A piece of paper overlooked in the library of Cambridge University for over a century provides new insights into the childhood and personality of one of the greatest medieval thinkers.
The fragment, originating in Egypt more than 800 years ago, has been identified as the only known text by the Jewish philosopher and polymath Maimonides to include Romance dialect. According to researchers, it is the first evidence that he was familiar with a dialect related to modern Spanish as well as his customary Arabic and Hebrew.
The manuscript is not only a link to the land of the exiled philosopher’s childhood, but also shows us the intellectually curious Maimonides playing with language in a complex “mind game”.
Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, was born in Cordoba in Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus, southern Spain, in 1135 or 1138. His family went into exile after the city was conquered by the hardline Almohad dynasty in 1148. He subsequently lived in Morocco and Palestine before settling in Egypt where he became physician to the sultan Saladin. Today, Maimonides is best remembered for his Mishneh Torah, a codification of Jewish law, and for his other religious and philosophical writings such as The Guide for the Perplexed.
As a Jew in Muslim lands, he usually wrote in Judaeo-Arabic — Arabic written in Hebrew letters — or Hebrew.
His use of Romance words was uncovered by José Martínez Delgado when he was going through some old research notes and recognised the handwriting of an intriguing glossary from medieval Cairo. Martínez Delgado, professor of Hebrew languages at the University of Granada and a visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Genizah Research Unit, said: “I saw the letters. I had seen them before, but they were Maimonides’ letters. I thought it couldn’t be — I must be crazy. Then I asked my colleague Dr Amir Ashur, a specialist in Maimonides, and he couldn’t believe it either. I always say the fragment was waiting for me.”
The glossary was among Cambridge’s collection of over 200,000 fragments from the purpose-built sacred storeroom, or genizah, of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. The genizah was intended to hold documents that could not be thrown away due to a prohibition on the destruction of texts containing the name of God. In practice, it came to contain all sorts of texts — from divorce deeds to medical guides and shopping lists — that provide an unparalleled record of a medieval Jewish community.
Many of the papers were obtained by Cambridge scholar Dr Solomon Schechter during the 1890s, after he recognised their historical significance, and they are now being digitised and studied by scholars such as Martínez Delgado.
The newly identified Maimonides text consists of words in Arabic with Maimonides’ translations in Romance underneath. All the words are formed in Hebrew letters, so they are, strictly speaking, written in Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Romance.
The words are in four categories: colours, flavours and aromas, actions and food. They are arranged by associations, such as bread/water, and opposites, such as black/white. The list of foods and drinks moves from the basic staples bread and water, to vegetables, then edible seeds such as chickpeas, then seeded fruits such as figs, and on to dried fruits and nuts and so on.
Martínez Delgado said that Maimonides’ native language was Andalusi Arabic and, as a Jew, he knew Hebrew and Aramaic. The glossary reveals that he also had some familiarity with the Andalusi Romance dialect. This was descended from the Latin that became the vernacular of the region during Roman rule, centuries before the Muslim conquest in the 8th century.
In Maimonides’ day, this dialect was dying, however. On the one hand, it was being pushed out in Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus by Arabic, which carried greater social and cultural prestige. At the same time, Castilian — a Romance dialect from northern Spain — was gaining ground in areas taken by the Christian armies during the process of Reconquista, or “reconquest”, from the North.
Maimonides’ own knowledge of the dialect was evidently shaky. For example, Martínez Delgado said: “When he tried to translate actions such as to eat or drink, he translated with an imperative. He didn’t use the infinitive — he didn’t know the infinitive.”
This raises interesting possibilities. It suggests to the philologist that Maimonides was remembering words he picked up from servants and female relatives. “All the words come come from the kitchen in his childhood,” he said. “The only actions that he knows are to sit, to drink, to eat. He never translates to love, to hate or to beat. He doesn’t have those words.”
“He was so clever that I’m sure he heard women talking when he was two, three or four years old in the kitchen. Everyone was in the kitchen around that age, because what could you do with a baby? I have no doubt he took this from the servants and perhaps his mother.”
Nevertheless, the words in the glossary are not in pure Andalusi Romance, but a hybrid that provides evidence for Maimonides’ thought processes. Martínez Delgado said: “The glossary cannot be used to study the history of Romance languages. Because this is a joke of his. He was using Romance from Iberia, with Italian plurals. He says -i for the masculine and -e for the feminine. This makes no sense because we were waiting for the -s.”
His theory is that Maimonides was experimenting with Italian word endings that he learnt from Jews from Italy who visited him in Egypt. He said: “We know he was in contact with Jews from Rome and southern Italy and that many people from Italy reached his court — including Jews who settled in Alexandria and became leaders of Jewish communities.”
Martínez Delgado said this process reminded him of his own curiosity around different uses of vocabulary and grammar by speakers of Argentinian Spanish. Likewise, Maimonides’ experiment would be akin to a modern Spanish-speaker converting the Italian words paparazzi or bambini into paparazzos or bambinos, with the Spanish -s plurals, for a bit of fun.
“So I guess this is a mind game — a difficult mind game,” he said. “First of all, to arrange the list. Then, to try to translate it. At the same time as he is trying to test how many Romance words he remembers from childhood, he is applying the Italian morphology.
“This is the greatness of the text. It is Maimonides playing with himself. And the play is at a level I will never reach. It’s a really beautiful text. Every text in the genizah is beautiful because every text has its own moment. It is not a copy — it’s an autograph. So you are there with the author and you can understand why he put down every word.”
The fragment is one of about 60 handwritten by Maimonides found in the genizah trove. Others include pages from a draft of his Mishneh Torah and a short poem. Martínez Delgado said that, through the latter, Maimonides was evidently attempting to keep up with the fashion for writing beautiful verse.
It was a rare flop. Martínez Delgado said: “He is such a bad poet — terrible! But that’s what I love from the autograph texts — you see the human being sitting there, trying to be like the others, and you think, ‘Oh my God, you are Maimonides, you don’t need to be like the others! You are yourself. But we are all human.”
He said that what has struck him most has been the reception of his findings in Spain. “Suddenly I realised that people love Maimonides in Spain. It’s like Ibn Rushd — Averroes — he is one of our greatest thinkers. Suddenly you realise that the Spanish people are aware that we have our own Plato and our own Aristotle and they come from Al-Andalus. So this was really beautiful.”
The photograph at the top of the article shows the glossary fragment by Maimonides in Judaeo-Arabic and Judeao-Romance, classmark T-S NS 163.57, used with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library