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Old French into Hebrew in Twelfth-Century Tsarfat: Medieval Hebrew Versions of Marbode’s Lapidary


The reception in Jewish cultures of the influential medieval lapidary by Bishop Marbode of Rennes (1035–1123), which was widely disseminated in the original Latin and in numerous translations into various vernaculars, is described. Three (possibly four) extant Hebrew lapidaries that derive from Marbode’s are identified. Two of them are shown to go back to a single, lost Hebrew translation of one of the many Old French versions of Marbode’s lapidary. Although these two redactions share only isolated sentences or phrases, their common origin was established through meticulous comparison; the comparative method applied here is one of the paper’s main contributions. It is asserted that the strong infatuation with lapidaries of medieval Jewish scholars in Northern Europe derives from their interest in biblical exegesis and in particular from their wish to identify the precious stones in the High Priest’s Breastplate.

Users of lapidaries often added marginal glosses that later copyists integrated into the text itself. Hence editing such texts requires a special methodology, especially when the non-Hebrew Vorlage of a translation is extant. Inasmuch as these two lapidaries go back to a common Urfassung, they must be edited together; their juxtaposition affords invaluable insights into their genesis and subsequent transmission history.

A passage describing the so-called wet compass, found in Version B and thought to be one of the oldest of its kind, was found to be a late interpolation that cannot be dated. In addition to innumerable haphazard changes, the transmission history of our lapidary involved deliberate and substantial rearrangement of the entries and a rephrasing of many of them. The goal was to enhance the lapidary’s Hebrew character and making it more attractive to its intended Jewish users.

The entries on thirteen stones are edited, along with English translations and detailed historical and philological comments.