Symbiosis through Time-Merton and its Jewish neighbours

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Symbiosis through time-Merton and its Jewish neighbours

Sunday 6th July 2014: 2.30-5.30 pm

TS Eliot Lecture Theatre Merton College

As part of Merton’s 750th anniversary year, 

Merton College and the Heritage Committee of the Oxford Jewish Congregation hosted

a joint event to celebrate Merton’s special relationship with Jewish Oxford over the centuries

Welcome – Prof Ulrike Tillmann, Sub-Warden Merton College

Merton and Oxford’s Medieval Jewry  –  Pam Manix, medievalist, Oxford Jewish Heritage committee

The Merton College Starrs  –  Professor Peter Pormann, Professor of Classics and Graeco-Arabic Studies, University of Manchester

Bodley the HebraistProfessor Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam University,
Professor of History, Princeton University

Merton’s Jewish Historians – Dr Evie Kemp, Convenor Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee

Oxfordshir‘  – The Choir of the Oxford Jewish Community

Home to the world’s oldest continually functioning academic library, Merton College provides some unexpected links, not only to the Jewish community which thrived in Oxford until the expulsion of 1290, but also to the history of Hebrew and Jewish scholarship in this country.  

As part of the celebrations for Merton’s 750th birthday,  OJC member Ulrike Tillman-Morris, currently Sub-Warden of the college, invited the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee to help organise a symposium:  Symbiosis through time: Merton and its Jewish neighbours held in the college’s spanking new and extremely comfortable T S Eliot lecture theatre.  

Speakers included medievalist Pam Manix, Peter Pormann, Professor of Classics and Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester, Anthony Grafton, Professor of History at Princeton University and OJC’s own Evie Kemp, with an introduction from Ulrike.  

Pam gave an enthralling account of the history of the Medieval Jewry and its Merton connections in her inimitable and thoroughly entertaining style.  Peter Pormann gave a fascinating introduction to the Merton Starrs, documents written in Latin with Hebrew addenda, many relating to business conducted between Walter de Merton, founder of the college, and Jacob of Oxford, a member of the medieval Jewish community.   He also showed some other manuscripts from Merton and Corpus Christi, including a bi-lingual Latin-Hebrew copy of Ashrei with a third, Christian hand writing his own literal translation into Latin, so clearly studying the Hebrew language. 

Least familiar but absolutely riveting was Prof Anthony Grafton’s account of Merton’s Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, as Christian Hebraist. He related how Bodley had studied Hebrew in Geneva and it had become a lifelong passion. Even more fascinating was the fact that he shared his passion with his friend Henry Savile (provost of Eton and later Warden of the College – and the only person ever allowed to borrow a book from the Bodleian by special permission of Bodley himself), to whom he gave a Talmudic dictionary as a parting gift.  

Prof Grafton also provided a delightful account of Bodley’s Hebrew prowess written by John Hales in 16th century:  ‘There was in our archives a contract written in Hebrew, evidence of business once conducted with the Jews.  It was written with the little wavy and backward letters of the Rabbis, and the ill-treatment of time, which had left only uncertain vowel points and faded heads of letters, added to the obscurity of the script.  And so for a long time these writings were neglected.  When our man shone on them with the light of his intelligence, what had been closed now lay open, things in darkness grew clear, and the writing that was fading away, that once could scarcely be perceived by the eyes, was now in our hands’. (from : On Bodley and the Merton Starrs tr. Leah Whittington, ed. Daniel Blank)

Evie recalled two further Merton Hebraists, one of whom was her own great uncle Cecil Roth, appointed in 1939 as Reader in Post-Biblical Jewish Studies at Merton.  Author of over 600 books, essays and articles, including A History of the Jews of England (1941) and The Jews of Medieval Oxford (1951), he also founded the London Jewish Museum together with Wilfred Samuel in 1932. She shared her happy memories of Shabbat gatherings at his and his wife Irene’s house and of her last meeting with him.   

Roth himself had great respect for an earlier Mertonian scholar of Jewish history ‘by me never to be mentioned without terms of Affection and Respect’,  D’Blossiers Tovey.  The latter was elected a fellow of Merton in 1712 and later became a vicar.  He wrote the first definitive history of the Jews of England, called Anglia Judaica, published in 1738.  Though by modern standards hardly historically precise, its chatty style and its sheer historiographical eccentricity make it both a great read and a ‘priceless’ source book.

The symposium was accompanied by an exhibition of Hebraica and Judaica in the library.  Just visiting the medieval library was a treat, but there were some real treasures on show:  A Starr documenting the transfer of property from Jacob of Oxford to Walter de Merton with Jacob’s seals with the lion of Judah, judged to be probably the oldest surviving Jewish seals in England;  The Talmudic dictionary given by Thomas Bodley to Henry Savile; Bodley’s own translation of a Hebrew starr of 1270; Hebrew verse tributes written by members of the college to commemorate Bodley’s death;  a 1550 Venetian Mishneh Torah; a 1575 Hebrew Lexicon from France and Reuchlin’s 1506 De rudimentis Hebraicis with marginal notes by an early Mertonian scholar. 

The symposium concluded with some beautiful medieval and modern songs by OxfordShir.

Tea with strawberries, cream and shortbread were enjoyed in the marquee conveniently left over from celebrations the day before and Pam Manix and Victoria Bentata led tours to the Jewish Cemetery.  
V Bentata Oct 2014

Merton has now made available through this link the recordings of the talks given.  OJHC would like to thank Merton for their support and assistance in this meeting

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Our aim is to raise the profile of the history of Jews in Oxford from earliest records through to the modern day.

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