An End to 500 Years of Solitude at the Center for Jewish History
By Andrew Koenig, Contributing Writer, May 18, 2017
Exhibitions of classical texts by their very nature confound the viewer. Even if one does know Greek, or Latin, and the old minuscule script in which they are written—even if one knows Middle English for that matter—there is, after all, only one or two pages of the codex visible beneath the glass case, which our soiled hands are permitted neither to touch nor turn. One understands when viewing such an exhibition—as in 500 Years of Treasures from Oxford at the Center for Jewish History in New York—why these texts have long been the domain of the scholarly few.
Nevertheless, certain lessons may be gleaned from 500 Years of Treasures, even if it’s ‘all Greek’ to us modern viewers. The parchment manuscripts of the exhibition are like flesh, cracked and damaged and tattooed. One twelfth-century copy of Rashi, the French Ashkenazi rabbi, has a large seam that goes through the right-hand pages. Apparently the parchment was of inferior quality and needed to be sewn up and written around.
Virtually every book in the exhibition, if it isn’t damaged in this manner, is at least marked up. The manuscripts and printed books contain handwritten glosses and annotations, some spilling out into extravagantly wide margins, as well as the more commonplace underlinings, scribbles and arrows. These texts have a life of their own, having existed for far longer than any of us and borne the bruises of time and historical change.
The most significant of these changes pretty much coincided with the basis of the collection—to wit, the Protestant Reformation. Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was founded by Bishop Richard Fox in 1517, the year Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, and the texts in its collection attest to the contentious theological debates raging in Europe at the time.
Hebrew texts became battlefields before the Reformation and after, a war of words that set the stage for a series of bloody conflicts. Not only reformers, but scholars too precipitated a major intellectual shift by reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and hewing as closely as possible to the original text in translations. This history is well documented. What’s less well documented is the tremendous debt of gratitude owed by Medieval and Renaissance scholars to the Jews. 500 Years of Treasures draws this connection. Without the Hebrew texts preserved by the Jews of Europe and England, Oxford’s scholars would never have been able to make the strides they did. The King James Bible (1611), to whose translation Corpus Christi College was instrumental, depended in no small part on the “rediscovery” of Hebrew.
The one King James Bible–related piece in the exhibition crystallizes this concern with translating from the original. Appended to a copy of notes taken by one of the translators of the King James Bible, John Bois (1561–1644), we find the following words: “Transcribed out of a Copie taken by some unfaithfull hand, very confused, and faulty, especially in the Greek.” In his criticism of Bois’ “unfaithfull hand,” the transcriber, William Fulman, provides a motto for the entire exhibition. It mattered, to the fulminating Fulman, that the Greek was in places spotty. If the minutes from a meeting of the translation team contained errors, how could anyone trust their handiwork—the translation of the Lord’s Word into the English vernacular?
Fulman’s zeal for accuracy and precision informs almost all of the works on display. Many manuscripts contain passages from the Hebrew Bible in parallel with Latin translations, glosses and word-by-word translations often appearing directly above each line of Hebrew text. Some contain old Latin translations, as well as new and improved Latin translations. 500 Years of Treasures documents the sheer multiplicity of texts—the original Hebrew, Jerome’s Vulgate, newer Latin translations meant to supplant the old—before and during the Reformation.
500 Years of Treasures also proves that there was no monolithic move from old to new, from erroneous to accurate. Many translations with different sets of corrections and improvements proliferated in this era. One constant, however, was the scholarly fervor for accuracy—a near obsession with more perfectly attuning and calibrating the instruments of translation—and the careful study of ancient languages.
Corpus Christi College is in part responsible for the enshrinement of Greek, Latin and Hebrew as the highest objects of study in the West. The New Learning, as it is sometimes called—these three languages of Judeo-Christianity, as well as math and astronomy—spread to the English public schools first and America’s Yale and Harvard Colleges second. The cornerstone of humanist education in the West well into the nineteenth century, the New Learning always depended on a vigorous engagement with physical texts. Far from being rarefied relics, these texts were battlegrounds. And far from representing a sui generis strand of learning, these developments built upon the longstanding intellectual tradition of the Jews.
It’s taken some 500 years, but Oxford is rightfully paying homage to the role played by the Jews (who were expelled from England in 1290) in the development of humanist education. As one curator said, “[These objects] have never left Corpus, essentially. They’ve never left Oxford.” It’s good that they’re getting a little fresh air at the Center for Jewish History. Unsealed from their 500 years of solitude, the works of 500 Years of Treasures communicate with one another and with us.
In addition to the religious artifacts, there are ancient manuscripts, early printed books, and Tudor silver. Visitors will see dazzling illuminated works of literature, including Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales, sitting alongside texts revealing Renaissance methods in the study of Greek and Latin. Additionally, the exhibit includes sketches of Galileo’s observations of the moon’s surface, a private letter written by Isaac Newton, and much more.
The exhibition is on display at Yeshiva University Museum, based at the Center for Jewish History (15 West 16th Street) through August 6, 2017. For more information click here.
Cover: From Adam and Eve to King Edward IV: This manuscript is a curious hybrid of physical formats. The text provides the lineage of the medieval kings of England, traced from Adam and Eve all the way down to King Edward IV (1433–1483) in a vertical line. It was written on a long vertical roll, blank on the back, that was then folded and bound as a book, so that it has to be turned sideways in order to read it. Royal genealogy in Middle English, from Adam and Eve to Edward IV. Written and illuminated in England, probably London or Westminster, ca. 1467–69. Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 207; courtesy of exhibition.