130. So-Called Jewish Community Seal of Cologne
Bibliography: M. Stern, 1888, Nos. 235, 237; Loewe, 1932; Kober, 1940; Brincken, 1963–64.
An invaluable sourcebook put together under the editorship of Moritz Stern has a section dealing with the civil register of the Laurenz parish in Cologne, the Jewish district. In it there are two documents which seem to refer to Jewish seals. The form of these documents as presented in Stein’s book is the same. First there is a Latin summary of the substance. Then, on the left, is the full Hebrew text, including the names of the signatories; while on the right the full German text is presented, also with the names of the signatories. We can thus compare the wording in three languages.
The Latin abridgements commence, “Nos episcopus et magistratus Iudeorum ac universi Iudei civitatis Coloniensis.” After each document is summarized, we read, “In testimonium et veritatem premissorum premissa testamur sigillis nostris et scripto nostro.” The first document is dated May 17, 1301, the second June 23, 1301. The Latin at the beginning may be translated as “We, Jewish ‘Bishop’ and Magistrate of the Jewry and all the Jewish community of Cologne.” The conclusion refers to the testimony of “our seals and our writing.” Since the book is an abstract of relevant documents from the records, no seals are shown. The Hebrew texts open and close with an equivalent phrase: at the end we read “Katavnu ve’hatamnu,” meaning “we have written and sealed.”
The German text is roughly the same as the other languages. However, the ending phrase is now simply, “We have written down and signed,” and there is no reference to seals in the supplementary notes, though this was a common practice.
Zvi Avneri (1968) maintains that the wording points to a now-disappeared Jewish community seal of Cologne, which he includes in his listing of Ashkenazi seals. However, Dr. Anna-Dorothee van den Brincken, the authority on medieval Jewish seals of the Rhineland and at the time chief of the Historical Archives of Cologne, expressed surprise that such a seal might exist and inquired as to the source. She xeroxed and forwarded to this writer pages of Civil Register No. 107 of Cologne, the so-called Jewish Civil Register, from which Stern’s information was taken. These xeroxes seem to indicate that Hebrew is the original text of the documents (see the 1301 document illustrated here). Immediately following the words “we have written and sealed” are the signatures of the witnesses. These signatures in Hebrew are written in different hands. There is no evidence of a seal or seals attached nor of slits where seals had been appended. On the other hand, the Latin texts (not only these two, but several others) follow one after the other, in the hand of a single scribe. They are obviously transcriptions or summaries put down for official cognizance and would themselves not be sealed even if the original documents had been.
Jewish civil register of the Laurenz parish in Cologne, dated May 17, 1301. Original signed in Hebrew by Jewish witnesses. Arrow to the left indicates the words, “We have written and sealed” Civil Register of Cologne, No. 107, fol. 36.
We are thus faced with a limited number of possibilities regarding a so-called Jewish community seal from Cologne. Since there is no evidence of seals having been attached to the Hebrew documents shown in the Civil Register, the texts may be duplicates signed by the parties to the originals but with the seals omitted. Another possibility is that the original Latin documents upon which the Hebrew texts were based (rather than the reverse) have been lost, and only the city transcript remains. The original Latin documents would have been sealed, though transcripts would not. Both possibilities are unlikely. The simplest explanation is the most probable: that the expression “we have written and sealed” in Hebrew, transcribed in the Latin summary as “our seals and our writing,” was a rote expression or empty formula. By the thirteenth century the phrase “we have written and sealed” was often used without specific need of sealing, the document only requiring legal confirmation by the proper number of witnesses. In fact, H. Loewe (1932, p. 131) expressly noted these Cologne documents in support of his argument that sealing was not required in English contracts despite their wording. Supporting evidence comes from Germany as well. Adolf Kober (1940, p. 110) writes that the form of receipts of debt payments at Cologne “are quite similar to the quit-claims which have come down from England before 1290.” He goes on to say that upon repayment of a debt, a receipt was given bearing the name of the creditor in Hebrew “and to which several Christian witnesses added their seals,” making no reference to any Jewish seals, personal or community. It seems, therefore, that the phrasing in these two documents should be regarded as merely traditional and that a Jewish community seal for the city of Cologne never existed. The present archivist at Cologne, Dr. Huiskes, with whom the writer has been in correspondence, is in agreement with this view. The distinguished German Rabbi Bernhard Brilling stated emphatically to this writer that the Hebrew translation in this case was “we have signed” and that the documents were never sealed, adding further that the Hebrew documents shown in the Civil Register (which are not sealed) are indeed the originals.