Jew­ish Text

The Monk’s Hag­gadah: A Fif­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Illu­mi­nat­ed Codex from the Monastery of Tegernsee

David Stern, Christoph Markschies, Sar­it Shavlen-Eyni, eds.
  • Review
By – April 1, 2015

Some­times the sto­ry of a book is almost as com­pelling as the book itself, and so it is with The Monk’s Hag­gadah. While doing research on hag­gadot at the Nation­al Library of Israel in 1999 – 2000, David Stern, pro­fes­sor of clas­si­cal Hebrew lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, noticed sev­er­al pages of Latin pref­ac­ing an illus­trat­ed hag­gadah. Intrigued, he asked for a print­out. Some months lat­er he showed it to his friend Christoph Markschies, now chair of ancient Chris­tian­i­ty at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty in Berlin, whose curios­i­ty was also piqued and who arranged to have it trans­lat­ed. The trans­la­tion revealed, for the first time in a pri­ma­ry source, a report of the use of the blood of a Chris­t­ian child in the Passover rit­u­al as well as a wealth of mate­r­i­al on Jew­ish prac­tice in fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Germany.

Stern and Markschies had begun plan­ning the pub­li­ca­tion of the hag­gadah when it was sug­gest­ed they add a chap­ter on the art, and they were soon joined in the edit­ing of the book by Sar­it Shalev-Eyni, chair of art his­to­ry at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty. Shalev-Eyni not­ed that the codex was not just anoth­er charm­ing medieval hag­gadah; she cit­ed four illus­tra­tions that have iconog­ra­phy sug­gest­ing Chris­t­ian sig­nif­i­cance. The fact that the hag­gadah was a gift from a preach­er to the monastery at Tegernsee, not­ed for its out­stand­ing library, only added to the mys­tery of the hag­gadah and the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it was intend­ed for Chris­t­ian study.

In three high­ly infor­ma­tive essays Stern, Markschies, and Shalev-Eyni explore the mak­ing and his­to­ry of the hag­gadah. Shalev-Eyni explains in detail the steps in cre­at­ing an illus­trat­ed hag­gadah — the work of the scribe, vocal­iz­ers, illu­mi­na­tors, and oth­ers — and some of the irreg­u­lar­i­ties in this one that under­line the ques­tion of its pur­pose. Markschies dis­cuss­es the path of the hag­gadah to Tegernsee and the cir­cle of monks who stud­ied Judaism in the Mid­dle Ages as a source for ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty, as well as Erhard van Pap­pen­heim, a knowl­edge­able Domini­can Hebraist who trans­lat­ed and explained the hag­gadah at the request of the abbot of Tegernsee. In his pro­logue, which was bound into the codex, Erhard relates the seder to the Eucharist. Erhard was present at a blood libel tri­al in Trent in 1475, and he derived much of his knowl­edge of Jew­ish prac­tice from the con­fes­sions of the Jew­ish defen­dants, but he was also famil­iar with a range of Jew­ish books. The val­ue of his pro­logue, Stern shows, is in Erhard’s mate­r­i­al on medieval Jew­ish prac­tice. Although the con­fes­sions about the use of blood in mat­zos and kid­dush wine are almost cer­tain­ly the result of tor­ture — not acknowl­edged by Erhard — oth­er prac­tices are accu­rate­ly record­ed in what Stern sees the first ethnog­ra­phy” of medieval Jew­ish practice.

Erhard’s pro­logue, in both its orig­i­nal Latin and in trans­la­tion, fol­lows the essays. The pas­sages on the reput­ed blood rit­u­als are dif­fi­cult to read even today, know­ing their influ­ence. On the oth­er hand, Erhard is a seri­ous schol­ar whose inter­est in the seder is based on its sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Eucharist, which he care­ful­ly points out, and his report of prepa­ra­tions for the seder has fas­ci­nat­ing details. The book ends with a com­plete fac­sim­i­le of the codex.

A stun­ning work of schol­ar­ship and book­mak­ing, The Monk’s Hag­gadah rais­es more ques­tions than it answers, but it also tells an absorb­ing sto­ry of medieval schol­ar­ship. As a pre­lude to Passover it is per­haps unset­tling to read this inter­pre­ta­tion of the most beloved of Jew­ish rit­u­als and its pic­ture of fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish life in Ger­many. But as the fas­ci­nat­ing and unsolved sto­ry of this unique hag­gadah and as a trib­ute to schol­ar­ly col­lab­o­ra­tion, The Monk’s Hag­gadah is an out­stand­ing accom­plish­ment. Illus­tra­tions, index, map, notes.

Relat­ed Content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions