"Un peuple sans roi est un corps sans âme" (A people without a king is [like] a body without a soul)--ch. 2:13
"La vie est la prison du croyant et le paradis du mécréant" (Life is the prison of the believer and the paradise of the disbeliever)--ch. 9:21
These are just two of the hundreds of proverbs collected by Jafouda (or Judah) Bonsenyor ("Good fellow") from Arabic sources in the late thirteenth century, translated by him into Catalan at the request of the king, and now presented to the readers of this little book in a French translation by Patrick Gifreu. Gifreu is a Catalan writer and essayist who has written about Salvador Dali as well as translating medieval works, such as those of Ramon Llull, from Catalan into French.
In a short and rather general introduction based on a very limited bibliography, Gifreu deals with the conquests and expansion of the Crown of Aragon between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries mentioning Ramon Llull, Cerverí of Girona and the count-King James I as significant representatives of the literary flourishing of Catalan; the thirteenth century as the golden age of Catalan Jewry; what is known about the Bonsenyor family and about Judah Bonsenyor himself; and an analysis of Words and Sayings of the Wise Men and Philosophers (Paraules e dits de savis e filòsofs).
Gifreu divides the aphorisms into 67 different sections dealing with a broad variety of subjects such as belief in God, the king, a good education, morals, virtues and vices, youth, death, love, animals and plants amongst others. The longest section is the last which deals with the praise for one's neighbor with 99 aphorisms of a rather general nature while the shortest contain only 3–5 proverbs like the sections dealing with pride and arrogance and truth.
Gifreu's translation is based on two editions of the work which both appeared in 1889. In the introduction, Gifreu mentions that six manuscripts are extant. Actually, there are eight manuscripts, though two of them are partial versions of the work. The other six contain the complete work with small differences such as different divisions of chapters and different numbers of aphorisms. The nineteenth-century editions used by Gifreu are based on three of the manuscripts. My understanding is that Maria Conca and Josep Guia from the University of Valencia are currently preparing an edition based on all the extant manuscripts.
In the introduction, Gifreu dates the work to the years 1298–1300. This creates a small problem as James II of the Crown of Aragon (1291–1327) who asked Judah to translate the aphorisms is described by Judah in the first paragraph of the work as being the king of Mallorca as well. James was king of Mallorca from 1291–1295, before the kingdom was returned to his uncle, confusingly also named James II. The implication is, therefore, that the book must have been written during the years of James II's reign in Mallorca and not at the later date suggested by Gifreu.
The sources of the proverbs selected by Judah are difficult to ascertain, but scholarship has suggested that both Muslim and Jewish Arabic sources could have provided many of the aphorisms. Judah explicitly cites by name Alexander, Plato, Aristotle and Cato though the proverbs brought in their names come from Arabic sources. Gifreu points to one place at least where he thinks that the Talmud is cited regarding a suggestion of honoring one's doctor before becoming sick (8:12). If Judah took this proverb from a Jewish source, it was most likely from the Midrash (see for instance, Midrash Rabba on Exodus, 21:7) not the Talmud, as this proverb appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, not generally used in the Iberian peninsula. It seems more likely that this proverb was one of a series of aphorisms dealing with health in an Arabic source available to Judah. Gifreu is seemingly mistaken in also positing Latin as one of the possible sources of some of the proverbs (In the introduction, Gifreu cites the proverbs according to their running numbers, however, in the translation, he renumbers the proverbs at the start of each chapter thus making it difficult to check what he is referring to).
Put into a broader historical context, it is interesting to note that around the same time, Ramon Llull (ca. 1232– ca. 1315), the autodidact Catalan missionary and mystic, was also writing a series of books containing proverbs: Proverbis de Ramon (a version in Latin and Catalan in 1296--some 2040 proverbs dealing with the names of God, nature and morals); Mil proverbis (written in 1302 in Catalan and divided into 52 chapters dealing with divine virtues, human vices, rhetoric, poverty and wealth etc.); and Proverbis d'ensenyament (probably in 1309 in Catalan, containing 225 rhyming couplets in no particular order). In addition, the aforementioned Catalan troubadour, Cerverí of Girona wrote a work called Versos proverbials for his son containing 1197 quatrains of six syllabled verse, a pretty substantive work. Hence, Judah's collection of proverbs which "the king ordered…to take from Arabic books and translate them" (29–30) attests to considerable contemporary interest in this form of knowledge. What makes Judah's collection unique is its preference for aphorisms translated from Arabic including those whose origin was in the classical world of Greek and Latin.