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.