Saturday, 8 October 2016

[#53] Pinchas Roth, ‘New Responsa by Isaac ben Peretz of Northampton’, Jewish Historical Studies, 46 (2014), pp. 1-17.

Academic Entry:

The publication of four responsa by Isaac ben Peretz of Northampon, complete with translation, explanation and introduction.

General Entry:

At the moment, one of my favourite historians is Pinchas Roth. I love the original way in which he approaches the discipline of medieval Anglo-Jewish studies, and the panache with which he writes.  I think that I am right in saying that, as yet, this article on Isaac ben Peretz of Northampton is the only sole authored article that has been published on the subject of medieval Anglo-Jewry – though there are a few more that will be published at some point in the near future, which I can’t wait for others to see.  As a slight divergence, it should be noted that, Roth’s work on Provence is equally epic.  So, onto this article. I must confess that the first time that I read this, I had absolutely no idea who Isaac ben Peretz was. Despite the fact that I’d read a couple of the references that Roth highlights as having mentioned him, he had made no impression upon me. I think that the reason for this becomes clear in the opening section of this article. As Roth elucidates, whilst Isaac appears in the responsa, he is hard to trace in the Latin sources. If truth be told, I think that Roth spends a bit too much time exploring the Latin source material (not something I ever thought that I’d say!). As is rightly demonstrated, we can’t know who Isaac was from the Latin source material so I’m not sure what is served by outlining the multiple Isaacs of Norwich – though this section was both well researched and well written.

                In the following section, Roth outlined the presence of Isaac ben Peretz in the published responsa. In particular, two decisions are singled out, both of which relate to moneylending and debt (which will inevitably attract my interest). This laid the foundations for the following sections in which Roth presents the ‘new’ responsa. Here Roth provides an overview of Isaac’s intellectual activities which demonstrates that he was a more important figure than has been represented in the traditional historiography. Moving on from this Roth transcribes and translates each of the responsa which form the basis of his article. What I love about this, or rather what I love most, is that Roth does not attempt to repackage published material as new but actually goes to the manuscript sources. I always enjoy seeing the results of historians’ endeavours in the archives rather than just in the printed material. Ordinarily, I would summarise and perhaps explain the response in question, but Roth has done such a superb job at that himself, that I couldn’t hope to improve upon his discussion. Consequently, I shall limit myself to saying that the documents in question provide a wonderful insight into the social history of medieval Anglo-Jewry.


                To conclude, Roth has written a historiographical survey of ‘rabbinical scholarship’ which shall shortly be published (sooner, rather than later, one would hope). When this comes to be updated a few decades hence, I am confident that this piece will be treated as a watershed which radically changed the way in which historians approach this topic. Consequently, it almost goes without say that I highly recommend this piece – but just in case: I highly recommend this piece.

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