The Secret Faith of Maestre Hon­o­ra­tus: Pro­fayt Duran and Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty in Late Medieval Iberia

Maud Kozodoy
  • Review
By – April 13, 2016

Medieval Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als were mul­ti-faceted, writ­ing on such a wide range of sub­jects that mod­ern schol­ars are often unable to fol­low the objects of their study across all of their dif­fer­ent sides and instead con­fine their research to the con­text of a spe­cif­ic dis­ci­pline. Stud­ies of Nah­manides, for exam­ple, focus either on his Bib­li­cal exe­ge­sis, his Kab­bal­is­tic sys­tem, or his Tal­mu­dic writ­ings, but very rarely does a researcher dare to tack­le all of those fields together.

Pro­fayt Duran may not have been as pro­lif­ic or as influ­en­tial as Nah­manides, but he wrote on a num­ber of diverse top­ics and in dif­fer­ent styles, includ­ing philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic com­men­taries, tracts, mar­gin­al com­ments, epis­tles, and eulo­gies. Duran lived around the turn of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry in Per­pig­nan, then part of the King­dom of Aragon. Maud Kozodoy has brave­ly tak­en on the chal­lenge of explain­ing these dis­parate com­po­si­tions and search­ing for themes and threads that con­nect them. She treats each clus­ter of writ­ings in a sep­a­rate chap­ter, though the book sug­gests through­out — per­haps too forcibly — how they all fit togeth­er into the con­text of Duran’s intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious biog­ra­phy. The cen­tral prob­lem in Duran’s life stems from his con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­i­ty in 1392, at which point he took on the name Hon­o­ra­tus de Bonafide. Many of Duran’s Hebrew writ­ings, includ­ing caus­tic cri­tiques of both Chris­tian­i­ty and Jew­ish con­verts to Chris­tian­i­ty, were com­posed after that date. Kozodoy is dri­ven by the ques­tion of how this was pos­si­ble — how the Inqui­si­tion and oth­er Chris­t­ian author­i­ties could have per­mit­ted such activ­i­ty by an osten­si­bly sin­cere Chris­t­ian, but also how Duran per­ceived him­self and his reli­gious identity.

The book is replete with sub­tle and fas­ci­nat­ing read­ings of allu­sive Hebrew texts. It moves between many dis­ci­plines, and uti­lizes a very rich and mul­ti­lin­gual bib­li­og­ra­phy. Tak­ing advan­tage of the resources in the Insti­tute of Micro­filmed Hebrew Man­u­scripts in Jerusalem, Kozodoy con­sid­ers man­u­scripts both as indi­vid­ual tex­tu­al units and as quan­ti­ta­tive cumu­la­tions, not­ing for exam­ple that Duran’s Ma’aseh Efod, a work of Bib­li­cal gram­mar, was high­ly pop­u­lar in pre-Expul­sion Iberia, while his com­men­tary on the Guide for the Per­plexed (known as Efo­di and print­ed in many edi­tions of the Guide) enjoyed a much more lim­it­ed dis­tri­b­u­tion in the late Mid­dle Ages.

This book is writ­ten for a wide audi­ence, and Kozodoy tries hard to expli­cate the arcane and intri­cate ideas in Duran’s var­i­ous works. She also mines those works for hid­den mean­ings, traces of Duran’s secret faith in ways that are some­times forced but always fas­ci­nat­ing. Her dis­cus­sion is rel­e­vant to stu­dents of medieval intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, sci­ence and med­i­cine, Jew­ish his­to­ry in the late Mid­dle Ages, and the study of medieval conversion.

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