Bodleian’s Winter Exhibition “Crossing Borders”

The Kennicott Bible. MS. Kenn. 1 fol. 352 v.

On Monday 4th May some 600 visitors grasped the last opportunity to see the exhibition, ‘Crossing Borders’, in the Bodleian Library exhibition room.  During the five months of this exhibition, 30 Hebrew manuscripts together with about 30 Arabic and Latin codices were viewed by 30,412 visitors in total. This precious selection of the Bodleian holdings was ‘a feast for the eyes,’ as Bodley’s Librarian Dr. Sarah Thomas  said when she opened the exhibition on 7th December 2009.

Several bibliographic celebrities were present, among them the Kennicott Bible. Thanks to a digital display, users were also able to ‘turn the pages’ of a facsimile of this 15th-century manuscript.  Maimonides’ autograph draft of his legal code, the Mishneh Torah was another outstanding presence.

Maimonides’ autograph draft of his legal code, Mishneh Torah (from the Cairo Genizah), in cursive Sephardic script (Egypt, c. 1180).

Other books, however, were on public display for the first time in their long lives, such as the 13th century illuminated prayer books for the Jewish festivals, Nicholas of Lyra’s commentary on the book of Exodus with gold leaf  images of the Menorah, the selection of Arabic, Hebrew and Latin fables, the oldest extant  13th century Hebrew Encyclopaedia of science and its Arabic and Latin counterparts, some precious Greek papyri and Hebrew fragments from the Cairo Genizah, must have been thrilled by this extraordinary interest in their existence. As these manuscripts sat in the exhibition cases, they might have found the number of admirers visiting them less surprising than their unusual neighbours. Resting on their accustomed shelves in the bookstacks they had always been surrounded by family members: Hebrew by Hebrew, Latin by Latin codices.

Tripartite Mahzor: Initial word of the opening prayer for the Day of Atonement (Kol nidrei; Ashkenaz, fourteenth century).

But in December 2009 they became the centre of a cross-cultural event. In the exhibition the Hebrew manuscripts became a meeting place of cultures. In a direct comparison with Arabic, Greek and Latin manuscripts they showed in unexpected ways the social and cultural interaction between Jews and non-Jews in both the Muslim and Christian world.

Nicholas of Lyra, Commentary on Exodus, with comparative diagrams of the menorah and the table of showbread (France, late fourteenth century).

The interaction  came to light in decorative patterns, writing styles, script types and text genres. By absorbing elements of the host cultures in which the Jews lived, the Hebrew manuscripts became proof of coexistence and cultural affinity, as well as practical cooperation between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours in the Middle Ages. Back in the stacks they all will miss their new friends.

– from Piet van Boxel, Curator of Hebrew Collections, Bodleian Library.

An online selection of images from the exhibition is available: