Thursday, 8 September 2016

[#49] Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth (ed. and trans.), Into the Light: The Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Meir of Norwich (Norwich, 2013).

For further details of this volume and how to purchase it see here:

Academic Entry:

A translation of the poetry of Meir of Norwich.

General Entry:

Anybody who has read Susan Einbinder’s stunning monograph Beautiful Death will know just how emotive medieval Jewish poetry could be (Einbinder: 2002). When thinking of England, however, one might be more tempted to think of the writing of Thomas of Monmouth, as opposed to the immaculate phrases of those French Jews. One might be more surprised to learn that the town which produced the Blood Libel narrative also produced a poet, in Meir of Norwich, who produced some truly stunning pieces of poetry as well. I’ve known about this poetry for a while, as it was discussed in several locations (e.g. Einbinder: 2000), however, not being able to read Hebrew (yet), I was unable to read the collection of poems which had been transcribed in Vivian D. Lipman’s Jews of Medieval Norwich. Consequently, when I saw that the Norwich Writing Centre had produced a translation I was elated and ordered it with as much speed as I could muster. I’ll get into the content of the volume which was delivered to me in a moment but here I’d just like to pause for a moment of contemplation. First, given the important work that has been done by the likes of Tony Kushner, Anglo-Jewry since 1066, and Jonathan Romain, Royal Jews, considering the cultural memory of Hampshire and Berkshire respectively, I think it would be really interesting to see how Norwich, as a city, considers both Thomas of Monmouth’s text and Meir of Norwich’s poems in relation to its Jewish heritage. Second, if there isn’t somebody going into schools (in Norwich at the very least) teaching school children the about Thomas and Meir together then there is something seriously wrong, and that should be rectified with all possible haste!

Now onto the poems themselves. As has already been noted above, they were written by the Jew Meir ben Eliahu, of Norwich, probably in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The corpus is composed of twenty poems written by Meir. I’m not going to say too much about the content of the poems because I am of the opinion that it should be a criminal offence, which carries a severe custodial sentence, to ruin poetry or literature for others by telling the content and ending. That being said, however, given that this is a review, I have to say something. So a consistent themes which runs through the poetry itself is biblical narratives, however it is interesting to note that there are parallels with the experience of Anglo-Jewry and it appear that the narratives were chosen for that purpose. None of the poems are especially long, but I think that they are all incredibly emotive, especially if you know the Norwich background specifically and the English context generally. I also love these poems because, after a long day of looking at economic data, these poems provide me with a connection with an actual person who had actual emotions instead of records of debt.  Although I have a great deal of time for this volume, I also think that it is also hugely problematic for several reasons. First, when I deal with the Latin source material, I am wholeheartedly opposed to relying on modern editions and think that you should go back to the original manuscript (particularly if you are producing a translation). Partly, this has to do with accuracy – I’d prefer to make sure that the manuscript says exactly what the transcription says it does – but it also has more important reasons. That is to say, scholars who produce transcriptions often only transcribe the text itself, making no note of marginalia. Moreover, as I have learned from my study of the Latin documents, a manuscript is more than just a way to transmit text and, as a result, consistently contain more secrets that can only be unearthed as a result of palaeographic and codicological analysis. Consequently, the fact that this translation was produced using a modern transcription sets off QI style klaxons for me (I’m not sure how well that reference will translate so it’s a general knowledge television programme in the UK which was, until very recently, hosted by Stephen Fry). Second, what I know about Jewish poetry (medieval or otherwise) could be condensed onto the back of a postage stamp and as such I would have liked not only the text and translation but also a commentary which tells me what I’m looking at and how common that was and what the significant linguistic choices were. Third, and finally, I think that the introduction could have been completed more effectively to discuss the literary output of Anglo-Jewry specifically and medieval Jewry generally, the archival history of the manuscript, and the position of Meir of Norwich’s poetry in the cultural memory of Norwich more generally. Having said that, if you, dear reader, only ever read one publication which I discuss in this blog then please let it be this one. This is not least because all of the criticism that I make is done with my historian hat on, but if truth be told then when I read the poems themselves then it is as an ordinary person who likes to read literature and poetry.

Work Cited:

Susan L. Einbinder, ‘Meir b. Elijah of Norwich: persecution and poetry among medieval English Jews’, Journal of Medieval History, 26 (2000), pp. 145-162.

Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Oxford, 2002).

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