17.01.21, Hamilton, Beyond Faith

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Luis M. Girón-Negrón

The Medieval Review 17.01.21

Hamilton, Michelle M. Beyond Faith: Belief, Morality, and Memory in a Fifteenth-Century Judeo-Iberian Manuscript. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 57. Leiden: Brill, 2014. pp. 354. ISBN: 978-90-04-27737-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Luis M. Girón-Negrón
Harvard University

Michelle Hamilton's Beyond Faith constitutes a significant milestone in her scholarly work with Old Spanish sources on Jewish intellectual and cultural history. It centers on a fragmentary manuscript extant at the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (ms. 2666), a Judeo-Spanish cento of philosophical and literary works in Hebrew aljamiado (that is, an Old Spanish text written in Hebrew script). The Parma manuscript includes one of the earliest witnesses to Alfonso de la Torre's Visión Deleytable, an encyclopedic primer of Maimonidean philosophy written for a Christian prince and a fifteenth-century classic of Old Spanish prose, along with other ancillary tools (the sketch of a treatise on memory and four fragmentary glossaries of Hebrew-Romance philosophical terms) for the benefit of Jewish and converso students of medieval religious philosophy. It also includes a primitive version of an Old Spanish poem, Dança general de la muerte, which Hamilton herself, along with María Morrás, first made public in 1999 [1]. The Parma manuscript contains, moreover, yet another rare poem of Jewish authorship in Old Spanish, made known by John Zemke and recently studied by Bernard Septimus, is a significant addition to the clerecía rabínica tradition. [2] A fragment of a poetic debate from the Cancionero de Baena, [3] and a handful of excerpts from Alfonso de Cartagena's Spanish translation of Senecan and pseudo-Senecan materials round up the extant content of this aljamiado manuscript.

Having both written on De la Torre and done some work on the Parma manuscript in situ, I looked forward very much to perusing this study. I was not disappointed. Indeed, my expectations were more than fulfilled by the fine analytic fruits of her interpretive efforts. Hamilton's dissection of the Palatina manuscript carefully straddles two interpretive axes: (1) discrete analyses in context of the literary and philosophical works that it contains, and (2) a perceptive reconnaissance of the material vehicle for their textual transmission and what their assemblage could also reveal about the late medieval Jewish readers envisioned by the compiler. The individual chapters, all written with insight and erudition, make significant contributions to their respective subjects. Her De la Torre chapter (chapter 1) showcases the intellectual import of subtle, yet significant variants between this aljamiado version of Visión Deleytable and its complex textual tradition in Latin script--analyzed against the Kabbalistic and philosophical traditions intermingled, contra Maimonides, in fifteenth-century Iberia--as deliberate deviations on the part of its redactors. In the process, Hamilton establishes the centrality of the Aristotelian rationalist tradition, contemporary Christian anti-Jewish polemics and fifteenth-century Messianic ideas to the intellectual horizons of this manuscript's selfsame readers. Her analysis of the Old Spanish poem in chapter 2--a Jewish interpretation of the famous Biblical pericope about Isaac's sacrifice, the Aqedah--engages as well the readings by John Zemke and Bernard Septimus within the broader frame of the religious and intellectual preoccupations uniting the Jewish and converso readers for whom this manuscript was put together. I may not be fully convinced about the mystical ideas discerned by Zemke, a thesis which Hamilton also supports, but her close reading of the poem is superb and its placement within fifteenth-century Hispano-Jewish discussions of the Aqedah and the religious queries they address on target. Each subsequent chapter throws, in turn, a capacious interpretive net in gauging the Jewish and Christian intellectual domains interwoven in the Parma manuscript. A meticulous overview of its Hebrew–Romance glossaries on Aristotelian terms for logic, ethics and metaphysics is interwoven in chapter 3 with broader insights into the curricular ideals and sociology of learning of Jewish philosophy students in the fifteenth century, their selective study of Christian scholastic sources and the centrality of logic to their intellectual culture (with particular attention to Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation of Millot ha-Higgayon, to which these glossaries are also indebted). Chapter 4 provides a historical excursus on this manuscript's rare witness to an Iberian (and specifically Jewish) engagement with the classical and medieval Christian traditions on memory and mnemonics "repurposed...for a Jewish audience" (164). Chapter 5 examines its privileged attestation to the Iberian humanist tradition and the engagement of converso scholars with the intellectual heritage that Cartagena's translations of Seneca duly exemplify; it also advances a superb analysis of its joc-partit within the sprawling tradition of fifteenth-century cancioneril poetry (courtly troubadoresque lyric collected in Iberian song-books). I was deeply impressed in particular by her persuasive case in chapter 6 for how its shorter version of the Dança de la muerte represents a deliberate rewriting of an earlier model in order to accommodate the religious sensibilities of a converso readership (an argument based on a comparative reading of the two extant versions with due attention to linguistic features and thematic variances in historical context and equally cognizant of the author's singular recourse to the Jewish and Muslim traditions on the Angel of Death in the danses macabres corpus).

Last but not least, the book as a whole is much larger than its parts. Hamilton makes a compelling case for the rich intellectual life and sociorreligious concerns of Iberian Jews and conversos in late medieval Castile and the rare opportunity afforded by the surviving corpus of Hebrew aljamiado texts to glimpse into the inner world of its proto-Sephardic readers, a variegated community of women and men with complex religious identities and multiple cultural allegiances astride Judaism and Christianity, yet living at the perilous threshold of new Inquisitorial threats. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to find any similar book-length study in the Ibero-medieval field centered on a single multi-authored medieval codex (her stimulating response to Dagenais' provocative exercise on material philology applied to Libro de buen amor) and one that manages to paint such a rich portrait of its readership with comparable acumen and aplomb. Yes, Professor Hamilton has written an important book on Ibero-medieval intellectual life. It will be of fundamental interest to Hispanists and Hebraists, literary historians, historians of medieval philosophy and scholars of religion at large.



1. Michelle Hamilton and María Morrás, "Un nuevo testimonio de la 'Danza de la muerte': hacia la versión primitiva," in Actas del VIII Congreso Internationcal de La Asociación Hispánica de Literaturea Medieval (1999), eds. Margarita Freixas y Silvia Iriso (Santander, 2001), vol. 1, pp. 1341-1352.

2. John Zemke, "In memorial Charles Cook, Mentor of Samuel G. Armistead," in Spain's Multicultural Legacies. Studies in Honor of Samuel G. Armistead, eds. Adrienne L. Martín y Cristina Martínez-Carazo (Delaware: Juan de la Cuesta, 2008), 333-347; Bernard Septimus, "A Medieval Judeo-Spanish Poem on the Complementarity of Faith and Works and its Intellectual Roots," in New Perspectives on Jewish-Christian Relations, eds. Elisheva Carlebach and Jacob J. Schacter (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 227-239.

3. Michelle Hamilton (ed.), "Debating Love: A Fifteenth Century Aljamiado Joc-Partit," eHumanista 14 (2010): 127-145.

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