The Medieval Review 11.04.02

Bos, Gerrit and Julia Zwink. Berakhyah Ben Natronai Ha-Nakdan Sefer Ko'aḥ Ha-avanim (On the Virtue of the Stones), Hebrew Text and English Translation with a Lexicological Analysis of the Romance Terminology and Source Study. Études sur le Judaïsme Médiéval. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. 187. $131 ISBN 978-90-04-18310-0. .

Reviewed by:

Nicholas de Lange

At the heart of this book is a critical edition of a lapidary found in a single Hebrew manuscript that has been dated to the early 14th century. (More of the text and the manuscript presently.) The text is preceded by a short introduction and accompanied by a facing translation and brief notes. There follow two "supplements." The first of these presents, in parallel columns, a comparison between selected passages of the text and similar passages of another Hebrew lapidary, which is a translation of Marbode of Rennes' de Lapidibus, apparently made via an intermediary French translation. The second supplement, which at 94 pages occupies more than half the book, is virtually a book in itself. It is headed "The Ko'aḥ ha-Avanim in Its French Context: Romance and Latin Terms and Sources," and contains an introduction, on the language and sources of the treatise, a commentary on the Romance and Latin terms used in it, a detailed study of the sources of each passage, and an apparatus consisting of tables of sources, indexes of the non-Hebrew words, a bibliography of works cited in the supplement, and an index of subjects and foreign terms. The plates show the manuscript itself.

There are various weaknesses in the conception and execution of the book, but I must begin with praise. Firstly, although this Hebrew text is a work of no originality or inherent merit, it is interesting to have it available in print, not least because of the contribution it can make to the study of Anglo-Norman French. The transcription of the text appears to be reliable, and most of the editor's emendations make good sense. The translation too, though quirky, is broadly reliable. The strongest and most interesting part of the book is Supplement B, which is a treasure-house of philological comments on the Anglo-Norman and other non-Hebrew terms.

The authorship of the various parts and the relationship between them is unnecessarily puzzling. Although two authors, Gerrit Bos and Julia Zwink, are named on the title page, there is a preface which is written in the first person and refers to the supplement by Julia Zwink. It may be deduced from this, and some other remarks, that the edition and translation, with the introduction to them, and probably Supplement A, are by Gerrit Bos, who teaches Jewish Studies in Cologne and is the author of an impressive number of editions and translations of mainly medical works, while Supplement B is by Julia Zwink, who studies Romance philology at FU-Berlin. It would have been better if this division of tasks had been made clear. It would also have been better if some attempt had been made to reconcile the two parts of the book: as it is there are various inconsistencies and overlaps between them. In particular the many comments in the first part about the source of the treatise and about the foreign terms do not always agree with the comments in Supplement B.

The introduction is short and skimpy. We should have expected to find a description of the single manuscript on which the edition rests. The only information we are given, beyond the classmark in the Bodleian Library, is that the text is copied in the margin of a liturgical text, that the hand is Ashkenazi and the manuscript has been ascribed to the fourteenth century. That is really not very much information. We are left wondering what the manuscript is like (how big and how thick it is, for example, and whether it is written on parchment or paper), whether there is any information about its place of origin and its subsequent history before it arrived in the Bodelian, what the liturgical text is, and what connection there is between it and the text copied in the margin, whether there are other texts copied in the margins and if so what they are, and whether the marginal text was written by the same scribe as the main text (and if so whether he planned from the outset to copy it in the margin). Answers to a few of these questions can be found in the plates, but it would have been better if they had been addressed in the introduction. In fact there are several other texts copied in the margins, and the manuscript as a whole is of considerable cultural interest. The name of the scribe is known. Of particular interest, in view of the attribution of the lapidary to someone with the same surname, is the fact that the manuscript contains many liturgical poems by Isaac son of Samson Nakdan.

According to the heading in the manuscript the author of the treatise is "Rabbi Berakhiah Nakdan," and he is identified without further discussion in the introduction with Berakhiah or Berekhiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, who is known as the "Jewish Aesop" because of his collection of fables, which has been translated into English. [1] This Berechiah was identified by Joseph Jacobs with Benedict le Puncteur, an Oxford Jew who paid a contribution to Richard I on his return from captivity, and whose name translates into Hebrew as Berekhiah ha-Nakdan. [2] This identification has not been universally accepted, and Bos in his introduction mentions various other suggestions about the place and date of the fabulist, who has also been credited with the authorship of various other works. He appears to agree with Norman Golb's suggestion that Berekhiah lived in Rouen, even though he states that "it has been criticized by a number of scholars" (3). However he does not discuss the identification of the author of the lapidary with the fabulist, although he is clearly aware of the issue, since he briefly considers an analogous question relating to the identification of the author of another Hebrew lapidary with a much better-known author on the basis of their shared name (13).

In a discussion of the sources of the lapidary, Bos identifies as its main source an Anglo-French translation of Marbode's de Lapidibus (the "Cambridge Lapidary"). However, he also seems to posit some connection with the Hebrew translation of Marbode cited in Supplement A, since he states that in some cases he has used this translation to emend corruptions and to clarify obscurities in the text. He does not elaborate on the supposed connection, however. A parallel discussion of sources in Supplement B (88-9) presents a somewhat different account. While agreeing that the Cambridge Lapidary was the main source, this states that there were also other sources, in Anglo-Norman and Latin and an unknown Hebrew source now lost. The disagreements between these two accounts raise various questions, not least of which is the value of the extant Hebrew translation for text-critical purposes. The more complex picture evoked here naturally conjures up questions, which are not addressed, about the nature and aims of the compiler's work and his use of the sources mentioned. Was he, for example, attempting to translate the Cambridge Lapidary into Hebrew, incorporating at the same time some materials from other sources? Was he basing himself on a lost Anglo-Norman text resembling the Cambridge Lapidary but already incorporating some other materials? Or was he perhaps conflating elements from various Hebrew sources, some of which were translated from Anglo-Norman? These questions can probably not be answered, but in the circumstances it seems over-confident to assert a direct dependence on the Cambridge Lapidary.

While some of the deficiencies of the book can be laid at the door of the authors, the publisher and the series editor must share the blame for the very poor English in which it is couched and the many typographical slips. The book does not seem to have been copy edited or proofread--surely a dereliction of duty on the part of an academic publisher, particularly since neither author has native English. Moreover, had the publisher followed the normal process of peer review the more serious problems of structure and presentation mentioned above could have been properly addressed.



1. M. Hadas, Fables of a Jewish Aesop. Translated from the Fox Fables of Berechiah ha-Nakdan. New York and London, Columbia University Press, 1967.

2. See further C. Roth, The Intellectual Activities of Medieval English Jewry (British Academy Supplemental Papers, 8). London, Oxford University Press for the British Academy, n.d. [1949], pp. 48-50.