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Vernacular Voices

Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities

By Kirsten A. Fudeman

Publication Year: 2010

A thirteenth-century text purporting to represent a debate between a Jew and a Christian begins with the latter's exposition of the virgin birth, something the Jew finds incomprehensible at the most basic level, for reasons other than theological: "Speak to me in French and explain your words!" he says. "Gloss for me in French what you are saying in Latin!" While the Christian and the Jew of the debate both inhabit the so-called Latin Middle Ages, the Jew is no more comfortable with Latin than the Christian would be with Hebrew. Communication between the two is possible only through the vernacular.

In Vernacular Voices, Kirsten Fudeman looks at the roles played by language, and especially medieval French and Hebrew, in shaping identity and culture. How did language affect the way Jews thought, how they interacted with one another and with Christians, and who they perceived themselves to be? What circumstances and forces led to the rise of a medieval Jewish tradition in French? Who were the writers, and why did they sometimes choose to write in the vernacular rather than Hebrew? How and in what terms did Jews define their relationship to the larger French-speaking community?

Drawing on a variety of texts written in medieval French and Hebrew, including biblical glosses, medical and culinary recipes, incantations, prayers for the dead, wedding songs, and letters, Fudeman challenges readers to open their ears to the everyday voices of medieval French-speaking Jews and to consider French elements in Hebrew manuscripts not as a marginal phenomenon but as reflections of a vibrant and full vernacular existence. Applying analytical strategies from linguistics, literature, and history, she demonstrates that language played a central role in the formation, expression, and maintenance of medieval Jewish identity and that it brought Christians and Jews together even as it set them apart.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Notes on Translations and Transcription and Typographical Conventions

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pp. ix-xi

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: The Medieval French Jewish Community in Its Linguistic Context

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pp. 1-25

A thirteenth-century text called the Desputoison du juyf et du crestien (Disputation between the Jew and the Christian) records a fictional debate between two men.1 Though side by side, they seem to come from two different worlds, separated not only by creed but also language. The text begins with the Christian declaring one of the mysteries of his faith, the virgin birth, in...

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Chapter 1. Language and Identity

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pp. 26-59

Near the end of the first millennium, it is told, a Jewish apostate from Blois named Sehoq ben Esther Israeli made his way to a city on the edge of Tsare-fat, where he hid his apostasy, married, and pursued all manner of wickedness.1 Not satisfied with being ‘‘ruler and judge’’ in his wife’s home,2 Sehoq plotted to take over the property of a pious Jew who lived nearby, hiring ...

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Chapter 2. Speech and Silence, Male and Female in Jewish-Christian Relations: Blois, 1171

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pp. 60-88

All seven things given in Prov. 6:16–19 as being abominations to the Lord appear in the initial Hebrew account of the so-called Blois incident of 1171. The account, known as the Orleans letter, does not refer to Prov. 6:16–19 explicitly, but it is possible that the letter writers leaned on it as they attempted to find meaning in the needless deaths of over thirty innocent Jews who were burned on May 26 (20 Sivan 4931 in the Hebrew calendar) under the jurisdiction of Count Thibalt V of Blois.1 ...

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Chapter 3. Texts of Two Colors

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pp. 89-123

The corpus of Jewish literature in Old French is similar in many respects to the set of oldest texts written in French. From the ninth century, we have only two Old French texts: the Oaths of Strasbourg and the Sequence of Saint Eulalia. The tenth century has left us with three: fragments of a bilingual sermon on Jonah, a Passion, and the Life of Saint Leger, the last two in the ...

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Chapter 4. Hebrew-French Wedding Songs: Expressions of Identity

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pp. 124-150

The historian Gabrielle Spiegel has written, "All texts, to the degree that they formed part of the oral culture of lay society or entered into it by being read aloud, enjoyed a public, collective status as vehicles through which the community reaffirmed its sense of historical identity."1 This is perhaps especially true of texts that were transmitted orally as part of public rituals. Rituals ...

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pp. 151-154

Most surviving Jewish texts from medieval Europe are written in Hebrew, although, in daily life, Jews spoke the vernaculars of their communities. The textual legacy of this vernacular existence is relatively small, but it is an essential component of the study of Jewish culture and identity. Taking medieval French-speaking Jewish communities in Tsarefat and their Hebraico-French...

Appendix 1. Hebraico-French Glosses and Text

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pp. 155-158

Appendix 2. The Medieval Jewish Wedding Song ‘Uri liqra’ti yafah, gentis kallah einoreie

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pp. 159-174


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pp. 175-216


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pp. 217-244


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pp. 245-252

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pp. 253-254

Most of the material in this book has never before appeared in print, with the exception of certain primary texts and glosses that have already been edited and published. I have benefited, however, from the opportunity to present much of the material here before various audiences. A version of Chapter 1 was presented at the 37th Annual Association for Jewish Studies...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205350
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242508

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794700628
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Vernacular Voices

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- France -- Languages -- History.
  • Jews -- France -- History -- To 1500.
  • Hebrew language, Medieval -- France.
  • Jews -- France -- Identity.
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