Jewish Books and their Readers in Early Modern Cambridge

Hebraica collections at Cambridge University

Hebraica collections at Cambridge University

Supervisory team: Kirsten Macfarlane (Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford), Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University of Oxford) and Scott Mandelbrote (Perne Librarian and Fellow of Peterhouse)

Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at The University of Oxford, in partnership with the Perne Library, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

From the sixteenth century, individuals and institutions began to collect printed Hebrew books in unprecedentedly large numbers. These books are witness to a remarkable moment in European history, when Christian scholars began to take the Jewish origins of their religion seriously, learning enough Hebrew not just to read the Old Testament but also to explore the vast corpus of Jewish literature that followed it. In recent years, this expansion of Hebraic knowledge has been the subject of sustained attention, and scholars have linked it to ground-breaking developments in fields ranging from astronomy and chronology to philosophy and politics, not to mention biblical criticism. And yet, despite this, many of the most basic questions about the acquisition of expertise in Hebrew remain unanswered.

How did scholars learn Hebrew, through which texts, and in what contexts? How did institutions acquire Hebrew books, and how were these books used by their readers? How did the study and teaching of Hebrew change over the course of the early modern period, and what effect did this have on the experience of individual students? This Collaborative Doctoral Award will explore such questions and so provide preliminary answers to the most foundational questions about the study of Hebrew in early modernity.

Under the supervision of Kirsten Macfarlane, Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (University of Oxford) and Scott Mandelbrote (Perne Librarian), the successful applicant will work with specific reference to the Hebrew collections of Cambridge college libraries. Cambridge colleges have a wealth of unstudied and uncatalogued early modern Hebraica, including a number of volumes belonging to prominent scholars and theologians, such as the famous preacher Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) and the King James Bible translator William Branthwaite (d. 1619). While Cambridge's collections would form the boundaries of the project, the successful applicant would be encouraged to pursue their own interests within this field.

This might involve focussing specifically on the library and reading habits of an individual, conducting a detailed microhistory of (for instance) the hundreds of printed Hebraica surviving in Emmanuel College library belonging to Edmund Castell (1606-86), the Cambridge professor of Arabic and ill-fated scholar whose innovative and ambitious lexicographical work earned him scholarly fame and financial ruin. Alternatively, since many of the Cambridge collections contain densely annotated books that were used by multiple readers over long periods of time, the candidate might choose to take a more book-historical approach, reconstructing the networks of scholars and theologians through whose hands Hebrew books passed, as well as the personal histories of particular volumes. Applicants interested in the history of education could examine more general questions about how the teaching of Hebrew changed over time and across institutions, while applicants interested in the history of universities might ask more structural questions about how, why, and under what conditions institutions acquired Hebrew books.