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The letter of ‘The Convert’: T-S 16.100

Ben Outhwaite

 

In 2016 the Belgian writer Stefan Hertmans published De bekeerlinge, an historical novel in Dutch, which recently appeared in an English translation (by David McKay) as The Convert, to some acclaim (‘a future classic’, said Neil Mukherjee in the Guardian, ‘a masterly book about memory’, the New York Times). The novel is, as it says in its frontispiece, inspired by a true story, a story which will be familiar to many of those with knowledge of the history of Genizah research – that of a proselyte woman who married a Jew from Narbonne, a story set out principally in a large parchment letter, T-S 16.100.

This letter was published originally by the historian Jacob Mann in 1931, still within the first generation of serious historical research into Genizah manuscripts and by its leading proponent. More recently, in the words of Mark Cohen, it has ‘acquired some notoriety in scholarship’ (Cohen 2005: 128). It is not the first Genizah document to elicit controversy – many of Solomon Schechter’s earliest publications from the Genizah did just that, purely by dint of their novelty – but T-S 16.100 is unique in having inspired not only a scholarly debate, but also a strong literary interest.1 

 

T-S 16.100 recto

T-S 16.100, a parchment manuscript from the 11th c.

 

When Jacob Mann published T-S 16.100, in volume 1 of his Texts and Studies (1931: 31–33) he called it ‘a document concerning a member of the family of R. Ṭodros, Nasi of Narbonne’ and described it as ‘a circular letter of appeal on behalf of a widowed proselyte hard hit by fate’. It describes a woman, who was from a wealthy Christian background, who had converted, and married a certain David of the family of R. Ṭodros in Narbonne. Forced to flee her vengeful family, they had ended up in a new community, where David was killed in an act of violent anti-Semitism perpetrated in the synagogue itself. Two of the couple’s children – Jacob and Justa – were seized by the perpetrators. The letter is an appeal for the widow and her baby, who are now in abject poverty. The letter is damaged, but Mann, in his usual fashion, was rigorous in recording only the facts that could be gleaned from the document itself. Unfortunately, however, a hole in the parchment had erased most of the toponym identifying where the letter was being sent from, probably the most vital piece of evidence it contained, and Mann, based on the traces of ink remaining, suggested that it might have said Anjou – though noting with customary caution that ‘the reading אניו is doubtful’ (Mann 1931: 31). He asked whether, as the letter appeared to him in all respects to be from the 11th century, the violence might have been related to the pogroms perpetrated against the Jews of Europe during the First Crusade, but he cautioned that it was necessary ‘to await further material in order to ascertain the nature of the persecution alluded to in our epistle’ (Mann 1931: 32).

 

hole in T-S 16.100

The pesky hole in T-S 16.100, ‘From us, the community of …’

 

Given the historian Norman Golb’s particular interest in what light the Cairo Genizah can throw on the history of the Jews of Europe, it is no surprise that he subsequently examined this letter and its toponymic conundrum. In a major article in the Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research in 1966, called ‘New light on the persecution of French Jews at the time of the First Crusade’, he drew out a compelling account of the proselyte woman’s travails, subsequently expanded in a number of articles, the most recent of which is from 2016. While agreeing with Mann’s initial conclusions – not least the likely dating of the letter and the identification of Ṭodros as the Nasi of Narbonne Ṭodros I – Golb crucially proposed a new reading to fit the traces of ink in that annoying lacuna, מניו instead of אניו, and concluded, after examining all possibilities at length, that it could only refer to Monieux, a small, historic and highly picturesque village in southern France.

 

reconstruction of missing tex in hole of T-S 16.100

The reconstruction מניו suggested by Norman Golb’s 1966 analysis.

