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Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books

inFifteenth-Century Sicily:
Between Dialogue and Dispute
Nadia Zeldes*

f Christian anti-Jewish polemical literature can be viewed as a precursor of


early modern Hebraism,1 the converse is also true: Renaissance Hebraism
was more often than not a refined facet of Christian anti-Jewish polemic.
As Reuven Bonfil has aptly noted: The Christians expected [] that they [the
Jews] would supply them with arguments for the defence of Christian truth
[] They were far from having given up the idea of exploiting the occasion of
the intellectual encounter to add further Jewish conversions to the ultimate triumph of Christianity.2 This observation is particularly applicable to fifteenthcentury Sicily, where many humanists and men of letters were Dominicans and
not laymen, as was the case elsewhere in Italy. Consequently, Hebraism in Sicily
belonged mainly to the religious domain. But with respect to the relationship
between purely scholarly interest in Hebrew books and Jewish tradition and
anti-Jewish polemic in Renaissance Sicily, it is no easy task to unravel their
interwoven strands.

* This research was supported by the I-CORE Program (The Israel Science Foundation),
Center for the Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters (no1754/12).
1
Limor and Yuval, Skepticism and Conversion.
2
Bonfil, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy, pp.172175; on Italian Hebraists: Fubini,
Lebraismo nei riflessi della cultura umanistica; Garin, Lumanesimo italiano e la cultura ebraica; Simonsohn, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on Jews and Judaism.

Nadia Zeldes (nzeldes@hotmail.com) is a research fellow at The Center for the Study of
Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters at BGU, and the Hebrew University.

Conflict and Religious Conversation in Latin Christendom: Studies in Honour of Ora Limor,
ed. by Israel Jacob Yuval and Ram Ben-Shalom, CELAMA 17
pp. 191220
(Turnhout: Brepols, 2014)
BREPOLS
PUBLISHERS
10.1484/M.CELAMA-EB.1.102015

192 Nadia Zeldes

In his history of the Jews of Sicily, Henri Bresc denied the possibility of
ChristianJewish polemics, arguing that the weakness of theological and
philosophical education in Sicily was the reason for lack of contacts between
scholars, as in disputations.3 This view fails to take into account the fact that
many Sicilian intellectuals studied and taught at Italian universities and as a
consequence were influenced by fashions and ideas of the Renaissance. The
Dominican Pietro Ranzano (14281492), one of the protagonists of the
present article, attended various universities and studied under several wellknown humanists: Pietro Aretino in Florence, Tommaso Pontano in Perugia,
Vitaliano Borromeo and Pietro Candido Decembrio in Milan and Pavia.
Between 1449 and 1453 Ranzano taught in Rome and in Naples.4 Another
Sicilian Dominican, Giovanni Gatto (14201484), Bishop of Cefal, was a
well-known humanist and member of the circle of scholars surrounding the
famous Byzantine exile, Cardinal Bessarion. He was interested in the writings
of the Eastern church and spent some time in Chios in order to learn Greek.
Gatto studied and taught between 1451 and 1466 in Florence, Ferrara, and
Bologna. In 1466 he accompanied the humanist Galeotto Marzi to the court of
Hungary.5 During the 1470s he was in Sicily.
Another factor that should be taken into account is the role played by the
Dominican school of Palermo in the formation of the islands intellectual elite.
The school, founded in 1345, became by mid-fifteenth century a centre for theological and humanistic studies in Palermo, perhaps to counterbalance the newly
established university in Catania (1445). Although it could not confer academic
titles, the college produced a number of notable men of letters who were, in fact,
the first Sicilian humanists. But rather than broadening the minds of students and
teachers, the prevailing atmosphere at the college was one of intolerance towards
Jews and other marginal groups. Several Sicilian inquisitors studied there during
their formative years. One of them, the Dominican inquisitor Salvo Cassetta,
was one of the prime movers in the blasphemy process conducted against the
3

La faiblesse apparente des tudes philosophiques et thologiques dans la Sicile chrtienne explique sans doute labsence de contacts entre savants, comme de polmiques, Bresc,
Arabes de langue, Juifs de religion, p.54.
4
On Renaissance culture in Sicily: Bruni, La cultura e la prosa volgare nel 300 e nel
400; Catalano Tirrito, Listruzione pubblica in Sicilia nel Rinascimento. On Ranzanos peregrinations: Figliuolo, La cultura a Napoli nel secondo Quattrocento, pp.9599. See also: Rodolico,
Siciliani nello Studio di Bologna; Lombardo Radice, I Siciliani nello studio di Pisa fino al
1600; Marletta, Siciliani nello Studio di Padova.
5
Gattos biography: Giordano, Gatti (Gatto), Giovanni.

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

193

Jews of Sicily in 1474 that triggered the widespread riots of that year (see below).
Giovanni Naso, a teacher of Latin at the college and one of the most prominent
Sicilian humanists, composed a rhymed poem that ridiculed the Jews who joined
in the festivities held in Palermo in honour of the victory of King JuanII of
Aragon against rebellious Barcelona (1472).6 Another Palermitan scholar of this
period, the Dominican Tommaso Scalanzio, became famous towards the end of
the fifteenth century for his widely attended sermons and his sarcastic portrayal
of the language spoken by Ethiopian slaves and the Jews.7
One can thus discern an increased concern regarding Jewish presence in
humanist circles in Sicily. To some extent, interest in Jewish writings and the
Hebrew language simply echoed the Italian Renaissance Hebraist movement,
but it also led to various attempts to deal with the reality of a local Jewish population. On the one hand, there were attempts to incorporate Jewish traditions
and the very existence of a Jewish population into the islands history; on the
other hand, this period witnessed repeated efforts to bring about the conversion of the Jews and thus eliminate their presence in Sicily altogether.
The present article seeks to examine both trends, focusing on intellectual
encounters in order to illuminate ChristianJewish relations in fifteenth-century Sicily.

Dialogue: A Dominican and a Jew in Quest for Historical Evidence


By the fifteenth century both Jews and Christians were becoming increasingly
aware of the long history of Jewish presence in Sicily, the former stressing it in
an attempt to prove they had strong roots there, and the latter seeking the Jews
for having presumably retained knowledge of secrets concerning the islands
6
Nec Iudeus abest. Qui quamquam semper ineptus [] ac deforme movere [].ad numeros
corpus frondosa veste virere (Not even the Jew is missing, although he is always ungainly []
moving crookedly [] his body sprouting many layers of frilly dress), Naso, Ioannis Nasonis
Siculi Panhormis. My translation follows the figurative rather than the literal meaning of frondosa, leafy in classical Latin, but also understood as frilly or overly ornamented in the late Latin
used in fifteenth-century Italy. See under frondoso (fig.) sovraccarico di ornamenti, in
Zingarelli, Vocabolario della lingua italiana.
7
Schifaldo, De viris illustribus ordinis predicatorum, ed. by Cozzucli, p.88; Bevilacqua
Krasner, Re, regine, francescani, domenicani ed ebrei in Sicilia. The Ethiopians here are a general term for all types of black slaves. Sicily was in this period an important slave market of
the Mediterranean: Verlinden, LEsclavage en Sicile au bas moyen-ge, esp. pp.7188. For the
provenance of slaves brought to Sicily, see: Backman, The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily,
pp.24968; Bresc, Un monde mditerranen, i, 43970.

194 Nadia Zeldes

past. Thus, in a dispute with the urban administration, the Jewish community
of Catania claimed that the Jews have been paying their tax separately from
the [Christian] commune for a thousand years already.8 Jews had indeed lived
in Sicilian cities for hundreds of years and enjoyed the status of citizens.9 They
were an integral part of urban life, sometimes even joining forces with the
Christian community in complaints and petitions to the king or the viceroy.
A predominant feature of urban politics in this period was the fierce rivalry
between the Sicilian cities, principally Messina and Palermo. Foundation legends played an important part in the competition between cities for achieving the distinction of being the most ancient.10 When the Dominican Pietro
Ranzano calculated the age of Palermo, he concluded with satisfaction that the
city had existed even before the destruction of Troy. Such preoccupations were
not confined to Sicily; they were common in the whole of Western Europe
in this period.11 Typical of Renaissance culture was also the interest in relics,
ruins, and writings that had survived from antiquity. These trends affected the
Jews too. Myths of the ancient origins of Jewish settlements in Western Europe
often served to justify demands for rights and privileges, as was the case for
Catania (cited above).12 Spanish Jews discovered ancient tombstones mentioning biblical figures in order to prove that their settlement in the Iberian
peninsula preceded the destruction of the temple and the crucifixion of Jesus.13
8

Ki li judei [] da milli anni iz hanu pagatu la loru collecta particulata et divisa da la


universitati [], Gaudioso, La comunit ebraica di Catania, p.7.
9
On the legal status of Sicilian Jews under Arab and Norman rule, see: Simonsohn, The
Jews in Sicily, i (1997), pp.2341, 4749. Here and throughout the present article I refer to
documents published in this series which supplants the older Lagumina and Lagumina, Codice
diplomatico dei Giudei di Sicilia. In the later Middle Ages, up to their expulsion in 1492, Sicilian
Jews who lived in cities of the royal demesne were considered to be citizens of those cities,
but they formed a separate commune universitas iudeorum: Zeldes, The Former Jews of this
Kingdom, pp.8485. See also: Bresc, Arabes de langue, Juifs de religion, pp.3137.
10
Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past, pp.713. For Sicily, see: Rodolico, Il municipalismo nella storiografia siciliana. On the attempts to create mythical ancient histories, see:
Bietenholz, Historia and Fabula, pp.189219.
11
Pietro Ranzano, Delle origini e vicende di Palermo di Pietro Ransano, ed. by di Marzo,
pp.6265 (see n.14 below).
12
On the Jews attempts to prove the antiquity of their residence in other European countries: Shatzmiller, Politics and Myths of Origins.
13
Beinart, When had the Jews Arrived in Spain?; Beinart, Cundo llegaron los Judos
a Espaa?; Ben-Shalom, Myth and Classical Mythology in the Historical Consciousness of
Medieval Spanish Jewry.

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

195

The Jewish community of Palermo was probably no less aware of its ancient
roots and some of its members had no compunction in claiming to trace them
back to biblical times.
The attempt to reconstruct the history of Palermo from ancient inscriptions,
stories told by the local Jews and Hebrew writings, is related by the Dominican
Pietro Ranzano in his De auctore, primordiis et progressu urbis Panormi. The
original text was written in Latin in 1470 but shortly afterwards the author
himself translated his work into the vernacular under the title of Delle origini e
vicende di Palermo.14
By that time Ranzano had had an illustrious career as provincial of the
Dominican order in Sicily, apostolic legate and diplomat to the court of
Hungary. 15 In 1455 Ranzano supervised the process of beatification of
StVicente Ferrer, the Dominican friar whose sermons played a crucial role in
the conversion of the Jews of Aragon, Castile, and Provence at the beginning of
the fifteenth century.16 Ranzanos admiration for Vicente Ferrer and his efforts
to encourage his cult in Sicily and in south Italy,17 may indicate that his contacts with the Jews were at least in part motivated by his wish to convert them
to Christianity.
A considerable part of the History is devoted to the authors efforts to decipher an ancient inscription that he discovered in his youth on a crumbling tower
in Palermo. Believing the inscription had been written in Chaldean, Ranzano
questioned some Jews of Palermo, who confirmed that they had indeed learned
Chaldean (Aramaic) from their ancestors and could therefore read the text.
According to Ranzano, they claimed that the inscription mentioned Sefo,
son of Eliphaz, son of Esau, son of Isaac (Genesis 36.410, and iiChronicles
14

The Latin version was part of a larger work: Annales omnium temporum, parts of
which are today lost. The vernacular version was published in the nineteenth century as Pietro
Ranzano, Delle origini e vicende di Palermo di Pietro Ransano, ed. by di Marzo All the following
quotations refer to this edition.
15
For Ranzanos biography, see: Figliuolo, La cultura a Napoli nel secondo Quattrocento,
pp.9599.
16
Coniglione, La provincia domenicana di Sicilia, pp.3034. The preaching of Fray
Vicente Ferrer in Spain: Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, ii, 16999, 170243.
And more recently: Ben-Shalom, The Disputation of Tortosa; Nirenberg, Enmity and
Assimilation.
17
On the spread of the cult of StVicente Ferrer in Sicily see: Coniglione, La provincia
domenicana di Sicilia, pp.3034. In Italy: Rusconi, Anti-Jewish Preaching in the Fifteenth
Century.

196 Nadia Zeldes

1.36) as the commander of the ancient tower. Ranzano concluded that both
the inscription and the tower dated from biblical times. It was in fact an Arabic
inscription from the tenth century (at a time when Sicily was under Muslim
rule), but this came to light only much later, in the eighteenth century.18
The Jews also told Ranzano that they knew of an ancient Hebrew book still
in existence that contained a story similar to that of the purported text of the
inscription. The earliest version of the legend of Sefo that identifies him as the
founder of Rome is related in Sefer Josippon, a historical narrative written in
Hebrew in south Italy in the tenth century, and attributed to Joseph Gorionides
(believed to be an alias for Josephus Flavius). The book enjoyed considerable
popularity among the Jews during the Middle Ages, though it seems that in
Sicily it was rather rare.19 Nevertheless, it could be that at the time there circulated a version of Sefer Josippon that attributed the founding of Palermo to
Sefo.20 As Ranzano was not yet convinced, he sought additional proof for the
Jews reading of the inscription. His next step was a visit to Isaac Guglielmo, a
Jew of Pisan origins, who lived in Palermo and apparently had in his possession
a copy of Sefer Josippon and perhaps other Hebrew books.
The encounter with Isaac Guglielmo might be dismissed as totally fictitious,
were it not for the fact that there was a Jew by that name in Palermo during the
first half of the fifteenth century. The historical Isaac de Guglielmo was a leader
of the Palermo community who, together with another Jew, Chaim Balbu, was
appointed as ambassador of the Jews of Sicily to the pontifical court in Rome.
However, he is nowhere described as a Pisan. As this Isaac de Guglielmo died in

18

Morso, Descrizione di Palermo antico, p.57; Zeldes, The Last Multi-cultural Encounter
in Medieval Sicily (discussion of inscription: pp.16768).
19
Flusser, Josippon; Sefer Josippon, ed. by Flusser. As regards Sicily, see: Zeldes, The
Diffusion of Sefer Yosippon.
20
This curious reference to Sefo as founder of Palermo appears in Don Isaac Abravanels
commentaries to the Bible: [] and he [Sefo] was the first king who reigned in Italy [].and of
Palermo, the principal city of Sicily, it is written that he had founded it. Abravanel, Commentary
on the Later Prophets, p.171. According to Sefer Josippon, Sefo was the commander of the armies
of Agneas (Aeneas) in the conquest of Italy, but all the extant versions of this book mention
the conquest of the island of Sardinia, rather than Sicily. This detail bothered Flusser who
remarked that according to Virgils Aeneid, Aeneas came to Sicily, not Sardinia: Sefer Josippon,
ed. by Flusser, i,11, notes to ll.2728. (Compare: Virgil, Aeneid, trans. by Fairclough, Book iii,
ll.551715, Book v, ll.70002). On the Aeneid as a source for Sefer Josippon: Toaff, La storia di
Zeph e la guerra tra Angias e Turno nello Josephon; Cronaca ebraica del Sepher Yosephon, ed.
and trans. by Toaff ).

