03.05.03, Roth, ed., Medieval Jewish Civilization

Main Article Content

Joseph Shatzmiller

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.003


Roth, Norman, ed.. Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xxi, 701. ISBN: 0-415-93712-4.

Reviewed by:
Joseph Shatzmiller
Duke University

This is the seventh Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages published by Routledge. Earlier publications included volumes on countries such as Scandinavia, England, France and Germany or on specific topics like archeology, trade and travel. Given the significant role of Jews in this period, it is not surprising that the encyclopedia under review has now been added to the list of publications.

To be sure we have a number of multi-volume encyclopedias in several languages. Recently Oxford University Press released an important one-volume dictionary of the Jewish religion. Norman Roth, however, wanted his seven hundred-page endeavor to avoid dealing only with "Scholars and Persecutions" -- to quote the illustrious Salo W. Baron -- nor to deal principally with theological doctrines or prayers. Insisting on "civilization" in its broadest sense, he does have entries on the above-mentioned issues but they are presented in a measured manner. On the other hand, one is fortunate to have access to subjects such as Jewish art, music, food, clothing, medicine or money lending -- all accompanied with well selected bibliographies. The editor was able to engage the expertise of a plethora of distinguished specialists (see the list on pp. xi-xii) among whom you will find Elisabeth A.R. Brown and William Chester Jordan (U.S.A.), Noel Coulet (France) and Friedrich Lotter (Germany) as well as Joseph Dan and Israel Ta Shma of Israel. Yet most outstanding is the work invested by Professor Roth himself. In command of all required languages and conversant in an almost unbelievable bibliography, no aspect of Jewish civilization seems to be foreign to him. Although for many years those involved in medieval studies have appreciated his erudition, one is still amazed by his versatility.

Roth has delved into subjects as diversified as Abraham bar Hiya, the twelfth-century mathematician, Jews involvement in agriculture, and King Alfonso the Wise of Castile (r. 1252-1284) in his attitude towards Jews and his relationship with some individuals within the Jewish community. Our distinguished colleague does not shy away from heavily charged topics such as Jewish mysticism (s.v. Quabbalah) or money lending. All together, no fewer than ninety topics emanate from his pen, all written in a meticulous, elaborate manner. Roth, whose penchant for Hispanic studies is well known, devotes special entries to eleventh-century poets like ibn Ezras, ibn Gabirol and the "prince" Samuel ibn Nagrilla (I suggest: Nigrelh). While important figures like Qualonimos of Arles do not appear where one would expect them to, they are not lost altogether -- the rich index (673-700) includes them in entries such as "Literature" or "chronicles".

Roth wishes to present the "state of the art" in the field. Not surprisingly we are presented with entries concerning marriage and women or the church and religious disputation. As there is little interest nowadays in essential questions concerning taxation, communal organization or the status of Jews in civil law, these issues are sadly missing in this encyclopedia. As well, a book written by so many hands cannot escape criticism and the mention of some reservations of minor significance. The present reviewer would like to see the famous Sefer Asaf, the first medical treatise in Hebrew, noted as composed in the tenth century and not some four centuries earlier as suggested (hesitantly it is true) on page 433. Also, as the late David Romano had demonstrated, the illustrious Rabbi of Medieval Barcelona, the Rashba (c. 1233-1310) never signed as "ibn Adret" but rather as "ben Adret." And as far as names are concerned, Roth fails to identify the name "Peter" as Jewish (599), although it does figure handsomely in the Jewish onomasticon of the period.

All medieval scholars now realize that their history will be incomplete, indeed mutilated, if attention is not paid to evidence concerning the Jews. Chapters in "general" history (e.g. the history of credit facilities) depend on this evidence, which was not long ago classified as marginal. Jewish history (like that of women) becomes indispensable for everyone involved in the craft. It does not belong anymore to the "House of Jacob" but rather to all of humanity. Norman Roth not only emerges as a major player in the field: his encyclopedia renders an indispensable service to all medievalists.

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Author Biography

Joseph Shatzmiller

Duke University