 

In this he was guided by two stated principles: ‘(a) the identification had to be based upon evidence provided by valid phonetic guidelines; and (b) the place itself had to be one associated with an area known to have been inhabited by Jews in the Middle Ages’ (Golb 1966: 9). To Golb, Monieux uniquely fitted those facts. Subsequent publications built on this ‘tentative identification of MNYW with Monieux’ (Golb 1969: 73) and built up a picture of an anti-Semitic outrage conducted by the followers of the First Crusade as they passed through the Vaucluse. This has become well enough established, and clearly shed its initial tentativeness, that the short English-language Wikipedia page for the commune of Monieux has, as the principal fact on its history (basically its only recorded historical event, at the time of writing!), a long section beginning: ‘The town of Monieux is the site of a medieval pogrom that occurred at the end of the 11th century, as determined by Historian Norman Golb. The evidence of this attack by Crusaders on the community is indicated through the discovery of a manuscript in the Cairo Geniza…’, and it continues for three paragraphs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monieux, accessed 20 July 2020).

Following Golb’s publications, the story of the tragedy that befell the convert to Judaism in the town of Monieux drew considerable attention beyond the usual scholarly audience. Under the headline ‘Hebrew study shifts massacre site’, it even reached page 4 of the December 24 1966 edition of the New York Times: ‘A new translation of a 900-year-old Hebrew document has shifted from the north to the south of France the site of a massacre of Jews by a French army of the first crusade’ and ‘[t]he newly translated document … contains the first known written evidence of the provencal army before it reached Italy’. It also evoked its first published literary reaction, when the tragic story became a play by Brian Allison in 1998, under the title Sibylla, as reported by the late Shulie Reif in the October 1999 issue of Genizah Fragments (https://wwwe.lib.cam.ac.uk/GF/38/). Intriguingly, however, there Shulie wrote ‘[T]he tale is still being discussed by historians, most recently by Edna Engel and Joseph Yahalom […] it is suggested that the town was not Monieux in Provence but Muño in the north of Spain, near Burgos’.

Indeed, as Shulie said, 1999 saw the publication of two linked articles in the Hebrew-language journal Sefunot. The palaeographer Edna Engel and the historian of Hebrew literature Yosef Yahalom re-examined the letter T-S 16.100 and subjected it to a new palaeographic, codicological and historical analysis. In particular, they read it in the light of a further (much damaged) letter stemming from the same scribe, and apparently referring to the same tragic events, composed of two fragments T-S 12.532 and T-S NS 323.031.

 

T-S 12.532 AND T-S NS 323.031 composite

The new letter, composed of fragments T-S 12.532 and T-S NS 323.031

 

The former, T-S 12.532, was already known, and had been published by the historian of Spanish Jewry, Eliyahu Ashtor in 1964 (who, reading it entirely as a Spanish document had not made any connection with Mann’s publication of what was then the ‘Anjou letter’), whereas the fragment from the New Series was discovered by Engel during a visit to Cambridge. Together, they relate the story of a widow who suffers at the hands of Christians, loses her husband and is herself threatened with burning. Crucially, the city of Nájera in Castile (northern Spain) makes an appearance in the story. The mention of Nájera, when coupled with the clear Sefardic nature of the scribal hand and parchment, led Engel and Yahalom to look for a toponym in northern Spain that might be transcribed in the 11th century as MNYW. And they settled on Muñó, near Borgos in Castile.

 

the hole in T-S 16.100 with edits

Potentially it said this, with a vowel sign for the unstressed ‘u’.

 

The analysis is thorough and cogent: Engel makes a very strong case for the Sefardic origins of the parchment and script, and Yahalom’s parsing of the language and potential historical background is similarly convincing. The Castile had well-established Jewish communities that provided a safe haven for Jews fleeing from persecution elsewhere (Soifer Irish 2016: 53–54), as well as historic links with the Jewish community of Narbonne. The well-travelled pilgrimage routes that crossed this part of Spain and led ultimately to Santiago de Compostela also provide adequate explanation as to why the couple should relocate in that direction. This region saw simmering outbreaks of violence directed at Jews, of a sporadic nature initially, from the first half of the 11th century onwards (Soifer Irish 2016: 55–56). This provides a compelling background for the events described in the letters.