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

197

1455, he could have been Ranzanos interlocutor but only if the encounter did
indeed take place in the Dominicans youth.21
According to the narrator, Isaac Guglielmo willingly invited him to his
home more than once and showed him a Hebrew book in which, he claimed,
was written the whole story of the inscription. On a different visit Isaac
Guglielmo told Ranzano a story that seemed to confirm the latters theory that
Chaldeans, Damascenes, and Phoenicians founded Palermo, but it was not
the legend of Sefo. This time Isaac Guglielmo told the story of a Jew named
Abraham, a physician born in Damascus who came to Palermo during the reign
of WilliamII of Sicily (116689) and found there an ancient inscription which
he translated into Hebrew. The second story may have been inspired by the
Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela who did indeed visit Palermo in those years.22
Henri Bresc, discussing Ranzanos narrative in his Arabes de langue, Juifs de religion, accused the Jew of intentionally misleading the Dominican,23 which was
probably true. On the other hand, did Isaac Guglielmo have any alternative?
Ranzano was very insistent, and it could have been that he forced himself upon
the Jew leaving him no other option but resort to a literary swindle. This in itself
presented no real difficulty. Ranzano did not know enough Hebrew to read
and understand the text he was shown; he therefore needed Isaac Guglielmo to
translate the text from the Hebrew original into the vernacular.24 In a recently
published article, Michael Signer distinguished between lexical and cultural
Christian Hebraists. The distinction between these two terms depends on
whether the Christian scholar had independent access to Hebrew texts, or was

21
Documents regarding Isaac Guglielmo of Palermo: Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, v,
Nos2739, 3163, 3247.
22
In lo octavo anno delo aureo regno di Guglielmo secundo Re di Sichilia, eu Abraam
Iudeo phisico, nato in la cit di Damasco et per octo anni pratico in la cita di Palermo, lessi
certi licteri li quali usavano antiquamenti li Damasceni et li Phenichi, sculpiti in uno antiquissimo saxo. Et tucto quillo chi si esprimia per tali licteri eu lu transferivi et expressi in parlari
hebrayco, Pietro Ranzano, Delle origini e vicende di Palermo di Pietro Ransano, ed. by di Marzo,
pp.6566; On Benjamin of Tudelas description of Palermo in the reign of WilliamII, see:
Benjamin of Tudela, The Itinerary, ed. and trans. by Adler, pp.7071.
23
Il y a plus que de lescroquerie dans ce savoir ainsi manipul, Bresc, Arabes de langue,
Juifs de religion, p.67.
24
quando lo dicto Ysaac mi amostrao lo libro hebraico, non essendo yo tanto perito in
quilla lingua chi eu potissi interpretari quillo chi apena eu sapia legiri, volczi chi ipsu mi interpetrassi la continencia di lo hebraico in vulgari lingua, Pietro Ranzano, Delle origini e vicende di
Palermo di Pietro Ransano, ed. by di Marzo, p.65.

198 Nadia Zeldes

dependent upon his Jewish interlocutor.25 Apparently, no fifteenth-century


Sicilian scholar (unless he was a Jewish convert to Christianity) was a true lexical Hebraist, and that includes Ranzano. The latter, despite his slight knowledge of Hebrew, belonged to the second category. Cultural Hebraism needed
contacts with living Jews in order to interpret Hebrew texts, whether they were
scripture, rabbinic literature or, as in this case, historical works. The frequent
meetings and discussions with Isaac Guglielmo imply a direct and even friendly
dialogue. But was it? How willingly did the Jew receive his Dominican guest?
Ranzano remained doubtful of the Jews interpretation of the inscription and
only the confirmation of the story by a seemingly objective individual, a certain Syrian, expert in Chaldean letters convinced him of the veracity of the
text. Even seen through the prism of Ranzanos narrative, one gets the feeling
that Isaac Guglielmo was trying very hard to satisfy his interlocutor.
To conclude, Ranzanos interest in Hebrew books was not exceptional for
this period. Such pursuits formed an almost integral part of Renaissance culture in Italy. Humanists like Gianozzo Manetti, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,
Johannes Reuchlin, Egidio da Viterbo (to name just a few), studied Jewish
writings in an attempt to discover the Truth of the Jews (Hebraica veritas).
Manetti, who knew Hebrew, ordered a copy of Sefer Josippon from a Jewish
copyist.26 Ranzanos dialogue with the Jews seems relatively benign but it cannot be ruled out that his account, which enjoyed considerable fame, inspired
others to examine Hebrew texts for entirely different purposes.

Dispute and Controversy: That Abominable Book


Sicily, despite its particularity and semi-independent status, did not escape
the prevailing mood of religious fervour and anti-Jewish propaganda spread
by mendicant friars all over Europe. Beginning his career as a charismatic
preacher in the kingdom of Aragon during the 1420s, Fra Matteo Guimarra,
a Sicilian Franciscan born to a family of Catalan origins, gained the support of
King Alfonso the Magnanimous. In 1428 the king ordered the viceroy of Sicily,
Nicol Speciale, to aid Fra Matteo and allow him to preach to the Jews. The
Jews succeeded in revoking these orders only two years later.27 A considerably
25

Signer, Polemics and Exegesis, p.22. Although Signer focused on the twelfth century,
the distinction is relevant for a later period as well.
26
On Italian Hebraists, see note2 above. Manettis copy of Josippon: BAV, MS ebr. 408,
mentioned in Sefer Josippon, ed. by Flusser, ii, 16.
27
Amore, La predicazione del B. Matteo dAgrigento (esp. p.275); Amore, Nuovi docu-

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

199

more energetic preacher, the Dominican Fra Giovanni da Pistoia modelled his
conversionist sermons upon the successful campaign of Vicente Ferrer. In 1463
he asked Pietro Ranzano for a copy of his Vita S. Vincentii, written shortly after
the beatification of Ferrer. Ranzano sent along with the book a personal letter
accompanied by verses to help Giovanni da Pistoia memorize the story of the
saints life.28 These efforts met with the approval of the viceroy and in 1467 the
latter ordered all Sicilian Jews to attend the sermons of Giovanni da Pistoia,
threatening to punish severely those who disobeyed.29
Orders to attend conversionist sermons, and the Jews attempts to revoke
them, became a constant feature of Jewish life in Sicily during the fifteenth century.30 One of the more successful preachers in this period was a certain magister Paulus, a convert, described as an expert in the Hebrew language, to whom
I shall return presently. The involvement of Jewish converts to Christianity
introduced a new factor into the controversy. Armed with their knowledge of
Jewish polemical works and anti-Christian sayings, they could present the Jews
as deliberate actors in the ChristianJewish conflict, rather than merely offering passive resistance to the attempts to convert them.
In 1474 Sicilian Jews were accused of having in their possession an abominable Hebrew book (or books) containing defamatory sayings against the
Christian faith. An investigation conducted by the Inquisition and the local
lay authorities revealed that the offending writings were circulating among
the Sicilian Jewish communities. Several communities are mentioned specifically: Termini, Sciacca, Caltabellotta, Palermo, and Castroreale.31 In Palermo
menti; Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, iv, No. 2262.
28
Coniglione, La provincia domenicana di Sicilia, pp.3034; Bevilacqua Krasner, Re,
regine, francescani, domenicani ed ebrei in Sicilia.
29
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No. 3713.
30
Compulsory sermons: Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, iv, Nos2262, 2328, 2550, 2569,
2570; Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, v, Nos3026, 3035, 3051, 3062, 3078; Simonsohn, The Jews
in Sicily, vi, Nos3700, 3713, 4026, 4112. Attempts by the Jews to prevent compulsory sermons:
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, v, No.2769a (an official letter from 1444, citing a papal bull in
favour of the Jews) and Nos3048, 3062 (letters from 1453 mentioning two embassies sent by
the Jews to King AlfonsoV of Aragon against preachers); on the activities of preachers in Sicily,
see also: Bresc, Un monde mditerranen, ii, 63537.
31
Sicilian communities that were involved in the affair: a special messenger was sent to investigate the Jews of Termini (today Termini Immerese, on the northern shore of Sicily); some Jews
of Sciacca (a port city in south-west Sicily) were arrested and put to trial for crimes of lese divine
maiestatis; the count of Caltabellotta (a mountain town near Sciacca) arrested certain Jews for
matters concerning the faith: Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, Nos4037, 4044, 4048, 4049.

200 Nadia Zeldes

the authorities arrested several Jews for teaching and saying falsehoods against
Jesus and Mary; they confessed under torture and were executed by burning.32
The accusations created a climate of hatred and violence against the Jews and
during the summer of 1474 riots broke out all over Sicily, hitting particularly
hard the communities in the county of Modica, in the south.33
It has been suggested that the abominable book that circulated among
Sicilian Jews was some version or other of Toledot Yeshu, a medieval parody
on the gospels; there has been also a suggestion that the accusations referred
in fact to the Talmud.34 Before attempting to identify the offending writings,
I propose to reconstruct the events that led to the accusation and name the
protagonists.
The earliest notice that an investigation was taking place comes from a letter of the Aragonese viceroy of Sicily, Lopez Ximnez De Urrea, dated 4June
1474. The letter ordered a high official of the royal treasury to go to the city of
Termini (on the northern coast of Sicily) and make inquiries in order to find
out whether the local Jews had books containing matters against the Christian
faith.35 The letter also mentioned that the offending books had already been
In February 1475 the Jews of Castroreale (a town in north-eastern Sicily) were pardoned for
various offences excepting the abominable book: Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4106.
32
Accusations against the Jews of Palermo: quod ex eorum ore spurcissimo contra Iesum
Christum [] nec non contra gloriosam et intemeratam Mariam virginem eius matrem quedam
obscena et prava ac diabolica figmenta falsissimis dogmatibus suis ac libellis famosis quedam
affirmare, dicere et docere presumpserunt [] contra ipsos Iudeos inquiri mandavimus, et
aliquos ad torturas positos convintos et confessos comburi fecimus, et mori et aliqui torturis
subiectis. Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4049.
33
The riots of 1474: Modica-Scala, Le comunit ebraiche nella contea di Modica,
pp.21527; Palermo, New Evidence about the Slaughter of the Jews; Bresc, Arabes de langue,
Juifs de religion, pp.31727.
34
On Toledot Yeshu and Jewish polemics against Christianity there is a vast literature and
the following references do not presume to cover all of it. I have listed several works relevant to
the present discussion, see: Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach jdischen Quellen; Deutsch, Toledot
Yeshu viewed by Christians; Lasker, Jewish Philosophical Polemics against Christianity; Lasker
and Stroumsa, The Polemic of Nestor the Priest; Limor and Yuval, Skepticism and Conversion.
In Sicily: Bresc, Arabes de langue, Juifs de religion, pp.31727. Identification of the offending
writings as the Talmud: Palermo, New Evidence about the Slaughter of the Jews, pp.25457.
35
Como sapiti per honuri ac zelu di la divina maiestati et sua virginissima matri havimu
fattu inqueriri contra li Iudei di quista chitati per certi falsi libri et scripturi li quali in putiri di
alcuni Iudei si sunnu truvati, compillati contra la fidi Cristiana.[] Et secundu simo informati
alcuni Iudei di la Iudeca di la Terra di Termini su in eodem crimine, havimu provisto [] commictimo et comandamo chi conferendovi personaliter in la dicta terra di Termini digiati inves-

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

201

discovered in Palermo. The beginning of the investigation can therefore be


safely dated earlier than June 1474. Further proof for an earlier date comes
from a letter of Pope Sixtus IV dated 12 June which gave Salvo Cassetta,
Inquisitor of Sicily, a mandate to proceed against Sicilian Jews accused of committing offences against the Christian faith. According to the pontifical letter,
the blasphemous books had already been brought to Rome to be examined.36
Given the time needed to bring the books from Sicily to Rome, the pontifical
letter from 12June must have been referring to events that occurred at least a
month earlier.
Unfortunately, no surviving document explains how these books or writings were discovered and brought to the attention of the lay and ecclesiastical authorities in Sicily. Some of the studies that mention this affair suggest
that the Sicilian inquisitor, Salvo Cassetta, may have played a crucial role.37 The
Dominican Salvo Cassetta (14131483) was appointed inquisitor of Sicily in
1466 and held his post until 1476 (though according to some sources he had
left Sicily in November 1474).38 Like many Sicilian intellectuals of that age,
Cassetta studied theology abroad, at the convent of Santa Maria Novella in
Florence. He received his degree as doctor of theology in 1448 and returned to
Sicily. For some time he taught at the Dominican college of Palermo. However,
there is no indication that Cassetta ever studied Hebrew or had sufficient
knowledge of the language to permit him to examine the books on his own
initiative. It is therefore unlikely that Cassetta was the instigator of the investigation; he probably became involved in the affair only after the books had been
brought to his attention.
It is more reasonable to suppose that the original accusation was brought by
a Jewish convert to Christianity rather than a Sicilian Dominican, as none of
the Sicilian humanists were lexical Hebraists. The accuser would have had to be
well informed on books and writings to be found in Jewish libraries, and would
tigari palam et occulte contra li dicti Iudei di la dicta Iudeca, Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi,
No.4037.
36
ac libellos quosdam suos, continentes errores, blasfemias et contumelias plurimas in
Deum et sanctos suos, qui ad conspectum usque nostrum delati sunt, Simonsohn, The Apostolic
See and the Jews, iii, No.972; Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4040.
37
Palermo, New Evidence about the Slaughter of the Jews, pp.25455; Bevilacqua
Krasner, Re, regine, francescani, domenicani ed ebrei in Sicilia, pp.8387.
38
For biographical details: Foa, Cassetta (Casseta, Caseta), Salvo; However, according to
a Sicilian manuscript quoted by Giuseppe Palermo, Cassetta had already left Sicily for good in
November 1474: Palermo, New Evidence about the Slaughter of the Jews, p.255.

202 Nadia Zeldes

have had to possess the necessary linguistic and scholarly skills in order to point
out the offending passages. There is no lack of precedents: Nicholas Donins
role in the Talmud trial of 1240 in Paris, Paul Christian in the Disputation of
Barcelona (1263), a convert named Manuforte in the accusations against the
Talmud in southern Italy in 1270, and so on.39 These precedents make a good
case for the involvement of a convert in the Sicilian affair.
The obvious candidate would be Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada, better known as Flavius Mithridates, who converted around 1466.40 Moncada
is best known as Giovanni Pico della Mirandolas teacher of Kabbalah, and
was famous for being an expert in Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean [Aramaic],
Greek, and Latin.41 Moncada, formerly Shmuel ben Nissim Abul Faragh of
Caltabellotta,42 was certainly familiar with the books owned by Sicilian Jews.
In his youth he studied and copied books found in his fathers library and later
in life he translated various Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic texts into Latin.43
39

Attacks against Jewish books during the Middle Ages, most notably the Talmud, were
usually the work of converted Jews: Nicholas Donin in 1240 in the Talmud trial of Paris, Paul
Christian and the Disputation of Barcelona (and also in Paris in 1269), Manuforte and the
accusation against the Talmud in southern Italy, and many others: Cohen, The Friars and the
Jews, pp.5199 (and the literature cited there); Cohen, Living Letters of the Law, pp.31742;
Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, i, 30042; Shatzmiller, La Deuxime controverse de
Paris.
40
Giacomo da Volterra, writing in 1481, informed his readers that Guglielmus Siculus
(that is Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada) had been baptized about fourteen years before that
date, that is, around 1467: Guglielmus siculus.[] qui hebreus a nativitate fuit [] ante annos
circiter quattuordecim Christianorum baptismate initiatus, Jacobus Volterranus, Diarium
Romanum, p.49. By 1468 he completed his studies of Latin at the university of Catania:
Nobilis d.Guillelmus Raymundus de Monthecathino [] studens [] et ut Christi fidelis
magis scienciarum cumulo invenire ac investigare posset gratiam Dei, Latina lingua in gimnasiis
nostris sacras litteras nostrasque sciencias adipisci conatus est, Catania, Atti del Senato (=Atti
dei Giurati) 19, c.141r: Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.3774. The document was first
published by Sabbadini, Storia documentata della universit di Catania, No.168, p.95.
41
There is a vast literature on Moncada and it has grown considerably in recent years.
Here are a few fundamental sudies: Starrabba, Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada; Simonsohn,
Some Well-Known Jewish Converts; Flavius Mithridates, Sermo de Passione Domini, ed. by
Wirszubski, pp.3541, 58. On Moncadas city of birth: Scandaliato, Le radici familiari e culturali di Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada; Scandaliato, Le radici siciliane di Flavio Mitridate.
42
Moncada mentions his fathers name in his translation of De Ymaginibus coelestibus of
Ibn al-Haytam from Arabic into Latin: Starrabba, Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada, p.85;
Campanini, La radice dolorante.
43
On Moncadas linguistic expertise, see: Simonsohn, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

