Corpus Hebrew Manuscripts

A Mirror Reflecting the Early History of Jews in England

By Dr Peter Pormann, published in the Pelican Record

Reproduced here by kind permission of Dr Pormann

Corpus is well known as the college to study classics. Did not Bishop Fox, our Founder, set it up with the specific aim to enhance and promote the teaching of Latin and Greek? Far be it from me to dispute Corpus’ reputation in this domain, but such a vision of the College’s history is only part of truth. Both the Founder Fox and the first President John Claymund had an acute interest in Jewish learning and Hebrew, then called ‘the third language’. In the Renaissance and Reformation, scholars propagated a return to the sources which, for many, included the Hebrew Bible. Likewise, Jewish traditional learning seemed to hold the key to understanding the universe, and Pico de la Mirandola, among others, eagerly studied the Talmud and the Kabbala. It is in this climate that Corpus was founded, and it therefore comes as no surprise that Erasmus, himself a competent Hebraist, complimented the Founder for his foresight and extolled ‘the spectacle of this trilingual Library (trilinguis istius bibliothecae spectaculum)’1.


This early interest in Hebrew is well reflected in the holdings of the library. Indeed, Corpus has the most important collection of Anglo-Jewish manuscripts in the world. Like the College itself, this collection is small, but of breath-taking quality and interest, providing what is perhaps the best reflection of the early history of Jews in these Isles. At its core are seven Biblical manuscripts (MSS 5–11), given to the College by Claymund. All share one characteristic, which is a literal ‘superscript’ (interlineary) translation. In a collaborative effort, Jewish and Christian scribes produced such texts in the midthirteenth century to provide tools for non-Jews to learn Hebrew, and one technique used in these manuscripts to facilitate the study of Hebrew was the use of the 'superscript'.

The ‘Claymund’ collection—apart from containing the finest examples of Anglo-Jewish manuscripts—is remarkable for at least two reasons. One manuscript, a psalter (CCC 10), contains an epistle by Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, in which he sets out the rationale for providing Latin-Hebrew manuscripts with a superscript translation. Because of this letter, these interlineary translations have become known in modern scholarship as ‘Lincoln superscript’. Another manuscript with parts of Rashi’s commentary to the Bible (CCC 6) has an idiosyncratic vocalisation of the Hebrew which allows us to look into the thirteenth-century classroom and hear how Christian students pronounced the Hebrew. Moreover, these manuscripts may have a special connection with Oxford, which appears to be the most likely place of their origin. It has even been suggested by an eminent scholar that Roger Bacon’s entourage provided the intellectual climate for their production. 2 He urged his coreligionists in his Opus Maius to learn not only Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew and Arabic, for he thought that the greatest intellectual treasures still to be discovered were hidden in these languages.3

In addition to these seven manuscripts, the collection also contains a nearly complete copy of Rashi’s biblical commentaries (CCC 165), and an Ashkenazi prayer book (CCC 133). In the latter, the owner, a Jew from Spain living in England, recorded different debts owed to him by a variety of Christian dignitaries around the year 1200. He did this in Judaeo-Arabic (i.e. Arabic written in Hebrew letters), and this document is the only one of its kind; no other texts are known to have been written in this language during the entire Middle Ages in the British Isles.

The Corpus collection of Hebrew manuscripts thus aptly illustrates the history of the Jews in England before their expulsion in 1290. The Sephardic Jew who uses some blank pages in an Ashkenazi prayer book to jot down the names of Christian debtors highlights the itinerant nature of medieval Jewish existence. This Jew hailing from Spain, made notes in a German-made book, after having moved to England. Trade and travel were, however, only one aspect of Jewish life. Two others are brought to the fore by the Corpus collection: the role of Jews as financial service providers and intellectual interlocutors for their Christian overlords. It is not necessary to dwell on the first aspect, which has often, yet wrongly, been depicted in a negative way. Suffice it to say that Jews did have an important role in the economy of England in the thirteenth century, and that they were also intimately linked to the early history of the University of Oxford, and even played an indirect part in its emergence.4     The Corpus collection demonstrates that Jews helped Christians study Hebrew which the latter regarded as increasingly important from the thirteenth century onwards. The bilingual manuscripts acquired even greater importance after the Jews had been expelled from England, for they were one of the few means for Christians to acquaint themselves with the language of the Old Testament.

