The North French Miscellany

The Halcyon - December 2005

The North French Hebrew Miscellany (NFHM)

British Library manuscript Add. 11639, written in Northern France ca. 1280, is one of the most beautiful Hebrew manuscripts ever created. One of the most precious possessions of a great library, it is an extraordinary work in every regard. Its 1494 pages include 84 different groups of texts, including sections of the Bible, prayers for all occasions, various legal texts and hundreds of poems, reflecting the tastes of its wealthy medieval patron. The manuscript is extensively illuminated, with numerous full-page miniatures, portraying biblical figures and scenes from biblical stories. Marginal decorations, showing a variety of grotesques, arabesques and various animals and flowers are found throughout the manuscript. The quality of the artwork rivals that of the finest artists of the High Gothic period. Many of the figures portrayed in this manuscript have become almost iconic. Images of Moses, Aaron the High Priest, Kings David and Solomon, to name a few, have become part of the Jewish cultural heritage and are frequently reproduced in books and art calendars. When I was looking for a suitable cover illumination for my book Esther in Medieval Garb (Albany, NY, 1993), I turned to this manuscript for its image of Esther standing before Ahasuerus. Yet, very few scholars have been able to hold this manuscript in their hands and examine it in detail.

Recently this manuscript was reproduced in facsimile by Facsimile Editions of London, England, whose publications are distinguished by their meticulous attention to every detail, in an attempt to produce as close a copy of the original as is humanly possible. The quality of this publisher’s work is extraordinary. The facsimile is produced on vegetable parchment specially milled to match as closely as possible the texture and thickness of the vellum of the original. The photography was done over several months in order to achieve proofs that were virtually indistinguishable from the original. Gold leaf, both raised and painted, was applied by hand to every copy. Pages were cut to the outline of the original and aged to match. Natural holes in the skins are replicated in the facsimile. The final result, bound in dark calf skin with gold tooling is truly magnificent.

The Fisher Library is fortunate to own this and other works of this publisher, all facsimiles of medieval Hebrew manuscripts (including the Kennicott Bible, the Rothschild Miscellany, the Barcelona Haggadah and the Parma Psalter). The price of these fine facsimiles puts them out of the reach of most individuals. I am grateful that the University of Toronto Library has been able to acquire them, and thus afford its patrons the privilege of being able to examine some of the finest manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages.

Barry Walfish