Through the vernacular to the truth. Jewish apologetic and dialogic register in the French Livre of Moses ben Abraham (1244).

Maria Teresa Rachetta
King’s College London

By the 1240s Asian Tartars were expected to swarm into Western Europe at any moment. The fragmentary information arriving from the East to the Christian authorities fed into the belief that Mongols where ethnically and culturally Jewish, and that Western Jews were plotting with them and actively supporting their invasion.In order to rebut such accusations, in 1244 a learned Jew named Moses ben Abraham put together a complex, lengthy French work called Livre: partly a chronicle of ancient history, partly a summary of apocalyptic doctrines, partly a treaty of biblical and contemporary ethnography. He addressed it to William of Auvergne, university magisterand bishop of Paris. The historical sections of the Livre mostly derive from the Sefer Yosippon, the highly influential Hebrew translation of Flavius Josephus’ corpus. A 10th-century translation from Latin, it was unanimously considered the original version of Flavius Josephus’ Greek corpus. According to the Moses, any kinship between the Jews and the Tartars was to be excluded; he grounded his arguments in historical and apocalyptic notions and on contemporary reports from the East. 

While art historians are familiar with its single witness since 1984 (when Walter Cahn published a detailed study of the illuminations), the Livre has been completely overlooked both by historians of Judaism and of medieval French literature. It is an unprecedented testimony of the usage of French in an intercultural and interreligious debate of capital relevance: the Jewish-Christian dialogue on biblical history and scriptural exegesis, otherwise partially known mostly from fragmentary Christian sources.

My paper is divided into three sections. Firstly, I present the preliminary result of my enquiry into the sources, the text and the context of the Livre. Secondly, I illustrate through some examples the argumentative strategies adopted by Moses, focusing particularly on the prophetic materials. Thirdly, I investigate the construction of the specific dialogic register of French used by Moses to convey his knowledge to the Christian authorities by focusing on his adoption of linguistic and conceptual Semitisms and on the negotiation with paradigms belonging to contemporary Christian historiography.