Archive for July 25th, 2018

Medieval grammar proves to be dilly of a pickle

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

Three mislabeled leaves from medieval manuscripts in Stanford University’s Green Library have been discovered to be more intriguing than expected. Instead of a lesson on Hebrew grammar, they explore the medicinal properties of pickles and other fermented foods.

Historian Rowan Dorin discovered the anomalous fragments while looking through the library’s collection of medieval texts. The three parchment leaves had been catalogued as fragments from two copies of a grammar and dictionary of the Hebrew language written by eminent lexicographer Jonah ibn Janah in the 11th century. Born in Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Rabbi Jonah wrote his seminal study of Hebrew in Arabic. It was only translated into Hebrew in the 14th century by Judah ibn Tibbon. Kitab al-Tanqih (“Book of exact investigation”) is the earliest complete text on the study of Hebrew to survive.

These fragments were acquired in 2012 from the Dictionary collection of Thomas Main Rodgers from whence the erroneous cataloging likely springs. Mr. Rodgers must have been unaware that instead of pages from a renown Hebrew dictionary in keeping with the motif of his collection, he had bought three leaves from two unidentified 14th century medical texts written in Judeao-Arabic using Hebrew script.

Two of the leaves were written in Hebrew script in Judaeo-Arabic on a palimpsest parchment whose undertext is 13th or 14th century Hebrew. There are margin notes in Castilian. While the full main text hasn’t been translated yet, it is organized according to illness and their cures and include the headings “On the causes of hiccuping” and “On the treatment for hiccuping.” (I vote hyperventilating.)

The single leaf, written in square Hebrew script with Latin notes in the margin, discusses the medicinal uses of several foods, a salient section of which is titled “On the effect of pickles and sour substances.”

Dorin said the rare parchments showcase the sharing of knowledge that was happening among societies around the Mediterranean Sea during the Middle Ages, the historical period between the 5th and the 15th centuries.

“Most people associate the Middle Ages with plague, war and ignorance,” said Dorin, who is also an affiliated faculty member at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. “We don’t usually think about the dialogues between different cultures or open exchanges of knowledge that were happening throughout that time. These documents are evidence for the conversations occurring among people from different linguistic backgrounds.”

After more than a year of research, Dorin, with the help of other scholars around the world, determined that the pages came from two different texts. One was first written down in northern Africa sometime in the 14th century and ended up in Spain, where it was recycled as scrap parchment. The other was probably written around the same time on the island of Mallorca, a diverse hub of commerce in the western Mediterranean, Dorin said.

Dorin believes that the knowledge the texts carry was passed down from the ancient Greeks.

Researchers have yet to identify the authors of the two medical texts, or of the Hebrew undertext. However, with the aid of Jewish historian Ezra Blaustein, part of the leaf on pickles has been translated. Items of note: fish jelly “cleanses the stomach of viscous phlegm” but if consumed to excess it “corrupts the blood and causes mange.” So much for mites then. Preserves makes you hungry, thirst and horny. Pickled caper, while “ruinous for the stomach,” is a sure-fire diet aid which “makes thin one who is fat.”

As I am obsessed with pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi, it delights me to see the clear distinction made between true pickles (which are fermented and replete with billions of microorganisms) and vinegar brined foods.

Pickled dill is good for one who wants to prevent ruin if he ate too much food and he urinated as well. All pickles correspond to the thing from which they are made, and acquire from the salt and putridity a second nature, with increased dryness, heat and sharpness. As for vinegarized food, it acquires from everything increased dryness, and it fills up and cools the liver.

Bring on the putridity, man. I can take it.

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