In the years since publishing their articles, Engel and Yahalom’s re-interpretation has gained wide acceptance. Yet, when Stefan Hertmans set out to write the story of the widow of Narbonne in his De bekeerlinge, he chose to follow Golb’s Crusader route to Monieux, rather than Yahalom and Engel’s pilgrim trail to Muñó: ‘the lovers embark on a dangerous journey to the south of France, only to find their brief happiness destroyed by the vicious wave of anti-Semitism sweeping through Europe with the onset of the First Crusade’ (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/561647/the-convert-by-stefan-hertmans/, accessed 21 July 2020). In his English-language edition, The Convert, Hertmans has an historical afterword (pp. 267–273) where he indicates that he was aware of both theories and explains his reasons for choosing Monieux over the later identifications of Engel and Yahalom. Crucially, his reasoning was based on the historical analysis of the document, acquired through further correspondence with Norman Golb, and not – which would have been a more persuasive argument – for its strong literary and narrative appeal. Until Hertmans contacted him, Golb had been unaware of Engel and Yahalom’s new analysis (despite it having gained wide traction in related scholarship), and he wrote a response in 2016, which is posted online. The rejoinder is an elegant revisiting of the Monieux conclusion, and an examination of Engel and Yahalom’s proposed revision, along with a translation of both documents.2 Ultimately, Golb finds much of the new evidence logical and fair, but does not find it compelling enough to categorically rule out the existing interpretation: ‘I would thus suggest that we now have a situation where two opposing interpretations are possible. The identification of MNYW as Monieux was the logical conclusion in view of the evidence available in 1966; today, in view of new evidence, it can no longer be considered anything more than one, and perhaps the less likely, of two divergent explanations’.

In Hertmans’ afterword he cites Golb’s continued adherence to the original interpretation, and suggests that Edna Engel ‘draws the wrong conclusion’ (Hertmans 2019: 272). He finds Monieux ‘a much more sensible route’. He points out that such a scholar as Simon Schama, in his recent The Story of the Jews, similarly followed Golb’s Monieux, and not Engel’s Muño. This is indeed true: in Schama’s chapter on ‘The women of Ashkenaz’, he writes ‘the nameless convert who had married Rabbi David Todros of Narbonne, pursued by her outraged family, finding sheltering obscurity in Monieux until a crusading gang killed Rabbi David, seized two of their children for captive conversions, leaving the widowed proselyte destitute with her infant boy’ (Schama 2014: 292). Which is fair enough, and Schama is a strong name to have on your side, but he’s not really a historian of this period and he’s therefore only as reliable as the sources which he has used, which evidently were a bit out of date. If we look at the work of recent historians with a stronger record in this period and expertise in the subject matter, we get a different picture.

Judith Baskin, an eminent scholar on the history of women, writes ‘An eleventh-century letter found in the Genizah, probably from Muño, near Burgos in Northern Spain, sought economic aid for a female convert who had left a noble, wealthy Christian family to become a Jew. She married a rabbi, David Todros, of Narbonne, and they fled to Muño to escape pursuit by her relatives. Six years later, her husband was killed in an attack on the community, her two older children were taken captive, and she was left bereft with an infant...’ (Baskin 2018: 98). Baskin’s footnotes give a bibliography, which includes Golb, and states that ‘Earlier scholars believed that the woman came from Monieux in Provence’. Mark Cohen, in his rigorous study of poverty and charity in the Genizah world, writes of the same affair ‘The principal character is a widowed convert and refugee from Europe, whose case was made famous by a scholar who believed (wrongly, it now appears) that the letter [...] documents an otherwise unknown episode of persecution of the Jews of southern France during the First Crusade... It has recently been convincingly shown by a pair of Israeli scholars that the letter was written not in Monieux in southern France, but in Muño, in northern Spain’ (Cohen 2005: 128). One of the leading historians of the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman, in his comprehensive The World of the Crusades (2019), does not include Monieux among his collection of ‘Crusade attacks on Jews, 1096–1146’, even among the ‘questionably attacked’, which otherwise includes poorly documented or disputed accounts of depredations (Tyerman 2019: 78). It is similarly absent from the detailed accounts of massacres in Thomas Asbridge’s work on the First Crusade (2004: 84–88).

The reasons for this wholesale acceptance of the Muñó theory are clear: the original arguments for placing the events at Monieux are weak, and ultimately do not even fit into Golb’s own stated requirements of ‘evidence provided by valid phonetic guidelines’ and ‘the place itself had to be one associated with an area known to have been inhabited by Jews in the Middle Ages’. There is not enough room here to examine all of Golb’s arguments in turn, but a major one is the spelling in Hebrew of the toponym itself. Monieux is spelled thus, with -x, due to the Old French adaptation of the Latin ending -s. Nowadays it is of course pronounced without the final consonant (Monieu), final consonants only being retained under certain phonetic circumstances (such as in the monosyllabic toponym Aix, pronounced Aiks even today, or in ‘liaison’, e.g., les amis, pronounced as le-z-ami). French in the period of T-S 16.100 pronounced all consonants in the word, the stress changes that led to the loss of final consonants not yet being effective. Golb worried about this in his early publications (e.g., Golb 1969: 72–73), but ultimately found enough examples from Gross’s Gallia Judaica (an historical dictionary from 1897 of French toponyms found in Jewish sources) of final consonant elision to convince himself that this was an early example of the later pronunciation, Monieu. Moreover, he presented examples from dictionaries of Provençal and maps of spellings without the final -x. None of this is convincing however, as the dictionaries and maps are from later periods, and the few examples from Gallia Judaica are presented with no context and no dates, meaning that we cannot see if they present French linguistic realia of the same period, and moreover they are cherry picked from among hundreds of examples that demonstrate the exact opposite – the pronunciation by Jews in France of the final consonant of place names. For Bordeaux, for instance, we find the spellings בורדאוש, בורדיאוס and בורדוס, for Meaux מיוץ and so on – all showing a Hebrew sibilant for the final Latinate -s. To give a quite different, but parallel, example, the Bayeux tapestry, an Anglo-Norman needlework masterpiece of the 1070s – and thus not far removed from the proposed time of writing of T-S 16.100 – spells Bayeux (in the customarily rough way that English people have traditionally rendered foreign places) ‘Bagias’. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a Jew writing from Monieux in the 11th century would write it something like מוניאס, מוניוס or מונייש – and note that the absence of waw in the first syllable of T-S 16.100’s מניו (and clearly no dot of ḥolem either) is a problem that should not be glossed over.3 We would thus have to see the spelling מניו as truly exceptional for its time, showing final consonant elision before it becomes widely active in French pronunciation as well as reduction or elision of the o vowel in the first syllable. As for the second of Golb’s requirements, that it be a place with a strong Jewish connection, that too is suspect. Monieux was not hitherto named in any Jewish sources, nor did it have a well-established tradition of a Jewish community (the fact the name does not itself appear in Gross’s Gallia Judaica is not conclusive, but telling). It does not appear to have the size, geographical or economic status that would necessarily have enabled or sustained a  Jewish community of any size in the Middle Ages. Following Golb’s original publication he became aware that there was a local tradition in Monieux of the historical existence of a Jewish community, or, as he puts it in his 2016 online publication, ‘On account of the local tradition of a “cemetery of the Jews,” Monieux (pending, to be sure, confirmation through excavations) now has a place on the map of the Jewish history of medieval France’. This remains to be seen, but it does raise an important issue for me, of its place in the Jewish history of France.

I only decided to write this brief analysis of the history of the document’s scholarship having been asked one too many times about the connection between the Monieux tale, as now given to acclaim by Hertmans, and T-S 16.100. In answering one of my correspondents, I visited the Wikipedia page for ‘Monieux’ and read the lengthy account, presented entirely as factual, of a vicious massacre of Jews carried out in this historic Provençal town. To me, being well aware of the history of this letter, and having a pretty good feel myself for its clearly Spanish provenance, this constitutes an historical libel against this remote and predominantly peaceful corner of France. To be sure the Crusaders visited horrific persecutions against the Jews of northern Europe, but these were in the Rhineland, far removed from this southern region – for which we have no other documented evidence of Crusader violence at this time (from Jewish or Christian sources). If we situate the letters in Castile, then historically there is a well documented history of anti-Jewish violence (and, it seems, a particular dislike of converts) in that region from the early 11th century onwards. Moreover, we do not need to ignore the strongly Sefardic features of the palaeography, language and codicology, nor explain away the journey to Nájera, which otherwise presents a further geographical wrinkle to the Monieux tale. We can knit a narrative reliant solely on the facts in the documents themselves. Hertmans’ book is successful as a piece of historical fiction, ‘inspired by a true story’; it is not, however, a true story, and I would be unhappy if it were to perpetuate this stain on the reputation of Monieux.