203

Hehad the skills, the knowledge, and the opportunity to examine books found
in Jewish libraries in Sicily. But there is no evidence for his having initiated
the investigation. Moreover, it is unclear whether he was in Sicily at the time.
In June 1474 a papal bull accorded Moncada, who had already finished his
studies at the University of Naples, a yearly benefice of 200 ducats. Possibly, he
was still in Naples. Between 1474 and 1475 Moncada stayed for some time in
Catalonia at the court of King JuanII of Aragon. He returned to Sicily in 1477
and remained there for several years;44 but an earlier return cannot be excluded.
In November 1474 Pope SixtusIV issued a bull in Moncadas favour, referring
to him as clericus messanensis (cleric of Messina), indicating that he may have
returned to Sicily for a period of time. In the same document the pope approved
Moncadas petition to annul the dispositions of Salomone Anello, a wealthy
Sicilian Jewish merchant who bequeathed a sum of money in order to establish
a Jewish school in Agrigento. The reason given for the annulment is the infamous book quemdam libellum hebraicis licteris scriptum (that booklet written in Hebrew letters).45 The book is again mentioned in 1476 in a privilege
granted to Moncada by King JuanII of Aragon (and Sicily). The king agreed
to implement Moncadas request to be granted the legacy of Salomone Anello
and the reason given is libellum quemdam famosum ebraicis scriptum (that
famous booklet written in Hebrew) which had been found in the Jews libraries.46 Moncadas insistence on this matter, taken together with the repeated
mention of the offending book, would suggest that he was promised the money
as a reward for his role in the discovery and suppression of this book.
And yet, there is another individual who could have played a crucial role in
the book affair. In an official document dated April 1474, or April 1475, the
viceroy of Sicily gave permission to a Magister Paulus, described as homu di
grandi virtuti et doctu specialiter in lingua ebrayca (a man of great virtue and
most learned in the Hebrew language) to preach against the Jews.The preacher
Jews and Judaism; Busi, and others, eds, The Great Parchment: Introduction.
44
Moncada left Sicily in 1470 to study in Naples, and in 1472 he was still there. Bull dated
19 June 1474 in favour of Moncada: Starrabba, Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada, p.51. Between
1474 and 1475 he spent some time in Aragon, perhaps a whole year: Starrabba, Guglielmo
Raimondo Moncada, p.30; Simonsohn, Some Well-Known Jewish Converts, p.21. Return to
Sicily in 1477: Scandaliato, Le radici familiari e culturali di Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada,
pp.46364; Scandaliato, Le radici siciliane di Flavio Mitridate, pp.5, 10.
45
Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, iii, No.976, p.1218; Simonsohn, The Jews in
Sicily, vi, No.4087.
46
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4181.

204 Nadia Zeldes

was to admonish them for their pertinaciousness, stubbornness, perfidy, and


unbelief, and to convince them by reason, example, and force to convert to the
Catholic faith. The same letter was sent to the governor of Syracuse, at the time
a separate political unit belonging to the queen.47 On the margin of the letter
to Syracuse is written magister Paolo neophato, thus revealing that the zealous
preacher was a Jewish convert to Christianity.48 This easily explains his knowledge of Hebrew. Could this Magister Paulus be none other than the Aragonese
Dominican Paulus de Heredia, one of the first Christian Kabbalists? A key
question is the date of Heredias conversion. It is an accepted fact that Heredia
converted in his old age around 1480 while in Rome, but what if both date and
place are wrong?49
Paulus de Heredia described his visit to Sicily in his Ensis Pauli, a long
polemical treatise finished in Rome in 1488. But when exactly was Heredia
in Sicily? In his Ensis Pauli he mentioned an encounter with a certain Rabbi
Abraham Papur of Iacca who gave him a Kabbalistic book explaining the
secret of the Tetragrammaton.50 Franois Secret, who published parts of the
Ensis Pauli, suggested that Iacca was a locality in Sicily and therefore concluded that the encounter took place in Sicily. Secret made no attempt to
identify Rabbi Papur.51 Papur is not a Sicilian surname and it does not appear
in any of the documents pertaining to the Sicilian Jewries of this period;52 on
47

The queen is Isabella of Castille who received the fief of Syracuse in 1469 as dowry on
her marriage to Ferdinand, already king of Sicily.
48
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, Nos4026, 4112. According to Simosohn, the date of
this document is April 1474. However, the indiction year is VIII, therefore it could be 1475. A
notarial act made out in Palermo in 1476 mentions a venerabilem chericum magistrum Paulum
neophatam, acting in favour of one Franciscus de Urrea, a convert, in a dispute against a Jew:
Palermo, Arch. di Stato, Notai Defunti, Pietro Taglanti reg. 1166, dated 8October 1476. If our
identification of Magister Paulus as Heredia is correct, it proves that in October 1476 he was
still in Sicily. Moreover, his description as chericum (a cleric) reveals that by that time he had
already joined a religious order.
49
Franois Secret argued for Heredias conversion in his old age: Secret, LEnsis Pauli de
Paulus de Heredia. However, the biographical note there contradicts the information given in
a previous article of Secret, based on the Epistola de Secretis: Secret, Umanisti dimenticati.
50
Excerpts from this work have been published in Secret, LEnsis Pauli de Paulus de
Heredia.
51
Secret, LEnsis Pauli de Paulus de Heredia, p.268.
52
Most documents regarding the history of the Jews in Sicily were published in the series
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily. All volumes have a name index which facilitates searching. Many
notarial documents regarding the Jews of Sciacca and nearby localities have been studied in the

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

205

the other hand, members of the Papur family appear in sources concerning the
Jewish community of Jaca in Aragon.53 Moreover, a Rabbi Abram Avinpapur
(Ibn Papur?) is mentioned in an inventory listing Hebrew books that belonged
to Jews of Jaca. In the inventory, made in all likelihood during the reign of
Alfonso the Magnanimous (141658), Avinpapur appears as the owner of
thirty-eight Hebrew books, some of which can be probably identified as books
on Kabbalah (for example: Glosa de los Secretos).54 Thus, there can be no doubt
that the Ensis Pauli describes an encounter that occurred in Jaca of Aragon in
Heredias youth, at a time when he was still a Jew. The identification of Heredias
teacher of Kabbalah throws some light on our protagonists background and
education and perhaps further inquiries in the archives of Huesca might reveal
more information on the biography of this mysterious Aragonese converso.
Another work, the Epistola de Secretis, allows for a more precise dating of
Heredias stay in Sicily and the circumstances leading to his conversion.The
Epistola de secretis is dedicated to Iigo Lpez de Mendoza, ambassador of
Ferdinand and Isabella to the Apostolic curia between 1486 and 1488. It was,
therefore, written close to this period of time. The Epistola is purported to be
a translation of a Kabbalistic work attributed to Neumia filius Haccanae (the
Tanna Nehuniah ben Hakana). It is composed of two letters: the first treats
eight questions concerning biblical secrets related to messianology and the second discusses the genealogy of Jesus and Mary.55 The present article, however,
does not concern itself with the Kabbalistic work as such, only with the autobiographical and historical information provided by Heredia.
last decade by Angela Scandaliato: Scandaliato, Judaica minora sicula. No rabbi named Papur
appears in any of these publications.
53
Sento and his son Jeuda Papur are represented in various commercial transactions of the
Jews of Jaca during the second half of the fifteenth century: Motis Dolader, La Aljama Juda de
Jaca en el Siglo xv, pp.307, 322, 327.
54
Rabbi Abraham Avinpapur appears among the notables who participated in an assembly
that was convened in 1419 in the synagogue of Jaca: Motis Dolader, and Gutwirth, La Aljama
Juda de Jaca (R. Avinpapur: ibid., p.234). The document listing Jewish libraries is conserved in
the Archivo Historico Provincial de Huesca and belongs to the section on Jaca in that archive:
Gutwirth and Dolader, Twenty-Six Jewish Libraries. The inventory of books belonging to
Abram Avinpapur: ibid., pp.5051. For the dating of the document see the authors discussion
of the historical background: ibid., pp.2831.
55
BAV, MS Lat. Vatican 2870, cited by Franois Secret: Secret, Pico della Mirandola e gli
inizi della cabala cristiana; Secret, Umanisti dimenticati, Appendix, pp.22526. Scholem, The
Beginnings of Christian Kabbalah, pp.1751. In this article Scholem gives a detailed description of the contents of the Epistola, pointing out mistakes and obvious falsifications.

