MS Bodley Or. 621 as a “Study Psalter” for Christian Hebraists

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Manuscript Studies
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bible study
Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England
Hebrew paleography
manuscript illumination
Christian Hebraism
Comparative Methodologies and Theories
European Languages and Societies
Jewish Studies
Medieval Studies
Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion
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Because of its diminutive size, unconventional decorative scheme and total lack of built-in translations, MS Bodley Or. 621 is an anomaly among the nine “Hebrew Psalters for Christian Use” listed by Raphael Loewe. It has received scant attention principally because, as a book that appears to have been intended for Jews only to be later appropriated by Christians, it seems to be of lesser relevance to discussions of thirteenth-century English Hebraism than those psalters that were unambiguously custom-made for gentile scholars. This article challenges this premise and this conclusion. By re-examining and synthesising the paleographical and codicological evidence presented by the text proper, I suggest that the psalter may indeed have been commissioned by a Christian according to his specific needs. By considering the form, content, and distribution of the marginal annotations, especially those that contain not only Latin and French translations but also Hebrew roots, I highlight the remarkable and unique method of learning Hebrew adopted by one of the scholars, which is not unlike the modern notion of learning a language through immersion. By approaching the all-Hebrew psalter with an imperfect grasp of the language, he transforms the experience of reading into a learning process, and the psalm text into a type of textbook. This agrees well with the short and fragmentary nature of surviving Hebrew grammars from thirteenth-century England, and perhaps explains why there was no need for more comprehensive works.

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