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Arthurian Legends

ARTHURIAN LEGENDS. The only Hebrew version of the perennially popular Arthurian legends was written in northern Italy in 1279. It was anonymously translated into Hebrew from an Italian source now lost. Found in a unique manuscript in the Vatican Library, the Hebrew text consists of two stories from the Arthurian cycle and an apology. The apology, directed toward the various authorities that condemned the reading of romances and tales in the vernacular, was needed in order that the translation of such obviously secular and even salacious material could be sanctioned. The translator also stressed the moral benefits to be derived from reading the legends. The two reasons he offers are to drive away melancholy and to induce sinners to repent and return to God. The first Arthurian episode (based ultimately on the Old French prose work Merlin) describes the seduction of Igerne by King Uther Pendragon with the aid of Merlin, and the conception of Arthur. The second story is an incomplete fragment from the Mort Artu, which, as is learned from the apology, the translator had intended to complete: it includes Lancelot's love affair with King Arthur's wife Guinevere, his meeting with the amorous Maid of Askalot, and his jousts at the tournaments at Winchester. At this point the Hebrew story abruptly and inexplicably breaks off.

The 13th-century Italian Jewish translator's literary methods are as fascinating as are the Arthurian stories in Hebrew dress. The scribe not only translates from Italian, as is evidenced by the gloss: l'distruzion for the Hebrew word shemad ("destruction"), and several Italian words in the manuscript, but he also changed and Judaized the story. The scribe's manner of Judaization is evident at the outset of the romance; the apology itself is filled with terms from a familiar Jewish world. Various citations from the Bible and the Talmud are used to support the reading of the fox fables: R. *Johanan b. Zakkai and his knowledge of fox fables (BB 134a), the rabbinic commentary on the beneficial uses of a minstrel (Pes. 66b), and the tales read to the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 1:6–7) are all mentioned for the express purpose of establishing the permissibility of the Hebrew translation, and for showing that diversion is only a means to a higher sacred purpose.

Instrumental to the Judaization of the Arthurian romance are the scribe's choice of plot (the seduction of Igerne by the king, with its parallels to the David-Bath-Sheba story), additions and omissions, use of language, and treatment of certain passages to stress Jewish ideas. For instance, the feast at which Uther meets Igerne is described in the Old French sources as a Christmas feast. In the Hebrew version, the statement "Then the king made a great feast for all the people and all the princes" (based on Esth. 2:18) conveys the aura of a Purim feast. Another example of such transference of concepts occurs when the translator takes the talmudic word tamḥui ("a charity bowl from which food was distributed to the needy"), with its uniquely Jewish associations, to describe the grail, an overtly Christian symbol. The constant use of well-known biblical phrases reminds the reader of religious literature and produces the effect of biblical scenes in the midst of the Arthurian narrative. In this fashion, then, the text and the language interact in polyphonic fashion.

The scribe through his translation introduced the Arthurian legends into Hebrew; in effect, however, Hebrew literature is the ultimate source for a number of Arthurian motifs. Many romance writers of the 12th and 13th centuries (see: *Fiction ) were clerics who knew the Bible; there was also much contact and exchange of midrashic information between Jewish exegetes and their Christian counterparts, and there were, therefore, numerous channels of transmission for the Jewish tales. Many of the Arthurian motifs, drawn from the Bible and from the Midrash, polarize about the Arthur-David nexus; other Arthurian legends (the Tristan cycle) have many motifs parallel to the adventures of the young biblical heroes Joseph and David.

The Hebrew Arthurian romance is untitled and was first published by Abraham Berliner in 1885. Upon this inaccurate edition, Moses *Gaster in 1909 published an English translation which toned down the sexual elements, neglected the biblical nuances, and condensed the text. Moritz *Steinschneider called the translation Melekh Artus ("King Artus"), and considered it one of the great curiosities in Hebrew literature. An edition of the above manuscript, with an English translation facing the Hebrew text, was published in 1969.


C. Leviant, King Artus: A Hebrew Arthurian Romance of 1279 (1969); Berliner, in: Oẓar Tov, 8 (1885), 1–11; Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, 967–9, no. 578; Gaster, in: Folk Lore (1909), 272–94.

[Curt Leviant]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.