Convergence of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic in a Medieval Hebrew-Italian Arthurian Romance

This is a revised version of the paper I presented at MLA 2016. It was part of a panel titled “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Jewish Children’s Literature.” The text I discuss here is not children’s literature and, unlike the texts in the other papers of the panel, was written well before the genre of Jewish children’s literature emerged. But the presentation of race and ethnicity in Jewish children’s literature, and in contemporary Jewish culture more broadly, may have its roots in some of the issues I discuss in relation to this Italian medieval Hebrew Arthurian romance. This romance represents an uneasy merging of the split between Ashkenazic and Sephardic sensibilities because of the geographic and temporal circumstances of its composition.

Below: 1. an illumination from a medieval French Arthurian romance, showing Lancelot and Guinevere; 2. an illumination accompanying a Hebrew marriage blessing, showing couples dancing at an Italian Jewish wedding.

Arthurian legend was widely translated and adapted almost from its very beginnings in the early Middle Ages. Originally a hero representing the Celtic defense against the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, King Arthur was used by cultures vastly different from the Celts – including the English themselves – to represent nationalism, national heroes, and cultural values. Arthurian scholarship has focused on that cultural adaptability for quite a while now.

It still surprises scholars, though, (including me when I first heard about it) that Jewish versions of Arthurian legend exist. While it is understandable that the legend could be adapted to fit cultures of the Celtic, English, Germanic, French, Spanish, etc., a Jewish adaptation is startling. As different as the other cultures may be, they all share some Christian framework, and Arthurian legend features Christian feasts and Christian values quite prominently. How – and why – would a Jewish author choose this as his writing material?

Curt Leviant, the most recent editor and translator of Hamelech Artus (King Arthur), draws parallels between Arthurian motifs and Jewish biblical and Talmudic stories, arguing, as do numerous other scholars, that Arthurian legend is in fact particularly suited for Jewish adaptation. His analysis is fairly convincing, though for reasons I won’t get into here, I don’t fully accept it. Even if we did accept it, though, the historical background of the medieval Jewish adaptations which Leviant and others provide continues to raise questions about the Jewish author’s motivation.

A brief overview of Arthurian legend: King Arthur holds court in Camelot, where the finest knights serve him and join him in many adventures and quests to prove their chivalry in arms and in love. The many medieval texts do not usually tell the entire story of King Arthur. Each one relates just one episode or a series of episodes. The underlying foundation of the legend is the same, but each translator, adapter, compiler – each person to touch the legend – adds or changes details based on historical, cultural, and sometimes personal factors.

There aren’t very many Jewish versions of medieval Arthurian legend. We only know of two, in fact. In 1279, an anonymous scribe in Northern Italy began – but never finished – a Hebrew translation of Arthurian legend, called by scholars today Hamelech Artus. This exists in only one manuscript, today housed in the Vatican.

The other medieval Jewish Arthurian text is an Old Yiddish translation of a Middle High German text, dating from the fifteenth century – two centuries after Hamelech Artus was composed. The Old Yiddish text is extant in three manuscripts from the sixteenth century, all presumably created in Northern Italy. It was adapted a few more times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in Amsterdam, Prague, and Frankfurt an der Oder.

The dates and locations of each adaptation are significant in the inquiry about a Jewish author’s choice to translate Arthurian legends, because medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic attitudes toward secular literature (not only Arthurian literature) were vastly different and also varied over time.

Sephardic culture incorporates secular themes into its literature, (though Arthurian themes don’t appear until later in Iberia) sometimes writing in Arabic, sometimes in Romance languages, and sometimes in Hebrew.

Some of the great medieval Sephardic rabbis were known for their love poetry or their fighting songs, and most, such as Maimonides, had extensive knowledge not only of Torah and Talmud, but of medicine, Greek philosophy, mathematics, sciences, etc. Secular study was an integral part of education and no apology was made for tackling topics like love or erotic stories.

Ashkenazic culture, on the other hand, not only frowned upon such study but considered Greek philosophy and sciences based on secular understanding antithetical to Torah study. Reading or writing about love and war was almost sacrilegious, definitely if the holy Hebrew language was used.

The history of Italy’s Jewish community meant that thirteenth-century Italian Jewry embraced aspects of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic attitudes. In the eleventh century, Ashkenazic Jews escaping the First Crusade settled in Italy. In the early thirteenth century, Sephardic Jews from Provence immigrated to Italy. So when Hamelech Artus was written, the community comprised both Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews.

The text opens with an apology, a kind of preface by the author, a feature typical of medieval texts. The author explicitly addresses the problem of a Jewish author writing in Hebrew and using secular romance as his material, citing two reasons.

First, he excuses this as an exercise to ease the melancholy of his mind, which leads him to a lengthy defense of using secular literature in this way:

“No intelligent person can rebuke me for this, for we have seen that some of our sages of blessed memory, such as Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, did not disdain the knowledge of fox-fables, washers’ parables or the speech of palm trees. And this is done so that a man who is steeped in Torah-study or in worldly pursuits may derive from the knowledge of these tales a measure of relaxation and relief…Moreover, it is possible to learn wisdom and ethics from these fables concerning a man’s conduct toward himself and towards his fellow man…The proof for this is that had they been profane talk Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai would not have studied them…Moreover, we find that on the eve of the Day of Atonement the tales of ancient kings would be read to an unscholarly High Priest throughout the night so that he would not fall asleep” (11-13).

The second reason, he says, is the “most important”: “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God), as you will see at the conclusion” (13).

The manuscript ends mid-sentence and mid-page, so we never do get to the conclusion. But in the very first sentence of the apology, the author tells us that the story is of “the destruction of King Artus’ Round Table” – so we know the story ends in destruction. (The end of the Arthurian legend, as suggested by the many texts called some version of Le Morte D’Arthur, is always the death of Arthur with the Round Table brotherhood dissolved.)

The romance of Hamelech Artus itself begins with the story of Arthur’s conception and birth. This opening sequence is not a given for every romance – the fragmentary nature of Arthurian legend means starting at the start is actually a significant choice.

The story of Arthur’s birth in this Hebrew romance is essentially the same as in other medieval versions which narrate his birth. King Uther Pendragon desires the wife of a duke and, when she and her husband both refuse to allow it, Uther wages war against the duke, eventually enlisting the help of Merlin. Merlin uses his magic to give the king the appearance of the duke. When Uther goes into the duchess’ chambers, she thinks he is her husband. He sleeps with her during the night and leaves in the morning. As he leaves, word reaches the duchess that the duke was killed during the night. She has no idea now who she was sleeping with, but she knows it wasn’t her husband as she thought. Once the war is over, Uther marries the duchess and, in an act of kindness, forgives her for carrying a child whose father she cannot identify.

One of the first things people point out about this story is its resemblance to the David and Batsheva story (in Samuel I) – King David is on a rooftop and sees a naked woman, desires her, and sleeps with her. Her husband is away at war. When she tells David that she has become pregnant, David calls her husband, Uriah, back from war and tries to get him to go sleep with his wife so it will appear that the child is his. Uriah is zealous, however, and swears he will not have marital relations until the war is won. When David realizes that Uriah will not cooperate, he sends him with a letter to the general directing them into battle where Uriah will definitely be killed. All goes according to plan, Batsheva is a widow, David marries her, and though the child dies, their next son, Solomon, will become the next king of Israel.

The Rishonim, the early medieval Biblical commentators including Rashi, explain this by citing the Talmud which states that during the time of King David, soldiers all gave their wives a “get al t’nai” – a conditional divorce. If a woman’s husband does not return from battle but his death cannot be proven, rather than remaining an agunah and being unable to marry, she is able to use the get and marry someone else. Therefore, the Rishonim say, Uriah had given Batsheva a conditional divorce. Since he died, technically Batsheva was divorced when she became pregnant with David’s child.

