In 1220, he composed a short introduction to astronomy entitled De sphaera mundi that was based on the geocentric model of the universe with a stationary Earth in its centre. The Sphaera soon became the standard textbook on the subject up until the mid-seventeenth century. It is worth noting that though Nicolaus Copernicus (died 1543) published his On the Revolutions on the heliocentric cosmos in 1543, his theory gained acceptance only gradually.

Sacrobosco’s Sphaera is divided into four chapters: Chapter 1 is on the general structure of the universe; Chapter 2 is on the circles of the celestial sphere; Chapter 3 is on the daily rotation of the heavens and the different climates of the Earth; and Chapter 4 is on planetary movements and eclipses. Some manuscripts of the Sphaera did contain a few illustrations, but diagrams became a prominent feature of the work only in the early printed editions. The Sphaera was first published in Latin in 1472. This first edition had no printed illustrations, but the printer left some space in the text for the readers to add their own diagrams by hand if they decided to do so. The first printed diagrams were added to the 1478 Milan edition by Filippo da Lavagna, and the full set of illustrations appeared a decade later in the 1488 edition published in Venice by Johannes Santritter.

Printed title page of Sphaera
Title page of De Sphaera mundi by Johannes Sacrobosco (Ingolstadt: Petrus Apianus, 1526.) (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC)

Arabic and Latin scientific works were not unknown to medieval Jewish scholars. Some could read them in the original language (mostly in Arabic but some also in Latin); others accessed them in translation. In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Provence and Italy were especially important centres of Jewish translating activity. These multilingual Jewish translators played a significant role in providing access to Greco-Arabic and to a lesser degree Latin scientific literature for those who did not read these languages.

One of these scholar-translators was Solomon ben Abraham Avigdor, a Provençal scholar who prepared the first Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco’s work in 1399. Solomon’s father Abraham, who was himself a translator and a physician, studied medicine in Montpellier, and translated mostly medical works from Latin into Hebrew. As he says in the preface to his translation of Bernard Gordon’s Introduction to the Practice: “I went up on the mountain therefore, that is to say, the city of Montpellier, in order to study the medicine from the mouth of the Christian scientists and erudites.” Father and son worked together on the translation of Arnaldus de Villanova’s Capitula astrologiae, a work on the application of astrology in medicine. Just like his father, Solomon studied medicine. Later in his life he converted to Christianity.

Close up of text from preface of Hebrew translation
Preface to Sefer mareh ha-Ofanim by Solomon Avigdor. (Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, Italy, 15th century. Add MS 17106, f. 103r)
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Not much more is known about Solomon, but his translation of the Sphaera has survived in some 40 manuscripts. Apart from the manuscript included into the exhibition (Or 10661), the British Library has two more complete copies of this Hebrew translation ( Add MS 27106 ff. 103r-130v, Add MS 27146 ff. 1r-10v) and a fragment (Or 10498). We have chosen Or 10661 not only because of its fine layout and beautiful diagrams, but because it is an excellent representation of cultural encounters. On the one hand, it demonstrates how non-Jewish scientific knowledge reached Jewish scholars through crossing language borders; on the other hand, it shows how the world of manuscripts meets the world of printing.

Inset of table of contents in Hebrew
List of the four chapters of the Sphaera in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation. (Italy, 16th century. Or 10661, f. 1v)
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One of the images which became part of the Sphaera’s illustration program at a very early stage was the armillary sphere. It was added to the illustrations in the 1488 Venice edition. This device was invented over 2000 years ago for instruction and observation, and was developed further by medieval Muslim astronomers. Sacrobosco does not mention it explicitly in the Sphaera, but some commentators assumed that in certain places in the text he is describing this astronomical device rather than the universe itself. The discussion of the celestial circles in Chapter 2 can especially be read as a description of the armillary sphere.

Image of metal armillary spherePrinted illustration of an astrolabe in black and white, held up by a human hand, with an explanation in Latin script in a scroll above the handManuscript diagram of why water is round
(Left) An armillary sphere cast by Carlo Plato in Rome in 1578. (Source: Wikimedia; CC-3.0)

(Middle) Armillary sphere illustrated in Sacrobosco’s Sphaera printed at Venice in 1488 (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA) and (right) in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation (Or 10661, f. 7v).
CC Public Domain Image

It is not surprising, then, that in our Hebrew manuscript we find the armillary sphere at the beginning of Chapter 2. This image and the image in the 1488 Venice edition are very similar. Both depict a geocentric sphere modelling a universe with the Earth at its centre. The set of rings represents a series of moving spheres around a stationary Earth. The wider band with the signs of the Zodiac represents the annual journey of the sun through the heavens.

Petrus Apianus’ 1526 Ingolstadt edition was another milestone in the development of the illustration program. Several of the diagrams in our Hebrew copy follow the tradition established by this edition. Let’s have a look at the diagram at the section explaining why the sphere of the water must be round. The diagram in the earlier BL Hebrew manuscript (Add MS 27106) is very confusing, and even the one in the 1488 edition is a bit vague. The Apianus edition introduces a much clearer diagram: the sphere of the water is round because, travelling in a ship, the person at the top of the mast sees the buildings on dry land sooner than the person on the deck. You can see that the visual ray from the person at the top of the mast reaches the coast without obstacle, while the visual ray from the person on the deck is intercepted by the bulge of the water. The diagram in the 16th-century Hebrew manuscript is almost the mirror image of that in the Apianus edition with small differences. The shape of the dry land and the buildings are slightly different, and it looks as if some of the towers had a crescent on top.

Manuscript diagrama of why water is roundPrinted diagram of why water is round
(Left) Manuscript diagram “That the water is round” (Add MS 27106, f. 108r)
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(Right) Printed diagram “That the water is round” from the 1488 Venice edition. (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA).

Later printed diagram of why water is roundBlack and white drawing of the globe with cities and land masses, including a city and a ship coming off the outer border of the circle, along with Hebrew-script text
(Left) Printed illustration “That the water is round” from the 1526 Ingolstadt edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC)

(Right) Manuscript illustration “That the water is round”. (Or 10661, f. 5v)
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The Hebrew copyist borrowed some more of Apianus’ diagrams with slight modifications. At the discussion on why the celestial bodies look larger when rising and setting from when they are in the middle of the sky, there is a compound diagram. Both in Apianus’ edition and in our Hebrew manuscript, the right side of the diagram shows a coin under water: when we look at it through water, the coin will appear larger than it really is (the effect of refraction). The same happens with the heavenly bodies, and this is what the left side of the diagram illustrates: the vapours in the atmosphere create an optical illusion and show the sun and the stars larger than they really are. Notice that while the inscription on coin (“tanova”, that is, moneta nova) in the Latin diagram is curling around a Greek cross, the Hebrew depiction omitted this symbol (probably to avoid any visual reference to Christianity) and has only the inscription (matbea, Hebrew for coin).


Printed diagram of why the heavens are roundDetailed manuscript diagram in Hebrew of why the heavans are round

(Left) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting, from the 1526 Ingolstadt edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC).

(Right) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
CC Public Domain Image

Some of the diagrams in our Hebrew manuscripts are based on later Christian editions. The diagram to demonstrate why the sphere of the heavens cannot be flat is practically identical with that in the 1538 Wittenberg edition. It shows a tiny (or giant, in relation to the globe) human figure standing on earth looking up to a flat sky. There are three stars in the sky: one is directly above him, and one on each side. If the sky was flat – the argument goes – then the celestial bodies directly above our head (in case of the sun this would be midday) would be closer and thus would seem bigger than when they appear low in the sky (when rising and setting). We know from experience, that this is not the case. The celestial bodies actually seem bigger when they are rising or setting than when they are directly above us. Consequently, the sphere of heavens cannot be flat.

Printed Latin diagram of why the heavens are roundHebrew manuscript diagram of why the heavens are round
(Left) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation from the 1538 Wittenberg edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; CC)

(Right) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation in manuscript form. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
CC Public Domain Image

There are many more fascinating illustrations in our Hebrew copy, but these few examples are perhaps enough to demonstrate how much these early printed Latin editions of Sacrobosco’s work influenced our copyist. Since the copyist does not tell us when (or where) he produced this manuscript, finding the models of the diagrams can also help in the dating of the manuscript. Based on the origin of these few illustrations, our manuscript must have been copied sometime after 1538. Of course, a more thorough study of the entire illustration program may lead to different results. Whenever it was copied, by then these diagrams had become part of the textual tradition of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, so much so that our scribe felt the need to include them into his copy.

Zsofi Buda
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Further reading:

On Sacrobosco’s Sphaera:

De Sphaera of Johannes De Sacrobosco in the Early Modern Period: The Authors of the Commentaries, ed. Matteo Valleriani. Springer Open, 2020.

Gingerich, Owen. “Sacrobosco Illustrated.” In Between Demonstration and Imagination, ed. Lodi Nauta and A.J. Vanderjagt, 211-224. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Pantin, Isabelle. “L'illustration des livres d'astronomie à la renaissance: l'évolution d'une discipline à travers ses images.” InImmagini per conoscere. Dal Rinascimento alla Rivoluzione scientifica, 3-41. Firenze : L. S. Olschki, 2001.