206 Nadia Zeldes

In a passage from the second letter of the Epistola de secretis, Heredia refers
to his learned discussions with the Sicilian Dominican Giovanni Gatto (or
Gatti), Bishop of Cefal: congressus sum cum Cato presule Cephaludensi qui
mihi respondit. This detail provides a clue as to the possible date of the encounter. Giovanni Gatto was appointed bishop of Cefal in Sicily in June 1472 and
held the position until 1475, when Pope SixtusIV appointed him bishop of
Catania. Nominally he stayed in office as bishop of Catania until 1479, but
King JuanII of Aragon refused to confirm the appointment (he preferred a
different candidate) and in 1479 Gatto was offered again the see of Cefal.
He refused to return to his former bishopric and chose instead to retire to the
Dominican convent of Messina.56 Since Gatto is described in the Epistola as
bishop of Cefal, the encounter described by Heredia probably took place
between 1472 and 1475.
In a different passage in the same part of the Epistola, Heredia refers to his
participation in a religious disputation: Hoc ego argumentum, cum eram contrarius Christo benedicto, saepe numero feci eruditissimis sacrae theologiae
magistris (As I was against the Blessed Christ, I have repeatedly offered this
argument to the most learned masters of theology). This means, in my view,
that Heredia participated in the theological dispute as a Jew. The encounter
described in the Epistola probably took place during his visit to Sicily, before
his conversion to Christianity. If Heredia was indeed the magister Paulus mentioned above, he must have converted before April 1474 or 1475.
One of the topics of the dispute described by Heredia was the genealogy
of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary according to the Gospels. 57 A problem that has
confronted Christian theology since its inception was the attempt to reconcile the virgin birth with the Davidic ancestry of Jesus through Joseph in
other words, how could Josephs ancestry matter if Jesus was not really his
son? Another problem that preoccupied the theologians was the disagreement
between the genealogies of Joseph and Mary as given in Matthew (I.117) and
in Luke (III.2338). Gatto attempted to reconcile the differing versions of
Matthew and Luke and argued that the Virgin herself was of Davidic descent.
Interestingly, the bishop described a genealogy of Mary in which figure the
names of Pantera and Bar Pantera: Levi secundum Lucam genuit Melchi et
Panteram. Pantera autem genuit Bar Panteram. (Levi, according to Luke, begat
56

Giordano, Gatti (Gatto), Giovanni, p.574 (see n.5 above).


Nonnulli sacre pagine professores mihi respondebant verum esse evangelium ipsum
narrare genealogiam Joseph [] Et quia Ioachim carebat filio: eiusque hereditas ad virginem
Mariam filiam perveniebat, Secret, Umanisti dimenticati, Appendix, p.225. The quote refers
to Paulus de Heredias discussions with Gatto and with other scholars.
57

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

207

Melchi and Pantera. And Pantera begat Bar Pantera).58 The names Pantera
and Bar Pantera do not appear in the Gospels, but they are part of an Eastern
Christian tradition that includes them in Marys genealogy. This tradition can
be traced to StAndrew of Crete (d.c.740) and was accepted by StJohn of
Damascus (d.749).59 The erudite Giovanni Gatto could have learned of these
traditions as part of his interest in the Greek language and the Eastern church.
According to Jewish tradition, however, Mary had an adulterous relation with
one Pandera or Bar Pantera, sometimes portrayed as a Roman soldier. Pandera
is supposed to have been the real father of Jesus in some versions of the Toledot
Yeshu and in other Jewish polemical works against Christianity. The names
Panthera, Ben Pandera and Ben Pantiri are also mentioned in the Talmud.60
Now, if Heredia indeed took part in this discussion of the genealogy of Mary as
a Jew, he would have probably pointed out to Gatto and the other scholars that
the Jews had different traditions concerning Pandera/Panthera. It is thus logical
to surmise that the disputation led to the discovery of what is described as illius
nephandum libellum (that abominable booklet) that proferred the Jewish version of the genealogy of Jesus. The papal letter from June 1474 instructing the
inquisitor Salvo Cassetta to investigate the offending book described it as being
contra ipsum Dei [] et eiusque gloriosam semperque virginem genitricem
Mariam.61 Sicilian documents also mention that it was particularly injurious to
Jesus and his mother.62 The book must have, therefore, contained some version
58

Secret, Umanisti dimenticati, p.226.


According to Andrew of Crete, Bar Panthera was the father of Joachim, father of Mary:
Andreas Cretensis, Oratio V, col.915. Panthera and Bar Panthera also appear in early Christian
polemical literature, see: Origen Adamantius, Contra Celsum, ed. by Chadwick, p.31, n.3.
60
Panthera in Jewish tradition: Krauss, The JewishChristian Controversy, esp. pp.7071,
156; On the prevalence of Pandera in polemical writings (Christian and Jewish), see: Merchavia,
The Church versus Talmudic and Midrashic Literature, pp.91, 27476, 32930; Schfer, Jesus in
the Talmud, pp.97102. See also: Maier, Ges Cristo e il cristianesimo nella tradizione giudaica
antica, pp.22533; Pandera is also mentioned in a sixteenth-century manuscript version of the
polemical book of Nestor the Priest, but not in other surviving versions: This man called Jesus
son of Pandera was a mamzer [the product of an adulterous union], Lasker and Stroumsa, The
Polemic of Nestor the Priest, pp.121, 170. Although this could be a later interpolation, it may
also represent some medieval version that did not survive.
61
Papal letter: Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No. 4040.
62
In February 1475 the Jews of Castroreale in Sicily were pardoned for all past offences,
except the possession of the abominable book which was against Jesus and His Most Glorious
Mother: excepto tamen crimine detencionis et cuiuslibet usus illius nephandi libelli compositi
contra dominum Iesum Christum eiusque gloriosissimam genitricem, Simonsohn, The Jews in
Sicily, vi, No. 4106.
59

208 Nadia Zeldes

of the medieval Jewish polemics on the genealogy and birth of Jesus. In any
case, both the proximity in time and the topic of discussion suggest that there
might have been a connection between the encounter of Gatto and Heredia
and the accusations brought against the Jews in Sicily.
According to Heredias own testimony, he came to Sicily as a Jew and toured
the island. During his visit he looked for Hebrew Kabbalistic books and was
shown a book on the Tetragrammaton. Thus he had the opportunity to learn
about the books that were found in the libraries of Sicilian Jews.63 At some
point Heredia met with Sicilian theologians, among them Giovanni Gatto,
Bishop of Cefal. He could have joined in willingly, or perhaps he was coerced
to take part in a religious dispute concerning the genealogy of Jesus. If Heredia
is indeed Magister Paulus, he must have converted shortly after the encounter
took place, sometime before April 1474 or 1475. Nevertheless, even if Heredia
was responsible for the initial investigation, it does not completely preclude the
involvement of Moncada in the abominable book affair. As he was in Rome
at the time, Moncada might have been invited to examine the books brought
from Sicily and this would explain why he was the recipient of two privileges
that refer to the nephandum libellum.
The crisis ended in a compromise. The Jews were forbidden to preach, read,
relate or quote from the offending books, but their harassment ceased. After the
payment of a large fine to the viceroy, the authorities agreed to proceed only against
those Jews of the realm who maintained or were maintaining the false opinions
contained in those books in the synagogues, or preached them in public.64
63