map of potential routes of the proselyte fleeing persecution

Map, by me, showing the potential routes of the proselyte and her family, from Narbonne through to Muñó, near Borgos, Spain, and Nájera, or towards Monieux, France.

(Blank map image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blank_map_of_South_Europe_and_No...)

 

Footnotes

1  I was inspired to write this Fragment of the Month mainly so that, when I am inevitably asked about this document in the future, I can simply point to this article for maximum efficiency.

2  Golb usefully includes a full translation of both letters, but note that there is at least one error in the translation of the second letter, caused by a misunderstanding of אחר כך פייסנו ממשה. Golb’s translation (which is not by him) gives ‘afterwards we were compensated by Moses’, but it actually reads אחר כך פייסנו מ׳ משה, ‘afterwards we persuaded Mar Moses’. The Hebrew title Mar, is abbreviated to מ, but as we find in other Spanish Hebrew documents of the period (e.g., T-S 8.269), it is more or less prefixed to the name, and only distinguished from the preposition מן by a supralinear dot, as here.

3  It’s less of a problem for Muñó, where the u is unstressed, and could have been represented, if at all, by a vowel sign instead. Vocalisation is often added to unfamiliar proper nouns in otherwise unvocalised Genizah fragments. See for example the (Babylonian) vocalisation of ‘Sicily’ in T-S 12.114, another 11th-century letter.


Bibliography

Allison, B. (1998). Sibylla.

Asbridge, T. (2004). The First Crusade: A New History.

Ashtor, E. (1964). ‘Documentos españoles de la Genizah’, Sefarad 24: 44–47.

Baskin, J. (2018). ‘Independent Jewish Women in Medieval Egypt: Enterprise and Ambiguity’, in F. Francesconi, S. Mirvis and B. Smollett (eds), From Catalonia to the Caribbean: The Sephardic Orbit from Medieval to Modern Times: Essays in Honor of Jane S. Gerber: 83–99.

Cohen, M. (2005). Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt.

Engel, E. (1999). גלגוליה של גיורת מפרובנס: תצרף של שלושה קטעים מגניזת קאהיר (‘The Wandering of a Provençal Proselyte: A Puzzle of Three Genizah Fragments’), Sefunot 22: 13–21.

Engel, E. (1999). ‘Hebrew Letters of Old Castile in the Cairo Genizah’, in J. Targarona Borrás and A. Sáenz-Badillos (eds), Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: 398–406.

Golb, N. (1966). ‘New Light on the Persecution of French Jews at the Time of the First Crusade’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 34: 1–63.

Golb, N. (1969). ‘Monieux’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Feb. 20, 1969: 67–94.

Golb, N. (2016). Monieux OR Muño? (https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/...ño%204-10-2016.pdf).

Gross, H. (1897). Gallia judaica : dictionnaire géographique de la France, d'après les sources rabbiniques. (It is available for download from: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k14109950.image)

Hertmans, S (2019). The Convert. (Translation of De bekeerlinge, 2016.)

Mann, J. (1931). Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, volume 1.

Reif, S. (1999). ‘More questions than answers’, Genizah Fragments 38.

Schama, S. (2014). The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE–1492 CE.

Soifer Irish, M. (2016). Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile: Tradition, Coexistence, and Change.

Tyerman, C. (2019). The World of the Crusades.

Yahalom, Y. (1999). איגרות מניו: מעשה ידיו של סופר כפרי מצפון ספרד (‘The Muño Letters: The Work of a Village Scribe from Northern Spain’), Sefunot 22: 23–31.

 


 

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The letter of ‘The Convert’: T-S 16.100