Lucy Pick

Lucy Pick in Oxford

Report on Lucy Pick’s Lecture for OMS: A Guest Blog by Pilar Bertuzzi Rivett

Watch Lucy Pick’s OMS Lecture 2022 here:

The Oxford Medieval Studies Lecture for Hilary Term 2022 was delivered on 8 February by Professor Lucy Pick, historian of medieval thought and culture, author of Her Father’s Daughter: Gender, Power, and Religion in Early the Spanish Kingdoms (Cornell 2017), Pilgrimage (Cuidono 2014) and Conflict and Coexistence: Archbishop Rodrigo and the Muslims and Jews of Thirteenth-Century Spain (University of Michigan 2004). Professor Pick is a visiting scholar at the Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Oxford, researching the earliest Latin translation of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed.

As a Hebraist and fellow historian of medieval thought, I looked forward to Professor Pick’s take on what Jewish-Christian relationships meant in the case of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. It is a treat to be able to read a Jewish Medieval author in Latin and since instances of actual intellectual cooperation (especially in the early Middle Ages, which is what I focus on) are very few and far between, I am always curious to learn about them. I was particularly interested in how Professor Pick discovered this cooperation and what method she was going to use in order to flesh it out.

I found that Professor Pick set the scene very aptly when she opened her presentation mentioning that the Guide to the Perplexed “landed in the Latin scholastic world of the thirteenth century like a stick of dynamite.” Maimonides’ synthesis of science, the Law, Greek physics and metaphysics through the lens of the Hebrew Bible was nothing short of “explosive”. He offered a method for assimilating and interpreting the new Aristotle that flooded the schools of the thirteenth century. Did he inspire part of that flood? Did the Guide open up new avenues of thought for Christian readers that could be used as tools in their polemics against the Jews? These were some of the questions that were addressed in her presentation.

In what to me was reminiscent of the Italian school of microhistory, Professor Pick set aside the Christian scholastics of the mid to late thirteenth century, (whose study “used up most of the scholarly oxygen dedicated to Maimonides Latinus”) to focus on a much earlier community of readers of the Guide, one composed of both Jewish and Christians in the city of Toledo. At the heart of her project is the Liber de Parabola (witnessed in only one manuscript, Paris Sorbonne MS 601), the earliest Latin translation of the Guide (Part III, chapters 29-49 in which Maimonides discusses the reasons for commandments). According to Professor Pick, the Liber has not received the attention it deserves, neither as a witness to the Guide nor for its additional content which bears witness to the earliest reception to the ideas of the Guide. She therefore traced these individuals’ contact with the Liber de Parabola to shed light on both positive and negative aspects of its reception by Christians.

The key characters in this “textual community” are Samuel ibn Tibbon, who translated Maimonides’ Guide from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew; Michael Scot, court astrologer to Frederick II who began his career as a master in Toledo, translating scientific texts from Arabic into Latin and Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, Archbishop of Toledo, in whose cathedral Michael and Samuel may have met and in whose writings we can trace the earliest evidence of Maimonides’ impact on the Latin world.

Samuel’s contribution to the Liber is easiest to identify: he used his Hebrew translation for the base texts; he drew on his interpretation of Maimonides’ ideas about philosophical and Biblical exegesis and illustrated it with examples from his commentary on Ecclesiastics. He is cited by name at least six times in connection with the readings of the Hebrew Bible and interpretation of Jewish law. Pick believes that these passages reflect oral communication between Samuel Ibn Tabbon and the translator.

Michael Scot’s identity is more difficult to establish and rests on substantial circumstantial evidence. Michael Scot knew the work of Maimonides as he cited him in his “De physionomiae”; he was in Rome at the same time as the Liber de Parabola was dedicated to Cardinal Romanus and first appeared on the historical record in 1215 in Rome, accompanying the entourage of the Archbishop of Toledo at the Fourth Lateran Council. Pick notes that Samuel consulted books by Aristoteles meteorology (some of which Scot translated into Latin) in Toledo at some point between 1204 and 1210, thus Michael and Samuel could plausibly have met and worked together.

Pick also described how Michael Scot became a close associate of Jacob Anatoli while at Frederick II’s court in Naples. Anatoli was Samuel’s son in law, whose philosophical sermons (Malmad ha-Talmidim) recounted conversations with Michael Scot and his knowledge of Maimonides’ work. In one of his sermons on Parshat Nitzavim, Anatoli showed awareness of the Liber de Parabola, inclusive of its structure and introduction and associates it with Michael Scot. Pick very ably showed parallels between Anatoli’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:6 with the opening of the Liber de Parabola which contrasts the interpretation of a commandment with the allegory of a parable.    

By means of a venn diagram, Pick highlighted the interpenetration of ideas amongst the translators of key works in Toledo, Naples and Provence all of whom were engaged in a parallel set of translations and commentaries on Aristotle’s Meteorology inspired by Part II Chapter 30 of Maimonides’ Guide. Since Part II was not available in the Liber, this suggests a wider diffusion of the Guide in Toledo.  

The presentation concluded by showing the “polemical” potential to Christian borrowing of Maimonides’ ideas. The Archbishop of Toledo reacted to Part II Chapter 30 in his Breviarium in which he used Maimonides’ ideas of “principle” and “spirit” to argue for the Christian Trinity. This is an example of how the section of the Guide in the Liber de Parabola was used by later Christians in support of a doctrine of “supersession” rather than fostering a more positive understanding of those who follow God’s commandments, as Jacob Anatoli would have hoped for.

This conclusion was what surprised me most about the presentation. I suppose I approached the topic with the eyes of someone accustomed to the interpenetration of ideas between Christians and Jews of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages when it comes to mysticism. However, Professor Pick’s paper showed that by the thirteenth century intellectual cooperation could be both a tool and a weapon. In her own words, “textual community did not mean safety and an exchange of texts could provide ammunition as well as understanding.” In the period of history I focus on, between the ninth and eleventh centuries, both Christian and Jewish polemical tools were still in their pre-scholastic phase; Peter Damian’s work only really impacted Jewish-Christian relations towards the end of my “horizon.” However, the fact that Dante Alighieri put Pater Damian in the highest circles of Paradise, whereas Michael Scot was relegated to the malebolgie of Hell should have alerted me to the fact that there was not going to be a “happy ending” to Professor Pick’s textual community.

Still, any kind of inter-faith intellectual cooperation in the Middle Ages is worth researching because it demystifies some of the myths that surround the history of Christian and Jewish communities. When genuine, as in the case of Pick’s “textual community” or in the case of the Victorines in Paris, cooperation challenges the narrative of Jews and Christians as distinct cultures in “conversation and conflict.” The key takeaway from this paper for my dissertation is that we are better served to approach the history of Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages from an organic model of culture rather than who influenced whom, to borrow from David Biale and Michael Satlow. I admire the way in which Pick focuses on people and their agency and how comfortable she was with admitting that sometimes, as in the case of Michael Scot’s identity, one has to rely on somewhat circumstantial evidence. As medievalists, we do not always find “the silver bullet”; we are dealing with people and sources that existed nearly two thousand years ago. Even the most refined sleuths sometimes build cases on indirect evidence. If we wanted simple, straightforward, direct evidence, we would be statisticians or, worse still, modern historians.

I found that the interdisciplinary, multi-lingual approach in Pick’s presentation fit very well with the remit of the OMS and with our own identity as medieval historians. In Professor Pick’s words, “life is best viewed through more than one window.”

Pick reminded the audience that.

“It has been corrected from my own book. I am Moses son of Rabbi Maimon, the Righteous, of Blessed Memory”
Egypt, 1170–80
Handwritten in ink on paper
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Huntington 80

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