Friday, December 9, 2022

Summer night’s dream leads to true story of medieval love and exile

A firsthand account of a Jewish doctor’s strange dream and sleepwalking accident on the island of Chios is one of the most unusual medieval documents on record. Now historians have uncovered details of profound trauma he experienced over 1,200 miles away, in Barcelona, which may help to explain the extraordinary episode.

On July 7, 1404, the physician Benedictus de Ologar appeared before a notary on the Genoese-ruled Greek island to sign two deeds. One was an apparently straightforward record of a financial gift and the second was his description of troubling nocturnal events that ended with him screaming from the bottom of a well.

In the first of the deeds, now held in the State Archives of Genoa, Italy, Benedictus arranged to give his wife Druda 100 gold ducats. The document explained that this was in addition to 100 florins of Barcelona allocated through her dowry contract and 25 ducats she would receive under his will. The reason for the rare gift inter vivos —between the living — was stated to be to remunerate Druda for her devoted service.

In the second deed, Benedictus related how on the previous Saturday night, while sleeping, he saw two young Christians urge him to go with them to the garden of the Genoese citizen Francesco Giustiniani de Campi, where they had found beehives and fresh water. He followed in the dream, while sleepwalking away from his home. Approaching the hives in his mind’s eye, the somnambulant doctor tumbled into a well close to the synagogue and woke there, terrified.

“It’s a story of survival, ingenuity, and the impact of events”

Dr Anna Rich-Abad

Fortunately, his screams were heard by a neighbour, who — along with other locals — managed to haul him out of the well and bring him home.

The deeds raise questions about who Benedictus de Ologar was, what happened that night and why he made a legal record of it. Seeking answers, Dr Chiara Ravera, who was studying women’s lives on Genoese-ruled Chios, joined forces with Dr Anna Rich-Abad, an assistant professor in the University of Nottingham’s Department of History. The mention of the dowry in the currency of Barcelona suggested a link to the Catalan city and Rich-Abad specialises in its medieval Jewish community.

Rich-Abad said: “It was pure chance. Chiara was a PhD student here and was working on the Chios documents. She knew I worked on similar documents from Barcelona and she came and said, ‘I’ve got this individual who seems to have origins in Barcelona. Is he familiar to you?’ And yes, he was. I had seen a few records about him. It’s an unusual name so we put two and two together.”

Scenes from the Sister Haggadah in the British Library depict biblical events but also give visual insights into the life of the Jewish community of 14th century Barcelona. Photo: public domain, via British Library

Benedictus appeared in Barcelona’s records as the Jewish doctor Bendit or Benedictus Deuslogard. He worked alongside Christian apothecaries and doctors and was referred to in various documents between 1387 and 1392. Significantly, he appeared, as Raymundo de Villafrancha, formerly Bendit Deu lo Guart, in a list of people who converted to Christianity during anti-Jewish riots in 1391 and presented claims for possessions looted in the violence. The Barcelona riots resulted in the deaths of 300-400 Jews and were part of a much larger wave of anti-Jewish violence across Spain incited by the cleric Ferran Martinez.

Rich-Abad said: “The Barcelona conversions were forced. Jews were given the choice to convert or else and either killed or taken into the cathedral and different churches and baptised. There were converts who reverted to Judaism but they weren’t able to do it in Barcelona, so there seem to have been a lot of people who emigrated at this time. They went to North Africa, Sicily, continental Italy and the islands of the Aegan — often to places where there were already trading posts of the Catalans.”

Benedictus and Druda were among these exiles. Chios, their ultimate destination, was at the crossroads of maritime routes linking Europe to the Middle East and already had Jewish and Catalan inhabitants. Although there were some tensions and reports of assaults on Jews during Christian festivals, there was less anti-Jewish violence than in Spain.

In their study in the journal Cultural and Social History Ravera and Rich-Abad cite research suggesting that sleepwalking may be associated with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Rich-Abad said: “It is plausible that Benedictus’ dream had been the expression of deep trauma experienced during the attacks of Barcelona in 1391. The image of the youths attracting Benedictus into the Giustiniani garden conveys ideas of refuge and solace, but the sleepwalking episode itself might refer to Benedictus’ unconscious desire to run away from his traumatic past.”

A 16th century Venetian map of Chios, showing its proximity to the coast of Asia Minor. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She added: “We try to be very careful in our suggestions because we are not psychologists who can issue a diagnosis. Anyway, Benedictus wasn’t subject to psychological examination. But it seems clear that going through persecution, massacres, forced baptism and exile can create a significant impact in your memory and your feelings and this can come up as late as 10 or 15 years later.”

As for why Benedictus recorded the dream at the same time as giving money to his wife, she said: “The sleepwalking experience may have aroused concerns over his and his wife’s situation in Chios. It may well be that the reason for the donation was gratitude for her. After all, Druda must have faced hard choices herself in staying with Benedictus through his odyssey across the Mediterranean. It could have seemed fair to Benedictus to express his appreciation when he was able to do so economically, or when prompted by a potentially worrying episode of somnambulism.”

In the study, the historians point out that gifts inter vivos between spouses were problematic under Roman and Jewish law. However, there are references to them in rabbinic sources from Barcelona. Rich-Abad said that, by hiring a Genoese notary to record the gift along with the existing provisions in his will and Druda’s dowry contract, Benedictus may have sought to legitimise and protect the measures in place for his wife’s financial security.

She said: “Notarial documents were very important in the late medieval Mediterranean because they framed legal transactions and so on. On the other hand, they could act to ‘legalise’ things that were not in fact that legal. Notaries were people who knew the law, or knew it enough, but were also able to bend it.”

As pieced together by Ravera and Rich-Abad, Benedictus’ story gives rare detailed insights into the impact of anti-Jewish persecution on named individuals from medieval Spain. Rich-Abad said: “It is a very compelling story that combines elements of the history of the emotions and the history of legal resources. But in the end it is the story of a man and his wife who have found their life changing and had to move from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, and God knows what difficulties they encountered. We can trace some of them through the documents. It’s a story of survival, ingenuity, and the impact of events, but a very rich experience at the same time.”

The researchers hope that future research may shed more light on Benedictus’ story. Rich-Abad said: “I’m hoping he will appear again and we will be able to trace him further or see what he did between Barcelona and Chios. That would be fantastic.”

The top image depicts a Jewish family at a Seder table during Passover. From the Sister Haggadah, made in Barcelona, 1325-74. Image: public domain, via British Library.

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