This volume provides an extensive palaeographic and diplomatic study of the extant Hebrew documents from medieval England (or Latin documents with Hebrew elements). It includes a comprehensive introduction which fully contextualises the documents and the conditions in which they were created followed by reproducing every document (through photography and transcription) complete with full discussions of each individual document.
For those to whom reading is a necessary evil which is a chore, which you do for whatever reason, rather than being an enjoyable task in its own right, you will not understand what follows, and may well leave with the distinct impression that I am utterly bonkers (certainly, I wouldn’t disagree with that point). Not all books are born equal, they range from the good to the bad and the ugly, however every so often you come across a book which is so superbly researched and written that it makes you want to weep with joy, and proclaim from the rooftops how truly stunning it is. This book, or rather books (it’s printed in two tomes), is one such gem. That being said I feel that I should provide a disclaimer – and those who know that I have a sizable collection of medieval Jewish history books, which I rarely look at the price of will realise the seriousness of this disclaimer. Order this book through your library, it’s far too expensive for anybody to actually buy. That being said, now that I have both volumes on my desk (courtesy of the University of Manchester’s library), I feel that my life won’t be complete until I have my own copy on my bookcase. Unless there are any very (very, very, very) generous readers, I feel that a ‘cunning plan’ or ‘a plan so cunning that you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel’ will be required in order to ever get a copy of my own.
In the preface to the second volume of Starrs and Jewish Charters, Herbert Loewe commented that ‘[h]owever careful be the harvest, there is the forgotten sheaf and the aftergrowth, the perquisites of the poor. May they be worthy of the barn to which they are brought!’ (1932, p. xii). There is not a page within these volumes which does not exude this philosophy by fully considering largely forgotten documents and the aftergrowth of the context in which they were produced. However, if Loewe et. al. created a ‘barn’ in which to hold the documents which were being considered, then Judith Olszowy-Schlanger creates a palace of incomparable size and beauty, through her careful introduction and meticulous palaeographic study of each document which she considers. It would be difficult, even impossible, to exaggerate the significance of this volume. In terms of the diplomatic analysis, she fully contextualises the documents and the conditions which influenced their writing (from a Jewish perspective there is a discussion of things like the bet din, while from the Christian perspective there is a discussion of how the majority community impacted upon the minority community). Moreover, the way in which the documents themselves were produced is discussed with very exciting results – as historians we all too often focus upon the content to the detriment of the materiality of documents, something which Olzowy-Schlanger does with superb skill and precision. Thereafter there is a discussion of the palaeographic elements of medieval Anglo-Jewish Hebrew documents. Now, it should be noted that what I know about this this subject could be compressed onto the back of a postage stamp, however, in addition to providing a thoroughly detailed discussion of the subject while at the same time presenting it in such a way that it accessible even to the likes of me. Certainly, it would be impossible to come away from all of this discussion without having learned a great deal (regardless of the stage you are at in your academic career).
The second section of this book presents each document considered and fully analyses every element of it, complete with transcriptions and pictures of the document in question – it is done with such precision that one cannot help but be envious at the quality of the research (and endeavour to be 1/100th of the historian that she is). This section is particularly important given that the work of the likes of Loewe, and previously Davis (Davis: 1888) had either provided transcriptions and translations or abstracts or the Hebrew. In contrast, Olzowy-Schlanger replicates every document being considered, as well as an extensive discussion of the material and contextual elements of each document. The final point which I wish to emphasise with this book is that it is not just parchment documents which are considered, but also my favourite type of source: tally sticks. It was with a great sense of elation that I read this section and there are a great many new thing which are said on the subject. Thus, this magnificent book does not simply supersede all previous scholarship which has endeavoured to present the extant Hebrew documents from medieval England, but it also makes those previous attempts look sad, even amateurish, and totally blows them out of the water. I cannot recommend this volume enough, it is a magnificent triumph which will quickly establish itself as a bastion of medieval Anglo-Jewish scholarship. That being said, if you happen to be at the University of Manchester, please do not order this from the library – I currently have it and am currently working on the documents section.
Loewe, Herbert, Starrs and Jewish Charters Preserved in the British Museum (London, 1932).