When Corpus was founded, the situation was essentially still the same as two centuries earlier: Jews were not allowed to reside in England, and therefore could not teach Christians Hebrew. The sixteenth century saw the emergence of Hebrew studies in Oxford, but since no Jewish teachers were available, those eager to acquire ‘the third language’ often did so abroad—a case in point is Thomas Bodley who learned Hebrew in Geneva5—and relied on didactic tools such as the bilingual manuscripts in Corpus. One cannot, for instance, rule out the possibility that the group of Oxford scholars charged with the translation of the Minor and Major Prophets by King James, which met in John Reynolds’ lodgings until his death in 16076, used MS 8, a Hebrew-Latin version of the Minor Prophets, or Rashi’s commentaries on these books preserved in MS 165.

The Council of State authorised the practice of Judaism on 25 June 1656, which meant that for the first time for more than 350 years, Jews were allowed to reside in England.7 The Corpus manuscripts are also indirectly connected to this event, and many of them were displayed in the lavish exhibition ‘Anglo-Jewish Art and History: in commemoration of the tercentenary of the resettlement of the Jews in the British Isles’ which was held at the Victory and Albert Museum early in 1956.8 The exhibition was not only a celebration of the various aspects of Jewish life in England, but also an important reaffirmation of Anglo-Jewish identity after the ravages of the Second World War with the murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany. Fifty years have passed since this exhibition which placed an important part of Corpus’ Hebrew manuscripts in their proper context, and it is therefore a fitting time revisit this part of Corpus history. This collection is a welcome reminder that the tradition of our college is not limited to Christian, or Classical Latin and Greek culture, but transcends the confines country and creed. It is also a powerful illustration of the contribution which Jews in England have made, if indirectly, to the intellectual life of both the University and the College, and all Corpuscles can take pride in the Jewish heritage which is part of our legacy.

Peter E Pormann

Peter E Pormann has recently compiled new catalogue entries of the Hebrew manuscripts at Corpus, an online version of which will become available at hebrewmanuscripts.



1 Letter of Erasmus to John Claymond, 5.7.1519; Epistolarum D. Erasmi Roterodami libri XXXI. et P. Melancthonis libri IV. : Quibs adjiciuntur Th. Mori & Lud. Vivis espistolæ, 2 vols. (London, 1652), vol. i, coll. 281–2; book 4, letter 11; translated by G. R. M. Ward, The Foundation Statues of Bishop Fox for Corpus Christi College in the Unversity of Oxford, A.D. 1517, Now First Translated into English with a Life of the Founder (London, 1843), xli–xlii.

2 J. Olszowy-Schlanger, Les manuscrits hébreux dans l'Angleterre médiévale: étude historique et paléographique (Peeters: Leuven, 2003), 66.

3 R. Bacon, Opus Maius, ed. J. H. Bridges, 3 vols (Oxford, 1897–1900), i. 66–96.

4 Cf. Peter E. Pormann, ‘Two New Starrs Relationg to the History of Merton College, Oxford’, Journal of Jewish Studies 55 (2004), 102–117.

5 id., ‘Thomas Bodley as a Hebraist’, Postmaster, 2003, pp. 70–74.

6 ODNB, s.v. (M. Feingold).

7 C. Roth, ‘The Resettlement of the Jews in England in 1656’, in Three Centuries of Anglo-Jewish History, ed. V.P.Lipman (Cambridge, 1961), p. 1

8 Cf. the catalogue, Anglo-Jewish Art and History: in commemoration of the tercentenary of the resettlement of the Jews in the British Isles : held at the Victoria and Albert Museum 6 January to 29 February 1956 (London).