The Bodleian Library in Oxford is renowned for its collection of Hebrew manuscripts. Although it houses one of the most extensive collections in the world, few people have the chance to see what lies beneath in the library’s vaults.
However, some idea of what treasures there are may be gleaned from the library’s current exhibition, Crossing Borders, in which a selection of precious documents from the 13th to the 15th centuries has been chosen to show how Jews, Christians and Muslims contributed to the development of the book.
Among the jewels on show in the Exhibition Room are scrolls, manuscripts and codices including the lavish Kennicott Bible, fragments from Maimonides’ draft of his legal code Mishneh Torah with the author’s corrections and the richly illustrated prayer book, the Oppenheimer Siddur.
What emerges from this small yet fascinating show is that regional influence plays a larger part in the creation of a text than might be expected.
At this point in history the Jewish diaspora was mainly in Spain, Italy and Northern Europe. Hebrew manuscripts were, therefore, being produced across a larger territorial range than their Greek, Latin or Arabic counterparts. Hebrew manuscripts often bore more similarities to non-Hebrew books produced in the same region than to each other, and such similarities are manifest in the distinctive decorative patterns and script and writing styles the manuscripts’ makers adopt.
During the medieval period the majority of Hebrew manuscripts were copied by scholars and students for their own use, but towards the middle of the 13th and 14th centuries many of the elaborately decorated prayer books were used in public, often as status symbols. Wealthy patrons would enhance their status by employing the most sought-after professionals to complete their works, and often the illuminators would be Christian artists...