The Sphere: Knowledge System Evolution and the Shared Scientific Identity of Europe https://sphaera.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/

Thorndike, Lynn. The Sphere of Sacrobosco and its commentators. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

On Abraham and Solomon Avigdor:

Iancu-Agou, Daniele. “La pratique du latin chez les médecins juifs et néophytes de Provence médiévale (XIVe–XVIe siècles).” In Latin-into-Hebrew: Texts and Studies, vol. 1, 85-102. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Shatzmiller, Joseph. Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994 pp. 29-30.

Steinschneider, Moritz. Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher, pp. 643 and 782. Berlin, 1893.

27 July 2020

Anglo-Jewish deeds from medieval England- a treasure trove for historians

This blog presents a less known facet of the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript holdings, but which nonetheless constitutes a genuine treasure trove. I am referring to deeds - termed also as ‘bonds’, ‘charters’, ‘grants’ - which form part of a small, yet exceptionally significant collection of Anglo-Jewish historic documents, acquired initially by the British Museum, that are now kept in the British Library.

Latin deed with Hebrew quitclaim (attached to seal), by Jacob ben Aaron releasing a piece of land to William le Briel. England, 1239 CE (Harley Ch 77 D 40, f. 1r)
Latin deed with Hebrew quitclaim (attached to seal), by Jacob ben Aaron releasing a piece of land to William le Briel. England, 1239 (Harley Ch 77 D 40, f. 1r)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

These documents, written in either Hebrew or Latin, and more often than not in both, attest to business interactions between Jews and non-Jews in medieval England, and bear witness to the existence of a dynamic Jewish population prior to its expulsion in 1290. A substantial number of charters came from aristocratic libraries formerly owned by the Earls of Harley, Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Marques of Lansdowne, to name just a few. A lesser amount were acquired from private individuals through donation or purchase.

An interesting, common trait manifest in these charters is the use of Latin Gothic lettering and Hebrew Ashkenazi documentary script, as evident in this Harley example. Another shared characteristic is the material on which the deeds were written, namely parchment. Due to its strength and durability, parchment was perfectly fit for purpose.

Jews in medieval England: an overview

There is no real evidence of a Jewish presence in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 1070, keen to boost England’s economy, William the Conqueror (William I, reigned. 1066-1087) invited Jewish merchants and artisans from Rouen in Normandy to come to England. His principal aim was to collect dues and taxes in currency rather than in kind, and to that end he needed competent financiers to do business with the indigenous population and supply ample quantities of coinage to the royal Treasury.

Few occupations were open to the Jews who settled in Norman England. Apart from a very small number of scholars, physicians and merchants the majority were engaged in moneylending with interest, an activity barred to Christians.

The coronation of William the Conqueror. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 104r, detail)
The coronation of William the Conqueror. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 104r, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Until the end of the 12th century, successive English monarchs granted the Jews protection and certain privileges which enabled them to prosper and acquire wealth, but this period of relative wellbeing ended with the death of King Henry II in 1189. Under King Richard I and his successors, the Anglo-Jewish communities suffered extreme outbursts of violence, ritual murder accusations, and untenable, repressive measures that culminated in their banishment by King Edward I on 18th July 1290. Jews were not permitted to return to these shores until 350 years later when Oliver Cromwell allowed them to re-settle.

Marginal miniature showing the expulsion of the Jews. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 183v)
Marginal miniature showing the expulsion of the Jews. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 183v, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

The Exchequer of the Jews

Medieval English rulers regarded the Jews and their assets as personal property, imposing on them heavy taxes to finance wars and crusades and to bolster the royal coffers. The King tolerated their presence as long as they could serve his interests. Despite their being a minority of barely 0.25% of the total English population, the King’s Jews provided roughly 10% of the total crown revenue.

The office of Exchequer of the Jews, which operated from 1194 until the banishment in 1290, was established by Richard I to administer and control the taxes and law-cases of the Anglo-Jewish population. This government office ensured that copies of bonds (chirographs)[1] quitclaims (also called starrs or releases annulling debts to Jewish creditors) and attestations (formal confirmations by signature) were safely locked in special chests (archae) that were installed in major towns. The archae were regularly checked by royal officials in Westminster, who then advised the monarch whether he could impose additional levies and tallages (arbitrary taxes) on his Jewish subjects.

Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail Upper section of a Latin grant of lease of land, with a Hebrew quitclaim written on the verso. Chirograph. London (?), England, 1235 CE (Lansdowne Ch 30, f. 1r, detail) of the Jews)
Upper section of a Latin grant of lease of land, with a Hebrew quitclaim written on the verso. Chirograph. London (?), England, 1235 (Lansdowne Ch 30, f. 1r, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Add Ch 1251 dated 1182, is the earliest and undoubtedly the most historically important charter in the collection. Written in Latin, with a Hebrew acknowledgment of Solomon of Paris on the back, it records a £4 debt settlement of Richard de Malebis. Malebis (or Malebisse, denoting mala bestia or ‘evil beast’) was a Norman landowner heavily indebted to Jewish moneylenders. In 1190, in order to get rid of his debts, he instigated a savage mob attack on the Jews of York and their assets. Together with his accomplices, he burned documents specifying money owed to the Jews that had been kept in the York Cathedral for safety. The riot went completely out of control culminating in the massacre of 150 Jewish souls.

Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 CE (Add Ch 1251, f. 1r )
Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 CE (Add Ch 1251, f. 1v)
Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 (Add Ch 1251, ff. 1r and 1v)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Since Norman England had no established legal practices covering moneylending and other financial dealings, Jewish moneylenders employed their own legal system and terminology based on talmudic law in charters written before 1290, such as the deeds discussed here. The phrase נחנו החתומים מטה מודים הודאה גמורה (Nahnu ha-ḥatumim matah modim hoda’ah gemurah … ‘We the undersigned hereby fully declare that…’) which is still employed in modern day contracts, is a case in point. The use of Hebrew attests to a high degree of literacy among Anglo-Jews, but even more importantly proves that Hebrew was accepted in the fiscal world of Norman England.

Hebrew quitclaim with Latin docket. Canterbury (?), England, 1237 CE (Add Ch 16384, 1r)
Hebrew quitclaim with Latin docket. Canterbury (?), England, 1237 (Add Ch 16384, 1r)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)  

Add Ch 16384 is a Hebrew quitclaim with a Latin docket (an abridged record of the Hebrew text), written for Joseph ben Moses and Moses ben Jacob, releasing Peter de Bending and his heirs from all their debts. It is dated ‘St Peter Gule of August of the year twenty one of the reign of our lord King Henry [Henry III] son of King John’, corresponding to 1st August 1237. Other sources note that Peter de Bending was a heavily indebted landlord whose debts were redeemed by the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, which also repossessed his property. During the period 1150-1250, many monastic institutions in England were actively involved in the repossession of mortgaged lands.

Hebrew charter. Chirograph. Norwich, England, 1280 CE (Lansdowne Ch 667)
Hebrew charter. Chirograph. Norwich, England, 1280 (Lansdowne Ch 667)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Lansdowne Ch 667 was acquired by the British Museum in 1907 with the collection of Sir William Petty, 1st Marques of Lansdowne (1737-1805). It represents the foot of a chirograph of a Hebrew deed for a house in the parish of St. Peter in Mancroft Street, Norwich, owned by Oshayah son of Isaac of York known as Ursel le Eveske of Norwich, son of Deulecresse that was sold to William son of Roger of South Walsham and his heirs. The Jewish witnesses to the transaction were Abraham of York, Isaac son of Deulecresse, Elias son of Elias, Jacob son of Jacob, Moses of Conisford.

Among the non-Jews witnessing the sale were Simon le Paumier and Robert de Bee. Norwich officials who were present that day included Adam de Toftes, Jacques Nade and John Bate. The deed was attested to by Ursel son of Isaac and is dated 9 Tevet 5041 which corresponds to 2nd December 1280. The sale is preceded by a release of rights to the house by Ursel’s wife Miriam, who owned it בעלילת דין כתובה (‘because of the rights of the ketubah’, i.e. as part of her marriage settlement).

It is interesting to note that it was not unusual for medieval Jewish women, either married or widowed, to own property and engage in business and finance. Indeed many traded locally or became moneylenders to the gentry and church officials.

This charter has been included in the British Library exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word that has been postponed until further notice.

The Anglo-Jewish charters have been digitised as part of the major, externally funded Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, 2013-2020. They are accessible on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Further reading

Huscroft, Richard, Expulsion: England’s Jewish solution (Stroud: Tempus, 2006)
Mundill, Robin, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 99-100.
Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith,  Hebrew and Hebrew-Latin Documents from Medieval England: A Diplomatic and Palaeographical Study. Monumenta Palaeographica Medii Aevi. Series Hebraica (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), nos. 178, 179, 184, 186 & 181 (in order of appearance in the blog)

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[1] A chirograph was a legal document copied several times on a single piece of parchment with the word “Chirograph” written across the middle. It was then cut through in a scalloped pattern. This process ensured that the parties to an agreement were each given a copy of the written transaction, which could be easily validated should the need arise; the serrated edges reduced the risk of forgery.

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