Jousting for Jews
Jousting for Jews: a Hebrew tale of King Arthur
In 1279 an anonymous Jewish scholar from northern Italy produced a Hebrew translation of Arthurian prose romance. Only a fragment of the work survived in a single manuscript, comprising the writer’s introduction and the beginning of the tale he entitled ‘The book of the destruction of King Artus’ Round Table’. The tale seems to be an adaptation of a now-lost Italian source combining material from the prose tales of Merlin and the Mort Artu.
This is the only example of Arthurian romance in Hebrew from the Middle Ages, and a unique example of a transmission of a popular tale from one cultural context to another. In a revealing introduction, the translator admits that he undertook the work for personal reasons, as a therapy against depression. But did he write this work only for himself? But if he were the sole intended reader, why does the introduction continues with a strong defence of romance? The translator anticipates objections and criticism from Jewish readers, who would oppose such literature.
The story is a faithful rendition of the story of Arthur’s birth and the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. And yet, the use of the Hebrew language, with its rich Biblical echoes, and a possible Jewish audience change the focus of the narrative, its aims and its significance. While the translator delights in describing the world of romance, he tries to minimise direct Christian references. Nonetheless, the courtly world of the Hebrew Artus and his knights is still Christian and the ethos is chivalric.
So who was the intended audience for this tale and how was it received? How is the story altered because of its Hebrew-reading audience, and how does it differ from other vernacular versions?
While almost all Jewish men in the Middle Ages could read Hebrew, the language was not a living vernacular. Only a highly-educated elite of readers well-versed in biblical and rabbinical Hebrew could enjoy this tale of adultery, trickery and jousting; an audience who clearly did not partake in this courtly world.
This text offers a glimpse into the literary world of Italian Jews and can help us learn more about how tales shape their readers and are shaped by them.