The Schmooze

When French Was the Mameloshen

The Middle Ages were no holiday in the Catskills for the Jews of France. Yet a new study by Kirsten Fudeman, a professor of French at the University of Pittsburgh, conveys an unexpectedly upbeat message.

“Vernacular Voices: Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities” (University of Pennsylvania Press), details medieval Jews’ persistent love of French as their preferred language. They wrote it with Hebrew characters (thus creating “Hebraico-French”) and spoke it even after they were expelled from France in 1254. Even in England, early medieval Jews chose French as their mother tongue.

Among its translations of surviving Hebraico-French writing, “Vernacular Voices” publishes for the first time a racy wedding song belonging to a genre in which, as the poet and medievalist Dan Pagis describes it, “every stanza concludes with an obscene pun on a biblical verse.” One 13th century Hebraico-French poem “scrawled” inside a “beautifully executed prayer book” reads: “Let us go to bed because I have eaten so much / and drunk as if to my heart’s content; / I am as drunk as a piece of bread soaked in wine…”

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When French Was the Mameloshen

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