The North French Hebrew Miscellany—formerly known as the British Museum Miscellany—is one of the most extensively illustrated Jewish manuscripts of the high Middle Ages. Created in northern France between 1277 and 1296 with a section of full-page miniatures at the end painted in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, the manuscript is a collection of religious and secular texts in Hebrew signed by its scribe, Benjamin (Binyamin). It boasts thirty-seven full-page miniatures and three three-quarter-page miniatures painted in rich colors with burnished gold or diapered backgrounds. The dozens of embellished word panels with whimsical creatures often extend into the margins.
Selections include the Torah (the first five books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible), Haftarot (extracts from the biblical prophetic books), the Five Scrolls (the biblical books of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), prayers for the year, and a Haggadah (the order of service for the Passover ritual meal), as well as legal texts and secular poetry. The manuscript's diminutive page size belies the scope of its visual and textual wealth.
Gothic Hybrid Creatures
The beginnings of new text sections are marked by the first word written in larger script in ink or paint and framed in painted color. Many of these word panels extend into the margins and feature a range of real, near-real, and fantastic creatures—including monkeys, horses, rabbits, an elephant, fish, peacocks, dragons, and hybrids. This illumination was executed by professional, probably Christian, artists in Paris.
Galleries of Full-Page Miniatures
The miscellany includes three sequences of full-page miniatures on biblical and midrashic subjects (fols. 114r-122r, 516v-527v, and 740v-743r). Some miniatures are circular in format, including the representations of the giant eschatological bird bar yokhnai (fol. 517v), Noah in the Ark (fol. 521r), the Akedah (binding of Isaac, fol. 521v), the ark of the covenant with cherubim (fol. 522r), and—occupying a pair of round miniatures on facing pages—Lot and his family fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah (fols. 740v-741r).
A Priceless Collection of Jewish Texts
Benjamin wrote a series of texts in one or two columns in Hebrew Square Script. That text's painted decoration was added before another series of texts, primarily biblical, was added in one column in the (mostly lower) margins. Twenty-nine of the manuscript's eighty-four distinct texts are written in the margins. The book's collection of texts provides a window into medieval Jewish life, both spiritual and secular.
An Italian Connection
The manuscript likely left northern France within a few generations of its creation and was in Italy by the fifteenth century, where it remained until the nineteenth century. It was purchased for the British Museum in 1839 from one M. Reina of Milan and entered the British Library upon its establishment in 1973.