Nathan Hofer


Course Description:  Most surveys of medieval Jewish literature focus on the culture of the elites, i.e. theology, philosophy, and Kabbalah. As interesting as these ideas and expressions are, they are not the whole picture. In this course, we will be looking at expressions of medieval Jewish "popular culture" in literary and documentary sources. We will be looking at travel accounts, popular history, poetry, magical texts, art, and polemics, which will be supplemented by documentary sources like personal letters and marriage contracts to try and form a picture of what Jewish culture was for the non-elites.  Finally, we will be interested in comparing the lives of Jews who lived in Christian Europe with those who lived in Islamic countries.


Requirements:  Students must do the assigned readings for each week before the beginning of class and be prepared to discuss said readings in class.  Each student should expect to participate in the class discussions and to ask questions about material that is unclear or difficult.  There were will be five take-home essay exams throughout the semester and a final paper.


Required Texts:      

I. Abrahams: Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

J. Trachtenberg: Jewish Magic and Superstition

Bahya ibn Paquda: The Duties of the Heart, translated by M. Mansoor

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, translated by M. N. Adler

Barnavi: A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People

T. Carmi: The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse

A. B. Yehoshua: A Journey to the End of the Millennium

Course Packet with Readings




Unit One: Introduction to Medieval Jewish Life


Week 1 -         S. D. Goitein, “Religion in Everyday Life”

                       Abrahams, Jewish Life, p. 1-95

                       Barnavi, “Demography,” p. xii-xiii


Week 2 -         S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. 5:  “The Individual: A Social Being,” p. 1-128

                       Abrahams, Jewish Life, “Trades and Occupations,” p. 211-244


First Take-Home Essay


Unit Two: Art


Week 3 -         Gutman, Hebrew Manuscript Painting, p. 8-31 and plates 2, 3, 10, 11, 14, 21, 27, 29, 33, 39


Week 4 -         Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, [Each student will choose a chapter to present to the class, focusing on how medieval art sheds light on life in the Middle Ages.]


Second Take-Home Essay


Unit Three: Poetry


Week 5 -         R. Scheindlin, “Hebrew Poetry and Belles Lettres”

                       Samuel Hanagid (from Carmi),  Winter Wine Song (p. 296); Wine (p. 297); Invitation and The Beautiful Boy (p. 298)

                       Ibn Gabirol (from Carmi),  The Faithless Woman (p. 312); Testimony of Beauty (p. 313).


Week 6 -         Moses ibn Ezra (from Carmi), The Treacherous Fawn (p. 325-6); To the Minstrel (p. 329)

                       Judah Halevi (from Carmi), The Sensitive Doe (p. 342-3); The Cruel Lover (p. 344-5); My Heart is in the East (p. 347)

                       Dunash ben Labrat poem about a wine party (from packet)


Third Take-Home Essay


Unit Four: Stories


Week 7 -         The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, p. 1-81


Week 8 -         Selections from al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni (from packet)


Week 9 -         Stories about Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov (from packet)


Fourth Take-Home Essay


Unit Five: Education and Childhood


Week 10 -       Abrahams, Jewish Life, “The Medieval Schools” and “The Scope of Education,” p. 340-372

                       Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. II:  “Education and the Professional Class,” p. 171-210


Week 11 -       Excerpts from Marcus Rituals of Childhood [description of the initiation rite] p. 18-34 and Kanarfogel Jewish Education [first two chapters] p. 15-41


Fifth Take-Home Essay


Unit Six:  Writing, Marriage, and Magic


Week 12 -       Selections from Abrahams, Hebrew Ethical Wills and from Kober, Letters of Jews Through the Ages


Week 13 -       Abrahams, Jewish Life, “Love and Courtship,” and “Marriage Customs,” p. 163-210

                       Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. III: “Marriage,” p. 47-159


Week 14 -       J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, as much as possible


Final Project:


                       The final project will begin the last week of class (week 15).  The students will read A. B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to the End of the Millennium (about a medieval Arabic-speaking Jewish trader who travels to Ashkenaz) and then write an essay in which they engage at least two of the themes covered in class as they relate to the book.