The point of this explanation is, of course, to vindicate David from having sinned. But it’s also to ensure that no one dares to say that Solomon, who carries on the royal line, was a mamzer – illegitimate, the product of a strictly prohibited union, and according to Jewish law unable to rule and unable to even marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. (There are special provisions for who a mamzer can marry so that his children are ultimately not non-Jewish.)

Even according to Christian law, where a child conceived out of wedlock could be legitimized if the parents are subsequently married, Arthur is unquestionably illegitimate. His mother was married to someone other than his father when he was conceived, so he is a product not just of premarital sex but of adultery. His parents’ subsequent marriage doesn’t help much.

The Hebrew author doesn’t address this (nor does any medieval Arthurian legend, really). Florence Sandler suggests that the naming of Arthur (“He will be called Artusin, that is, born through the power of art” [23]), which is unique to this text and echoes Biblical naming of children for events, is meant to give an aura of legitimacy to an infant conceived out of wedlock, but this seems out of step with the rest of the narrative. I don’t think the author wanted to legitimize Arthur at all.

The bulk of the text focuses on the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, though the text trails off before this episode concludes. The story itself is almost exactly the same as other medieval versions, and the love appears to be wonderful, beautiful, tragic.

Still, it is clear that the author intended to condemn Lancelot by the end of the narrative. Lancelot’s passion is introduced as: “this evil desire was the cause of the destruction of the Table, the death of King Artus, and the ruin of the entire Kingdom, as you will see further on” (29). In all Arthurian texts which narrate the end of the kingdom, Lancelot plays a large role, if not the only role, in bringing about the fall.

The Hebrew author may have intended to include the other big player as well, Mordred. Between the story of Arthur’s birth and the story of Lancelot’s affair, a brief family history is given, and the author tells us that “the evil traitor Mordred passed himself off as a nephew [of Arthur] for many years. Even the King conceded this. However, finally it became known that he was a bastard son, as you will see in the book of destruction” (23).

In Arthurian tradition, Arthur unknowingly conceives a child, Mordred, with his half-sister Morgana. In some adaptations, Mordred later tries to take over Arthur’s kingdom and has an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which leads to outright war, Arthur’s death, and the complete crumbling of the idealistic Arthurian world.

Although the Hebrew text is not complete, the parts which were written and the glimpses into what the author intended to include paint a very clear picture of the text’s purpose. All the episodes the author has chosen deal with adultery or promiscuity or sexual taboos in some way or another. This, then, is the “sin” that the author means when he says that his reason for undertaking such an inexplicable translation of Arthurian legend is “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God).” It seems pretty clear and logical, no real question to be asked.

However, no other Arthurian text attempts to use these stories in this manner. This can perhaps be explained by the distinctly Jewish tone of Hamelech Artus as opposed to Christian texts. But Sephardic texts, though at this point none had yet used Arthurian material, did include stories of passionate love, and sometimes illicit love, with no apology and no such attempt for didactic purposes. Ashkenazic texts of the thirteenth century never told stories like this, but the later Yiddish Arthurian romances also made no such attempt at didacticism. So why the heavy emphasis here?

The answer lies with Italy’s unique position at this particular point, in the thirteenth century. Sandler suggests that the convergence of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in Northern Italy led the author to try to appeal to both audiences – the Sephardic who would appreciate a story of love and passion and chivalry, and the Ashkenazic who would “not countenance values which did not square with the moral teachings of the Talmud” (72).

I would modify that analysis a bit, because this assumes two communities in Northern Italy, one Ashkenazic retaining Ashkenazic values, and one Sephardic retaining Sephardic values. But the language and structure of the author’s introduction to Hamelech Artus suggests a tension between the two approaches within one person.

This text – its free use of Arthurian material but always with an apologetic tone and hastening to justify this free use – captures the moment when the two communities and their respective approaches to Torah learning and secular literature had only just begun to converge and to merge in this area. The later Yiddish romances in Northern Italy, with no attempt at didacticism and with a far more comic tone, are a reflection of the progression of this convergence, a result of Jewish migration in the “borderland” between Sephardic and Ashkenazic areas.


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