Most information regarding the contents of the libraries of Sicilian Jews comes from
notarial acts, wills, and property lists, see: Bresc, Livre et societ en Sicile, pp.6376. Bresc published twenty-eight lists of books belonging to Jews. The lists contain portions of the Bible,
Talmudic tractates, Halakhic works, glosses, Hebrew grammar, books of medicine, one or two
copies of Sefer Josippon, and some works that are hard to identify. No kabbalistic books appear
in these lists and no polemical literature. More books appear in the notarial acts published in
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, x, pp.6245, 6280. However, it is hardly likely that polemical
works would come under the scrutiny of a Christian notary. A glimpse of the possible discrepancy between notarial lists and books actually found in the libraries of Sicilian Jews is offered by
the surviving texts of kabbalistic works copied in Sicily but never mentioned in Latin notarial
acts: Tamani, Manoscritti ebraici copiati in Sicilia nei secoli xivxv; Beit-Ari, Additamenta
to Giuliano Tamanis Article on Hebrew.
64
In an official letter dated 2August 1474 the Jews were ordered to refrain from preaching
or spreading the books contents: predicanto, legendo ac instruendo, narrando et recitando []
deliberavimus [] non procedere sed ab inquisicionibus punicionibus et processibus predictis
desistere [] reservantes tamen nobis illos Iudeos per regnum habitantes qui libros dictarum fal-

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

209

Identifying the Book


All information we have on the abominable book that unleashed the investigation and its catastrophic consequences for Sicilian Jewry comes from Christian
sources and no title is mentioned. The first reference mentions false books and
writings [] against the Christian faith.65 A more detailed description comes
from the papal letter instructing the inquisitor Salvo Cassetta where the book is
condemned for being contra ipsum Dei unigenitum redemptorem nostrum et
eiusque gloriosam semperque virginem genitricem Mariam (against Gods only
son, our saviour, and his glorious, perpetual virgin mother, Mary).66 In a letter
of Viceroy Lopez Ximnez De Urrea, granting pardon to the Jews in Palermo
accused of having this book in their possession, their offence is described as diabolica figmenta (diabolical inventions) and falsifications against Jesus Christ
the saviour and his glorious mother, Mary the virgin.67 But which Jewish book
is most likely to have sparked the controversy?
Let us begin with the suggestion that the accusations may refer to the Talmud.
Indeed, the meaning of certain passages in the Talmud could be construed as
referring to Jesus and Mary, and in fact this topic had already been debated
during the trial of Paris in 1240. A more specific accusation was made by Pope
InnocentIV in 1244 when he renewed the condemnation of the Talmud, adding
that there are flagrant blasphemies against God and his Christ and the blessed
Virgin. How central were these charges to the condemnation of the Talmud? In
his Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity, Jeremy
Cohen argued that despite this accusation, Pope Innocents letter does not indicate that concern for blasphemy was at the core of the anti-Talmud proceedings:
the emphasis was rather on the charge that the Jews had forsaken the Bible for
the Talmud.68 Nevertheless, accusations that the Talmud contained blasphemies against Jesus and Mary were repeated in 1270 in south Italy by the convert Manuforte, and again the authorities confiscated and examined the books.69
sarum et damnatarum opiniones tenebat et tenuerunt illos in sinagoga seu alias predicaverunt,
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4049.
65
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4037.
66
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4040.
67
Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, vi, No.4049.
68
Thalamuth Ebraice nuncupantur et magnus liber est apud eos, excedens textum Biblie
in immensum, in quo sunt blasphemie in Deum et Christum eius ac beatam Virginem manifeste, Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, i, No.171; Cohen, Letters of the Law, p.325.
69
Cassuto, Sulla storia degli ebrei nellItalia meridionale; Cassuto, The Destruction of the

210 Nadia Zeldes

As for the Jews, in response to claims that the Talmud contained blasphemies
against Jesus and Mary, they usually denied that these passages actually referred
to Jesus or Christianity, and in fact such identification is far from obvious.70 But
this type of charge against the Talmud would have been no novelty by 1474 and
therefore would not have necessitated a special investigation.
The most compelling argument against the identification of the abominable
book as the Talmud, is that the name Talmud is never mentioned in any of
the documents pertaining to this affair. Now, even if the Sicilian authorities did
not possess the necessary expertise to identify the writings in question as the
Talmud, the pontifical letter of June 1474, or the one granting the privilege to
Moncada, would not have missed such an identification. All sources referring
to the abominable book describe it as a libellum (booklet) that is a small book,
more likely a treatise. It is also emphasized that it was written in Hebrew letters
(quedam libellum, Hebraicis licteris scriptum); this description precludes any
polemical work written in Arabic script. It should be pointed out, however, that
Judeo-Arabic (that is, Arabic written in Hebrew characters) was still used by
Sicilian Jews in the fifteenth century.71 Thus, the circulation of a Judeo-Arabic
polemical work in Sicily such as The Account of the Disputation of the Priest
(Qissat Mujadalat al-Usquf ) cannot be excluded out of hand. This work discusses the genealogy of Jesus and Mary, stresses the human nature of Jesus the
child, and refers in extremely crude terms to Marys pregnancy.72 But if the
Sicilian booklet was in Judeo-Arabic it is less likely that Paulo de Heredia, an
Aragonese Jew, was involved in its disclosure. Such an identification of the book
would make Moncada the central figure in the controversy since he knew JudeoArabic very well. On the other hand, if it was indeed written in Hebrew, it could
have been any of the polemical works against Christianity that circulated among
the Jewish communities of Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
The contents of the book that were considered particularly offensive to
Christianity are described in the pontifical letter addressed to Salvo Cassetta.
The emphasis is on the injury to Gods only son, our Saviour, and his gloriJewish Academies.
70
Merchavia, The Church versus Talmudic and Midrashic Literature, the Introduction, and
pp.27475. Jordan, Marian Devotion.
71
Segments of Sicilian Jewry still read and produced documents in Judeo-Arabic during the fifteenth century: Bresc and Goitein, Un inventaire dotal de juifs siciliens (1479);
Piemontese, Codici giudeo-arabi di Sicilia; Burgaretta, Un documento giudeo-arabo siciliano
conservato a Siracusa.
72
Lasker and Stroumsa, The Polemic of Nestor the Priest, pp.6368.

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

211

ous mother Mary, virgin in perpetuity. Jewish polemics attacked various points
of Christian doctrine: the Trinity, Incarnation, Transubstantiation, and the
Virgin Birth.73 But the stress on perpetual virginity in the pontifical letter hints
at the nature of the polemical treatise. Although certain versions of the Toledot
Yeshu represent the most explicit and crude polemics directed against the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, some medieval Jewish philosophical works also deny
it. A good example is Sefer Milhamot ha-Shem (1170), where the author, Jacob
ben Reuven, refutes the dogma of perpetual virginity.74 This polemical work,
written in southern France or in Spain, could have easily reached Sicily during
the High Middle Ages via Jewish travellers or migrants.75 There is also Sefer
Nizzahon Yashan (Nizzahon Vetus) which offers a detailed criticism of the
genealogy of Jesus and Mary based on the Gospels. The author argues:
Thus, they say that so-and-so begat so-and-so until Mattan begat Jacob, and Jacob
begat Joseph the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ;
[Matthew 1. 1516]. Now, this is how we answer them: If she had not yet had
sexual relations, nor was she even married to her husband, then why is he called her
husband? Moreover, if they want to inform us that he is from a royal family, why
was his genealogy related to that of Joseph, who was not his father and to whom he
had no blood relationship at all? Rather than telling us the genealogy of Joseph, he
should have told us that of Mary by saying that so-and-so begat so-and-so until Soand-so begat Mary who gave birth to Jesus. The fact that this was not done shows
that they did not know Marys genealogy and that she was not of royal descent.76
73
Lasker, Jewish Philosophical Polemics against Christianity. On the Virgin birth: ibid.,
pp.15359.
74

Ben Reuben, Jacob, Sefer Milhamot ha-Shem, pp.1112.


