Konstanze Kunst, manuscript cataloguer for the Roth Collection, writes:

Four months ago I started re-cataloguing the collection of about 350 manuscripts gifted by the eminent English Jewish historian Cecil Roth (1899–1970) to the Brotherton Library with his vast collection of printed books fifty years ago. During my studies I have come to admire Cecil Roth as one of the first scholars of Jewish history who understood that the ‘intimate glimpse into the life of the ordinary men and women […] is one of the most fascinating and certainly not the least important among the multitudinous branches of historical study.’

Indeed, a large part of Roth’s work, which comprises around 600 publications, shows the extraordinary and significant in the life of ordinary Jews of past centuries.  It also demonstrates the great historical variety in their practice of Judaism, the conduct of their lives and their interaction with non-Jews in their home countries.

To my delight, I have discovered in the last sixteen weeks that Roth’s rare ability to see the extraordinary and significant in the allegedly ordinary and his profound interest in the daily life of the past is reflected, not only in his historical works, but also in his activity as a collector of manuscripts.  In fact, I would go so far as to claim that this talent is probably one reason why his collection is exceptional.

The term manuscript collection is commonly associated with large numbers of ‘proper’ books on parchment or heavy paper, beautifully copied and perhaps illustrated by professional hands before the dawn of the so-called ‘age of print’ early in the 16th century.  Roth’s collection, however, defies this conception.  Although he managed to obtain some rare and beautiful medieval codices and even a 13th century scroll, most of the texts he collected date from long after 1500. 

Folios 2v and 3r from MS Roth 124, a pamphlet containing Hebrew poems authored by “Gli accademici” to be a wedding gift for a couple married in Cento Italy in 1770 or 1771. Folio 2v contains the end of a lovely ‘tongue-in-cheek’ Italian dedication written by ‘The Academians,’ and folio 3r shows the beginning of the first poem. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Moreover, a great many of the handwritten books, booklets, pamphlets, and unbound papers in Roth’s collection were not produced within an elite culture.  Rather, they served a concrete purpose in the daily life of ‘ordinary’ Jews and their communities. Examples include communal prayer books and prayer pamphlets, memorial books, circumcision and accounting ledgers, wedding poems, notebooks of preachers, letters, pieces of paper inscribed with spells etcetera.

Folio 7r of MS Roth 51/4, a small booklet with a collection of Hebrew prayers copied by at least two people in the 18th or 19th century. The manuscript is mainly in Hebrew, but contains Latin pen trials and an Italian translation of a song traditionally sung during Grace after meals written in Latin letters. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Because of their use for such quotidian purposes, these kind of manuscripts are seldom pristine or very impressive at first sight.  On the contrary, they show obvious signs of being used and even abused, often bearing the coffee stains, notes, drawings and doodles of multiple owners, readers, and other users.  Texts of this sort usually have a slim chance of survival once they outlive their function or have be replaced by a newer copy.  They were long undervalued by many collectors and bibliophiles.  Among Roth’s many merits is his recognition of these texts’ enormous value and his effort to preserve them as testimony to the rich and multifarious Jewish cultures of the past.

I will introduce you to some of these extraordinary ordinary texts from the Roth collection though this blog over the next year.  Please stay tuned.