Corpus Christi College, one of the colleges that make up Oxford University, was established in 1517.
As part of the celebration of its first half-millennium, curators have put together “500 Years of Treasures From Oxford.”
Normally, that would be very interesting, but not very relevant for a Jewish publication.
But because the collection of artifacts — mainly manuscripts, some of the illuminated, and early books, along with some other objects — includes pieces of Judaica, it’s being hosted at Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.
Corpus Christi’s collection is unusual in that its guardians over the centuries kept the old manuscripts and books rather than replacing them as they were revised or updated or simply superseded. Because back in 1517 there were three foundational languages for scholars — Latin, Greek, and yes, Hebrew — there are a fair number of Hebrew language texts; the fact that the Jews had been expelled from the country in 1290 and formally allowed back in 1656, and therefore it’s unlikely that anyone at Corpus Christi might have met a Jew, didn’t alter that.
The collection also includes passages of the Hebrew Bible translated to Latin, along with some illuminations. It also includes science texts and drawings — there’s nothing Jewish at all about Robert Hooke’s extraordinarily detailed sketches and legible, intricately explained accompanying prose, but it’s compelling and fascinating. The exhibit illustrates the way that science, religion, and literature all had common roots, at a time when just about all knowledge could be contained in one library.
Despite the existence of anti-Semitism, at least in its abstract form — remember, there were no actual Jews there — the library contains very little overt anti-Jewish writing. The only anti-Semitic text, the curator, Peter Kidd said, most likely was in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; the Prioress’s Tale has some nastily anti-Jewish bits in it. But the Jewish texts were treated with respect, even if actual Jews were not.
The panel at the press preview included the heads of Yeshiva University Museum, the Center for Jewish History, and Corpus Christi College. It also included the Episcopal archbishop of New York, Andrew M. L. Dietsche, resplendent in a purple shirt and a full, well-trimmed white beard, carrying a huge gold crozier. The crozier — the crooked staff that is the official sign of a bishop’s status — is a close copy of the one in the exhibit. (That one features St. Peter; the New York one replaces him with St. John, the namesake of the diocesan seat.)
It’s an unusual Jewish event that includes a crozier-wielding Episcopal archbishop. He is of course not part of the exhibit, but there are enough unusual, eye-opening, and moving objects to make it worth a visit.
What: “500 Years of Treasures from Oxford”
Where: Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th St., Manhattan
When: through August 6
Sponsored by: Yeshiva University Museum
For more information: (212) 294-8301