Jews from these parts of Europe came to Sicily during the high and late Middle Ages,
either on their way to the eastern Mediterranean, or in order to settle there. Rabbi Anatoli of
Marseille came to Sicily in the late twelfth century and lived there for a few years before settling in
Alexandria (Egypt) where he served as Dayyan. On R. Anatoli, see: Frenkel, The Compassionate
and Benevolent, pp.12833. Jews from Spain and Provence (such as R. Jacob Anatoli) lived
at the court of Emperor FrederickII (11941250): Jacob Anatoli, Malmad Ha-Talmidim, in
the authors introduction (see also a recent critical edition and translation of this work: Jacob
Anatoli, Il pugnolo dei discipoli, ed. by Pepi). On Emperor Fredericks intellectual debates with
Jews and Muslims, see: Abulafia, Frederick II, pp.25457. In the late fourteenth century refugees from the massacres and forced conversions in the Iberian peninsula came to Sicily: Zeldes,
Catalan Jews and Conversos in Sicily. More to the point, a notarial act from Palermo from
the mid-fifteenth century attests to the sale of Hebrew books brought to Sicily by a Jew from
Perpignan: Bresc, Livre et societ en Sicile, No.105.
76
The Jewish-Christian Debate, ed. by Berger, pp.16768. The English translation quoted
above is David Bergers.
75

212 Nadia Zeldes

Interestingly, this text is reminiscent of the debate presided over by Giovanni


Gatto, but seen from the Jewish side. The Nizzahon Vetus also points out the
discrepancies between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Taken in conjunction
with the dispute described by Heredia, this work seems a particularly apt Jewish
response to the theological arguments of Gatto. In fact, in his introduction to the
critical edition of the Nizzahon Vetus, David Berger remarked that this work is a
striking example of Jewish disputation in its most aggressive form [] presented
in an exceptionally vigorous style.77 The identity of the author of Nizzahon Vetus
remains unknown, but most scholars agree that he was a German Jew. Internal
evidence suggests that this polemical work was written in the latter part of the
thirteenth century or the early fourteenth. The possibility that an Ashkenazi
polemical work circulated in fifteenth-century Sicily should not be dismissed
out of hand. Some Ashkenazi works found their way to Sicily in this period:
an Ashkenazi prayer book is listed in an inventory from Caltabellotta, and
R.Jacob Landas Sefer Agur is mentioned in a book list from Palermo. In 1485
an Ashkenazi Jew, one Elio Achimi, was selling Hebrew books in Palermo.78 But
would an Ashkenazi work enjoy such a wide distribution in Sicily?
Sefer Nestor Ha-Komer, the Hebrew version of Judeo-Arabic The Account
of the Disputation of the Priest might be a better candidate. This work comments on the genealogy of Jesus and Mary, cites the Gospels of Matthew
and Luke and points out the contradictions between the two genealogies.79
Moreover, it argues against the divinity of Jesus by describing the pregnancy of
Mary in extremely crude terms:
His mother carried him in the confinement of the womb, in darkness, filth and
menstrual blood for nine months, as Matthew claimed [] Do you know that
Nestor said: I do not believe in a god who dwelt in the filth and menstrual blood
in the abdomen and womb.80

Nestor is already mentioned in Jacob ben Reuvens Milhamot Ha-Shem. It was


also known to the authors of two medieval Ashkenazic polemical works: Sefer
Yosef Ha-Meqanneh and Nizzahon Yashan (cited above). The Judeo-Arabic text
77

The Jewish-Christian Debate, ed. by Berger, pp.34.


Bresc, Livre et societ en Sicile, p.67, Nos154, 224; a notarial contract made out in
Palermo in February 1484 (actually 1485) mentions Elio Achimi judeo teutonico who sold
several books to Abraham Fano: ASP N.D. Matteo Vermiglio reg. 1355 (no page numbers).
79
Lasker and Stroumsa, The Polemic of Nestor the Priest, p.68.
80
Lasker and Stroumsa, The Polemic of Nestor the Priest, p.67.
78

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

213

originated in the Muslim Orient in the ninth century and gradually made its
way westwards. The editors of the modern critical edition, Daniel Lasker and
Sara Stroumsa, argue for a journey made from the Muslim Orient to Spain, to
thirteenth-century Ashkenaz and later to sixteenth-century Greece. But a convincing argument can also be made for a journey from the Muslim Orient to
Western Europe by way of Sicily during the High Middle Ages. A good example for such a journey is the diffusion of Maimonidess Mishneh Torah in the
late twelfth century. In his letter against astrology which was addressed to the
community of Montpellier in southern France, Maimonides wrote:
And it is self-evident that this compilation that we have written regarding the rules
of the Torah, which I have named Mishneh Torah, has not yet reached you, otherwise you would have known my opinion [] and I suppose that it would reach you
before this responsum, since it has already spread to the island of Sicily as it has
spread in the east, and in the west, and in Yemen.81

The Hebrew Sefer Nestor is a translation and an adaptation of a Judeo-Arabic


work, which in itself brings it closer to the cultural world of Sicilian Jewry. As
the polemical book remains unnamed throughout the investigation we can surmise that it was not a well-known text, or at least, not one easily recognized by
the ecclesiastical authorities. Another argument in favour of identifying Nestor
as the abominable book that circulated in Sicily is its spread to Greece in the
sixteenth century.82 The expulsion of the Jews from the Spanish kingdoms
in 1492 included Sicily, and many Sicilian refugees settled in the islands of
Cyprus, Corfu, Zante, and Crete. A strong Sicilian community resided in the
city of Salonika, and smaller Sicilian communities were founded in the Balkans.
The refugees brought with them books and manuscripts.83 The diffusion of the
exiles might explain how the book could have reached Greek-speaking territory
in the sixteenth century.
81

,
, . . .
, Letter on Astrology to the Sages of
Montpellier, Moses Maimonides, Letters, ed. by Shilat, ii, No. 33, p.478.
82
Lasker and Stroumsa, The Polemic of Nestor the Priest (Sefer Nestor ha-Komer), pp.32,
35, 121, 170.
83
On the settlement of Sicilian Jews in the eastern Mediterranean, see: Palermo, The
Passage of Sicilian Jews to the Eastern Mediterranean after the Expulsion. For an overview of
the spread of the Sicilian diaspora based mainly on rabbinic Responsa, see: Schwartzfuchs, The
Sicilian Jewish Communities in the Ottoman Empire. On books and manuscripts carried by the
exiles: Zeldes Diffusion of Sicilian Exiles.

214 Nadia Zeldes

Unfortunately, a certain identification of the abominable book is not possible as yet, given the lack of information. Nevertheless, we have tried here to
exclude some candidates while suggesting several alternatives that could fit the
descriptions found in contemporary sources.

Conclusion
ChristianJewish polemics is a neglected aspect of the cultural life in fifteenthcentury Sicily. The episodes described above, the dialogue with the Jews concerning the history of Palermo, and the controversy around the abominable
book are opposite sides of the same coin, reflecting the humanists interest in
Jewish culture. Both should be understood as attempts to delve into Jewish
writings in order to unravel the past, local history, or the history of Christianity.
The strong identification of Sicilian humanism with the Dominican order gave
a particular flavour to ChristianJewish encounters. Even the seemingly goodnatured discussions between the Dominican Ranzano and the Jews of Palermo
should be understood in terms of an unequal relationship, the Jews always presenting a defensive attitude. Their stress on the great antiquity of their sources
was probably intended to reinforce their status as a well-established population
that possessed an age-old right to be in Sicily, echoing similar efforts made by
the Jews in Spain.
The spread of conversionist sermons in this period, the accusations against
Hebrew writings and the outbursts of violent riots, were also signs of the weakening position of the Jews in Sicily. Their presence was no longer as easily
accepted as it had been before. In a way, the inquisition launched against the
abominable book represented an attempt to censure and control the Jews and
suppress what was seen as their underground counter-culture. The wide circulation of the abominable book among Sicilian Jewish communities can be interpreted as a Jewish response to conversionist pressures. By mocking the Gospels
and attacking the major tenets of Christianity the Jews were in all likelihood
attempting to counter the arguments proferred by the itinerant preachers they
were forced to listen to.
The full story of the book controversy in Sicily may never be unravelled
to our satisfaction, but perhaps further study of the lives of those involved
Giovanni Gatto, Salvo Casetta, Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada and Paulus de
Heredia would reveal hitherto unknown facts.

Christians, Jews, and Hebrew Books inFifteenth-Century Sicily

215

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reg. 1355, February 1485
Palermo, Archivio di Stato di Palermo, Notai Defunti, Pietro Taglanti
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